On Wednesday, December 7th, some lucky Tauranga students got to participate in the release of 49 Little Blue Penguins back to the ocean. These tiny flightless birds were the fourth batch of penguins to be released from the group 343 oiled birds, rescued and nursed back to health, following what was one of New Zealand's worst pollution disasters.

The tragic event occurred on October 5th, when a cargo ship named Rena, hit an underwater reef in the Bay of Plenty, off the coast of Tauranga and spilt 400 tons of oil into the pristine ocean water, home to some 8,000 marine species. While these penguins survived over 2,000 others, were not so lucky.

However, on this day all the dire news was forgotten as hundreds of people watched the little birds pitter-patter their way across the sand towards the blue ocean. While some looking a little confused, others confidently marched forward and jumped right in, as if, they had never left.

Prior to the release, the birds were subjected to a rigorous six-hour swimming test in pools with high saline levels to ensure that they would be able to withstand the ocean. They also underwent blood tests and were fitted with microchips so that their progress can be tracked for the next few years.

The remaining 200 birds still housed with the Oiled Wildlife Response Center will be released soon, since keeping wild penguins in captivity for too long, is not beneficial to their well-being and can result in injuries and illnesses. The experts are confident that these little birds are healthy enough to make their way back to their natural habitat around New Zealand's Leisure (Moturiki) Island, where they will hopefully, continue to thrive.

Standing at only 16-17 inches tall and weighing a mere 2 lbs, Little Blue Penguins are the smallest of all penguins. Called 'Blue' because of the color of their feathers, these darling creatures are native to Southern Australia and New Zealand, where feed off the small fish and squid in the shallow warm waters during the day and spend the nights ashore, hidden inside rock crevices or little caves.

Resources: sleck.k12.in, stuff,co.nz, sunlive.co.nz