THE MOON BY WHALE LIGHT by Diane Ackerman (Random House: $20; 240 pp.). Diane Ackerman is right: Few people have the opportunity she had, to travel to Antarctica and study penguins and other animals in the wild. Luckily, anyone with the price of her new book can experience the next best thing, which is Ackerman’s vivid prose. She is a staff writer at the New Yorker, where shorter versions of her four essays appeared--where she is a “nature writer,” a label that amuses her because it implies the existence of a world outside of nature. Ackerman prefers to stick to animals; in this volume, bats, alligators and crocodiles, whales and penguins. As usual, the New Yorker gives its writer the latitude of travel and time, so that she can amass a wonderful assortment of scientific and anecdotal information.
We get to meet George Campbell, 70-year-old head of the Southwest Florida Regional Alligator Assn. and a man whose affection for crocodilians dates back to the days when he kept 40 of them in his basement in suburban Detroit. We trail after Roger Payne, who for decades has studied, and recorded, the songs of the humpback whale. Ackerman is an astute guide throughout, a writer who tempers a profound enthusiasm for her subject with an equal amount of writerly discipline, but is never above an emotional exclamation of wonder at what she sees.