Naturalist Ackerman ventures to a remote, lava-encrusted island off the coast of Japan, the world's last stronghold of the short-tailed albatross. Descending sheer cliffs by rope, she is finally rewarded by the sight of a vibrant white female with a bill "the sultry coral of a Bahamian sunset" and a suitor. The birds nuzzle and curtsy and flap their wings.
More than the albatrosses' own courtship dance is at stake. Like the other endangered animals—among them Hawaiian monk seals and beautiful golden-lion tamarins (silky-maned, Brazilian monkeys)—portrayed in these six adventure-filled essays, the albatross pirouettes on the edge of extinction. Ackerman is there not only to view the birds but, she says, "to bear witness" as a member of the species that slaughtered millions of them for feathers to be used as mattress and quilt stuffing.
Enraptured descriptions of creatures and their habitats (in the Amazon "the air sizzles with oxygen and smells of sedge and damp amber. Pink auroras gush across the sky....") conceal meticulous craft; rearranged on the page, many sentences would be poetry.
Ackerman also pays tribute to the dedicated (and sometimes whimsical) environmentalists who work desperately against time and indifference. "What a rich remembrance," she writes, "to know that you preserved a miraculous form of life from disappearing forever from the planet." With this illuminating and impassioned testimonial, Ackerman has done nothing less. (Random House, $23)