Close encounters of a deep kind

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Anne Collet's love affair with marine mammals began in college, when a friend took her diving off the coast of France. There, Collet came face-to-face with a lone, female dolphin - all 10 feet of her. At first, Collet was frightened, but she quickly became enamored with the gentle giant with wrinkled eyelids. The subsequent seven-year relationship that developed between the two set Collet on her life course.

Collet, a world-renowned marine biologist and director of theMarine Mammal Research Institute in La Rochelle, France, has studied whales and dolphins from Antarctica to the Arctic over the past 20 years. She brings her respect for and love of marine mammals to life in "Swimming with Giants: My Encounters with Whales, Dolphins, and Seals."

The writing, with the help of translator Gayle Wurst, is colorful and detailed. The book's charm comes in its blend of self-discovery and adventure with scientific study. Collet begins by regaling us with tales of her childhood adventures in Brittany with her eccentric Uncle Jacques, a veteran of the Royal Navy who imparted his love of the sea - and pastries - to his young niece. From morning till night, she paddled and splashed near the shore, collecting crabs in water holes and taking in the smell of sea-bottom slime, which she found invigorating rather than nauseating.

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But she found taking on the formal study of marine biology in college tedious, and she day-dreamed of walking along the coastline. That is, until the day she met Jean-Louis, the dolphin, which renewed her zeal and eventually launched her career.

From France, Collet traveled the world, meeting the subjects of her study face to face, or more accurately, eye to eye, in their own underwater homes. On one trip off the coast of Argentina, she ended up riding a 50-foot-long southern right whale. The whale came upon Collet by surprise, and then suddenly began a series of body rolls that Collet feared might kill her. However, unlike humans in water, the giant whale could sense distance with precision, and allowed Collet enough room for observation and wonderment. Then the whale came straight for her:

"The whale has remained on her flank the better to observe us with her lateral eye, the great black triangle of her tail fluke still sticking out of the water. She advances, without seeking to avoid me. Instinctively, I let go of the dinghy and spread my legs as far as possible, so she won't be scraped with the hard rubber of my old flippers. Suddenly her tail fluke is up against my back, and I am carried off for a dozen meters, riding on the back of Leviathan! I weigh no more than a feather on her back, but she feels me, pivots in full course, and begins a slow dive. Taking care not to hurt me, she leaves me at the surface, and disappears."

The ride lasted about 10 seconds, but Collet said it is engraved on her mind as one of the most beautiful memories of her life.

The book is full of such intense stories, including anecdotes from educational trips with other researchers and children. The end of the book also has a helpful species list and a glossary.

But the writing is not all sweet memories. Collet takes on fisheries' practices with a passion, describing scenes of carnage on beaches, where hundreds of maimed mammals are found routinely, washed up after choking to death in the nets. Collet said her function is to sound the alarm before there are no more dolphins in places like the Bay of Biscay.

"Perhaps my function is to only convey my wonder before the beauty and richness of our planet by telling stories about whales and dolphins," she writes at the conclusion of the book. "To my way of thinking, it is the best way to awaken motivation."

Lori Valigra is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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