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The funniest, most formal birds on earth

Even scientists have to agree: They're cute.

WAITING TO FLY By Ron Naveen William Morrow 374 pp., $26

My first close encounter with wild penguins was on a bleak, raw, overcast day in the Southern Ocean. I was on a ship in rolling seas 80 miles from the nearest land when two chinstrap penguins appeared beside the ship, ruffling their feathers with enthusiasm. Man and penguins met face-to-face.

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I had brought to this encounter a lifetime of media and advertising images of cute penguins that had engendered deep-seated cynicism, a resolve not to go cooing over penguins, the Eiffel Tower, Waikiki Beach, or any other pre-packaged pop icon.

To my horror I found them completely, inexplicably charming.

No matter how many penguins I encountered over the next few weeks, I couldn't stop myself from smiling at these gregarious, anthroprogenic birds. I started up conversations with them - inevitably one-sided - and dropped whatever I was doing for a glimpse of penguins riding a passing iceberg. I became, as so many visitors to the Antarctic do, a penguin enthusiast.

This enthusiasm apparently grows with time. It's been nearly two decades since Ron Naveen's first penguin encounter - a landing at a chinstrap rookery as a novice Antarctic cruise guide - but his respect and fascination for these remarkable birds have grown to dominate his life.

Now he's written a book sharing his experiences from his 16 seasons spent among the penguins of the Antarctic Peninsula. It's an account not of a scientist, though Naveen has worked many seasons on the ice as a field research assistant, but of a onetime lawyer who dropped his career to study and commune with penguins and the Antarctic.

Antarctica is itself an awe-inspiring place. It's the only unowned land on earth, a nearly untouched wilderness set aside for shared scientific research. Its profusion of life is protected by recent international treaty provisions, bolstered by the continent's harsh, remote character.

Penguins hold a special place here. Because they return to nesting sites each year to breed, they are relatively easy to study, opening a window on the overall health of the Antarctic ecosystem. Sensitive to fluctuations in annual sea ice, krill supplies, and precipitation patterns, penguins provide an important barometer for the early effects of global warming and ozone depletion, which Naveen explores with sensitivity.

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But these unusual birds also hold a special fascination for people, particularly those who work closely with them. First, there's their sheer evolutionary feat of thriving in some of the world's harshest conditions, braving horrific storms and dangerous predators in the complete darkness of the Antarctic winter.

Naveen, who concentrates on Adelie, chinstrap, and Gentoo penguins, describes in great detail their remarkable life cycles, which include weeks of nest-bound fasting, long commutes across ice floes to the open sea, as well as thievery, philandering, and the diligent defense of chicks and eggs from predatory birds.

They are also enormously curious creatures with no particular fear of humans. Gentoo chicks think nothing of waddling onto a human lap, curling up, and taking a nap. Bands of penguins sometimes rush up to greet new human visitors, or - if nonplused by the intrusion - will compel their departure by fearlessly attacking the shins with beak and flipper-like wings.

Naveen has spent years counting penguins for the Antarctic Site Inventory, a project that compiles baseline ecological information for use by scientists and policymakers. Traveling by icebreaker, helicopter, and Zodiac, marching up icy, guano-covered slopes in often inclement weather, he has been privy to the unusual, often amusing, occasionally human-like relationships between penguins and their mates, chicks, neighbors, and competitors.

There are also touching, humorous, even outrageous stories of how ordinary people react to the Antarctic - these from Naveen's years as a cruise-ship expedition leader. The book has occasional flightless passages, but these are redeemed by moving accounts of the author's close interactions with these industrious, social birds.

"Waiting to Fly" also has a wider, philosophical message. Naveen has felt the elation of sneaking over the wall separating humans from nature. The book hints at a more rewarding role for humanity, a higher calling than simply being an uncontrolled consumer of the natural world. His book touches on what it might be like were we instead enlightened participants in nature's wondrous scheme.

*Colin Woodard spent six weeks this fall in Antarctica while researching a forthcoming book on the oceans.

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