When he wrote about it later, Spotila noted that he and his friend "had collected our data as scientists, but as humans we had experienced the greater meaning of the moment."
It is this mixture of scientific expertise and outright human awe that makes his book, Sea Turtles: A Complete Guide to Their Biology, Behavior and Conservation (Johns Hopkins, $24.95), such a treasure. Neither too strident nor too egg-headed, Spotila woos readers with the turtles themselves, with descriptions and explanations of their link to the dinosaurs, their odd incubation and birth on beaches around the world, their return to the sea and, sadly, the threat of their destruction by humans.
"This is the paradox of sea turtles," Spotila writes. "People everywhere hold them in high esteem as symbols of grace, fertility, wanderlust and long life. We work hard to save them and yet we are murderous instruments of their doom."
This book is clearly the culmination of a life's passion for turtles, expressed in research and conservation work.
Spotila, who holds the Betz Chair of Environmental Science at Drexel University, is one of the world's foremost authorities on sea turtles. He had always intended to write this book, but put it off. Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, friends at the Pentagon (he was Clinton's chief of environmental science for the Army) nearly died. Time, he realized, was short.
The book is so much - a trove of information about the biology and behavior of the seven great sea turtle species of the world, a collection of spectacular photos, an ode to a creature that somehow, years after its birth, is able to navigate back to the precise beach where its was born to lay its own eggs.
The publishing industry offers easy solutions for last-minute holiday shopping anxiety. And, as usual, the coffee table books put out this year have alluring "wow" factors. Most could stay on the table for years and still provide both enjoyment and information.
In addition to Spotila's book, three more should get an award for stunning beauty:
Untamed by Steve Bloom (Abrams, $55). At 10 pounds, this book requires a sturdy coffee table. But every time you open this collection of 200 wildlife photos, you'll find something new and amazing.
Bloom spent more than a decade traversing the planet, trying to capture the essence of its creatures. A gorilla in central Africa stretches out its hand, as if to catch the raindrops falling. A salmon twists away from two bears in an Alaskan stream. Japanese cranes perform a courtship dance in the dawn's muted light.
Bloom writes that he began his quest almost nonchalantly, believing he had plenty of time. But then forest fires hit the region in Borneo where he'd been. An albatross colony he'd photographed in the Falklands was destroyed. Drought transformed the Kenyan countrywide.
"We are witnessing tangible evidence of the fragility of ecosystems," he writes.
Deserts of the Earth by Michael Martin (Thames & Hudson, $60). Who knew there were so many, and of such variety - the reddish Sahara, the painted desert of Colorado, the turquoise lakes of Afghanistan's Bahmian region.
But all share one thing: "Here," writes Michael Asher in a foreword, "it is still possible to experience nature in its most primitive and unspoiled form. Here, one can still encounter qualities we have expelled from our technological world: solitude, silence, a link with the Earth, and with the cosmos that transcends time itself."
Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes by Michael Benson, with a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke (Abrams, $55). No human took these images. The book is a collection of photos from the robotic cameras aboard interplanetary spacecraft.
Here are close-ups of Neptune's moon, Triton, looking like a purplish cantaloupe; Io floating above Jupiter's swirling atmosphere; the fire and ice of Mars.
In a foreword, Clarke writes: "It may well be that only in space, confronted with environments fiercer and more complex than any to be found upon this planet, will intelligence and creativity be able to reach their fullest potential."
Frozen Oceans: The Floating World of Pack Ice by David N. Thomas (Firefly, $45). Ever since the Shackleton books of a few years ago, pack ice has had the irresistible lure of danger. In fact, Thomas starts his account with a quote from a Norwegian captain in 1893: "The ice is pressing and packing round us with a noise like thunder . . . trying its utmost to grind [the ship] into powder."
Pack ice goes by various names, according to its origins and composition - slush ice, porridge ice, pancake ice, multiyear ice, rotten ice. It covers as much as 13 percent of the planet's surface - roughly the same as deserts, as it happens. And at the coldest temperatures, the ocean can freeze into pack ice at 2.2 square miles a second.
On the Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy, a new illustrated version, edited with commentary by Stephen Hawking (Running Press, $35).
Here, in their own words, are the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Einstein, with introductions about their lives and works.
Tiger, the Ultimate Guide, by Valmik Thapar (Two Brothers Press, $39.95). Thapar, a leading tiger conservationist who is with a top tiger reserve in northern India, writes that the tiger "commands a deep involvement from those who pursue it," and this book is proof.
It includes contributions from biologists, tiger researchers, artists, poets, historians and conservationists, who write about the anatomy of this "supreme hunter," its life history, and tigers in our art and culture.
How Things Work: Everyday Technology Explained by John Langone (National Geographic Books, $35) rates high on the browse-ability scale.
Want to know what's inside a Zamboni and how it clears the ice? How about the science behind a vacuum cleaner or a fridge? Hydroponics, flight, kidney dialysis, digitized music, drilling for oil, cell phones and the stock exchange? You can go as simple as a lightbulb or as complex as the Hubble Space Telescope. Ditto a companion book, The Book of Inventions by Ian Harrison (National Geographic Books, $30). Here you can find out about the obsessions and plain old weird coincidences behind some of the most common - and not so common - things of the modern world.
"Human inventiveness has found ways to live in all corners of our planet," writes Art Fry, inventor of the Post-It Note, in a foreword.
A Royal Air Force squadron leader invented the lava lamp, fashioning it after a cocktail shaker. William Painter, the son of a Maryland farmer, devised the first bottle cap in 1891. A merchant seaman came up with the idea for the square-bottomed paper grocery bag.
And if you really want to get into inventions, check out The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World (Thames & Hudson, $40), which looks back to bathing and sanitation, bridges and canals, swords and spears, iron and steel, drugs and narcotics . . . you name it.
Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 610-701-7635 or email@example.com.