A review of a book like Fishwatchers Guide to West Atlantic Coral Reefs (Harrowood Books, Valley Forge, Pa., $6.95) must emphasize function as much as content. On the cover of this 64-page, multicolored plastic—yes, plastic—volume with text by Charles C. G. Chaplin and illustrations by Peter Scott are instructions to "take it with you underwater." On the back cover is a photo of a submerged skin diver seated at a blob of brain coral, calmly perusing the book.
The 23 plates illustrating more than 180 species of reef fishes are fun and are arranged in basic groups—eels, puffers, blennies, frogfish and others. Short, air-conserving captions go with each fish, though some phrases may send those prone to underwater laughter gurgling toward the surface.
Readers are advised that the blackbar soldierfish can usually be seen peeking from its hole, frequently with a "crustacean on its forehead" and the redtail parrotfish is inclined to "squat on the bottom." The wily indigo hamlet can be found "slinking about the reefs in a very deliberate manner."
But forget all that, because if a book like this doesn't hold up under field conditions it isn't worth a beached Caesar grunt, regardless of writing and content. "Greaseproof," "tear resistant," "waterproof," "washable," it claims. All right, let's see.
Not having any suntan oil or bearing grease within reach, I rubbed the contents over my breakfast plate and found them resistant to bacon fat. Trying to tear the thing is nearly hopeless, a sort of rippled stretch being the net result short of hernia. With no ocean handy, I submerged the book in 18 inches of tub water, sprinkled in some salt and observed through two milk glasses. The view was a bit distorted, like looking through marbles, but the book was waterproof.
As for the "washable," I preferred not to make a special trip to the laundromat, but to wait several days for a full load of laundry. And that's where I am now, children screaming around me, waiting for the final rinse in No. 17. There. The light just turned to amber. Hold on. We should know in less than a minute....