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"For untold centuries man has been seen, from time to time, standing at the water's edge, looking toward the horizon, yearning for adventure, beauty, and a glimpse into the mystery of unknown worlds. If only he'd fallen in!" Thus begins Underwater Holidays by Janet Viertel (Grosset & Dunlap, 256 pages, $9.95), a plainspoken how-to and where-to service book in soft cover for those who, with the aid of snorkels, tanks and masks, would take that plunge.

Well illustrated with black and white photographs, the book is light on words and heavy on charts—144 pages of charts in all, describing more than 430 fresh and saltwater diving areas from the Bahamas and Yucatan to Southern California and Hawaii. Each location is numbered on a map and described under a dozen categories ranging from water depths to the dangers one might encounter to accommodations. For instance, we learn that Kino Bay in Mexico has variable water depths and tricky currents, is best suited for scuba diving, features game fish, has no diving facilities and offers one good motel and one trailer park nearby. The waters around the Biscayne National Monument area in Florida go to 12 feet in depth, feature three underwater wrecks, allow spearfishing and photo-taking but no collecting and are best for snorkeling. The chief danger is from water skiers.

Overall, the book's tone is one of enthusiasm. But the thought of hordes of inexperienced divers suddenly thrashing their way into the pristine world of reefs must leave some veterans of the sport a bit seasick. "In the beginning, peering through the water at almost anything may be an unusual thrill," writes the author. "Even the sight of a discarded beer can has an extra dimension if you see it underwater." But as a last frontier our water cannot stand the same treatment we've given the land.

Instead of a "get some while it lasts" attitude, divers are urged to go with respect and kindness. Coral, which can take a hundred years to grow 12 inches, was not designed for decorating dashboards or bookcases. Tropical-fish collecting and spearfishing are doubtful pastimes, to say the least.

Writing on the as-yet-unspoiled Yucatan Peninsula, the author sums up the dilemma with a warning: "Amazingly, with all these attractions, the area is neither overbuilt nor on the verge of collapse from pollution. How long this situation can be maintained is, of course, anybody's guess."