UNDERWATER WILDERNESS: Life Around the Great Reefs, by Carl Roessler (Chanticleer Press, $35). This handsome volume is a photographic and scientific excursion into the ecology of the world's coral reefs. The coral, undeniably one of nature's least prepossessing animals, is one of its most impressive and durable builders, as generation succeeds generation to create reefs, islands and atolls wherein thrive the numerous subjects of this book. Although the most dramatic appeal is the lavish and superlative underwater photography of various fish, plant life and shellfish, Underwater Wilderness - written by a veteran diver and underwater photographer - is also a highly instructive and detailed examination of reef biology, if at times lavishly romantic in its prose style. Among the indispensable facts to be learned is this one, about the origin of beach sand: "Parrotfish with their massive, beaklike jaws eat the coral, passing limestone as beach sand in prodigious quantities. Researchers have estimated that a single medium-sized parrotfish passes more than a ton of sand in a year."

THE RAND McNALLY ATLAS OF THE OCEANS (Rand McNally, $29.95). This attractive volume is much more than an atlas, although it includes 60 pages of maps, diagrams and charts along with a general history and geology of the oceans, their physical dynamics, their inhabitants, and their potential for the extraction of minerals, food and power. The layout is generously uncluttered, but there is sufficient text for serious reading over a long period.

THE WILD SHORES OF NORTH AMERICA, by Ann and Myron Sutton (Knopf, $35). This is a coffee-table book in the classic sense of the term: it contains more than 200 spectacular color photographs and a running text which is a sort of eco-travelogue and historical geography of the coastal areas from the rock-bound coast of Maine to the sunny shores of California. The authors share an unashamed conservationist bias which is reflected in their highly colored narrative; but inevitably the pictures make the most eloquent case.

THE FACES OF THE GREAT LAKES, photos by B.A. King; text by Jonathan Ela (Sierra Club, $24.50). The Great Lakes, in their occasional admixture with taconite tailings, chemical waste and various unspeakable sludges, are not lately regarded as an ecological showcase. But this volume; written by a Lakes-country resident and photographed by an experienced outdoor photographer, reminds the reader of the vast potential that the giant "river of lakes" offers. In both words and pictures, this is very much a human geography - a retrospective study of how man and nature have coexisted, sometimes in uneasy balance - throughout the history of the area.