Coral Reefs

Page 07

The naturalist will feel this astonishment more deeply after having examined the soft and almost gelatinous bodies of these apparently insignificant creatures, and when he knows that the solid reef increases only on the outer edge, which day and night is lashed by the breakers of an ocean never at rest. Well did Francois Pyrard de Laval, in the year 1605, exclaim, "C'est une merueille de voir chacun de ces atollons, enuironne d'un grand banc de pierre tout autour, n'y ayant point d'artifice humain." The accompanying sketch of Whitsunday island, in the South Pacific, taken from Captain Beechey's admirable "Voyage," although excellent of its kind, gives but a faint idea of the singular aspect of one of these lagoon-islands.


Whitsunday Island is of small size, and the whole circle has been converted into land, which is a comparatively rare circumstance. As the reef of a lagoon-island generally supports many separate small islands, the word "island," applied to the whole, is often the cause of confusion; hence I have invariably used in this volume the term "atoll," which is the name given to these circular groups of coral-islets by their inhabitants in the Indian Ocean, and is synonymous with "lagoon-island."


Barrier-reefs, when encircling small islands, have been comparatively little noticed by voyagers; but they well deserve attention. In their structure they are little less marvellous than atolls, and they give a singular and most picturesque character to the scenery of the islands they surround. In the accompanying sketch, taken from the "Voyage of the 'Coquille'," the reef is seen from within, from one of the high peaks of the island of Bolabola. (I have taken the liberty of simplifying the foreground, and leaving out a mountainous island in the far distance.) Here, as in Whitsunday Island, the whole of that part of the reef which is visible is converted into land. This is a circumstance of rare occurrence; more usually a snow-white line of great breakers, with here and there an islet crowned by cocoa-nut trees, separates the smooth waters of the lagoon-like channel from the waves of the open sea. The barrier-reefs of Australia and of New Caledonia, owing to their enormous dimensions, have excited much attention: in structure and form they resemble those encircling many of the smaller islands in the Pacific Ocean.

With respect to fringing, or shore-reefs, there is little in their structure which needs explanation; and their name expresses their comparatively small extension. They differ from barrier-reefs in not lying so far from the shore, and in not having within a broad channel of deep water. Reefs also occur around submerged banks of sediment and of worn-down rock; and others are scattered quite irregularly where the sea is very shallow; these in most respects are allied to those of the fringing class, but they are of comparatively little interest.

I have given a separate chapter to each of the above classes, and have described some one reef or island, on which I possessed most information, as typical; and have afterwards compared it with others of a like kind. Although this classification is useful from being obvious, and from including most of the coral-reefs existing in the open sea, it admits of a more fundamental division into barrier and atoll-formed reefs on the one hand, where there is a great apparent difficulty with respect to the foundation on which they must first have grown; and into fringing-reefs on the other, where, owing to the nature of the slope of the adjoining land, there is no such difficulty. The two blue tints and the red colour (replaced by numbers in this edition.) on the map (Plate III.), represent this main division, as explained in the beginning of the last chapter. In the Appendix, every existing coral-reef, except some on the coast of Brazil not included in the map, is briefly described in geographical order, as far as I possessed information; and any particular spot may be found by consulting the Index.

Coral Reefs Page 08

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin

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