Coral Reefs

Page 11

I examined the rolled fragments cast on the beach during gales, in order further to ascertain what corals grew outside the reef. The fragments consisted of many kinds, of which the Porites already mentioned and a Madrepora, apparently the M. corymbosa, were the most abundant. As I searched in vain in the hollows on the reef and in the lagoon, for a living specimen of this Madrepore, I conclude that it is confined to a zone outside, and beneath the surface, where it must be very abundant. Fragments of the Millepora alcicornis and of an Astraea were also numerous; the former is found, but not in proportionate numbers, in the hollows on the reef; but the Astraea I did not see living. Hence we may infer, that these are the kinds of coral which form the rugged sloping surface (represented in the woodcut by an uneven line), round and beneath the external margin. Between twelve and twenty fathoms the arming came up an equal number of times smoothed with sand, and indented with coral: an anchor and lead were lost at the respective depths of thirteen and sixteen fathoms. Out of twenty-five soundings taken at a greater depth than twenty fathoms, every one showed that the bottom was covered with sand; whereas, at a less depth than twelve fathoms, every sounding showed that it was exceedingly rugged, and free from all extraneous particles. Two soundings were obtained at the depth of 360 fathoms, and several between two hundred and three hundred fathoms. The sand brought up from these depths consisted of finely triturated fragments of stony zoophytes, but not, as far as I could distinguish, of a particle of any lamelliform genus: fragments of shells were rare.

At a distance of 2,200 yards from the breakers, Captain Fitzroy found no bottom with a line of 7,200 feet in length; hence the submarine slope of this coral formation is steeper than that of any volcanic cone. Off the mouth of the lagoon, and likewise off the northern point of the atoll, where the currents act violently, the inclination, owing to the accumulation of sediment, is less. As the arming of the lead from all the greater depths showed a smooth sandy bottom, I at first concluded that the whole consisted of a vast conical pile of calcareous sand, but the sudden increase of depth at some points, and the circumstance of the line having been cut, as if rubbed, when between five hundred and six hundred fathoms were out, indicate the probable existence of submarine cliffs.

On the margin of the reef, close within the line where the upper surface of the Porites and of the Millepora is dead, three species of Nullipora flourish. One grows in thin sheets, like a lichen on old trees; the second in stony knobs, as thick as a man's finger, radiating from a common centre; and the third, which is less common, in a moss-like reticulation of thin, but perfectly rigid branches. (This last species is of a beautiful bright peach-blossom colour. Its branches are about as thick as crow-quills; they are slightly flattened and knobbed at the extremities. The extremities only are alive and brightly coloured. The two other species are of a dirty purplish-white. The second species is extremely hard; its short knob-like branches are cylindrical, and do not grow thicker at their extremities.) The three species occur either separately or mingled together; and they form by their successive growth a layer two or three feet in thickness, which in some cases is hard, but where formed of the lichen-like kind, readily yields an impression to the hammer: the surface is of a reddish colour. These Nulliporae, although able to exist above the limit of true corals, seem to require to be bathed during the greater part of each tide by breaking water, for they are not found in any abundance in the protected hollows on the back part of the reef, where they might be immersed either during the whole or an equal proportional time of each tide. It is remarkable that organic productions of such extreme simplicity, for the Nulliporae undoubtedly belong to one of the lowest classes of the vegetable kingdom, should be limited to a zone so peculiarly circumstanced.

Coral Reefs Page 12

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin

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