On the western side, also, of the atoll, where I have described a bed of sand and fragments with trees growing out of it, in front of an old beach, it struck both Lieutenant Sulivan and myself, from the manner in which the trees were being washed down, that the surf had lately recommenced an attack on this line of coast. Appearances indicating a slight encroachment of the water on the land, are plainer within the lagoon: I noticed in several places, both on its windward and leeward shores, old cocoa-nut trees falling with their roots undermined, and the rotten stumps of others on the beach, where the inhabitants assured us the cocoa-nut could not now grow. Captain Fitzroy pointed out to me, near the settlement, the foundation posts of a shed, now washed by every tide, but which the inhabitants stated, had seven years before stood above high watermark. In the calm waters of the lagoon, directly connected with a great, and therefore stable ocean, it seems very improbable that a change in the currents, sufficiently great to cause the water to eat into the land on all sides, should have taken place within a limited period. From these considerations I inferred, that probably the atoll had lately subsided to a small amount; and this inference was strengthened by the circumstance, that in 1834, two years before our visit, the island had been shaken by a severe earthquake, and by two slighter ones during the ten previous years. If, during these subterranean disturbances, the atoll did subside, the downward movement must have been very small, as we must conclude from the fields of dead coral still lipping the surface of the lagoon, and from the breakers on the western shore not having yet regained the line of their former action. The subsidence must, also, have been preceded by a long period of rest, during which the islets extended to their present size, and the living margin of the reef grew either upwards, or as I believe outwards, to its present distance from the beach.
Whether this view be correct or not, the above facts are worthy of attention, as showing how severe a struggle is in progress on these low coral formations between the two nicely balanced powers of land and water. With respect to the future state of Keeling atoll, if left undisturbed, we can see that the islets may still extend in length; but as they cannot resist the surf until broken by rolling over a wide space, their increase in breadth must depend on the increasing breadth of the reef; and this must be limited by the steepness of the submarine flanks, which can be added to only by sediment derived from the wear and tear of the coral. From the rapid growth of the coral in the channel cut for the schooner, and from the several agents at work in producing fine sediment, it might be thought that the lagoon would necessarily become quickly filled up. Some of this sediment, however, is transported into the open sea, as appears from the soundings off the mouth of the lagoon, instead of being deposited within it. The deposition, moreover, of sediment, checks the growth of coral-reefs, so that these two agencies cannot act together with full effect in filling it up. We know so little of the habits of the many different species of corals, which form the lagoon-reefs, that we have no more reasons for supposing that their whole surface would grow up as quickly as the coral did in the schooner-channel, than for supposing that the whole surface of a peat-moss would increase as quickly as parts are known to do in holes, where the peat has been cut away. These agencies, nevertheless, tend to fill up the lagoon; but in proportion as it becomes shallower, so must the polypifers be subject to many injurious agencies, such as impure water and loss of food. For instance, Mr. Liesk informed me, that some years before our visit unusually heavy rain killed nearly all the fish in the lagoon, and probably the same cause would likewise injure the corals. The reefs also, it must be remembered, cannot possibly rise above the level of the lowest spring-tide, so that the final conversion of the lagoon into land must be due to the accumulation of sediment; and in the midst of the clear water of the ocean, and with no surrounding high land, this process must be exceedingly slow.