Coral Reefs

Page 22

Mr. Lyell ("Principles of Geology," volume iii., page 289.) has observed that the growth of the coral would tend to obstruct all the channels through a reef, except those kept open by discharging the water, which during high tide and the greater part of each ebb is thrown over its circumference. Several facts indicate that a considerable quantity of sediment is likewise discharged through these channels; and Captain Moresby informs me that he has observed, during the change of the monsoon, the sea discoloured to a distance off the entrances into the Maldiva and Chagos atolls. This, probably, would check the growth of the coral in them, far more effectually than a mere current of water. In the many small atolls without any channel, these causes have not prevented the entire ring attaining the surface. The channels, like the submerged and effaced parts of the reef, very generally though not invariably occur on the leeward side of the atoll, or on that side, according to Beechey (Beechey's "Voyage," 4to edition, volume i., page 189.), which, from running in the same direction with the prevalent wind, is not fully exposed to it. Passages between the islets on the reef, through which boats can pass at high water, must not be confounded with ship-channels, by which the annular reef itself is breached. The passages between the islets occur, of course, on the windward as well as on the leeward side; but they are more frequent and broader to leeward, owing to the lesser dimensions of the islets on that side.

At Keeling atoll the shores of the lagoon shelve gradually, where the bottom is of sediment, and irregularly or abruptly where there are coral-reefs; but this is by no means the universal structure in other atolls. Chamisso (Kotzebue's "First Voyage," volume iii., page 142.), speaking in general terms of the lagoons in the Marshall atolls, says the lead generally sinks "from a depth of two or three fathoms to twenty or twenty-four, and you may pursue a line in which on one side of the boat you may see the bottom, and on the other the azure-blue deep water." The shores of the lagoon-like channel within the barrier-reef at Vanikoro have a similar structure. Captain Beechey has described a modification of this structure (and he believes it is not uncommon) in two atolls in the Low Archipelago, in which the shores of the lagoon descend by a few, broad, slightly inclined ledges or steps: thus at Matilda atoll (Beechey's "Voyage," 4to edition, volume i, page 160. At Whitsunday Island the bottom of the lagoon slopes gradually towards the centre, and then deepens suddenly, the edge of the bank being nearly perpendicular. This bank is formed of coral and dead shells.), the great exterior reef, the surface of which is gently inclined towards and beneath the surface of the lagoon, ends abruptly in a little cliff three fathoms deep; at its foot, a ledge forty yards wide extends, shelving gently inwards like the surface-reef, and terminated by a second little cliff five fathoms deep; beyond this, the bottom of the lagoon slopes to twenty fathoms, which is the average depth of its centre. These ledges seem to be formed of coral-rock; and Captain Beechey says that the lead often descended several fathoms through holes in them. In some atolls, all the coral reefs or knolls in the lagoon come to the surface at low water; in other cases of rarer occurrence, all lie at nearly the same depth beneath it, but most frequently they are quite irregular,--some with perpendicular, some with sloping sides,--some rising to the surface, and others lying at all intermediate depths from the bottom upwards. I cannot, therefore, suppose that the union of such reefs could produce even one uniformly sloping ledge, and much less two or three, one beneath the other, and each terminated by an abrupt wall. At Matilda Island, which offers the best example of the step-like structure, Captain Beechey observes that the coral-knolls within the lagoon are quite irregular in their height. We shall hereafter see that the theory which accounts for the ordinary form of atolls, apparently includes this occasional peculiarity in their structure.

Coral Reefs Page 23

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Charles Darwin

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