This rim is about a mile in width, and with the exception of two or three spots where islets have been formed, is submerged between five and ten fathoms. It consists of smooth hard rock, covered with a thin layer of sand, but with scarcely any live coral; it is steep on both sides, and outwards slopes abruptly into unfathomable depths. At the distance of less than half a mile from one part, no bottom was found with 190 fathoms; and off another point, at a somewhat greater distance, there was none with 210 fathoms. Small steep-sided banks or knolls, covered with luxuriantly growing coral, rise from the interior expanse to the same level with the external rim, which, as we have seen, is formed only of dead rock. It is impossible to look at the plan (Figure 1, Plate II.), although reduced to so small a scale, without at once perceiving that the Great Chagos Bank is, in the words of Captain Moresby (This officer has had the kindness to lend me an excellent MS. account of the Chagos Islands; from this paper, from the published charts, and from verbal information communicated to me by Captain Moresby, the above account of the Great Chagos Bank is taken.), "nothing more than a half-drowned atoll." But of what great dimensions, and of how extraordinary an internal structure? We shall hereafter have to consider both the cause of its submerged condition, a state common to other banks in the group, and the origin of the singular submarine terraces, which bound the central expanse: these, I think, it can be shown, have resulted from a cause analogous to that which has produced the bifurcating channel across Mahlos Mahdoo.
CHAPTER II.--BARRIER REEFS.
Closely resemble in general form and structure atoll-reefs.--Width and depth of the lagoon-channels.--Breaches through the reef in front of valleys, and generally on the leeward side.--Checks to the filling up of the lagoon-channels.--Size and constitution of the encircled islands.-- Number of islands within the same reef.--Barrier-reefs of New Caledonia and Australia.--Position of the reef relative to the slope of the adjoining land.--Probable great thickness of barrier-reefs.
The term "barrier" has been generally applied to that vast reef which fronts the N.E. shore of Australia, and by most voyagers likewise to that on the western coast of New Caledonia. At one time I thought it convenient thus to restrict the term, but as these reefs are similar in structure, and in position relatively to the land, to those, which, like a wall with a deep moat within, encircle many smaller islands, I have classed them together. The reef, also, on the west coast of New Caledonia, circling round the extremities of the island, is an intermediate form between a small encircling reef and the Australian barrier, which stretches for a thousand miles in nearly a straight line.
The geographer Balbi has in effect described those barrier-reefs, which encircle moderately sized islands, by calling them atolls with high land rising from within their central expanse. The general resemblance between the reefs of the barrier and atoll classes may be seen in the small, but accurately reduced charts on Plate I. (The authorities from which these charts have been reduced, together with some remarks on them and descriptive of the Plates, are given separately.), and this resemblance can be further shown to extend to every part of the structure. Beginning with the outside of the reef; many scattered soundings off Gambier, Oualan, and some other encircled islands, show that close to the breakers there exists a narrow shelving margin, beyond which the ocean becomes suddenly unfathomable; but off the west coast of New Caledonia, Captain Kent (Dalrymple, "Hydrog. Mem." volume iii.) found no bottom with 150 fathoms, at two ships' length from the reef; so that the slope here must be nearly as precipitous as off the Maldiva atolls.
I can give little information regarding the kinds of corals which live on the outer margin. When I visited the reef at Tahiti, although it was low water, the surf was too violent for me to see the living masses; but, according to what I heard from some intelligent native chiefs, they resemble in their rounded and branchless forms, those on the margin of Keeling atoll.