Coral Reefs

Page 29

The extreme verge of the reef, which was visible between the breaking waves at low water, consisted of a rounded, convex, artificial-like breakwater, entirely coated with Nulliporae, and absolutely similar to that which I have described at Keeling atoll. From what I heard when at Tahiti, and from the writings of the Revs. W. Ellis and J. Williams, I conclude that this peculiar structure is common to most of the encircled islands of the Society Archipelago. The reef within this mound or breakwater, has an extremely irregular surface, even more so than between the islets on the reef of Keeling atoll, with which alone (as there are no islets on the reef of Tahiti) it can properly be compared. At Tahiti, the reef is very irregular in width; but round many other encircled islands, for instance, Vanikoro or Gambier Islands (Figures 1 and 8, Plate I.), it is quite as regular, and of the same average width, as in true atolls. Most barrier-reefs on the inner side slope irregularly into the lagoon-channel (as the space of deep water separating the reef from the included land may be called), but at Vanikoro the reef slopes only for a short distance, and then terminates abruptly in a submarine wall, forty feet high,--a structure absolutely similar to that described by Chamisso in the Marshall atolls.

In the Society Archipelago, Ellis (Consult, on this and other points, the "Polynesian Researches," by the Rev. W. Ellis, an admirable work, full of curious information.) states, that the reefs generally lie at the distance of from one to one and a half miles, and, occasionally, even at more than three miles, from the shore. The central mountains are generally bordered by a fringe of flat, and often marshy, alluvial land, from one to four miles in width. This fringe consists of coral-sand and detritus thrown up from the lagoon-channel, and of soil washed down from the hills; it is an encroachment on the channel, analogous to that low and inner part of the islets in many atolls which is formed by the accumulation of matter from the lagoon. At Hogoleu (Figure 2, Plate I.), in the Caroline Archipelago (See "Hydrographical Mem." and the "Atlas of the Voyage of the 'Astrolabe'," by Captain Dumont D'Urville, page 428.), the reef on the south side is no less than twenty miles; on the east side, five; and on the north side, fourteen miles from the encircled high islands.

The lagoon channels may be compared in every respect with true lagoons. In some cases they are open, with a level bottom of fine sand; in others they are choked up with reefs of delicately branched corals, which have the same general character as those within the Keeling atoll. These internal reefs either stand separately, or more commonly skirt the shores of the included high islands. The depth of the lagoon-channel round the Society Islands varies from two or three to thirty fathoms; in Cook's (See the chart in volume i. of Hawkesworth's 4to edition of "Cook's First Voyage.") chart of Ulieta, however, there is one sounding laid down of forty-eight fathoms; at Vanikoro there are several of fifty-four and one of fifty-six and a half fathoms (English), a depth which even exceeds by a little that of the interior of the great Maldiva atolls. Some barrier-reefs have very few islets on them; whilst others are surmounted by numerous ones; and those round part of Bolabola (Plate I., Figure 5) form a single linear strip. The islets first appear either on the angles of the reef, or on the sides of the breaches through it, and are generally most numerous on the windward side. The reef to leeward retaining its usual width, sometimes lies submerged several fathoms beneath the surface; I have already mentioned Gambier Island as an instance of this structure. Submerged reefs, having a less defined outline, dead, and covered with sand, have been observed (see Appendix) off some parts of Huaheine and Tahiti. The reef is more frequently breached to leeward than to windward; thus I find in Krusenstern's "Memoir on the Pacific," that there are passages through the encircling reef on the leeward side of each of the seven Society Islands, which possess ship-harbours; but that there are openings to windward through the reef of only three of them.

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Charles Darwin

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