Coral Reefs

Page 44

It is unfortunate that the upraised coral-islands in the Pacific have not been examined by a geologist. The cliffs of Elizabeth Island, in the Low Archipelago, are eighty feet high, and appear, from Captain Beechey's description, to consist of a homogeneous coral-rock. From the isolated position of this island, we may safely infer that it is an upraised atoll, and therefore that it has been formed by masses of coral, grown together. Savage Island seems, from the description of the younger Forster (Forster's "Voyage round the World with Cook," volume ii., pages 163, 167.), to have a similar structure, and its shores are about forty feet high: some of the Cook Islands also appear (Williams's "Narrative of Missionary Enterprise," page 30.) to be similarly composed. Captain Belcher, R.N., in a letter which Captain Beaufort showed me at the admiralty, speaking of Bow atoll, says, "I have succeeded in boring forty-five feet through coral-sand, when the auger became jammed by the falling in of the surrounding CREAMY matter." On one of the Maldiva atolls, Captain Moresby bored to a depth of twenty-six feet, when his auger also broke: he has had the kindness to give me the matter brought up; it is perfectly white, and like finely triturated coral-rock.

In my description of Keeling atoll, I have given some facts, which show that the reef probably has grown outwards; and I have found, just within the outer margin, the great mounds of Porites and of Millepora, with their summits lately killed, and their sides subsequently thickened by the growth of the coral: a layer, also, of Nullipora had already coated the dead surface. As the external slope of the reef is the same round the whole of this atoll, and round many other atolls, the angle of inclination must result from an adaption between the growing powers of the coral, and the force of the breakers, and their action on the loose sediment. The reef, therefore, could not increase outwards, without a nearly equal addition to every part of the slope, so that the original inclination might be preserved, and this would require a large amount of sediment, all derived from the wear of corals and shells, to be added to the lower part. Moreover, at Keeling atoll, and probably in many other cases, the different kinds of corals would have to encroach on each other; thus the Nulliporae cannot increase outwards without encroaching on the Porites and Millepora complanata, as is now taking place; nor these latter without encroaching on the strongly branched Madreporet, the Millepora alcicornis, and some Astraeas; nor these again without a foundation being formed for them within the requisite depth, by the accumulation of sediment. How slow, then, must be the ordinary lateral or outward growth of such reefs. But off Christmas atoll, where the sea is much more shallow than is usual, we have good reason to believe that, within a period not very remote, the reef has increased considerably in width. The land has the extraordinary breadth of three miles; it consists of parallel ridges of shells and broken corals, which furnish "an incontestable proof," as observed by Cook (Cook's "Third Voyage," book III., chapter x.), "that the island has been produced by accessions from the sea, and is in a state of increase." The land is fronted by a coral-reef, and from the manner in which islets are known to be formed, we may feel confident that the reef was not three miles wide, when the first, or most backward ridge, was thrown up; and, therefore, we must conclude that the reef has grown outwards during the accumulation of the successive ridges. Here then, a wall of coral-rock of very considerable breadth has been formed by the outward growth of the living margin, within a period during which ridges of shells and corals, lying on the bare surface, have not decayed. There can be little doubt, from the account given by Captain Beechey, that Matilda atoll, in the Low Archipelago, has been converted in the space of thirty-four years, from being, as described by the crew of a wrecked whaling vessel, a "reef of rocks" into a lagoon-island, fourteen miles in length, with "one of its sides covered nearly the whole way with high trees." (Beechey's "Voyage to the Pacific," chapter vii.

Coral Reefs Page 45

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin

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