Hence it is possible only under the most favourable circumstances, afforded by an unusually low tide and smooth water, to reach the outer margin, where the coral is alive. I succeeded only twice in gaining this part, and found it almost entirely composed of a living Porites, which forms great irregularly rounded masses (like those of an Astraea, but larger) from four to eight feet broad, and little less in thickness. These mounds are separated from each other by narrow crooked channels, about six feet deep, most of which intersect the line of reef at right angles. On the furthest mound, which I was able to reach by the aid of a leaping-pole, and over which the sea broke with some violence, although the day was quite calm and the tide low, the polypifers in the uppermost cells were all dead, but between three and four inches lower down on its side they were living, and formed a projecting border round the upper and dead surface. The coral being thus checked in its upward growth, extends laterally, and hence most of the masses, especially those a little further inwards, had broad flat dead summits. On the other hand I could see, during the recoil of the breakers, that a few yards further seaward, the whole convex surface of the Porites was alive; so that the point where we were standing was almost on the exact upward and shoreward limit of existence of those corals which form the outer margin of the reef. We shall presently see that there are other organic productions, fitted to bear a somewhat longer exposure to the air and sun.
Next, but much inferior in importance to the Porites, is the Millepora complanata. (This Millepora (Palmipora of Blainville), as well as the M. alcicornis, possesses the singular property of stinging the skin where it is delicate, as on the face and arm.)
It grows in thick vertical plates, intersecting each other at various angles, and forms an exceedingly strong honeycombed mass, which generally affects a circular form, the marginal plates alone being alive. Between these plates and in the protected crevices on the reef, a multitude of branching zoophytes and other productions flourish, but the Porites and Millepora alone seem able to resist the fury of the breakers on its upper and outer edge: at the depth of a few fathoms other kinds of stony corals live. Mr. Liesk, who was intimately acquainted with every part of this reef, and likewise with that of North Keeling atoll, assured me that these corals invariably compose the outer margin. The lagoon is inhabited by quite a distinct set of corals, generally brittle and thinly branched; but a Porites, apparently of the same species with that on the outside, is found there, although it does not seem to thrive, and certainly does not attain the thousandth part in bulk of the masses opposed to the breakers.
The woodcut shows the form of the bottom off the reef: the water deepens for a space between one and two hundred yards wide, very gradually to twenty-five fathoms (A in section), beyond which the sides plunge into the unfathomable ocean at an angle of 45 deg. (The soundings from which this section is laid down were taken with great care by Captain Fitzroy himself. He used a bell-shaped lead, having a diameter of four inches, and the armings each time were cut off and brought on board for me to examine. The arming is a preparation of tallow, placed in the concavity at the bottom of the lead. Sand, and even small fragments of rock, will adhere to it; and if the bottom be of rock it brings up an exact impression of its surface.) To the depth of ten or twelve fathoms the bottom is exceedingly rugged, and seems formed of great masses of living coral, similar to those on the margin. The arming of the lead here invariably came up quite clean, but deeply indented, and chains and anchors which were lowered, in the hopes of tearing up the coral, were broken. Many small fragments, however, of Millepora alcicornis were brought up; and on the arming from an eight-fathom cast, there was a perfect impression of an Astraea, apparently alive.