Coral Reefs

Page 12

Hence the layer composed by their growth merely fringes the reef for a space of about twenty yards in width, either under the form of separate mammillated projections, where the outer masses of coral are separate, or, more commonly, where the corals are united into a solid margin, as a continuous smooth convex mound (B in woodcut), like an artificial breakwater. Both the mound and mammillated projections stand about three feet higher than any other part of the reef, by which term I do not include the islets, formed by the accumulation of rolled fragments. We shall hereafter see that other coral reefs are protected by a similar thick growth of Nulliporae on the outer margin, the part most exposed to the breakers, and this must effectually aid in preserving it from being worn down.

The woodcut represents a section across one of the islets on the reef, but if all that part which is above the level of C were removed, the section would be that of a simple reef, as it occurs where no islet has been formed. It is this reef which essentially forms the atoll. It is a ring, enclosing the lagoon on all sides except at the northern end, where there are two open spaces, through one of which ships can enter. The reef varies in width from two hundred and fifty to five hundred yards, its surface is level, or very slightly inclined towards the lagoon, and at high tide the sea breaks entirely over it: the water at low tide thrown by the breakers on the reef, is carried by the many narrow and shoal gullies or channels on its surface, into the lagoon: a return stream sets out of the lagoon through the main entrance. The most frequent coral in the hollows on the reef is Pocillopora verrucosa, which grows in short sinuous plates, or branches, and when alive is of a beautiful pale lake-red: a Madrepora, closely allied or identical with M. pocillifera, is also common. As soon as an islet is formed, and the waves are prevented breaking entirely over the reef, the channels and hollows in it become filled up with cemented fragments, and its surface is converted into a hard smooth floor (C of woodcut), like an artificial one of freestone. This flat surface varies in width from one hundred to two hundred, or even three hundred yards, and is strewed with a few large fragments of coral torn up during gales: it is uncovered only at low water. I could with difficulty, and only by the aid of a chisel, procure chips of rock from its surface, and therefore could not ascertain how much of it is formed by the aggregation of detritus, and how much by the outward growth of mounds of corals, similar to those now living on the margin. Nothing can be more singular than the appearance at low tide of this "flat" of naked stone, especially where it is externally bounded by the smooth convex mound of Nulliporae, appearing like a breakwater built to resist the waves, which are constantly throwing over it sheets of foaming water. The characteristic appearance of this "flat" is shown in the foregoing woodcut of Whitsunday atoll.

The islets on the reef are first formed between two hundred and three hundred yards from its outer edge, through the accumulation of a pile of fragments, thrown together by some unusually strong gale. Their ordinary width is under a quarter of a mile, and their length varies from a few yards to several miles. Those on the south-east and windward side of the atoll, increase solely by the addition of fragments on their outer side; hence the loose blocks of coral, of which their surface is composed, as well as the shells mingled with them, almost exclusively consist of those kinds which live on the outer coast. The highest part of the islets (excepting hillocks of blown sand, some of which are thirty feet high), is close to the outer beach (E of the woodcut), and averages from six to ten feet above ordinary high-water mark. From the outer beach the surface slopes gently to the shores of the lagoon, which no doubt has been caused by the breakers the further they have rolled over the reef, having had less power to throw up fragments.

Charles Darwin

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