Coral Reefs

Page 18

Petersburg, the whole world would not cover that city and its suburbs.

The form of the bottom off Keeling atoll, which gradually slopes to about twenty fathoms at the distance of between one and two hundred yards from the edge of the reef, and then plunges at an angle of 45 deg into unfathomable depths, is exactly the same (The form of the bottom round the Marshall atolls in the Northern Pacific is probably similar: Kotzebue ("First Voyage," volume ii., page 16) says: "We had at a small distance from the reef, forty fathoms depth, which increased a little further so much that we could find no bottom.") with that of the sections of the atolls in the Low Archipelago given by Captain Beechey. The nature, however, of the bottom seems to differ, for this officer (I must be permitted to express my obligation to Captain Beechey, for the very kind manner in which he has given me information on several points, and to own the great assistance I have derived from his excellent published work.) informs me that all the soundings, even the deepest, were on coral, but he does not know whether dead or alive. The slope round Christmas atoll (Lat. 1 deg 4' N., 157 deg 45' W.), described by Cook (Cook's "Third Voyage," volume ii., chapter 10.), is considerably less, at about half a mile from the edge of the reef, the average depth was about fourteen fathoms on a fine sandy bottom, and at a mile, only between twenty and forty fathoms. It has no doubt been owing to this gentle slope, that the strip of land surrounding its lagoon, has increased in one part to the extraordinary width of three miles; it is formed of successive ridges of broken shells and corals, like those on the beach. I know of no other instance of such width in the reef of an atoll; but Mr. F.D. Bennett informs me that the inclination of the bottom round Caroline atoll in the Pacific, is like that off Christmas Island, very gentle. Off the Maldiva and Chagos atolls, the inclination is much more abrupt; thus at Heawandoo Pholo, Lieutenant Powell (This fact is taken from a MS. account of these groups lent me by Captain Moresby. See also Captain Moresby's paper on the Maldiva atolls in the "Geographical Journal", volume v., page 401.) found fifty and sixty fathoms close to the edge of the reef, and at 300 yards distance there was no bottom with a 300-yard line. Captain Moresby informs me, that at 100 fathoms from the mouth of the lagoon of Diego Garcia, he found no bottom with 150 fathoms; this is the more remarkable, as the slope is generally less abrupt in front of channels through a reef, owing to the accumulation of sediment. At Egmont Island, also, at 150 fathoms from the reef, soundings were struck with 150 fathoms. Lastly, at Cardoo atoll, only sixty yards from the reef, no bottom was obtained, as I am informed by Captain Moresby, with a line of 200 fathoms! The currents run with great force round these atolls, and where they are strongest, the inclination appears to be most abrupt. I am informed by the same authority, that wherever soundings were obtained off these islands, the bottom was invariably sandy: nor was there any reason to suspect the existence of submarine cliffs, as there was at Keeling Island. (Off some of the islands in the Low Archipelago the bottom appears to descend by ledges. Off Elizabeth Island, which, however, consists of raised coral, Captain Beechey (page 45, 4to edition) describes three ledges: the first had an easy slope from the beach to a distance of about fifty yards: the second extended two hundred yards with twenty-five fathoms on it, and then ended abruptly, like the first; and immediately beyond this there was no bottom with two hundred fathoms.) Here then occurs a difficulty; can sand accumulate on a slope, which, in some cases, appears to exceed fifty-five degrees? It must be observed, that I speak of slopes where soundings were obtained, and not of such cases, as that of Cardoo, where the nature of the bottom is unknown, and where its inclination must be nearly vertical.

Charles Darwin

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