Coral Reefs

Page 23

In the midst of a group of atolls, there sometimes occur small, flat, very low islands of coral formation, which probably once included a lagoon, since filled up with sediment and coral-reefs. Captain Beechey entertains no doubt that this has been the case with the two small islands, which alone of thirty-one surveyed by him in the Low Archipelago, did not contain lagoons. Romanzoff Island (in lat. 15 deg S.) is described by Chamisso (Kotzebue's "First Voyage," volume iii., page 221.) as formed by a dam of madreporitic rock inclosing a flat space, thinly covered with trees, into which the sea on the leeward side occasionally breaks. North Keeling atoll appears to be in a rather less forward stage of conversion into land; it consists of a horse-shoe shaped strip of land surrounding a muddy flat, one mile in its longest axis, which is covered by the sea only at high water. When describing South Keeling atoll, I endeavoured to show how slow the final process of filling up a lagoon must be; nevertheless, as all causes do tend to produce this effect, it is very remarkable that not one instance, as I believe, is known of a moderately sized lagoon being filled up even to the low water-line at spring-tides, much less of such a one being converted into land. It is, likewise, in some degree remarkable, how few atolls, except small ones, are surrounded by a single linear strip of land, formed by the union of separate islets. We cannot suppose that the many atolls in the Pacific and Indian Oceans all have had a late origin, and yet should they remain at their present level, subjected only to the action of the sea and to the growing powers of the coral, during as many centuries as must have elapsed since any of the earlier tertiary epochs, it cannot, I think, be doubted that their lagoons and the islets on their reef, would present a totally different appearance from what they now do. This consideration leads to the suspicion that some renovating agency (namely subsidence) comes into play at intervals, and perpetuates their original structure.



FIGURE 1.--GREAT CHAGOS BANK, in the Indian Ocean; taken from the survey by Captain Moresby and Lieutenant Powell; the parts which are shaded, with the exception of two or three islets on the western and northern sides, do not rise to the surface, but are submerged from four to ten fathoms; the banks bounded by the dotted lines lie from fifteen to twenty fathoms beneath the surface, and are formed of sand; the central space is of mud, and from thirty to fifty fathoms deep.

FIGURE 2.--A vertical section, on the same scale, in an eastern and western line across the Great Chagos Bank, given for the sake of exhibiting more clearly its structure.

FIGURE 3.--MENCHIKOFF ATOLL (or lagoon-island), in the Marshall Archipelago, Northern Pacific Ocean; from Krusenstern's "Atlas of the Pacific;" originally surveyed by Captain Hagemeister; the depth within the lagoons is unknown.

FIGURE 4.--MAHLOS MAHDOO ATOLL, together with Horsburgh atoll, in the Maldiva Archipelago; from the survey by Captain Moresby and Lieutenant Powell; the white spaces in the middle of the separate small reefs, both on the margin and in the middle part, are meant to represent little lagoons; but it was found not possible to distinguish them clearly from the small islets, which have been formed on these same small reefs; many of the smaller reefs could not be introduced; the nautical mark (dot over a dash) over the figures 250 and 200, between Mahlos Mahdoo and Horsburgh atoll and Powell's island, signifies that soundings were not obtained at these depths.

FIGURE 5.--NEW CALEDONIA, in the western part of the Pacific; from Krusenstern's "Atlas," compiled from several surveys; I have slightly altered the northern point of the reef, in accordance with the "Atlas of the Voyage of the 'Astrolabe'." In Krusenstern's "Atlas," the reef is represented by a single line with crosses; I have for the sake of uniformity added an interior line.

Charles Darwin

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