Coral Reefs

Page 26

As the easterly winds are not the strongest, their action probably is aided by some prevailing swell or current.

In groups of atolls, exposed to a trade-wind, the ship-channels into the lagoons are almost invariably situated on the leeward or less exposed side of the reef, and the reef itself is sometimes either wanting there, or is submerged. A strictly analogous, but different fact, may be observed at the Maldiva atolls--namely, that where two atolls stand in front of each other, the breaches in the reef are the most numerous on their near, and therefore less exposed, sides. Thus on the near sides of Ari and the two Nillandoo atolls, which face S. Male, Phaleedoo, and Moloque atolls, there are seventy-three deep-water channels, and only twenty-five on their outer sides; on the near side of the three latter named atolls there are fifty- six openings, and only thirty-seven on their outsides. It is scarcely possible to attribute this difference to any other cause than the somewhat different action of the sea on the two sides, which would ensue from the protection afforded by the two rows of atolls to each other. I may here remark that in most cases, the conditions favourable to the greater accumulation of fragments on the reef and to its more perfect continuity on one side of the atoll than on the other, have concurred, but this has not been the case with the Maldivas; for we have seen that the islets are placed on the eastern or south-eastern sides, whilst the breaches in the reef occur indifferently on any side, where protected by an opposite atoll. The reef being more continuous on the outer and more exposed sides of those atolls which stand near each other, accords with the fact, that the reef of the southern atolls is more continuous than that of the northern ones; for the former, as I am informed by Captain Moresby, are more constantly exposed than the northern atolls to a heavy surf.

The date of the first formation of some of the islets in this Archipelago is known to the inhabitants; on the other hand, several islets, and even some of those which are believed to be very old, are now fast wearing away. The work of destruction has, in some instances, been completed in ten years. Captain Moresby found on one water-washed reef the marks of wells and graves, which were excavated when it supported an islet. In South Nillandoo atoll, the natives say that three of the islets were formerly larger: in North Nillandoo there is one now being washed away; and in this latter atoll Lieutenant Prentice found a reef, about six hundred yards in diameter, which the natives positively affirmed was lately an island covered with cocoa-nut trees. It is now only partially dry at low water spring-tides, and is (in Lieutenant Prentice's words) "entirely covered with live coral and madrepore." In the northern part, also, of the Maldiva Archipelago and in the Chagos group, it is known that some of the islets are disappearing. The natives attribute these effects to variations in the currents of the sea. For my own part I cannot avoid suspecting that there must be some further cause, which gives rise to such a cycle of change in the action of the currents of the great and open ocean.

Several of the atolls in this Archipelago are so related to each other in form and position, that at the first glance one is led to suspect that they have originated in the disseverment of a single one. Male consists of three perfectly characterised atolls, of which the shape and relative position are such, that a line drawn closely round all three, gives a symmetrical figure; to see this clearly, a larger chart is required than that of the Archipelago in Plate II.; the channel separating the two northern Male atolls is only little more than a mile wide, and no bottom was found in it with 100 fathoms. Powell's Island is situated at the distance of two miles and a half off the northern end of Mahlos Mahdoo (see Figure 4, Plate II.), at the exact point where the two sides of the latter, if prolonged, would meet; no bottom, however, was found in the channel with 200 fathoms; in the wider channel between Horsburgh atoll and the southern end of Mahlos Mahdoo, no bottom was found with 250 fathoms.

Charles Darwin

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