Coral Reefs

Page 32

The unbroken line in it (woodcut No. 5) is the section referred to. The scale is .57 of an inch to a mile; it is taken from the "Atlas of the Voyage of the 'Coquille'," by Duperrey. The depth of the lagoon-channel is exaggerated.), the result would have been the same. In the succeeding chapter it will be shown that reef-building polypifers cannot flourish at great depths,--for instance, it is highly improbable that they could exist at a quarter of the depth represented by the plummet on the right hand of the woodcut. Here there is a great APPARENT difficulty--how were the basal parts of these barrier-reef formed? It will, perhaps, occur to some, that the actual reefs formed of coral are not of great thickness, but that before their first growth, the coasts of these encircled islands were deeply eaten into, and a broad but shallow submarine ledge thus left, on the edge of which the coral grew; but if this had been the case, the shore would have been invariably bounded by lofty cliffs, and not have sloped down to the lagoon-channel, as it does in many instances. On this view (The Rev. D. Tyerman and Mr. Bennett ("Journal of Voyage and Travels," volume i., page 215) have briefly suggested this explanation of the origin of the encircling reefs of the Society Islands.), moreover, the cause of the reef springing up at such a great distance from the land, leaving a deep and broad moat within, remains altogether unexplained. A supposition of the same nature, and appearing at first more probable is, that the reefs sprung up from banks of sediment, which had accumulated round the shore previously to the growth of the coral; but the extension of a bank to the same distance round an unbroken coast, and in front of those deep arms of the sea (as in Raiatea, see Plate II., Figure 3) which penetrate nearly to the heart of some encircled islands, is exceedingly improbable. And why, again, should the reef spring up, in some cases steep on both sides like a wall, at a distance of two, three or more miles from the shore, leaving a channel often between two hundred and three hundred feet deep, and rising from a depth which we have reason to believe is destructive to the growth of coral? An admission of this nature cannot possibly be made. The existence, also, of the deep channel, utterly precludes the idea of the reef having grown outwards, on a foundation slowly formed on its outside, by the accumulation of sediment and coral detritus. Nor, again, can it be asserted, that the reef-building corals will not grow, excepting at a great distance from the land; for, as we shall soon see, there is a whole class of reefs, which take their name from growing closely attached (especially where the sea is deep) to the beach. At New Caledonia (see Plate II., Figure 5) the reefs which run in front of the west coast are prolonged in the same line 150 miles beyond the northern extremity of the island, and this shows that some explanation, quite different from any of those just suggested, is required. The continuation of the reefs on each side of the submarine prolongation of New Caledonia, is an exceedingly interesting fact, if this part formerly existed as the northern extremity of the island, and before the attachment of the coral had been worn down by the action of the sea, or if it originally existed at its present height, with or without beds of sediment on each flank, how can we possibly account for the reefs, not growing on the crest of this submarine portion, but fronting its sides, in the same line with the reefs which front the shores of the lofty island? We shall hereafter see, that there is one, and I believe only one, solution of this difficulty.

One other supposition to account for the position of encircling barrier-reefs remains, but it is almost too preposterous to be mentioned; namely, that they rest on enormous submarine craters, surrounding the included islands. When the size, height, and form of the islands in the Society group are considered, together with the fact that all are thus encircled, such a notion will be rejected by almost every one.

Charles Darwin

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