Coral Reefs

Page 34

On the eastern and windward side of the island, which is exposed to a heavy surf, the reef was described to me as having a hard smooth surface, very slightly inclined inwards, just covered at low-water, and traversed by gullies; it appears to be quite similar in structure to the reefs of the barrier and atoll classes.

The reef of Mauritius, in front of every river and streamlet, is breached by a straight passage: at Grand Port, however, there is a channel like that within a barrier-reef; it extends parallel to the shore for four miles, and has an average depth of ten or twelve fathoms; its presence may probably be accounted for by two rivers which enter at each end of the channel, and bend towards each other. The fact of reefs of the fringing class being always breached in front of streams, even of those which are dry during the greater part of the year, will be explained, when the conditions unfavourable to the growth of coral are considered. Low coral-islets, like those on barrier-reefs and atolls, are seldom formed on reefs of this class, owing apparently in some cases to their narrowness, and in others to the gentle slope of the reef outside not yielding many fragments to the breakers. On the windward side, however, of the Mauritius, two or three small islets have been formed.

It appears, as will be shown in the ensuing chapter, that the action of the surf is favourable to the vigorous growth of the stronger corals, and that sand or sediment, if agitated by the waves, is injurious to them. Hence it is probable that a reef on a shelving shore, like that of Mauritius, would at first grow up, not attached to the actual beach, but at some little distance from it; and the corals on the outer margin would be the most vigorous. A shallow channel would thus be formed within the reef, and as the breakers are prevented acting on the shores of the island, and as they do not ordinarily tear up many fragments from the outside, and as every streamlet has its bed prolonged in a straight line through the reef, this channel could be filled up only very slowly with sediment. But a beach of sand and of fragments of the smaller kinds of coral seems, in the case of Mauritius, to be slowly encroaching on the shallow channel. On many shelving and sandy coasts, the breakers tend to form a bar of sand a little way from the beach, with a slight increase of depth within it; for instance, Captain Grey (Captain Grey's "Journal of Two Expeditions," volume i. page 369.) states that the west coast of Australia, in latitude 24 deg., is fronted by a sand bar about two hundred yards in width, on which there is only two feet of water; but within it the depth increases to two fathoms. Similar bars, more or less perfect, occur on other coasts. In these cases I suspect that the shallow channel (which no doubt during storms is occasionally obliterated) is scooped out by the flowing away of the water thrown beyond the line, on which the waves break with the greatest force. At Pernambuco a bar of hard sandstone (I have described this singular structure in the "London and Edinburgh Phil. Mag." October 1841.), which has the same external form and height as a coral-reef, extends nearly parallel to the coast; within this bar currents, apparently caused by the water thrown over it during the greater part of each tide, run strongly, and are wearing away its inner wall. From these facts it can hardly be doubted, that within most fringing-reefs, especially within those lying some distance from the land, a return stream must carry away the water thrown over the outer edge; and the current thus produced, would tend to prevent the channel being filled up with sediment, and might even deepen it under certain circumstances. To this latter belief I am led, by finding that channels are almost universally present within the fringing-reefs of those islands which have undergone recent elevatory movements; and this could hardly have been the case, if the conversion of the very shallow channel into land had not been counteracted to a certain extent.

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book