Coral Reefs

Page 35

A fringing-reef, if elevated in a perfect condition above the level of the sea, ought to present the singular appearance of a broad dry moat within a low mound. The author ("Voyage a l'Isle de France, par un Officier du Roi," part i., pages 192, 200.) of an interesting pedestrian tour round the Mauritius, seems to have met with a structure of this kind: he says "J'observai que la, ou la mer etale, independamment des rescifs du large, il y a terre UNE ESPECE D'EFFONCEMENT ou chemin couvert naturel. On y pourrait mettre du canon," etc. In another place he adds, "Avant de passer le Cap, on remarque un gros banc de corail eleve de plus de quinze pieds: c'est une espece de rescif, que la mer abandonne, il regne au pied une longue flaque d'eau, dont on pourrait faire un bassin pour de petits vaisseaux." But the margin of the reef, although the highest and most perfect part, from being most exposed to the surf, would generally during a slow rise of the land be either partially or entirely worn down to that level, at which corals could renew their growth on its upper edge. On some parts of the coast-land of Mauritius there are little hillocks of coral-rock, which are either the last remnants of a continuous reef, or of low islets formed on it. I observed that two such hillocks between Tamarin Bay and the Great Black River; they were nearly twenty feet high, about two hundred yards from the present beach, and about thirty feet above its level. They rose abruptly from a smooth surface, strewed with worn fragments of coral. They consisted in their lower part of hard calcareous sandstone, and in their upper of great blocks of several species of Astraea and Madrepora, loosely aggregated; they were divided into irregular beds, dipping seaward, in one hillock at an angle of 8 deg., and in the other at 18 deg. I suspect that the superficial parts of the reefs, which have been upraised together with the islands they fringe, have generally been much more modified by the wearing action of the sea, than those of Mauritius.

Many islands are fringed by reefs quite similar to those of Mauritius (I may give Cuba, as another instance; Mr. Taylor ("Loudon's Mag. of Nat. Hist." volume ix., page 449) has described a reef several miles in length between Gibara and Vjaro, which extends parallel to the shore at the distance of between half and the third part of a mile, and encloses a space of shallow water, with a sandy bottom and tufts of coral. Outside the edge of the reef, which is formed of great branching corals, the depth is six and seven fathoms. This coast has been upheaved at no very distant geological period."); but on coasts where the sea deepens very suddenly the reefs are much narrower, and their limited extension seems evidently to depend on the high inclination of the submarine slope; a relation, which, as we have seen, does not exist in reefs of the barrier class. The fringing-reefs on steep coasts are frequently not more than from fifty to one hundred yards in width; they have a nearly smooth, hard surface, scarcely uncovered at low water, and without any interior shoal channel, like that within those fringing-reefs, which lie at a greater distance from the land. The fragments torn up during gales from the outer margin are thrown over the reef on the shores of the island. I may give as instances, Wateeo, where the reef is described by Cook as being a hundred yards wide; and Mauti and Elizabeth Islands (Mauti is described by Lord Byron in the voyage of H.M.S. "Blonde", and Elizabeth Island by Captain Beechey.), where it is only fifty yards in width: the sea round these islands is very deep.

Fringing-reefs, like barrier-reefs, both surround islands, and front the shores of continents. In the charts of the eastern coast of Africa, by Captain Owen, many extensive fringing-reefs are laid down; thus, for a space of nearly forty miles, from latitude 1 deg 15' to 1 deg 45' S., a reef fringes the shore at an average distance of rather more than one mile, and therefore at a greater distance than is usual in reefs of this class; but as the coast-land is not lofty, and as the bottom shoals very gradually (the depth being only from eight to fourteen fathoms at a mile and a half outside the reef), its extension thus far from the land offers no difficulty.

Charles Darwin

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