Coral Reefs

Page 49

I have endeavoured to collect every fact, which might either invalidate or corroborate this conclusion. Captain Moresby, whose opportunities for observation during his survey of the Maldiva and Chagos Archipelagoes have been unrivalled, informs me, that the upper part or zone of the steep-sided reefs, on the inner and outer coasts of the atolls in both groups, invariably consists of coral, and the lower parts of sand. At seven or eight fathoms depth, the bottom is formed, as could be seen through the clear water, of great living masses of coral, which at about ten fathoms generally stand some way apart from each other, with patches of white sand between them, and at a little greater depth these patches become united into a smooth steep slope, without any coral. Captain Moresby, also, informs me in support of his statement, that he found only decayed coral on the Padua Bank (northern part of the Laccadive group) which has an average depth between twenty-five and thirty-five fathoms, but that on some other banks in the same group with only ten or twelve fathoms water on them (for instance, the Tillacapeni bank), the coral was living.

With regard to the coral-reefs in the Red Sea, Ehrenberg has the following passage:--"The living corals do not descend there into great depths. On the edges of islets and near reefs, where the depth was small, very many lived; but we found no more even at six fathoms. The pearl-fishers at Yemen and Massaua asserted that there was no coral near the pearl-banks at nine fathoms depth, but only sand. We were not able to institute any more special researches." (Ehrenberg, "Uber die Natur," etc., page 50.) I am, however, assured both by Captain Moresby and Lieutenant Wellstead, that in the more northern parts of the Red Sea, there are extensive beds of living coral at a depth of twenty-five fathoms, in which the anchors of their vessels were frequently entangled. Captain Moresby attributes the less depth, at which the corals are able to live in the places mentioned by Ehrenberg, to the greater quantity of sediment there; and the situations, where they were flourishing at the depth of twenty-five fathoms, were protected, and the water was extraordinarily limpid. On the leeward side of Mauritius where I found the coral growing at a somewhat greater depth than at Keeling atoll, the sea, owing apparently to its tranquil state, was likewise very clear. Within the lagoons of some of the Marshall atolls, where the water can be but little agitated, there are, according to Kotzebue, living beds of coral in twenty-five fathoms. From these facts, and considering the manner in which the beds of clean coral off Mauritius, Keeling Island, the Maldiva and Chagos atolls, graduated into a sandy slope, it appears very probable that the depth, at which reef-building polypifers can exist, is partly determined by the extent of inclined surface, which the currents of the sea and the recoiling waves have the power to keep free from sediment.

MM. Quoy and Gaimard ("Annales des Sci. Nat." tom. vi.) believe that the growth of coral is confined within very limited depths; and they state that they never found any fragment of an Astraea (the genus they consider most efficient in forming reefs) at a depth above twenty-five or thirty feet. But we have seen that in several places the bottom of the sea is paved with massive corals at more than twice this depth; and at fifteen fathoms (or twice this depth) off the reefs of Mauritius, the arming was marked with the distinct impression of a living Astraea. Millepora alcicornis lives in from 0 to 12 fathoms, and the genera Madrepora and Seriatopora from 0 to 20 fathoms. Captain Moresby has given me a specimen of Sideropora scabra (Porites of Lamarck) brought up alive from 17 fathoms. Mr. Couthouy ("Remarks on Coral Formations," page 12.) states that he has dredged up on the Bahama banks considerable masses of Meandrina from 16 fathoms, and he has seen this coral growing in 20 fathoms. A Caryophyllia, half an inch in diameter, was dredged up alive from 80 fathoms off Juan Fernandez (latitude 33 deg S.) by Captain P.P.

Charles Darwin

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