Coral Reefs

Page 53

In a prolonged line from this group, at the distance of 240 miles, is the Marshall Archipelago, the figure of which is an irregular square, one end being broader than the other; its length is 520 miles, with an average width of 240; these two groups together are 1,040 miles in length, and all their islets are low. Between the southern end of the Gilbert and the northern end of Low Archipelago, the ocean is thinly strewed with islands, all of which, as far as I have been able to ascertain, are low; so that from nearly the southern end of the Low Archipelago, to the northern end of the Marshall Archipelago, there is a narrow band of ocean, more than 4,000 miles in length, containing a great number of islands, all of which are low. In the western part of the Caroline Archipelago, there is a space of 480 miles in length, and about 100 broad, thinly interspersed with low islands. Lastly, in the Indian Ocean, the archipelago of the Maldivas is 470 miles in length, and 60 in breadth; that of the Laccadives is 150 by 100 miles; as there is a low island between these two groups, they may be considered as one group of 1,000 miles in length. To this may be added the Chagos group of low islands, situated 280 miles distant, in a line prolonged from the southern extremity of the Maldivas. This group, including the submerged banks, is 170 miles in length and 80 in breadth. So striking is the uniformity in direction of these three archipelagoes, all the islands of which are low, that Captain Moresby, in one of his papers, speaks of them as parts of one great chain, nearly 1,500 miles long. I am, then, fully justified in repeating, that enormous spaces, both in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, are interspersed with islands, of which not one rises above that height, to which the waves and winds in an open sea can heap up matter.

On what foundations, then, have these reefs and islets of coral been constructed? A foundation must originally have been present beneath each atoll at that limited depth, which is indispensable for the first growth of the reef-building polypifers. A conjecture will perhaps be hazarded, that the requisite bases might have been afforded by the accumulation of great banks of sediment, which owing to the action of superficial currents (aided possibly by the undulatory movement of the sea) did not quite reach the surface,--as actually appears to have been the case in some parts of the West Indian Sea. But in the form and disposition of the groups of atolls, there is nothing to countenance this notion; and the assumption without any proof, that a number of immense piles of sediment have been heaped on the floor of the great Pacific and Indian Oceans, in their central parts far remote from land, and where the dark blue colour of the limpid water bespeaks its purity, cannot for one moment be admitted.

The many widely-scattered atolls must, therefore, rest on rocky bases. But we cannot believe that the broad summit of a mountain lies buried at the depth of a few fathoms beneath every atoll, and nevertheless throughout the immense areas above-named, with not one point of rock projecting above the level of the sea; for we may judge with some accuracy of mountains beneath the sea, by those on the land; and where can we find a single chain several hundred miles in length and of considerable breadth, much less several such chains, with their many broad summits attaining the same height, within from 120 to 180 feet? If the data be thought insufficient, on which I have grounded my belief, respecting the depth at which the reef-building polypifers can exist, and it be assumed that they can flourish at a depth of even one hundred fathoms, yet the weight of the above argument is but little diminished, for it is almost equally improbable, that as many submarine mountains, as there are low islands in the several great and widely separated areas above specified, should all rise within six hundred feet of the surface of the sea and not one above it, as that they should be of the same height within the smaller limit of one or two hundred feet.

Charles Darwin

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