The depth of the lagoon and the width and slope of the reef, will depend on the circumstances just referred to under barrier-reefs. Any further subsidence will produce no change in the atoll, except perhaps a diminution in its size, from the reef not growing vertically upwards; but should the currents of the sea act violently upon it, and should the corals perish on part or on the whole of its margin, changes would result during subsidence which will be presently noticed. I may here observe, that a bank either of rock or of hardened sediment, level with the surface of the sea, and fringed with living coral, would (if not so small as to allow the central space to be quickly filled up with detritus) by subsidence be converted immediately into an atoll, without passing, as in the case of a reef fringing the shore of an island, through the intermediate form of a barrier-reef. If such a bank lay a few fathoms submerged, the simple growth of the coral (as remarked in the third chapter) without the aid of subsidence, would produce a structure scarcely to be distinguished from a true atoll; for in all cases the corals on the outer margin of a reef, from having space and being freely exposed to the open sea, will grow vigorously and tend to form a continuous ring whilst the growth of the less massive kinds on the central expanse, will be checked by the sediment formed there, and by that washed inwards by the breakers; and as the space becomes shallower, their growth will, also, be checked by the impurities of the water, and probably by the small amount of food brought by the enfeebled currents, in proportion to the surface of living reefs studded with innumerable craving mouths: the subsidence of a reef based on a bank of this kind, would give depth to its central expanse or lagoon, steepness to its flanks, and through the free growth of the coral, symmetry to its outline:--I may here repeat that the larger groups of atolls in the Pacific and Indian Oceans cannot be supposed to be founded on banks of this nature.
If, instead of the island in the diagram, the shore of a continent fringed by a reef had subsided, a great barrier-reef, like that on the north-east coast of Australia, would have necessarily resulted; and it would have been separated from the main land by a deep-water channel, broad in proportion to the amount of subsidence, and to the less or greater inclination of the neighbouring coast-line. The effect of the continued subsidence of a great barrier-reef of this kind, and its probable conversion into a chain of separate atolls, will be noticed, when we discuss the apparent progressive disseverment of the larger Maldiva atolls.
We now are able to perceive that the close similarity in form, dimensions, structure, and relative position (which latter point will hereafter be more fully noticed) between fringing and encircling barrier-reefs, and between these latter and atolls, is the necessary result of the transformation, during subsidence of the one class into the other. On this view, the three classes of reefs ought to graduate into each other. Reefs having intermediate character between those of the fringing and barrier classes do exist; for instance, on the south-west coast of Madagascar, a reef extends for several miles, within which there is a broad channel from seven to eight fathoms deep, but the sea does not deepen abruptly outside the reef. Such cases, however, are open to some doubts, for an old fringing-reef, which had extended itself a little on a basis of its own formation, would hardly be distinguishable from a barrier-reef, produced by a small amount of subsidence, and with its lagoon-channel nearly filled up with sediment during a long stationary period. Between barrier-reefs, encircling either one lofty island or several small low ones, and atolls including a mere expanse of water, a striking series can be shown: in proof of this, I need only refer to the first plate in this volume, which speaks more plainly to the eye, than any description could to the ear.