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by Charles DarwinJanuary 20th, 2023
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SECTION I.—KEELING ATOLL. Corals on the outer margin.—Zone of Nulliporæ.—Exterior reef.—Islets.—Coral-conglomerate.—Lagoon.—Calcareous sediment.—Scari and Holuthuriæ subsisting on corals.—Changes in the condition of the reefs and islets.—Probable subsidence of the atoll.—Future state of the lagoon.
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Coral Reefs by Charles Darwin, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. ATOLLS OR LAGOON-ISLANDS



Corals on the outer margin.—Zone of Nulliporæ.—Exterior reef.—Islets.—Coral-conglomerate.—Lagoon.—Calcareous sediment.—Scari and Holuthuriæ subsisting on corals.—Changes in the condition of the reefs and islets.—Probable subsidence of the atoll.—Future state of the lagoon.

A.—Level of the sea at low water: where the letter A is placed, the depth is twenty-five fathoms, and the distance rather more than one hundred and fifty yards from the edge of the reef.

B.—Outer edge of that flat part of the reef, which dries at low water: the edge either consists of a convex mound, as represented, or of rugged points, like those a little farther seaward, beneath the water.

C.—A flat of coral-rock, covered at high water.

D.—A low projecting ledge of brecciated coral-rock washed by the waves at high water.

E.—A slope of loose fragments, reached by the sea only during gales: the upper part, which is from six to twelve feet high, is clothed with vegetation. The surface of the islet gently slopes to the lagoon.

F.—Level of the lagoon at low water.

Keeling or Cocos atoll is situated in the Indian Ocean, in 12° 5′ S., and longitude 90° 55′ E.: a reduced chart of it was made from the survey of Captain Fitzroy and the Officers of H.M.S. “Beagle,” is given in Plate I., Figure 10. The greatest width of this atoll is nine miles and a half. Its structure is in most respects characteristic of the class to which it belongs, with the exception of the shallowness of the lagoon. The accompanying woodcut represents a vertical section, supposed to be drawn at low water from the outer coast across one of the low islets (one being taken of average dimensions) to within the lagoon.

The section is true to the scale in a horizontal line, but it could not be made so in a vertical one, as the average greatest height of the land is only between six and twelve feet above high-water mark.

I will describe the section, commencing with the outer margin. I must first observe that the reef-building polypifers, not being tidal animals, require to be constantly submerged or washed by the breakers. I was assured by Mr. Liesk, a very intelligent resident on these islands, as well as by some chiefs at Tahiti (Otaheite), that an exposure to the rays of the sun for a very short time invariably causes their destruction. Hence it is possible only under the most favourable circumstances, afforded by an unusually low tide and smooth water, to reach the outer margin, where the coral is alive. I succeeded only twice in gaining this part, and found it almost entirely composed of a living Porites, which forms great irregularly rounded masses (like those of an Astræa, but larger) from four to eight feet broad, and little less in thickness. These mounds are separated from each other by narrow crooked channels, about six feet deep, most of which intersect the line of reef at right angles. On the furthest mound, which I was able to reach by the aid of a leaping-pole, and over which the sea broke with some violence, although the day was quite calm and the tide low, the polypifers in the uppermost cells were all dead, but between three and four inches lower down on its side they were living, and formed a projecting border round the upper and dead surface. The coral being thus checked in its upward growth, extends laterally, and hence most of the masses, especially those a little further inwards, had broad flat dead summits. On the other hand I could see, during the recoil of the breakers, that a few yards further seaward, the whole convex surface of the Porites was alive; so that the point where we were standing was almost on the exact upward and shoreward limit of existence of those corals which form the outer margin of the reef. We shall presently see that there are other organic productions, fitted to bear a somewhat longer exposure to the air and sun.

Next, but much inferior in importance to the Porites, is the Millepora complanata. It grows in thick vertical plates, intersecting each other at various angles, and forms an exceedingly strong honeycombed mass, which generally affects a circular form, the marginal plates alone being alive. Between these plates and in the protected crevices on the reef, a multitude of branching zoophytes and other productions flourish, but the Porites and Millepora alone seem able to resist the fury of the breakers on its upper and outer edge: at the depth of a few fathoms other kinds of stony corals live. Mr. Liesk, who was intimately acquainted with every part of this reef, and likewise with that of North Keeling atoll, assured me that these corals invariably compose the outer margin. The lagoon is inhabited by quite a distinct set of corals, generally brittle and thinly branched; but a Porites, apparently of the same species with that on the outside, is found there, although it does not seem to thrive, and certainly does not attain the thousandth part in bulk of the masses opposed to the breakers.

This Millepora (Palmipora of Blainville), as well as the M. alcicornis, possesses the singular property of stinging the skin where it is delicate, as on the face and arm.

The woodcut shows the form of the bottom off the reef: the water deepens for a space between one and two hundred yards wide, very gradually to twenty-five fathoms (A in section), beyond which the sides plunge into the unfathomable ocean at an angle of 45°. To the depth of ten or twelve fathoms the bottom is exceedingly rugged, and seems formed of great masses of living coral, similar to those on the margin. The arming of the lead here invariably came up quite clean, but deeply indented, and chains and anchors which were lowered, in the hopes of tearing up the coral, were broken. Many small fragments, however, of Millepora alcicornis were brought up; and on the arming from an eight-fathom cast, there was a perfect impression of an Astræa, apparently alive. I examined the rolled fragments cast on the beach during gales, in order further to ascertain what corals grew outside the reef. The fragments consisted of many kinds, of which the Porites already mentioned and a Madrepora, apparently the M. corymbosa, were the most abundant. As I searched in vain in the hollows on the reef and in the lagoon, for a living specimen of this Madrepore, I conclude that it is confined to a zone outside, and beneath the surface, where it must be very abundant. Fragments of the Millepora alcicornis and of an Astræa were also numerous; the former is found, but not in proportionate numbers, in the hollows on the reef; but the Astræa I did not see living. Hence we may infer, that these are the kinds of coral which form the rugged sloping surface (represented in the woodcut by an uneven line), round and beneath the external margin. Between twelve and twenty fathoms the arming came up an equal number of times smoothed with sand, and indented with coral: an anchor and lead were lost at the respective depths of thirteen and sixteen fathoms. Out of twenty-five soundings taken at a greater depth than twenty fathoms, every one showed that the bottom was covered with sand; whereas, at a less depth than twelve fathoms, every sounding showed that it was exceedingly rugged, and free from all extraneous particles. Two soundings were obtained at the depth of 360 fathoms, and several between two hundred and three hundred fathoms. The sand brought up from these depths consisted of finely triturated fragments of stony zoophytes, but not, as far as I could distinguish, of a particle of any lamelliform genus: fragments of shells were rare.

The soundings from which this section is laid down were taken with great care by Captain Fitzroy himself. He used a bell-shaped lead, having a diameter of four inches, and the armings each time were cut off and brought on board for me to examine. The arming is a preparation of tallow, placed in the concavity at the bottom of the lead. Sand, and even small fragments of rock, will adhere to it; and if the bottom be of rock it brings up an exact impression of its surface.

At a distance of 2,200 yards from the breakers, Captain Fitzroy found no bottom with a line of 7,200 feet in length; hence the submarine slope of this coral formation is steeper than that of any volcanic cone. Off the mouth of the lagoon, and likewise off the northern point of the atoll, where the currents act violently, the inclination, owing to the accumulation of sediment, is less. As the arming of the lead from all the greater depths showed a smooth sandy bottom, I at first concluded that the whole consisted of a vast conical pile of calcareous sand, but the sudden increase of depth at some points, and the circumstance of the line having been cut, as if rubbed, when between five hundred and six hundred fathoms were out, indicate the probable existence of submarine cliffs.

On the margin of the reef, close within the line where the upper surface of the Porites and of the Millepora is dead, three species of Nullipora flourish. One grows in thin sheets, like a lichen on old trees; the second in stony knobs, as thick as a man’s finger, radiating from a common centre; and the third, which is less common, in a moss-like reticulation of thin, but perfectly rigid branches. The three species occur either separately or mingled together; and they form by their successive growth a layer two or three feet in thickness, which in some cases is hard, but where formed of the lichen-like kind, readily yields an impression to the hammer: the surface is of a reddish colour. These Nulliporæ, although able to exist above the limit of true corals, seem to require to be bathed during the greater part of each tide by breaking water, for they are not found in any abundance in the protected hollows on the back part of the reef, where they might be immersed either during the whole or an equal proportional time of each tide. It is remarkable that organic productions of such extreme simplicity, for the Nulliporæ undoubtedly belong to one of the lowest classes of the vegetable kingdom, should be limited to a zone so peculiarly circumstanced. Hence the layer composed by their growth merely fringes the reef for a space of about twenty yards in width, either under the form of separate mammillated projections, where the outer masses of coral are separate, or, more commonly, where the corals are united into a solid margin, as a continuous smooth convex mound (B in woodcut), like an artificial breakwater. Both the mound and mammillated projections stand about three feet higher than any other part of the reef, by which term I do not include the islets, formed by the accumulation of rolled fragments. We shall hereafter see that other coral reefs are protected by a similar thick growth of Nulliporæ on the outer margin, the part most exposed to the breakers, and this must effectually aid in preserving it from being worn down.

This last species is of a beautiful bright peach-blossom colour. Its branches are about as thick as crow-quills; they are slightly flattened and knobbed at the extremities. The extremities only are alive and brightly coloured. The two other species are of a dirty purplish-white. The second species is extremely hard; its short knob-like branches are cylindrical, and do not grow thicker at their extremities.

The woodcut represents a section across one of the islets on the reef, but if all that part which is above the level of C were removed, the section would be that of a simple reef, as it occurs where no islet has been formed. It is this reef which essentially forms the atoll. It is a ring, enclosing the lagoon on all sides except at the northern end, where there are two open spaces, through one of which ships can enter. The reef varies in width from two hundred and fifty to five hundred yards, its surface is level, or very slightly inclined towards the lagoon, and at high tide the sea breaks entirely over it: the water at low tide thrown by the breakers on the reef, is carried by the many narrow and shoal gullies or channels on its surface, into the lagoon: a return stream sets out of the lagoon through the main entrance. The most frequent coral in the hollows on the reef is Pocillopora verrucosa, which grows in short sinuous plates, or branches, and when alive is of a beautiful pale lake-red: a Madrepora, closely allied or identical with M. pocillifera, is also common. As soon as an islet is formed, and the waves are prevented breaking entirely over the reef, the channels and hollows in it become filled up with cemented fragments, and its surface is converted into a hard smooth floor (C of woodcut), like an artificial one of freestone. This flat surface varies in width from one hundred to two hundred, or even three hundred yards, and is strewed with a few large fragments of coral torn up during gales: it is uncovered only at low water. I could with difficulty, and only by the aid of a chisel, procure chips of rock from its surface, and therefore could not ascertain how much of it is formed by the aggregation of detritus, and how much by the outward growth of mounds of corals, similar to those now living on the margin. Nothing can be more singular than the appearance at low tide of this “flat” of naked stone, especially where it is externally bounded by the smooth convex mound of Nulliporæ, appearing like a breakwater built to resist the waves, which are constantly throwing over it sheets of foaming water. The characteristic appearance of this “flat” is shown in the foregoing woodcut of Whitsunday atoll.

The islets on the reef are first formed between two hundred and three hundred yards from its outer edge, through the accumulation of a pile of fragments, thrown together by some unusually strong gale. Their ordinary width is under a quarter of a mile, and their length varies from a few yards to several miles. Those on the south-east and windward side of the atoll, increase solely by the addition of fragments on their outer side; hence the loose blocks of coral, of which their surface is composed, as well as the shells mingled with them, almost exclusively consist of those kinds which live on the outer coast. The highest part of the islets (excepting hillocks of blown sand, some of which are thirty feet high), is close to the outer beach (E of the woodcut), and averages from six to ten feet above ordinary high-water mark. From the outer beach the surface slopes gently to the shores of the lagoon, which no doubt has been caused by the breakers the further they have rolled over the reef, having had less power to throw up fragments. The little waves of the lagoon heap up sand and fragments of thinly-branched corals on the inner side of the islets on the leeward side of the atoll; and these islets are broader than those to windward, some being even eight hundred yards in width; but the land thus added is very low. The fragments beneath the surface are cemented into a solid mass, which is exposed as a ledge (D of the woodcut), projecting some yards in front of the outer shore and from two to four feet high. This ledge is just reached by the waves at ordinary high-water: it extends in front of all the islets, and everywhere has a water-worn and scooped appearance. The fragments of coral which are occasionally cast on the “flat” are during gales of unusual violence swept together on the beach, where the waves each day at high-water tend to remove and gradually wear them down; but the lower fragments having become firmly cemented together by the percolation of calcareous matter, resist the daily tides longer, and hence project as a ledge. The cemented mass is generally of a white colour, but in some few parts reddish from ferruginous matter; it is very hard, and is sonorous under the hammer; it is obscurely divided by seams, dipping at a small angle seaward; it consists of fragments of the corals which grow on the outer margin, some quite and others partially rounded, some small and others between two and three feet across; and of masses of previously formed conglomerate, torn up, rounded, and re-cemented; or it consists of a calcareous sandstone, entirely composed of rounded particles, generally almost blended together, of shells, corals, the spines of echini, and other such organic bodies; rocks, of this latter kind, occur on many shores, where there are no coral reefs. The structure of the coral in the conglomerate has generally been much obscured by the infiltration of spathose calcareous matter; and I collected a very interesting series, beginning with fragments of unaltered coral, and ending with others, where it was impossible to discover with the naked eye any trace of organic structure. In some specimens I was unable, even with the aid of a lens, and by wetting them, to distinguish the boundaries of the altered coral and spathose limestone. Many even of the blocks of coral lying loose on the beach, had their central parts altered and infiltrated.

The lagoon alone remains to be described; it is much shallower than that of most atolls of considerable size. The southern part is almost filled up with banks of mud and fields of coral, both dead and alive, but there are considerable spaces, between three and four fathoms, and smaller basins, from eight to ten fathoms deep. Probably about half its area consists of sediment, and half of coral-reefs. The corals composing these reefs have a very different aspect from those on the outside; they are very numerous in kind, and most of them are thinly branched. Meandrina, however, lives in the lagoon, and great rounded masses of this coral are numerous, lying quite or almost loose on the bottom. The other commonest kinds consist of three closely allied species of true Madrepora in thin branches; of Seriatapora subulata; two species of Porites with cylindrical branches, one of which forms circular clumps, with the exterior branches only alive; and lastly, a coral something like an Explanaria, but with stars on both surfaces, growing in thin, brittle, stony, foliaceous expansions, especially in the deeper basins of the lagoon. The reefs on which these corals grow are very irregular in form, are full of cavities, and have not a solid flat surface of dead rock, like that surrounding the lagoon; nor can they be nearly so hard, for the inhabitants made with crowbars a channel of considerable length through these reefs, in which a schooner, built on the S.E. islet, was floated out. It is a very interesting circumstance, pointed out to us by Mr. Liesk, that this channel, although made less than ten years before our visit, was then, as we saw, almost choked up with living coral, so that fresh excavations would be absolutely necessary to allow another vessel to pass through it.

This Porites has somewhat the habit of P. clavaria, but the branches are not knobbed at their ends. When alive it is of a yellow colour, but after having been washed in fresh water and placed to dry, a jet-black slimy substance exuded from the entire surface, so that the specimen now appears as if it had been dipped in ink.

The sediment from the deepest parts in the lagoon, when wet, appeared chalky, but when dry, like very fine sand. Large soft banks of similar, but even finer grained mud, occur on the S.E. shore of the lagoon, affording a thick growth of a Fucus, on which turtle feed: this mud, although discoloured by vegetable matter, appears from its entire solution in acids to be purely calcareous. I have seen in the Museum of the Geological Society, a similar but more remarkable substance, brought by Lieutenant Nelson from the reefs of Bermuda, which, when shown to several experienced geologists, was mistaken by them for true chalk. On the outside of the reef much sediment must be formed by the action of the surf on the rolled fragments of coral; but in the calm waters of the lagoon, this can take place only in a small degree. There are, however, other and unexpected agents at work here: large shoals of two species of Scarus, one inhabiting the surf outside the reef and the other the lagoon, subsist entirely, as I was assured by Mr. Liesk, the intelligent resident before referred to, by browsing on the living polypifers. I opened several of these fish, which are very numerous and of considerable size, and I found their intestines distended by small pieces of coral, and finely ground calcareous matter. This must daily pass from them as the finest sediment; much also must be produced by the infinitely numerous vermiform and molluscous animals, which make cavities in almost every block of coral. Dr. J. Allan, of Forres, who has enjoyed the best means of observation, informs me in a letter that the Holothuriæ (a family of Radiata) subsist on living coral; and the singular structure of bone within the anterior extremity of their bodies, certainly appears well adapted for this purpose. The number of the species of Holothuria, and of the individuals which swarm on every part of these coral-reefs, is extraordinarily great; and many shiploads are annually freighted, as is well-known, for China with the trepang, which is a species of this genus. The amount of coral yearly consumed, and ground down into the finest mud, by these several creatures, and probably by many other kinds, must be immense. These facts are, however, of more importance in another point of view, as showing us that there are living checks to the growth of coral-reefs, and that the almost universal law of “consumed and be consumed,” holds good even with the polypifers forming those massive bulwarks, which are able to withstand the force of the open ocean.

Considering that Keeling atoll, like other coral formations, has been entirely formed by the growth of organic beings, and the accumulation of their detritus, one is naturally led to inquire how long it has continued, and how long it is likely to continue, in its present state. Mr. Liesk informed me that he had seen an old chart in which the present long island on the S.E. side was divided by several channels into as many islets; and he assures me that the channels can still be distinguished by the smaller size of the trees on them. On several islets, also, I observed that only young cocoa-nut trees were growing on the extremities; and that older and taller trees rose in regular succession behind them; which shows that these islets have very lately increased in length. In the upper and south-eastern part of the lagoon, I was much surprised by finding an irregular field of at least a mile square of branching corals, still upright, but entirely dead. They consisted of the species already mentioned; they were of a brown colour, and so rotten, that in trying to stand on them I sank halfway up the leg, as if through decayed brushwood. The tops of the branches were barely covered by water at the time of lowest tide. Several facts having led me to disbelieve in any elevation of the whole atoll, I was at first unable to imagine what cause could have killed so large a field of coral. Upon reflection, however, it appeared to me that the closing up of the above-mentioned channels would be a sufficient cause; for before this, a strong breeze by forcing water through them into the head of the lagoon, would tend to raise its level. But now this cannot happen, and the inhabitants observe that the tide rises to a less height, during a high S.E. wind, at the head than at the mouth of the lagoon. The corals, which, under the former condition of things, had attained the utmost possible limit of upward growth, would thus occasionally be exposed for a short time to the sun, and be killed.

Besides the increase of dry land, indicated by the foregoing facts, the exterior solid reef appears to have grown outwards. On the western side of the atoll, the “flat” lying between the margin of the reef and the beach, is very wide; and in front of the regular beach with its conglomerate basis, there is, in most parts, a bed of sand and loose fragments with trees growing out of it, which apparently is not reached even by the spray at high water. It is evident some change has taken place since the waves formed the inner beach; that they formerly beat against it with violence was evident, from a remarkably thick and water-worn point of conglomerate at one spot, now protected by vegetation and a bank of sand; that they beat against it in the same peculiar manner in which the swell from windward now obliquely curls round the margin of the reef, was evident from the conglomerate having been worn into a point projecting from the beach in a similarly oblique manner. This retreat in the line of action of the breakers might result, either from the surface of the reef in front of the islets having been submerged at one time, and afterward having grown upwards, or from the mounds of coral on the margin having continued to grow outwards. That an outward growth of this part is in process, can hardly be doubted from the fact already mentioned of the mounds of Porites with their summits apparently lately killed, and their sides only three or four inches lower down thickened by a fresh layer of living coral. But there is a difficulty on this supposition which I must not pass over. If the whole, or a large part of the “flat,” had been formed by the outward growth of the margin, each successive margin would naturally have been coated by the Nulliporæ, and so much of the surface would have been of equal height with the existing zone of living Nulliporæ: this is not the case, as may be seen in the woodcut. It is, however, evident from the abraded state of the “flat,” with its original inequalities filled up, that its surface has been much modified; and it is possible that the hinder portions of the zone of Nulliporæ, perishing as the reef grows outwards, might be worn down by the surf. If this has not taken place, the reef can in no part have increased outwards in breadth since its formation, or at least since the Nulliporæ formed the convex mound on its margin; for the zone thus formed, and which stands between two and three feet above the other parts of the reef, is nowhere much above twenty yards in width.

Thus far we have considered facts, which indicate, with more or less probability, the increase of the atoll in its different parts: there are others having an opposite tendency. On the south-east side, Lieutenant Sulivan, to whose kindness I am indebted for many interesting observations, found the conglomerate projecting on the reef nearly fifty yards in front of the beach: we may infer from what we see in all other parts of the atoll, that the conglomerate was not originally so much exposed, but formed the base of an islet, the front and upper part of which has since been swept away. The degree to which the conglomerate, round nearly the whole atoll, has been scooped, broken up, and the fragments cast on the beach, is certainly very surprising, even on the view that it is the office of occasional gales to pile up fragments, and of the daily tides to wear them away. On the western side, also, of the atoll, where I have described a bed of sand and fragments with trees growing out of it, in front of an old beach, it struck both Lieutenant Sulivan and myself, from the manner in which the trees were being washed down, that the surf had lately recommenced an attack on this line of coast. Appearances indicating a slight encroachment of the water on the land, are plainer within the lagoon: I noticed in several places, both on its windward and leeward shores, old cocoa-nut trees falling with their roots undermined, and the rotten stumps of others on the beach, where the inhabitants assured us the cocoa-nut could not now grow. Captain Fitzroy pointed out to me, near the settlement, the foundation posts of a shed, now washed by every tide, but which the inhabitants stated, had seven years before stood above high watermark. In the calm waters of the lagoon, directly connected with a great, and therefore stable ocean, it seems very improbable that a change in the currents, sufficiently great to cause the water to eat into the land on all sides, should have taken place within a limited period. From these considerations I inferred, that probably the atoll had lately subsided to a small amount; and this inference was strengthened by the circumstance, that in 1834, two years before our visit, the island had been shaken by a severe earthquake, and by two slighter ones during the ten previous years. If, during these subterranean disturbances, the atoll did subside, the downward movement must have been very small, as we must conclude from the fields of dead coral still lipping the surface of the lagoon, and from the breakers on the western shore not having yet regained the line of their former action. The subsidence must, also, have been preceded by a long period of rest, during which the islets extended to their present size, and the living margin of the reef grew either upwards, or as I believe outwards, to its present distance from the beach.

Whether this view be correct or not, the above facts are worthy of attention, as showing how severe a struggle is in progress on these low coral formations between the two nicely balanced powers of land and water. With respect to the future state of Keeling atoll, if left undisturbed, we can see that the islets may still extend in length; but as they cannot resist the surf until broken by rolling over a wide space, their increase in breadth must depend on the increasing breadth of the reef; and this must be limited by the steepness of the submarine flanks, which can be added to only by sediment derived from the wear and tear of the coral. From the rapid growth of the coral in the channel cut for the schooner, and from the several agents at work in producing fine sediment, it might be thought that the lagoon would necessarily become quickly filled up. Some of this sediment, however, is transported into the open sea, as appears from the soundings off the mouth of the lagoon, instead of being deposited within it. The deposition, moreover, of sediment, checks the growth of coral-reefs, so that these two agencies cannot act together with full effect in filling it up. We know so little of the habits of the many different species of corals, which form the lagoon-reefs, that we have no more reasons for supposing that their whole surface would grow up as quickly as the coral did in the schooner-channel, than for supposing that the whole surface of a peat-moss would increase as quickly as parts are known to do in holes, where the peat has been cut away. These agencies, nevertheless, tend to fill up the lagoon; but in proportion as it becomes shallower, so must the polypifers be subject to many injurious agencies, such as impure water and loss of food. For instance, Mr. Liesk informed me, that some years before our visit unusually heavy rain killed nearly all the fish in the lagoon, and probably the same cause would likewise injure the corals. The reefs also, it must be remembered, cannot possibly rise above the level of the lowest spring-tide, so that the final conversion of the lagoon into land must be due to the accumulation of sediment; and in the midst of the clear water of the ocean, and with no surrounding high land, this process must be exceedingly slow.


General form and size of atolls, their reefs and islets.—External slope.— Zone of Nulliporæ.—Conglomerate.—Depth of lagoons.—Sediment.—Reefs submerged wholly or in part.—Breaches in the reef.—Ledge-formed shores round certain lagoons.—Conversion of lagoons into land.

I will here give a sketch of the general form and structure of the many atolls and atoll-formed reefs which occur in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, comparing them with Keeling atoll. The Maldiva atolls and the Great Chagos Bank differ in so many respects, that I shall devote to them, besides occasional references, a third section of this chapter. Keeling atoll may be considered as of moderate dimensions and of regular form. Of the thirty-two islands surveyed by Captain Beechey in the Low Archipelago, the longest was found to be thirty miles, and the shortest less than a mile; but Vliegen atoll, situated in another part of the same group, appears to be sixty miles long and twenty broad. Most of the atolls in this group are of an elongated form; thus Bow Island is thirty miles in length, and on an average only six in width (See Figure 4, Plate I.), and Clermont Tonnere has nearly the same proportions. In the Marshall Archipelago (the Ralick and Radack group of Kotzebue) several of the atolls are more than thirty miles in length, and Rimsky Korsacoff is fifty-four long, and twenty wide, at the broadest part of its irregular outline. Most of the atolls in the Maldiva Archipelago are of great size, one of them (which, however, bears a double name) measured in a medial and slightly curved line, is no less than eighty-eight geographical miles long, its greatest width being under twenty, and its least only nine and a half miles. Some atolls have spurs projecting from them; and in the Marshall group there are atolls united together by linear reefs, for instance Menchikoff Island (See Figure 3, Plate II.), which is sixty miles in length, and consists of three loops tied together. In far the greater number of cases an atoll consists of a simple elongated ring, with its outline moderately regular.

The average width of the annular wreath may be taken as about a quarter of a mile. Captain Beechey says that in the atolls of the Low Archipelago it exceeded in no instance half a mile. The description given of the structure and proportional dimensions of the reef and islets of Keeling atoll, appears to apply perfectly to nearly all the atolls in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The islets are first formed some way back either on the projecting points of the reef, especially if its form be angular, or on the sides of the main entrances into the lagoon—that is in both cases, on points where the breakers can act during gales of wind in somewhat different directions, so that the matter thrown up from one side may accumulate against that before thrown up from another. In Lutké’s chart of the Caroline atolls, we see many instances of the former case; and the occurrence of islets, as if placed for beacons, on the points where there is a gateway or breach through the reef, has been noticed by several authors. There are some atoll-formed reefs, rising to the surface of the sea and partly dry at low water, on which from some cause islets have never been formed; and there are others on which they have been formed, but have subsequently been worn away. In atolls of small dimensions the islets frequently become united into a single horse-shoe or ring-formed strip; but Diego Garcia, although an atoll of considerable size, being thirteen miles and a half in length, has its lagoon entirely surrounded, except at the northern end, by a belt of land, on an average a third of a mile in width. To show how small the total area of the annular reef and the land is in islands of this class, I may quote a remark from the voyage of Lutké, namely, that if the forty-three rings, or atolls, in the Caroline Archipelago, were put one within another, and over a steeple in the centre of St. Petersburg, the whole world would not cover that city and its suburbs.

Beechey’s “Voyage to the Pacific and Beering’s Straits,” chapter viii.

The form of the bottom off Keeling atoll, which gradually slopes to about twenty fathoms at the distance of between one and two hundred yards from the edge of the reef, and then plunges at an angle of 45° into unfathomable depths, is exactly the samewith that of the sections of the atolls in the Low Archipelago given by Captain Beechey. The nature, however, of the bottom seems to differ, for this officerinforms me that all the soundings, even the deepest, were on coral, but he does not know whether dead or alive. The slope round Christmas atoll (Lat. 1° 4′ N., 157° 45′ W.), described by Cook, is considerably less, at about half a mile from the edge of the reef, the average depth was about fourteen fathoms on a fine sandy bottom, and at a mile, only between twenty and forty fathoms. It has no doubt been owing to this gentle slope, that the strip of land surrounding its lagoon, has increased in one part to the extraordinary width of three miles; it is formed of successive ridges of broken shells and corals, like those on the beach. I know of no other instance of such width in the reef of an atoll; but Mr. F.D. Bennett informs me that the inclination of the bottom round Caroline atoll in the Pacific, is like that off Christmas Island, very gentle. Off the Maldiva and Chagos atolls, the inclination is much more abrupt; thus at Heawandoo Pholo, Lieutenant Powell found fifty and sixty fathoms close to the edge of the reef, and at 300 yards distance there was no bottom with a 300-yard line. Captain Moresby informs me, that at 100 fathoms from the mouth of the lagoon of Diego Garcia, he found no bottom with 150 fathoms; this is the more remarkable, as the slope is generally less abrupt in front of channels through a reef, owing to the accumulation of sediment. At Egmont Island, also, at 150 fathoms from the reef, soundings were struck with 150 fathoms. Lastly, at Cardoo atoll, only sixty yards from the reef, no bottom was obtained, as I am informed by Captain Moresby, with a line of 200 fathoms! The currents run with great force round these atolls, and where they are strongest, the inclination appears to be most abrupt. I am informed by the same authority, that wherever soundings were obtained off these islands, the bottom was invariably sandy: nor was there any reason to suspect the existence of submarine cliffs, as there was at Keeling Island. Here then occurs a difficulty; can sand accumulate on a slope, which, in some cases, appears to exceed fifty-five degrees? It must be observed, that I speak of slopes where soundings were obtained, and not of such cases, as that of Cardoo, where the nature of the bottom is unknown, and where its inclination must be nearly vertical. M. Élie de Beaumont has argued, and there is no higher authority on this subject, from the inclination at which snow slides down in avalanches, that a bed of sand or mud cannot be formed at a greater angle than thirty degrees. Considering the number of soundings on sand, obtained round the Maldiva and Chagos atolls, which appears to indicate a greater angle, and the extreme abruptness of the sand-banks in the West Indies, as will be mentioned in the Appendix, I must conclude that the adhesive property of wet sand counteracts its gravity, in a much greater ratio than has been allowed for by M. Élie de Beaumont. From the facility with which calcareous sand becomes agglutinated, it is not necessary to suppose that the bed of loose sand is thick.

The form of the bottom round the Marshall atolls in the Northern Pacific is probably similar: Kotzebue (“First Voyage,” volume ii., page 16.) says: “We had at a small distance from the reef, forty fathoms depth, which increased a little further so much that we could find no bottom.”)

 I must be permitted to express my obligation to Captain Beechey, for the very kind manner in which he has given me information on several points, and to own the great assistance I have derived from his excellent published work.

Cook’s “Third Voyage,” volume ii., chapter 10.

Captain Moresby. See also Captain Moresby’s paper on the Maldiva atolls in the “Geographical Journal”, volume v., page 401.

Off some of the islands in the Low Archipelago the bottom appears to descend by ledges. Off Elizabeth Island, which, however, consists of raised coral, Captain Beechey (p. 45, quarto edition) describes three ledges: the first had an easy slope from the beach to a distance of about fifty yards: the second extended two hundred yards with twenty-five fathoms on it, and then ended abruptly, like the first; and immediately beyond this there was no bottom with two hundred fathoms.

“Mémoires pour servir à une description Géolog. de France,” tome iv., page 216.

Captain Beechey has observed, that the submarine slope is much less at the extremities of the more elongated atolls in the Low Archipelago, than at their sides; in speaking of Ducie’s Island he says the buttress, as it may be called, which “has the most powerful enemy (the S.W. swell) to oppose, is carried out much further, and with less abruptness than the other.” In some cases, the less inclination of a certain part of the external slope, for instance of the northern extremities of the two Keeling atolls, is caused by a prevailing current which there accumulates a bed of sand. Where the water is perfectly tranquil, as within a lagoon, the reefs generally grow up perpendicularly, and sometimes even overhang their bases; on the other hand, on the leeward side of Mauritius, where the water is generally tranquil, although not invariably so, the reef is very gently inclined. Hence it appears that the exterior angle varies much; nevertheless in the close similarity in form between the sections of Keeling atoll and of the atolls in the Low Archipelago, in the general steepness of the reefs of the Maldiva and Chagos atolls, and in the perpendicularity of those rising out of water always tranquil, we may discern the effects of uniform laws; but from the complex action of the surf and currents, on the growing powers of the coral and on the deposition of sediment, we can by no means follow out all the results.

Beechey’s “Voyage,” 4to edition, page 44.

Where islets have been formed on the reef, that part which I have sometimes called the “flat” and which is partly dry at low water, appears similar in every atoll. In the Marshall group in the North Pacific, it may be inferred from Chamisso’s description, that the reef, where islets have not been formed on it, slopes gently from the external margin to the shores of the lagoon; Flinders states that the Australian barrier has a similar inclination inwards, and I have no doubt it is of general occurrence, although, according to Ehrenberg, the reefs of the Red Sea offer an exception. Chamisso observes that “the red colour of the reef (at the Marshall atolls) under the breakers is caused by a Nullipora, which covers the stone wherever the waves beat; and, under favourable circumstances, assumes a stalactical form,”—a description perfectly applicable to the margin of Keeling atoll. Although Chamisso does not state that the masses of Nulliporæ form points or a mound, higher than the flat, yet I believe that this is the case; for Kotzebue, in another part, speaks of the rocks on the edge of the reef “as visible for about two feet at low water,” and these rocks we may feel quite certain are not formed of true coral. Whether a smooth convex mound of Nulliporæ, like that which appears as if artificially constructed to protect the margin of Keeling Island, is of frequent occurrence round atolls, I know not; but we shall presently meet with it, under precisely the same form, on the outer edge of the “barrier-reefs” which encircle the Society Islands.

Kotzebue’s “First Voyage,” volume iii., page 142. Near Porto Praya, in the Cape de Verde Islands, some basaltic rocks, lashed by no inconsiderable surf, were completely enveloped with a layer of Nulliporæ. The entire surface over many square inches, was coloured of a peach-blossomed red; the layer, however, was of no greater thickness than paper. Another kind, in the form of projecting knobs, grew in the same situation. These Nulliporæ are closely related to those described on the coral-reefs, but I believe are of different species.

Kotzebue, “First Voyage,” volume ii., page 16. Lieutenant Nelson, in his excellent memoir in the Geological Transactions (volume ii., page 105), alludes to the rocky points mentioned by Kotzebue, and infers that they consist of Serpulæ, which compose incrusting masses on the reefs of Bermudas, as they likewise do on a sandstone bar off the coast of Brazil (which I have described in “London Phil. Journal,” October 1841). These masses of Serpulæ hold the same position, relatively to the action of the sea, with the Nulliporæ on the coral-reefs in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Captain Moresby, in his valuable paper “on the Northern atolls of Maldivas” (“Geographical Journal”, volume v.), says that the edges of the reefs there stand above water at low spring-tides.

There appears to be scarcely a feature in the structure of Keeling reef, which is not of common, if not of universal occurrence, in other atolls. Thus Chamisso describes a layer of coarse conglomerate, outside the islets round the Marshall atolls which “appears on its upper surface uneven and eaten away.” From drawings, with appended remarks, of Diego Garcia in the Chagos group and of several of the Maldiva atolls, shown me by Captain Moresby, it is evident that their outer coasts are subject to the same round of decay and renovation as those of Keeling atoll. From the description of the atolls in the Low Archipelago, given in Captain Beechey’s “Voyage,” it is not apparent that any conglomerate coral-rock was there observed.

Kotzebue’s “First Voyage,” volume iii., page 144.

See also Moresby on the Northern atolls of the Maldivas, “Geographical Journal”, volume v., page 400.

The lagoon in Keeling atoll is shallow; in the atolls of the Low Archipelago the depth varies from 20 to 38 fathoms, and in the Marshall Group, according to Chamisso, from 30 to 35; in the Caroline atolls it is only a little less. Within the Maldiva atolls there are large spaces with 45 fathoms, and some soundings are laid down of 49 fathoms. The greater part of the bottom in most lagoons, is formed of sediment; large spaces have exactly the same depth, or the depth varies so insensibly, that it is evident that no other means, excepting aqueous deposition, could have leveled the surface so equally. In the Maldiva atolls this is very conspicuous, and likewise in some of the Caroline and Marshall Islands. In the former large spaces consist of sand and soft clay; and Kotzebue speaks of clay having been found within one of the Marshall atolls. No doubt this clay is calcareous mud, similar to that at Keeling Island, and to that at Bermuda already referred to, as undistinguishable from disintegrated chalk, and which Lieutenant Nelson says is called there pipe-clay.

I may here observe that on the coast of Brazil, where there is much coral, the soundings near the land are described by Admiral Roussin, in the Pilote du Brésil, as siliceous sand, mingled with much finely comminuted particles of shells and coral. Further in the offing, for a space of 1,300 miles along the coast, from the Abrolhos Islands to Maranham, the bottom in many places is composed of “tuf blanc, mêlé ou formé de madrépores broyés.” This white substance, probably, is analogous to that which occurs within the above-mentioned lagoons; it is sometimes, according to Roussin, firm, and he compares it to mortar.

Where the waves act with unequal force on the two sides of an atoll, the islets appear to be first formed, and are generally of greater continuity on the more exposed shore. The islets, also, which are placed to leeward, are in most parts of the Pacific liable to be occasionally swept entirely away by gales, equalling hurricanes in violence, which blow in an opposite direction to the ordinary trade-wind. The absence of the islets on the leeward side of atolls, or when present their lesser dimensions compared with those to windward, is a comparatively unimportant fact; but in several instances the reef itself on the leeward side, retaining its usual defined outline, does not rise to the surface by several fathoms. This is the case with the southern side of Peros Banhos (Plate I., Figure 9) in the Chagos group, with Mourileu atoll in the Caroline Archipelago, and with the barrier-reef (Plate I., Figure 8) of the Gambier Islands. I allude to the latter reef, although belonging to another class, because Captain Beechey was first led by it to observe the peculiarity in the question. At Peros Banhos the submerged part is nine miles in length, and lies at an average depth of about five fathoms; its surface is nearly level, and consists of hard stone, with a thin covering of loose sand. There is scarcely any living coral on it, even on the outer margin, as I have been particularly assured by Captain Moresby; it is, in fact, a wall of dead coral-rock, having the same width and transverse section with the reef in its ordinary state, of which it is a continuous portion. The living and perfect parts terminate abruptly, and abut on the submerged portions, in the same manner as on the sides of an ordinary passage through the reef. The reef to leeward in other cases is nearly or quite obliterated, and one side of the lagoon is left open; for instance, at Oulleay (Caroline Archipelago), where a crescent-formed reef is fronted by an irregular bank, on which the other half of the annular reef probably once stood. At Namonouïto, in the same Archipelago, both these modifications of the reef concur; it consists of a great flat bank, with from twenty to twenty-five fathoms water on it; for a length of more than forty miles on its southern side it is open and without any reef, whilst on the other sides it is bounded by a reef, in parts rising to the surface and perfectly characterised, in parts lying some fathoms submerged. In the Chagos group there are annular reefs, entirely submerged, which have the same structure as the submerged and defined portions just described. The Speaker’s Bank offers an excellent example of this structure; its central expanse, which is about twenty-two fathoms deep, is twenty-four miles across; the external rim is of the usual width of annular reefs, and is well-defined; it lies between six and eight fathoms beneath the surface, and at the same depth there are scattered knolls in the lagoon. Captain Moresby believes the rim consists of dead rock, thinly covered with sand, and he is certain this is the case with the external rim of the Great Chagos Bank, which is also essentially a submerged atoll. In both these cases, as in the submerged portion of the reef at Peros Banhos, Captain Moresby feels sure that the quantity of living coral, even on the outer edge overhanging the deep-sea water, is quite insignificant. Lastly, in several parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans there are banks, lying at greater depths than in the cases just mentioned, of the same form and size with the neighbouring atolls, but with their atoll-like structure wholly obliterated. It appears from the survey of Freycinet, that there are banks of this kind in the Caroline Archipelago, and, as is reported, in the Low Archipelago. When we discuss the origin of the different classes of coral formations, we shall see that the submerged state of the whole of some atoll-formed reefs, and of portions of others, generally but not invariably on the leeward side, and the existence of more deeply submerged banks now possessing little or no signs of their original atoll-like structure, are probably the effects of a uniform cause,—namely, the death of the coral, during the subsidence of the area, in which the atolls or banks are situated.

Frederick Lutké’s “Voyage autour du Monde,” volume ii., page 291. See also his account of Namonouïto, below, and the chart of Oulleay in the Atlas.

There is seldom, with the exception of the Maldiva atolls, more than two or three channels, and generally only one leading into the lagoon, of sufficient depth for a ship to enter. in small atolls, there is usually not even one. Where there is deep water, for instance above twenty fathoms, in the middle of the lagoon, the channels through the reef are seldom as deep as the centre,—it may be said that the rim only of the saucer-shaped hollow forming the lagoon is notched. Mr. Lyell has observed that the growth of the coral would tend to obstruct all the channels through a reef, except those kept open by discharging the water, which during high tide and the greater part of each ebb is thrown over its circumference. Several facts indicate that a considerable quantity of sediment is likewise discharged through these channels; and Captain Moresby informs me that he has observed, during the change of the monsoon, the sea discoloured to a distance off the entrances into the Maldiva and Chagos atolls. This, probably, would check the growth of the coral in them, far more effectually than a mere current of water. In the many small atolls without any channel, these causes have not prevented the entire ring attaining the surface. The channels, like the submerged and effaced parts of the reef, very generally though not invariably occur on the leeward side of the atoll, or on that side, according to Beechey, which, from running in the same direction with the prevalent wind, is not fully exposed to it. Passages between the islets on the reef, through which boats can pass at high water, must not be confounded with ship-channels, by which the annular reef itself is breached. The passages between the islets occur, of course, on the windward as well as on the leeward side; but they are more frequent and broader to leeward, owing to the lesser dimensions of the islets on that side.

“Principles of Geology,” volume iii., page 289.

Beechey’s “Voyage,” 4to edition, volume i., page 189.

At Keeling atoll the shores of the lagoon shelve gradually, where the bottom is of sediment, and irregularly or abruptly where there are coral-reefs; but this is by no means the universal structure in other atolls. Chamisso, speaking in general terms of the lagoons in the Marshall atolls, says the lead generally sinks “from a depth of two or three fathoms to twenty or twenty-four, and you may pursue a line in which on one side of the boat you may see the bottom, and on the other the azure-blue deep water.” The shores of the lagoon-like channel within the barrier-reef at Vanikoro have a similar structure. Captain Beechey has described a modification of this structure (and he believes it is not uncommon) in two atolls in the Low Archipelago, in which the shores of the lagoon descend by a few, broad, slightly inclined ledges or steps: thus at Matilda atoll, the great exterior reef, the surface of which is gently inclined towards and beneath the surface of the lagoon, ends abruptly in a little cliff three fathoms deep; at its foot, a ledge forty yards wide extends, shelving gently inwards like the surface-reef, and terminated by a second little cliff five fathoms deep; beyond this, the bottom of the lagoon slopes to twenty fathoms, which is the average depth of its centre. These ledges seem to be formed of coral-rock; and Captain Beechey says that the lead often descended several fathoms through holes in them. In some atolls, all the coral reefs or knolls in the lagoon come to the surface at low water; in other cases of rarer occurrence, all lie at nearly the same depth beneath it, but most frequently they are quite irregular,—some with perpendicular, some with sloping sides,—some rising to the surface, and others lying at all intermediate depths from the bottom upwards. I cannot, therefore, suppose that the union of such reefs could produce even one uniformly sloping ledge, and much less two or three, one beneath the other, and each terminated by an abrupt wall. At Matilda Island, which offers the best example of the step-like structure, Captain Beechey observes that the coral-knolls within the lagoon are quite irregular in their height. We shall hereafter see that the theory which accounts for the ordinary form of atolls, apparently includes this occasional peculiarity in their structure.

Kotzebue’s “First Voyage,” volume iii., page 142.

Beechey’s “Voyage,” to edition, volume i, page 160. At Whitsunday Island the bottom of the lagoon slopes gradually towards the centre, and then deepens suddenly, the edge of the bank being nearly perpendicular. This bank is formed of coral and dead shells.

In the midst of a group of atolls, there sometimes occur small, flat, very low islands of coral formation, which probably once included a lagoon, since filled up with sediment and coral-reefs. Captain Beechey entertains no doubt that this has been the case with the two small islands, which alone of thirty-one surveyed by him in the Low Archipelago, did not contain lagoons. Romanzoff Island (in lat. 15° S.) is described by Chamissoas formed by a dam of madreporitic rock inclosing a flat space, thinly covered with trees, into which the sea on the leeward side occasionally breaks. North Keeling atoll appears to be in a rather less forward stage of conversion into land; it consists of a horse-shoe shaped strip of land surrounding a muddy flat, one mile in its longest axis, which is covered by the sea only at high water. When describing South Keeling atoll, I endeavoured to show how slow the final process of filling up a lagoon must be; nevertheless, as all causes do tend to produce this effect, it is very remarkable that not one instance, as I believe, is known of a moderately sized lagoon being filled up even to the low water-line at spring-tides, much less of such a one being converted into land. It is, likewise, in some degree remarkable, how few atolls, except small ones, are surrounded by a single linear strip of land, formed by the union of separate islets. We cannot suppose that the many atolls in the Pacific and Indian Oceans all have had a late origin, and yet should they remain at their present level, subjected only to the action of the sea and to the growing powers of the coral, during as many centuries as must have elapsed since any of the earlier tertiary epochs, it cannot, I think, be doubted that their lagoons and the islets on their reef, would present a totally different appearance from what they now do. This consideration leads to the suspicion that some renovating agency (namely subsidence) comes into play at intervals, and perpetuates their original structure.

Kotzebue’s “First Voyage,” volume iii., page 221.


Maldiva Archipelago.—Ring-formed reefs, marginal and central.—Great depths in the lagoons of the southern atolls.—Reefs in the lagoons all rising to the surface.—Position of islets and breaches in the reefs, with respect to the prevalent winds and action of the waves.—Destruction of islets.—Connection in the position and submarine foundation of distinct atolls.—The apparent disseverment of large atolls.—The Great Chagos Bank.—Its submerged condition and extraordinary structure.

Although occasional references have been made to the Maldiva atolls, and to the banks in the Chagos group, some points of their structure deserve further consideration. My description is derived from an examination of the admirable charts lately published from the survey of Captain Moresby and Lieutenant Powell, and more especially from information which Captain Moresby has communicated to me in the kindest manner.

The Maldiva Archipelago is 470 miles in length, with an average breadth of about 50 miles. The form and dimensions of the atolls, and their singular position in a double line, may be seen, but not well, in the greatly reduced chart (Figure 6) in Plate II. The dimensions of the longest atoll in the group (called by the double name of Milla-dou-Madou and Tilla-dou-Matte) have already been given; it is 88 miles in a medial and slightly curved line, and is less than 20 miles in its broadest part. Suadiva, also, is a noble atoll, being 44 miles across in one direction, and 34 in another, and the great included expanse of water has a depth of between 250 and 300 feet. The smaller atolls in this group differ in no respect from ordinary ones; but the larger ones are remarkable from being breached by numerous deep-water channels leading into the lagoon; for instance, there are 42 channels, through which a ship could enter the lagoon of Suadiva. In the three southern large atolls, the separate portions of reef between these channels have the ordinary structure, and are linear; but in the other atolls, especially the more northern ones, these portions are ring- formed, like miniature atolls. Other ring-formed reefs rise out of the lagoons, in the place of those irregular ones which ordinarily occur there. In the reduction of the chart of Mahlos Mahdoo (Plate II., Figure 4), it was not found easy to define the islets and the little lagoons within each reef, so that the ring-formed structure is very imperfectly shown; in the large published charts of Tilla-dou-Matte, the appearance of these rings, from standing further apart from each other, is very remarkable. The rings on the margin are generally elongated; many of them are three, and some even five miles, in diameter; those within the lagoon are usually smaller, few being more than two miles across, and the greater number rather less than one. The depth of the little lagoon within these small annular reefs is generally from five to seven fathoms, but occasionally more; and in Ari atoll many of the central ones are twelve, and some even more than twelve fathoms deep. These rings rise abruptly from the platform or bank, on which they are placed; their outer margin is invariably bordered by living coral within which there is a flat surface of coral rock; of this flat, sand and fragments have in many cases accumulated and been converted into islets, clothed with vegetation. I can, in fact, point out no essential difference between these little ring-formed reefs (which, however, are larger, and contain deeper lagoons than many true atolls that stand in the open sea), and the most perfectly characterised atolls, excepting that the ring-formed reefs are based on a shallow foundation, instead of on the floor of the open sea, and that instead of being scattered irregularly, they are grouped closely together on one large platform, with the marginal rings arranged in a rudely formed circle.

Captain Moresby informs me that Millepora complanata is one of the commonest kinds on the outer margin, as it is at Keeling atoll.

The perfect series which can be traced from portions of simple linear reef, to others including long linear lagoons, and from these again to oval or almost circular rings, renders it probable that the latter are merely modifications of the linear or normal state. It is conformable with this view, that the ring-formed reefs on the margin, even where most perfect and standing furthest apart, generally have their longest axes directed in the line which the reef would have held, if the atoll had been bounded by an ordinary wall. We may also infer that the central ring-formed reefs are modifications of those irregular ones, which are found in the lagoons of all common atolls. It appears from the charts on a large scale, that the ring-like structure is contingent on the marginal channels or breaches being wide; and, consequently, on the whole interior of the atoll being freely exposed to the waters of the open sea. When the channels are narrow or few in number, although the lagoon be of great size and depth (as in Suadiva), there are no ring-formed reefs; where the channels are somewhat broader, the marginal portions of reef, and especially those close to the larger channels, are ring-formed, but the central ones are not so; where they are broadest, almost every reef throughout the atoll is more or less perfectly ring-formed. Although their presence is thus contingent on the openness of the marginal channels, the theory of their formation, as we shall hereafter see, is included in that of the parent atolls, of which they form the separate portions.

The lagoons of all the atolls in the southern part of the Archipelago are from ten to twenty fathoms deeper than those in the northern part. This is well exemplified in the case of Addoo, the southernmost atoll in the group, for although only nine miles in its longest diameter, it has a depth of thirty-nine fathoms, whereas all the other small atolls have comparatively shallow lagoons; I can assign no adequate cause for this difference in depth. In the central and deepest part of the lagoons, the bottom consists, as I am informed by Captain Moresby, of stiff clay (probably a calcareous mud); nearer the border it consists of sand, and in the channels through the reef, of hard sand-banks, sandstone, conglomerate rubble, and a little live coral. Close outside the reef and the line joining its detached portions (where intersected by many channels), the bottom is sandy, and it slopes abruptly into unfathomable depths. In most lagoons the depth is considerably greater in the centre than in the channels; but in Tilla-dou-Matte, where the marginal ring-formed reefs stand far apart, the same depth is carried across the entire atoll, from the deep-water line on one side to that on the other. I cannot refrain from once again remarking on the singularity of these atolls,—a great sandy and generally concave disc rises abruptly from the unfathomable ocean, with its central expanse studded and its border symmetrically fringed with oval basins of coral-rock, just lipping the surface of the sea, sometimes clothed with vegetation, and each containing a little lake of clear water!

In the southern Maldiva atolls, of which there are nine large ones, all the small reefs within the lagoons come to the surface, and are dry at low water spring-tides; hence in navigating them, there is no danger from submarine banks. This circumstance is very remarkable, as within some atolls, for instance those of the neighbouring Chagos group, not a single reef comes to the surface, and in most other cases a few only do, and the rest lie at all intermediate depths from the bottom upwards. When treating of the growth of coral I shall again refer to this subject.

Although in the neighbourhood of the Maldiva Archipelago the winds, during the monsoons, blow during nearly an equal time from opposite quarters, and although, as I am informed by Captain Moresby, the westerly winds are the strongest, yet the islets are almost all placed on the eastern side of the northern atolls, and on the south-eastern side of the southern atolls. That the formation of the islets is due to detritus thrown up from the outside, as in the ordinary manner, and not from the interior of the lagoons, may, I think be safely inferred from several considerations, which it is hardly worth while to detail. As the easterly winds are not the strongest, their action probably is aided by some prevailing swell or current.

In groups of atolls, exposed to a trade-wind, the ship-channels into the lagoons are almost invariably situated on the leeward or less exposed side of the reef, and the reef itself is sometimes either wanting there, or is submerged. A strictly analogous, but different fact, may be observed at the Maldiva atolls—namely, that where two atolls stand in front of each other, the breaches in the reef are the most numerous on their near, and therefore less exposed, sides. Thus on the near sides of Ari and the two Nillandoo atolls, which face S. Māle, Phaleedoo, and Moloque atolls, there are seventy-three deep-water channels, and only twenty-five on their outer sides; on the near side of the three latter named atolls there are fifty- six openings, and only thirty-seven on their outsides. It is scarcely possible to attribute this difference to any other cause than the somewhat different action of the sea on the two sides, which would ensue from the protection afforded by the two rows of atolls to each other. I may here remark that in most cases, the conditions favourable to the greater accumulation of fragments on the reef and to its more perfect continuity on one side of the atoll than on the other, have concurred, but this has not been the case with the Maldivas; for we have seen that the islets are placed on the eastern or south-eastern sides, whilst the breaches in the reef occur indifferently on any side, where protected by an opposite atoll. The reef being more continuous on the outer and more exposed sides of those atolls which stand near each other, accords with the fact, that the reef of the southern atolls is more continuous than that of the northern ones; for the former, as I am informed by Captain Moresby, are more constantly exposed than the northern atolls to a heavy surf.

The date of the first formation of some of the islets in this Archipelago is known to the inhabitants; on the other hand, several islets, and even some of those which are believed to be very old, are now fast wearing away. The work of destruction has, in some instances, been completed in ten years. Captain Moresby found on one water-washed reef the marks of wells and graves, which were excavated when it supported an islet. In South Nillandoo atoll, the natives say that three of the islets were formerly larger: in North Nillandoo there is one now being washed away; and in this latter atoll Lieutenant Prentice found a reef, about six hundred yards in diameter, which the natives positively affirmed was lately an island covered with cocoa-nut trees. It is now only partially dry at low water spring-tides, and is (in Lieutenant Prentice’s words) “entirely covered with live coral and madrepore.” In the northern part, also, of the Maldiva Archipelago and in the Chagos group, it is known that some of the islets are disappearing. The natives attribute these effects to variations in the currents of the sea. For my own part I cannot avoid suspecting that there must be some further cause, which gives rise to such a cycle of change in the action of the currents of the great and open ocean.

Several of the atolls in this Archipelago are so related to each other in form and position, that at the first glance one is led to suspect that they have originated in the disseverment of a single one. Māle consists of three perfectly characterised atolls, of which the shape and relative position are such, that a line drawn closely round all three, gives a symmetrical figure; to see this clearly, a larger chart is required than that of the Archipelago in Plate II.; the channel separating the two northern Māle atolls is only little more than a mile wide, and no bottom was found in it with 100 fathoms. Powell’s Island is situated at the distance of two miles and a half off the northern end of Mahlos Mahdoo (see Figure 4, Plate II.), at the exact point where the two sides of the latter, if prolonged, would meet; no bottom, however, was found in the channel with 200 fathoms; in the wider channel between Horsburgh atoll and the southern end of Mahlos Mahdoo, no bottom was found with 250 fathoms. In these and similar cases, the relation consists only in the form and position of the atolls. But in the channel between the two Nillandoo atolls, although three miles and a quarter wide, soundings were struck at the depth of 200 fathoms; the channel between Ross and Ari atolls is four miles wide, and only 150 fathoms deep. Here then we have, besides the relation of form, a submarine connection. The fact of soundings having been obtained between two separate and perfectly characterised atolls is in itself interesting, as it has never, I believe, been effected in any of the many other groups of atolls in the Pacific and Indian seas. In continuing to trace the connection of adjoining atolls, if a hasty glance be taken at the chart (Figure 4., Plate II.) of Mahlos Mahdoo, and the line of unfathomable water be followed, no one will hesitate to consider it as one atoll. But a second look will show that it is divided by a bifurcating channel, of which the northern arm is about one mile and three-quarters in width, with an average depth of 125 fathoms, and the southern one three-quarters of a mile wide, and rather less deep. These channels resemble in the slope of their sides and general form, those which separate atolls in every respect distinct; and the northern arm is wider than that dividing two of the Māle atolls. The ring-formed reefs on the sides of this bifurcating channel are elongated, so that the northern and southern portions of Mahlos Mahdoo may claim, as far as their external outline is concerned, to be considered as distinct and perfect atolls. But the intermediate portion, lying in the fork of the channel, is bordered by reefs less perfect than those which surround any other atoll in the group of equally small dimensions. Mahlos Mahdoo, therefore, is in every respect in so intermediate a condition, that it may be considered either as a single atoll nearly dissevered into three portions, or as three atolls almost perfect and intimately connected. This is an instance of a very early stage of the apparent disseverment of an atoll, but a still earlier one in many respects is exhibited at Tilla-dou- Matte. In one part of this atoll, the ring-formed reefs stand so far apart from each other, that the inhabitants have given different names to the northern and southern halves; nearly all the rings, moreover, are so perfect and stand so separate, and the space from which they rise is so level and unlike a true lagoon, that we can easily imagine the conversion of this one great atoll, not into two or three portions, but into a whole group of miniature atolls. A perfect series such as we have here traced, impresses the mind with an idea of actual change; and it will hereafter be seen, that the theory of subsidence, with the upward growth of the coral, modified by accidents of probable occurrence, will account for the occasional disseverment of large atolls.

The Great Chagos bank alone remains to be described. In the Chagos group there are some ordinary atolls, some annular reefs rising to the surface but without any islets on them, and some atoll-formed banks, either quite submerged, or nearly so. Of the latter, the Great Chagos Bank is much the largest, and differs in its structure from the others: a plan of it is given in Plate II., Figure 1, in which, for the sake of clearness, I have had the parts under ten fathoms deep finely shaded: an east and west vertical section is given in Figure 2, in which the vertical scale has been necessarily exaggerated. Its longest axis is ninety nautical miles, and another line drawn at right angles to the first, across the broadest part, is seventy. The central part consists of a level muddy flat, between forty and fifty fathoms deep, which is surrounded on all sides, with the exception of some breaches, by the steep edges of a set of banks, rudely arranged in a circle. These banks consist of sand, with a very little live coral; they vary in breadth from five to twelve miles, and on an average lie about sixteen fathoms beneath the surface; they are bordered by the steep edges of a third narrow and upper bank, which forms the rim to the whole. This rim is about a mile in width, and with the exception of two or three spots where islets have been formed, is submerged between five and ten fathoms. It consists of smooth hard rock, covered with a thin layer of sand, but with scarcely any live coral; it is steep on both sides, and outwards slopes abruptly into unfathomable depths. At the distance of less than half a mile from one part, no bottom was found with 190 fathoms; and off another point, at a somewhat greater distance, there was none with 210 fathoms. Small steep-sided banks or knolls, covered with luxuriantly growing coral, rise from the interior expanse to the same level with the external rim, which, as we have seen, is formed only of dead rock. It is impossible to look at the plan (Figure 1, Plate II.), although reduced to so small a scale, without at once perceiving that the Great Chagos Bank is, in the words of Captain Moresby, “nothing more than a half-drowned atoll.” But of what great dimensions, and of how extraordinary an internal structure? We shall hereafter have to consider both the cause of its submerged condition, a state common to other banks in the group, and the origin of the singular submarine terraces, which bound the central expanse: these, I think, it can be shown, have resulted from a cause analogous to that which has produced the bifurcating channel across Mahlos Mahdoo.

This officer has had the kindness to lend me an excellent MS. account of the Chagos Islands; from this paper, from the published charts, and from verbal information communicated to me by Captain Moresby, the above account of the Great Chagos Bank is taken.

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