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by Charles DarwinJanuary 22nd, 2023
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Reefs of Mauritius.—Shallow channel within the reef.—Its slow filling up.—Currents of water formed within it.—Upraised reefs.—Narrow fringing-reefs in deep seas.—Reefs on the coast of East Africa and of Brazil.—Fringing-reefs in very shallow seas, round banks of sediment and on worn-down islands.—Fringing-reefs affected by currents of the sea.— Coral coating the bottom of the sea, but not forming reefs. Fringing-reefs, or, as they have been called by some voyagers, shore-reefs, whether skirting an island or part of a continent, might at first be thought to differ little, except in generally being of less breadth, from barrier-reefs. As far as the superficies of the actual reef is concerned this is the case; but the absence of an interior deep-water channel, and the close relation in their horizontal extension with the probable slope beneath the sea of the adjoining land, present essential points of difference.
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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. FRINGING OR SHORE-REEFS


Reefs of Mauritius.—Shallow channel within the reef.—Its slow filling up.—Currents of water formed within it.—Upraised reefs.—Narrow fringing-reefs in deep seas.—Reefs on the coast of East Africa and of Brazil.—Fringing-reefs in very shallow seas, round banks of sediment and on worn-down islands.—Fringing-reefs affected by currents of the sea.— Coral coating the bottom of the sea, but not forming reefs.

Fringing-reefs, or, as they have been called by some voyagers, shore-reefs, whether skirting an island or part of a continent, might at first be thought to differ little, except in generally being of less breadth, from barrier-reefs. As far as the superficies of the actual reef is concerned this is the case; but the absence of an interior deep-water channel, and the close relation in their horizontal extension with the probable slope beneath the sea of the adjoining land, present essential points of difference.

The reefs which fringe the island of Mauritius offer a good example of this class. They extend round its whole circumference, with the exception of two or three parts, where the coast is almost precipitous, and where, if as is probable the bottom of the sea has a similar inclination, the coral would have no foundation on which to become attached. A similar fact may sometimes be observed even in reefs of the barrier class, which follow much less closely the outline of the adjoining land; as, for instance, on the south-east and precipitous side of Tahiti, where the encircling reef is interrupted. On the western side of the Mauritius, which was the only part I visited, the reef generally lies at the distance of about half a mile from the shore; but in some parts it is distant from one to two, and even three miles. But even in this last case, as the coast-land is gently inclined from the foot of the mountains to the sea-beach, and as the soundings outside the reef indicate an equally gentle slope beneath the water, there is no reason for supposing that the basis of the reef, formed by the prolongation of the strata of the island, lies at a greater depth than that at which the polypifers could begin constructing the reef. Some allowance, however, must be made for the outward extension of the corals on a foundation of sand and detritus, formed from their own wear, which would give to the reef a somewhat greater vertical thickness, than would otherwise be possible.

This fact is stated on the authority of the Officier du Roi, in his extremely interesting “Voyage à l’Isle de France,” undertaken in 1768. According to Captain Carmichael (Hooker’s “Bot. Misc.” volume ii., page 316) on one part of the coast there is a space for sixteen miles without a reef.

The outer edge of the reef on the western or leeward side of the island is tolerably well defined, and is a little higher than any other part. It chiefly consists of large strongly branched corals, of the genus Madrepora, which also form a sloping bed some way out to sea: the kinds of coral growing in this part will be described in the ensuing chapter. Between the outer margin and the beach, there is a flat space with a sandy bottom and a few tufts of living coral; in some parts it is so shallow, that people, by avoiding the deeper holes and gullies, can wade across it at low water; in other parts it is deeper, seldom however exceeding ten or twelve feet, so that it offers a safe coasting channel for boats. On the eastern and windward side of the island, which is exposed to a heavy surf, the reef was described to me as having a hard smooth surface, very slightly inclined inwards, just covered at low-water, and traversed by gullies; it appears to be quite similar in structure to the reefs of the barrier and atoll classes.

The reef of Mauritius, in front of every river and streamlet, is breached by a straight passage: at Grand Port, however, there is a channel like that within a barrier-reef; it extends parallel to the shore for four miles, and has an average depth of ten or twelve fathoms; its presence may probably be accounted for by two rivers which enter at each end of the channel, and bend towards each other. The fact of reefs of the fringing class being always breached in front of streams, even of those which are dry during the greater part of the year, will be explained, when the conditions unfavourable to the growth of coral are considered. Low coral-islets, like those on barrier-reefs and atolls, are seldom formed on reefs of this class, owing apparently in some cases to their narrowness, and in others to the gentle slope of the reef outside not yielding many fragments to the breakers. On the windward side, however, of the Mauritius, two or three small islets have been formed.

It appears, as will be shown in the ensuing chapter, that the action of the surf is favourable to the vigorous growth of the stronger corals, and that sand or sediment, if agitated by the waves, is injurious to them. Hence it is probable that a reef on a shelving shore, like that of Mauritius, would at first grow up, not attached to the actual beach, but at some little distance from it; and the corals on the outer margin would be the most vigorous. A shallow channel would thus be formed within the reef, and as the breakers are prevented acting on the shores of the island, and as they do not ordinarily tear up many fragments from the outside, and as every streamlet has its bed prolonged in a straight line through the reef, this channel could be filled up only very slowly with sediment. But a beach of sand and of fragments of the smaller kinds of coral seems, in the case of Mauritius, to be slowly encroaching on the shallow channel. On many shelving and sandy coasts, the breakers tend to form a bar of sand a little way from the beach, with a slight increase of depth within it; for instance, Captain Grey states that the west coast of Australia, in latitude 24°, is fronted by a sand bar about two hundred yards in width, on which there is only two feet of water; but within it the depth increases to two fathoms. Similar bars, more or less perfect, occur on other coasts. In these cases I suspect that the shallow channel (which no doubt during storms is occasionally obliterated) is scooped out by the flowing away of the water thrown beyond the line, on which the waves break with the greatest force. At Pernambuco a bar of hard sandstone, which has the same external form and height as a coral-reef, extends nearly parallel to the coast; within this bar currents, apparently caused by the water thrown over it during the greater part of each tide, run strongly, and are wearing away its inner wall. From these facts it can hardly be doubted, that within most fringing-reefs, especially within those lying some distance from the land, a return stream must carry away the water thrown over the outer edge; and the current thus produced, would tend to prevent the channel being filled up with sediment, and might even deepen it under certain circumstances. To this latter belief I am led, by finding that channels are almost universally present within the fringing-reefs of those islands which have undergone recent elevatory movements; and this could hardly have been the case, if the conversion of the very shallow channel into land had not been counteracted to a certain extent.

Captain Grey’s “Journal of Two Expeditions,” volume i. page 369.

I have described this singular structure in the “London and Edinburgh Phil. Mag.” October 1841.

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 of an interesting pedestrian tour round the Mauritius, seems to have met with a structure of this kind: he says “J’observai que là, où la mer étale, indépendamment des rescifs du large, il y à terre une espèce 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 elévé de plus de quinze pieds: c’est une espèce de rescif, que la mer abandonné, 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 Astræa and Madrepora, loosely aggregated; they were divided into irregular beds, dipping seaward, in one hillock at an angle of 8°, and in the other at 18° 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.

“Voyage à l’Isle de France, par un Officier du Roi,” part i., pages 192, 200.

Many islands are fringed by reefs quite similar to those of Mauritius; 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, where it is only fifty yards in width: the sea round these islands is very deep.

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.”

Mauti is described by Lord Byron in the voyage of H.M.S. Blonde, and Elizabeth Island by Captain Beechey.

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° 15′ to 1° 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. The external margin of this reef is described, as formed of projecting points, within which there is a space, from six to twelve feet deep, with patches of living coral on it. At Mukdeesha (latitude 2° 1′ N.) “the port is formed,” it is said, “by a long reef extending eastward, four or five miles, within which there is a narrow channel, with ten to twelve feet of water at low spring-tides;” it lies at the distance of a quarter of a mile from the shore. Again, in the plan of Mombas (latitude 4° S.), a reef extends for thirty-six miles, at the distance of from half a mile to one mile and a quarter from the shore; within it, there is a channel navigable “for canoes and small craft,” between six and fifteen feet deep: outside the reef the depth is about thirty fathoms at the distance of nearly half a mile. Part of this reef is very symmetrical, and has a uniform breadth of two hundred yards.

Owen’s “Africa,” volume i., page 357, from which work the foregoing facts are likewise taken.

The coast of Brazil is in many parts fringed by reefs. Of these, some are not of coral formation; for instance, those near Bahia and in front of Pernambuco; but a few miles south of this latter city, the reef follows so closely every turn of the shore, that I can hardly doubt it is of coral; it runs at the distance of three-quarters of a mile from the land, and within it the depth is from ten to fifteen feet. I was assured by an intelligent pilot that at Ports Frances and Maceio, the outer part of the reef consists of living coral, and the inner of a white stone, full of large irregular cavities, communicating with the sea. The bottom of the sea off the coast of Brazil shoals gradually to between thirty and forty fathoms, at the distance of between nine and ten leagues from the land.

See Baron Roussin’s “Pilote du Brésil,” and accompanying hydrographical memoir.

From the description now given, we must conclude that the dimensions and structure of fringing-reefs depend entirely on the greater or less inclination of the submarine slope, conjoined with the fact that reef-building polypifers can exist only at limited depths. It follows from this, that where the sea is very shallow, as in the Persian Gulf and in parts of the East Indian Archipelago, the reefs lose their fringing character, and appear as separate and irregularly scattered patches, often of considerable area. From the more vigorous growth of the coral on the outside, and from the conditions being less favourable in several respects within, such reefs are generally higher and more perfect in their marginal than in their central parts; hence these reefs sometimes assume (and this circumstance ought not to be overlooked) the appearance of atolls; but they differ from atolls in their central expanse being much less deep, in their form being less defined, and in being based on a shallow foundation. But when in a deep sea reefs fringe banks of sediment, which have accumulated beneath the surface, round either islands or submerged rocks, they are distinguished with difficulty on the one hand from encircling barrier-reefs, and on the other from atolls. In the West Indies there are reefs, which I should probably have arranged under both these classes, had not the existence of large and level banks, lying a little beneath the surface, ready to serve as the basis for the attachment of coral, been occasionally brought into view by the entire or partial absence of reefs on them, and had not the formation of such banks, through the accumulation of sediment now in progress, been sufficiently evident. Fringing-reefs sometimes coat, and thus protect the foundations of islands, which have been worn down by the surf to the level of the sea. According to Ehrenberg, this has been extensively the case with the islands in the Red Sea, which formerly ranged parallel to the shores of the mainland, with deep water within them: hence the reefs now coating their bases are situated relatively to the land like barrier-reefs, although not belonging to that class; but there are, as I believe, in the Red Sea some true barrier-reefs. The reefs of this sea and of the West Indies will be described in the Appendix. In some cases, fringing-reefs appear to be considerably modified in outline by the course of the prevailing currents. Dr. J. Allan informs me that on the east coast of Madagascar almost every headland and low point of sand has a coral-reef extending from it in a S.W. and N.E. line, parallel to the currents on that shore. I should think the influence of the currents chiefly consisted in causing an extension, in a certain direction, of a proper foundation for the attachment of the coral. Round many intertropical islands, for instance the Abrolhos on the coast of Brazil surveyed by Captain Fitzroy, and, as I am informed by Mr. Cuming, round the Philippines, the bottom of the sea is entirely coated by irregular masses of coral, which although often of large size, do not reach the surface and form proper reefs. This must be owing, either to insufficient growth, or to the absence of those kinds of corals which can withstand the breaking of the waves.

The three classes, atoll-formed, barrier, and fringing-reefs, together with the modifications just described of the latter, include all the most remarkable coral formations anywhere existing. At the commencement of the last chapter in the volume, where I detail the principles on which the map (Plate III.) is coloured, the exceptional cases will be enumerated.

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