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by Charles DarwinJanuary 24th, 2023
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The atolls of the larger archipelagoes are not formed on submerged craters, or on banks of sediment.—Immense areas interspersed with atolls.—Their subsidence.—The effects of storms and earthquakes on atolls.—Recent changes in their state.—The origin of barrier-reefs and of atolls.—Their relative forms.—The step-formed ledges and walls round the shores of some lagoons.—The ring-formed reefs of the Maldiva atolls.—The submerged condition of parts or of the whole of some annular reefs.—The disseverment of large atolls.—The union of atolls by linear reefs.—The Great Chagos Bank.—Objections from the area and amount of subsidence required by the theory, considered.—The probable composition of the lower parts of atolls. The naturalists who have visited the Pacific, seem to have had their attention riveted by the lagoon-islands, or atolls,—those singular rings of coral-land which rise abruptly out of the unfathomable ocean—and have passed over, almost unnoticed, the scarcely less wonderful encircling barrier-reefs. The theory most generally received on the formation of atolls, is that they are based on submarine craters; but where can we find a crater of the shape of Bow atoll, which is five times as long as it is broad (Plate I., Figure 4); or like that of Menchikoff Island (Plate II., Figure 3.), with its three loops, together sixty miles in length; or like Rimsky Korsacoff, narrow, crooked, and fifty-four miles long; or like the northern Maldiva atolls, made up of numerous ring-formed reefs, placed on the margin of a disc,—one of which discs is eighty-eight miles in length, and only from ten to twenty in breadth? It is, also, not a little improbable, that there should have existed as many craters of immense size crowded together beneath the sea, as there are now in some parts atolls. But this theory lies under a greater difficulty, as will be evident, when we consider on what foundations the atolls of the larger archipelagoes rest: nevertheless, if the rim of a crater afforded a basis at the proper depth, I am far from denying that a reef like a perfectly characterised atoll might not be formed; some such, perhaps, now exist; but I cannot believe in the possibility of the greater number having thus originated.
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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. THEORY OF THE FORMATION OF THE DIFFERENT CLASSES OF CORAL-REEFS


The atolls of the larger archipelagoes are not formed on submerged craters, or on banks of sediment.—Immense areas interspersed with atolls.—Their subsidence.—The effects of storms and earthquakes on atolls.—Recent changes in their state.—The origin of barrier-reefs and of atolls.—Their relative forms.—The step-formed ledges and walls round the shores of some lagoons.—The ring-formed reefs of the Maldiva atolls.—The submerged condition of parts or of the whole of some annular reefs.—The disseverment of large atolls.—The union of atolls by linear reefs.—The Great Chagos Bank.—Objections from the area and amount of subsidence required by the theory, considered.—The probable composition of the lower parts of atolls.

The naturalists who have visited the Pacific, seem to have had their attention riveted by the lagoon-islands, or atolls,—those singular rings of coral-land which rise abruptly out of the unfathomable ocean—and have passed over, almost unnoticed, the scarcely less wonderful encircling barrier-reefs. The theory most generally received on the formation of atolls, is that they are based on submarine craters; but where can we find a crater of the shape of Bow atoll, which is five times as long as it is broad (Plate I., Figure 4); or like that of Menchikoff Island (Plate II., Figure 3.), with its three loops, together sixty miles in length; or like Rimsky Korsacoff, narrow, crooked, and fifty-four miles long; or like the northern Maldiva atolls, made up of numerous ring-formed reefs, placed on the margin of a disc,—one of which discs is eighty-eight miles in length, and only from ten to twenty in breadth? It is, also, not a little improbable, that there should have existed as many craters of immense size crowded together beneath the sea, as there are now in some parts atolls. But this theory lies under a greater difficulty, as will be evident, when we consider on what foundations the atolls of the larger archipelagoes rest: nevertheless, if the rim of a crater afforded a basis at the proper depth, I am far from denying that a reef like a perfectly characterised atoll might not be formed; some such, perhaps, now exist; but I cannot believe in the possibility of the greater number having thus originated.

An earlier and better theory was proposed by Chamisso; he supposes that as the more massive kinds of corals prefer the surf, the outer portions, in a reef rising from a submarine basis, would first reach the surface and consequently form a ring. But on this view it must be assumed, that in every case the basis consists of a flat bank; for if it were conically formed, like a mountainous mass, we can see no reason why the coral should spring up from the flanks, instead of from the central and highest parts: considering the number of the atolls in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, this assumption is very improbable. As the lagoons of atolls are sometimes even more than forty fathoms deep, it must, also, be assumed on this view, that at a depth at which the waves do not break, the coral grows more vigorously on the edges of a bank than on its central part; and this is an assumption without any evidence in support of it. I remarked, in the third chapter, that a reef, growing on a detached bank, would tend to assume an atoll-like structure; if, therefore, corals were to grow up from a bank, with a level surface some fathoms submerged, having steep sides and being situated in a deep sea, a reef not to be distinguished from an atoll, might be formed: I believe some such exist in the West Indies. But a difficulty of the same kind with that affecting the crater theory, runners, as we shall presently see, this view inapplicable to the greater number of atolls.

Kotzebue’s “First Voyage,” volume iii., page 331.

No theory worthy of notice has been advanced to account for those barrier-reefs, which encircle islands of moderate dimensions. The great reef which fronts the coast of Australia has been supposed, but without any special facts, to rest on the edge of a submarine precipice, extending parallel to the shore. The origin of the third class or of fringing-reefs presents, I believe, scarcely any difficulty, and is simply consequent on the polypifers not growing up from great depths, and their not flourishing close to gently shelving beaches where the water is often turbid.

What cause, then, has given to atolls and barrier-reefs their characteristic forms? Let us see whether an important deduction will not follow from the consideration of these two circumstances, first, the reef-building corals flourishing only at limited depths; and secondly, the vastness of the areas interspersed with coral-reefs and coral-islets, none of which rise to a greater height above the level of the sea, than that attained by matter thrown up by the waves and winds. I do not make this latter statement vaguely; I have carefully sought for descriptions of every island in the intertropical seas; and my task has been in some degree abridged by a map of the Pacific, corrected in 1834 by MM. D’Urville and Lottin, in which the low islands are distinguished from the high ones (even from those much less than a hundred feet in height) by being written without a capital letter; I have detected a few errors in this map, respecting the height of some of the islands, which will be noticed in the Appendix, where I treat of coral formations in geographical order. To the Appendix, also, I must refer for a more particular account of the data on which the statements on the next page are grounded. I have ascertained, and chiefly from the writings of Cook, Kotzebue, Bellinghausen, Duperrey, Beechey, and Lutké, regarding the Pacific; and from Moresbywith respect to the Indian Ocean, that in the following cases the term “low island” strictly means land of the height commonly attained by matter thrown up by the winds and the waves of an open sea. If we draw a line (the plan I have always adopted) joining the external atolls of that part of the Low Archipelago in which the islands are numerous, the figure will be a pointed ellipse (reaching from Hood to Lazaref Island), of which the longer axis is 840 geographical miles, and the shorter 420 miles; in this space none of the innumerable islets united into great rings rise above the stated level. The Gilbert group is very narrow, and 300 miles in length. In a prolonged line from this group, at the distance of 240 miles, is the Marshall Archipelago, the figure of which is an irregular square, one end being broader than the other; its length is 520 miles, with an average width of 240; these two groups together are 1,040 miles in length, and all their islets are low. Between the southern end of the Gilbert and the northern end of Low Archipelago, the ocean is thinly strewed with islands, all of which, as far as I have been able to ascertain, are low; so that from nearly the southern end of the Low Archipelago, to the northern end of the Marshall Archipelago, there is a narrow band of ocean, more than 4,000 miles in length, containing a great number of islands, all of which are low. In the western part of the Caroline Archipelago, there is a space of 480 miles in length, and about 100 broad, thinly interspersed with low islands. Lastly, in the Indian Ocean, the archipelago of the Maldivas is 470 miles in length, and 60 in breadth; that of the Laccadives is 150 by 100 miles; as there is a low island between these two groups, they may be considered as one group of 1,000 miles in length. To this may be added the Chagos group of low islands, situated 280 miles distant, in a line prolonged from the southern extremity of the Maldivas. This group, including the submerged banks, is 170 miles in length and 80 in breadth. So striking is the uniformity in direction of these three archipelagoes, all the islands of which are low, that Captain Moresby, in one of his papers, speaks of them as parts of one great chain, nearly 1,500 miles long. I am, then, fully justified in repeating, that enormous spaces, both in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, are interspersed with islands, of which not one rises above that height, to which the waves and winds in an open sea can heap up matter.

See also Captain Owen’s and Lieutenant Wood’s papers in the “Geographical Journal”, on the Maldiva and Laccadive Archipelagoes. These officers particularly refer to the lowness of the islets; but I chiefly ground my assertion respecting these two groups, and the Chagos group, from information communicated to me by Captain Moresby.

I find from Mr. Couthouy’s pamphlet (page 58) that Aurora Island is about two hundred feet in height; it consists of coral-rock, and seems to have been formed by the elevation of an atoll. It lies north-east of Tahiti, close without the line bounding the space coloured dark blue in the map appended to this volume. Honden Island, which is situated in the extreme north-west part of the Low Archipelago, according to measurements made on board the Beagle, whilst sailing by, is 114 feet from the summit of the trees to the water’s edge. This island appeared to resemble the other atolls of the group.

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

The many widely-scattered atolls must, therefore, rest on rocky bases. But we cannot believe that the broad summit of a mountain lies buried at the depth of a few fathoms beneath every atoll, and nevertheless throughout the immense areas above-named, with not one point of rock projecting above the level of the sea; for we may judge with some accuracy of mountains beneath the sea, by those on the land; and where can we find a single chain several hundred miles in length and of considerable breadth, much less several such chains, with their many broad summits attaining the same height, within from 120 to 180 feet? If the data be thought insufficient, on which I have grounded my belief, respecting the depth at which the reef-building polypifers can exist, and it be assumed that they can flourish at a depth of even one hundred fathoms, yet the weight of the above argument is but little diminished, for it is almost equally improbable, that as many submarine mountains, as there are low islands in the several great and widely separated areas above specified, should all rise within six hundred feet of the surface of the sea and not one above it, as that they should be of the same height within the smaller limit of one or two hundred feet. So highly improbable is this supposition, that we are compelled to believe, that the bases of the many atolls did never at any one period all lie submerged within the depth of a few fathoms beneath the surface, but that they were brought into the requisite position or level, some at one period and some at another, through movements in the earth’s crust. But this could not have been effected by elevation, for the belief that points so numerous and so widely separated were successively uplifted to a certain level, but that not one point was raised above that level, is quite as improbable as the former supposition, and indeed differs little from it. It will probably occur to those who have read Ehrenberg’s account of the Reefs of the Red Sea, that many points in these great areas may have been elevated, but that as soon as raised, the protuberant parts were cut off by the destroying action of the waves: a moment’s reflection, however, on the basin-like form of the atolls, will show that this is impossible; for the upheaval and subsequent abrasion of an island would leave a flat disc, which might become coated with coral, but not a deeply concave surface; moreover, we should expect to see, in some parts at least, the rock of the foundation brought to the surface. If, then, the foundations of the many atolls were not uplifted into the requisite position, they must of necessity have subsided into it; and this at once solves every difficulty, for we may safely infer, from the facts given in the last chapter, that during a gradual subsidence the corals would be favourably circumstanced for building up their solid frame works and reaching the surface, as island after island slowly disappeared. Thus areas of immense extent in the central and most profound parts of the great oceans, might become interspersed with coral-islets, none of which would rise to a greater height than that attained by detritus heaped up by the sea, and nevertheless they might all have been formed by corals, which absolutely required for their growth a solid foundation within a few fathoms of the surface.

he additional difficulty on the crater hypothesis before alluded to, will now be evident; for on this view the volcanic action must be supposed to have formed within the areas specified a vast number of craters, all rising within a few fathoms of the surface, and not one above it. The supposition that the craters were at different times upraised above the surface, and were there abraded by the surf and subsequently coated by corals, is subject to nearly the same objections with those given above in this paragraph; but I consider it superfluous to detail all the arguments opposed to such a notion. Chamisso’s theory, from assuming the existence of so many banks, all lying at the proper depth beneath the water, is also vitally defective. The same observation applies to an hypothesis of Lieutenant Nelson’s (“Geolog. Trans.” volume v., page 122), who supposes that the ring-formed structure is caused by a greater number of germs of corals becoming attached to the declivity, than to the central plateau of a submarine bank: it likewise applies to the notion formerly entertained (Forster’s “Observ.” page 151), that lagoon-islands owe their peculiar form to the instinctive tendencies of the polypifers. According to this latter view, the corals on the outer margin of the reef instinctively expose themselves to the surf in order to afford protection to corals living in the lagoon, which belong to other genera, and to other families!

It would be out of place here to do more than allude to the many facts, showing that the supposition of a gradual subsidence over large areas is by no means improbable. We have the clearest proof that a movement of this kind is possible, in the upright trees buried under the strata many thousand feet in thickness; we have also every reason for believing that there are now large areas gradually sinking, in the same manner as others are rising. And when we consider how many parts of the surface of the globe have been elevated within recent geological periods, we must admit that there have been subsidences on a corresponding scale, for otherwise the whole globe would have swollen. It is very remarkable that Mr. Lyell, even in the first edition of his “Principles of Geology,” inferred that the amount of subsidence in the Pacific must have exceeded that of elevation, from the area of land being very small relatively to the agents there tending to form it, namely, the growth of coral and volcanic action. But it will be asked, are there any direct proofs of a subsiding movement in those areas, in which subsidence will explain a phenomenon otherwise inexplicable? This, however, can hardly be expected, for it must ever be most difficult, excepting in countries long civilised, to detect a movement, the tendency of which is to conceal the part affected. In barbarous and semi-civilised nations how long might not a slow movement, even of elevation such as that now affecting Scandinavia, have escaped attention!

“Principles of Geology,” sixth edition, volume iii., page 386.

Mr. Williams insists strongly that the traditions of the natives, which he has taken much pains in collecting, do not indicate the appearance of any new islands: but on the theory of a gradual subsidence, all that would be apparent would be, the water sometimes encroaching slowly on the land, and the land again recovering by the accumulation of detritus its former extent, and perhaps sometimes the conversion of an atoll with coral islets on it, into a bare or into a sunken annular reef. Such changes would naturally take place at the periods when the sea rose above its usual limits, during a gale of more than ordinary strength; and the effects of the two causes would be hardly distinguishable. In Kotzebue’s “Voyage” there are accounts of islands, both in the Caroline and Marshall Archipelagoes, which have been partly washed away during hurricanes; and Kadu, the native who was on board one of the Russian vessels, said “he saw the sea at Radack rise to the feet of the cocoa-nut trees; but it was conjured in time.” A storm lately entirely swept away two of the Caroline islands, and converted them into shoals; it partly, also, destroyed two other islands. According to a tradition which was communicated to Captain Fitzroy, it is believed in the Low Archipelago, that the arrival of the first ship caused a great inundation, which destroyed many lives. Mr. Stutchbury relates, that in 1825, the western side of Chain Atoll, in the same group, was completely devastated by a hurricane, and not less than 300 lives lost: “in this instance it was evident, even to the natives, that the hurricane alone was not sufficient to account for the violent agitation of the ocean.” That considerable changes have taken place recently in some of the atolls in the Low Archipelago, appears certain from the case already given of Matilda Island: with respect to Whitsunday and Gloucester Islands in this same group, we must either attribute great inaccuracy to their discoverer, the famous circumnavigator Wallis, or believe that they have undergone a considerable change in the period of fifty-nine years, between his voyage and that of Captain Beechey’s. Whitsunday Island is described by Wallis as “about four miles long, and three wide,” now it is only one mile and a half long. The appearance of Gloucester Island, in Captain Beechey’s words, “has been accurately described by its discoverer, but its present form and extent differ materially.” Blenheim reef, in the Chagos group, consists of a water-washed annular reef, thirteen miles in circumference, surrounding a lagoon ten fathoms deep: on its surface there were a few worn patches of conglomerate coral-rock, of about the size of hovels; and these Captain Moresby considered as being, without doubt, the last remnants of islets; so that here an atoll has been converted into an atoll-formed reef. The inhabitants of the Maldiva Archipelago, as long ago as 1605, declared, “that the high tides and violent currents were diminishing the number of the islands:” and I have already shown, on the authority of Captain Moresby, that the work of destruction is still in progress; but that on the other hand the first formation of some islets is known to the present inhabitants. In such cases, it would be exceedingly difficult to detect a gradual subsidence of the foundation, on which these mutable structures rest.

Williams’s “Narrative of Missionary Enterprise,” page 31.

Kotzebue’s “First Voyage,” volume iii., page 168.

M. Desmoulins in “Comptes Rendus,” 1840, page 837.

“West of England Journal”, No. I., page 35.

Beechey’s “Voyage to the Pacific,” chapter vii., and Wallis’s “Voyage in the ‘Dolphin’,” chapter iv.

See an extract from Pyrard’s Voyage in Captain Owen’s paper on the Maldiva Archipelago, in the “Geographical Journal”, volume ii., page 84.

Some of the archipelagoes of low coral-islands are subject to earthquakes: Captain Moresby informs me that they are frequent, though not very strong, in the Chagos group, which occupies a very central position in the Indian Ocean, and is far from any land not of coral formation. One of the islands in this group was formerly covered by a bed of mould, which, after an earthquake, disappeared, and was believed by the residents to have been washed by the rain through the broken masses of underlying rock; the island was thus rendered unproductive. Chamiss states, that earthquakes are felt in the Marshall atolls, which are far from any high land, and likewise in the islands of the Caroline Archipelago. On one of the latter, namely Oulleay atoll, Admiral Lutké, as he had the kindness to inform me, observed several straight fissures about a foot in width, running for some hundred yards obliquely across the whole width of the reef. Fissures indicate a stretching of the earth’s crust, and, therefore, probably changes in its level; but these coral-islands, which have been shaken and fissured, certainly have not been elevated, and, therefore, probably they have subsided. In the chapter on Keeling atoll, I attempted to show by direct evidence, that the island underwent a movement of subsidence, during the earthquakes lately felt there.

See Chamisso, in Kotzebue’s “First Voyage,” volume iii., pages 182 and 136.

The facts stand thus;—there are many large tracts of ocean, without any high land, interspersed with reefs and islets, formed by the growth of those kinds of corals, which cannot live at great depths; and the existence of these reefs and low islets, in such numbers and at such distant points, is quite inexplicable, excepting on the theory, that the bases on which the reefs first became attached, slowly and successively sank beneath the level of the sea, whilst the corals continued to grow upwards. No positive facts are opposed to this view, and some general considerations render it probable. There is evidence of change in form, whether or not from subsidence, on some of these coral-islands; and there is evidence of subterranean disturbances beneath them. Will then the theory, to which we have thus been led, solve the curious problem,—what has given to each class of reef its peculiar form?

AA—Outer edge of the reef at the level of the sea.

BB—Shores of the island.

A′A′—Outer edge of the reef, after its upward growth during a period of subsidence.

CC—The lagoon-channel between the reef and the shores of the now encircled land.

B′B′—The shores of the encircled island.

N.B.—In this, and the following woodcut, the subsidence of the land could only be represented by an apparent rise in the level of the sea.

A′A′—Outer edges of the barrier-reef at the level of the sea. The cocoa-nut trees represent coral-islets formed on the reef.

CC—The lagoon-channel.

B′B′—The shores of the island, generally formed of low alluvial land and of coral detritus from the lagoon-channel.

A″A″—The outer edges of the reef now forming an atoll.

C′—The lagoon of the newly formed atoll. According to the scale, the depth of the lagoon and of the lagoon-channel is exaggerated.

Let us in imagination place within one of the subsiding areas, an island surrounded by a “fringing-reef,”—that kind, which alone offers no difficulty in the explanation of its origin. Let the unbroken lines and the oblique shading in the woodcut (No. 4) represent a vertical section through such an island; and the horizontal shading will represent the section of the reef. Now, as the island sinks down, either a few feet at a time or quite insensibly, we may safely infer from what we know of the conditions favourable to the growth of coral, that the living masses bathed by the surf on the margin of the reef, will soon regain the surface. The water, however, will encroach, little by little, on the shore, the island becoming lower and smaller, and the space between the edge of the reef and the beach proportionately broader. A section of the reef and island in this state, after a subsidence of several hundred feet, is given by the dotted lines: coral-islets are supposed to have been formed on the new reef, and a ship is anchored in the lagoon-channel. This section is in every respect that of an encircling barrier-reef; it is, in fact, a section taken E. and W. through the highest point of the encircled island of Bolabola; of which a plan is given in Plate I., Figure 5. The same section is more clearly shown in the following woodcut (No. 5) by the unbroken lines. The width of the reef, and its slope, both on the outer and inner side, will have been determined by the growing powers of the coral, under the conditions (for instance the force of the breakers and of the currents) to which it has been exposed; and the lagoon-channel will be deeper or shallower, in proportion to the growth of the delicately branched corals within the reef, and to the accumulation of sediment, relatively, also, to the rate of subsidence and the length of the intervening stationary periods.

The section has been made from the chart given in the “Atlas of the Voyage of the Coquille.” The scale is .57 of an inch to a mile. The height of the island, according to M. Lesson, is 4,026 feet. The deepest part of the lagoon-channel is 162 feet; its depth is exaggerated in the woodcut for the sake of clearness.

It is evident in this section, that a line drawn perpendicularly down from the outer edge of the new reef to the foundation of solid rock, exceeds by as many feet as there have been feet of subsidence, that small limit of depth at which the effective polypifers can live—the corals having grown up, as the whole sank down, from a basis formed of other corals and their consolidated fragments. Thus the difficulty on this head, which before seemed so great, disappears.

As the space between the reef and the subsiding shore continued to increase in breadth and depth, and as the injurious effects of the sediment and fresh water borne down from the land were consequently lessened, the greater number of the channels, with which the reef in its fringing state must have been breached, especially those which fronted the smaller streams, will have become choked up with the growth of coral: on the windward side of the reef, where the coral grows most vigorously, the breaches will probably have first been closed. In barrier-reefs, therefore, the breaches kept open by draining the tidal waters of the lagoon-channel, will generally be placed on the leeward side, and they will still face the mouths of the larger streams, although removed beyond the influence of their sediment and fresh water;—and this, it has been shown, is commonly the case.

Referring to the diagram shown above, in which the newly formed barrier-reef is represented by unbroken lines, instead of by dots as in the former woodcut, let the work of subsidence go on, and the doubly pointed hill will form two small islands (or more, according to the number of the hills) included within one annular reef. Let the island continue subsiding, and the coral-reef will continue growing up on its own foundation, whilst the water gains inch by inch on the land, until the last and highest pinnacle is covered, and there remains a perfect atoll. A vertical section of this atoll is shown in the woodcut by the dotted lines;—a ship is anchored in its lagoon, but islets are not supposed yet to have been formed on the reef. The depth of the lagoon and the width and slope of the reef, will depend on the circumstances just referred to under barrier-reefs. Any further subsidence will produce no change in the atoll, except perhaps a diminution in its size, from the reef not growing vertically upwards; but should the currents of the sea act violently upon it, and should the corals perish on part or on the whole of its margin, changes would result during subsidence which will be presently noticed. I may here observe, that a bank either of rock or of hardened sediment, level with the surface of the sea, and fringed with living coral, would (if not so small as to allow the central space to be quickly filled up with detritus) by subsidence be converted immediately into an atoll, without passing, as in the case of a reef fringing the shore of an island, through the intermediate form of a barrier-reef. If such a bank lay a few fathoms submerged, the simple growth of the coral (as remarked in the third chapter) without the aid of subsidence, would produce a structure scarcely to be distinguished from a true atoll; for in all cases the corals on the outer margin of a reef, from having space and being freely exposed to the open sea, will grow vigorously and tend to form a continuous ring whilst the growth of the less massive kinds on the central expanse, will be checked by the sediment formed there, and by that washed inwards by the breakers; and as the space becomes shallower, their growth will, also, be checked by the impurities of the water, and probably by the small amount of food brought by the enfeebled currents, in proportion to the surface of living reefs studded with innumerable craving mouths: the subsidence of a reef based on a bank of this kind, would give depth to its central expanse or lagoon, steepness to its flanks, and through the free growth of the coral, symmetry to its outline:—I may here repeat that the larger groups of atolls in the Pacific and Indian Oceans cannot be supposed to be founded on banks of this nature.

If, instead of the island in the diagram, the shore of a continent fringed by a reef had subsided, a great barrier-reef, like that on the north-east coast of Australia, would have necessarily resulted; and it would have been separated from the main land by a deep-water channel, broad in proportion to the amount of subsidence, and to the less or greater inclination of the neighbouring coast-line. The effect of the continued subsidence of a great barrier-reef of this kind, and its probable conversion into a chain of separate atolls, will be noticed, when we discuss the apparent progressive disseverment of the larger Maldiva atolls.

We now are able to perceive that the close similarity in form, dimensions, structure, and relative position (which latter point will hereafter be more fully noticed) between fringing and encircling barrier-reefs, and between these latter and atolls, is the necessary result of the transformation, during subsidence of the one class into the other. On this view, the three classes of reefs ought to graduate into each other. Reefs having intermediate character between those of the fringing and barrier classes do exist; for instance, on the south-west coast of Madagascar, a reef extends for several miles, within which there is a broad channel from seven to eight fathoms deep, but the sea does not deepen abruptly outside the reef. Such cases, however, are open to some doubts, for an old fringing-reef, which had extended itself a little on a basis of its own formation, would hardly be distinguishable from a barrier-reef, produced by a small amount of subsidence, and with its lagoon-channel nearly filled up with sediment during a long stationary period. Between barrier-reefs, encircling either one lofty island or several small low ones, and atolls including a mere expanse of water, a striking series can be shown: in proof of this, I need only refer to the first plate in this volume, which speaks more plainly to the eye, than any description could to the ear. The authorities from which the charts have been engraved, together with some remarks on them and descriptive of the plates, are given above. At New Caledonia (Plate II., Figure 5.) the barrier-reefs extend for 150 miles on each side of the submarine prolongation of the island; and at their northern extremity they appear broken up and converted into a vast atoll-formed reef, supporting a few low coral-islets: we may imagine that we here see the effects of subsidence actually in progress, the water always encroaching on the northern end of the island, towards which the mountains slope down, and the reefs steadily building up their massive fabrics in the lines of their ancient growth.

We have as yet only considered the origin of barrier-reefs and atolls in their simplest form; but there remain some peculiarities in structure and some special cases, described in the two first chapters, to be accounted for by our theory. These consist—in the inclined ledge terminated by a wall, and sometimes succeeded by a second ledge with a wall, round the shores of certain lagoons and lagoon-channels; a structure which cannot, as I endeavoured to show, be explained by the simple growing powers of the corals,—in the ring or basin-like forms of the central reefs, as well as of the separate marginal portions of the northern Maldiva atolls,—in the submerged condition of the whole, or of parts of certain barrier and atoll-formed reefs; where only a part is submerged, this being generally to leeward,—in the apparent progressive disseverment of some of the Maldiva atolls,—in the existence of irregularly formed atolls, some being tied together by linear reefs, and others with spurs projecting from them,—and, lastly, in the structure and origin of the Great Chagos bank.

Step-formed ledges round certain lagoons.—If we suppose an atoll to subside at an extremely slow rate, it is difficult to follow out the complex results. The living corals would grow up on the outer margin; and likewise probably in the gullies and deeper parts of the bare surface of the annular reef; the water would encroach on the islets, but the accumulation of fresh detritus might possibly prevent their entire submergence. After a subsidence of this very slow nature, the surface of the annular reef sloping gently into the lagoon, would probably become united with the irregular reefs and banks of sand, which line the shores of most lagoons. Should, however, the atoll be carried down by a more rapid movement, the whole surface of the annular reef, where there was a foundation of solid matter, would be favourably circumstanced for the fresh growth of coral; but as the corals grew upwards on its exterior margin, and the waves broke heavily on this part, the increase of the massive polypifers on the inner side would be checked from the want of water. Consequently, the exterior parts would first reach the surface, and the new annular reef thus formed on the old one, would have its summit inclined inwards, and be terminated by a subaqueous wall, formed by the upward growth of the coral (before being much checked), from the inner edge of the solid parts of the old reef. The inner portion of the new reef, from not having grown to the surface, would be covered by the waters of the lagoon. Should a subsidence of the same kind be repeated, the corals would again grow up in a wall, from all the solid parts of the resunken reef, and, therefore, not from within the sandy shores of the lagoon; and the inner part of the new annular reef would, from being as before checked in its upward growth, be of less height than the exterior parts, and therefore would not reach the surface of the lagoon. In this case the shores of the lagoon would be surrounded by two inclined ledges, one beneath the other, and both abruptly terminated by subaqueous cliffs.

According to Mr. Couthouy (page 26) the external reef round many atolls descends by a succession of ledges or terraces. He attempts, I doubt whether successfully, to explain this structure somewhat in the same manner as I have attempted, with respect to the internal ledges round the lagoons of some atolls. More facts are wanted regarding the nature both of the interior and exterior step-like ledges: are all the ledges, or only the upper ones, covered with living coral? If they are all covered, are the kinds different on the ledges according to the depth? Do the interior and exterior ledges occur together in the same atolls; if so, what is their total width, and is the intervening surface-reef narrow, etc.?

The ring or basin-formed reefs of the northern Maldiva atolls.—I may first observe, that the reefs within the lagoons of atolls and within lagoon-channels, would, if favourably circumstanced, grow upwards during subsidence in the same manner as the annular rim; and, therefore, we might expect that such lagoon-reefs, when not surrounded and buried by an accumulation of sediment more rapid than the rate of subsidence, would rise abruptly from a greater depth than that at which the efficient polypifers can flourish: we see this well exemplified in the small abruptly-sided reefs, with which the deep lagoons of the Chagos and Southern Maldiva atolls are studded. With respect to the ring or basin-formed reefs of the Northern Maldiva atolls, it is evident, from the perfectly continuous series which exists that the marginal rings, although wider than the exterior or bounding reef of ordinary atolls, are only modified portions of such a reef; it is also evident that the central rings, although wider than the knolls or reefs which commonly occur in lagoons, occupy their place. The ring-like structure has been shown to be contingent on the breaches into the lagoon being broad and numerous, so that all the reefs which are bathed by the waters of the lagoon are placed under nearly the same conditions with the outer coast of an atoll standing in the open sea. Hence the exterior and living margins of these reefs must have been favourably circumstanced for growing outwards, and increasing beyond the usual breadth; and they must likewise have been favourably circumstanced for growing vigorously upwards, during the subsiding movements, to which by our theory the whole archipelago has been subjected; and subsidence with this upward growth of the margins would convert the central space of each little reef into a small lagoon. This, however, could only take place with those reefs, which had increased to a breadth sufficient to prevent their central spaces from being almost immediately filled up with the sand and detritus driven inwards from all sides: hence it is that few reefs, which are less than half a mile in diameter, even in the atolls where the basin-like structure is most strikingly exhibited, include lagoons. This remark, I may add, applies to all coral-reefs wherever found. The basin-formed reefs of the Maldiva Archipelago may, in fact, be briefly described, as small atolls formed during subsidence over the separate portions of large and broken atolls, in the same manner as these latter were formed over the barrier-reefs, which encircled the islands of a large archipelago now wholly submerged.

Submerged and Dead Reefs.—In the second section of the first chapter, I have shown that there are in the neighbourhood of atolls, some deeply submerged banks, with level surfaces; that there are others, less deeply but yet wholly submerged, having all the characters of perfect atolls, but consisting merely of dead coral-rock; that there are barrier-reefs and atolls with merely a portion of their reef, generally on the leeward side, submerged; and that such portions either retain their perfect outline, or they appear to be quite effaced, their former place being marked only by a bank, conforming in outline with that part of the reef which remains perfect. These several cases are, I believe, intimately related together, and can be explained by the same means. There, perhaps, exist some submerged reefs, covered with living coral and growing upwards, but to these I do not here refer.

As we see that in those parts of the ocean, where coral-reefs are most abundant, one island is fringed and another neighbouring one is not fringed; as we see in the same archipelago, that all the reefs are more perfect in one part of it than in another, for instance, in the southern half compared with the northern half of the Maldiva Archipelago, and likewise on the outer coasts compared with the inner coasts of the atolls in this same group, which are placed in a double row; as we know that the existence of the innumerable polypifers forming a reef, depends on their sustenance, and that they are preyed on by other organic beings; and, lastly, as we know that some inorganic causes are highly injurious to the growth of coral, it cannot be expected that during the round of change to which earth, air, and water are exposed, the reef-building polypifers should keep alive for perpetuity in any one place; and still less can this be expected, during the progressive subsidences, perhaps at some periods more rapid than at others, to which by our theory these reefs and islands have been subjected and are liable. It is, then, not improbable that the corals should sometimes perish either on the whole or on part of a reef; if on part, the dead portion, after a small amount of subsidence, would still retain its proper outline and position beneath the water. After a more prolonged subsidence, it would probably form, owing to the accumulation of sediment, only the margin of a flat bank, marking the limits of the former lagoon. Such dead portions of reef would generally lie on the leeward side, for the impure water and fine sediment would more easily flow out from the lagoon over this side of the reef, where the force of the breakers is less than to windward; and therefore the corals would be less vigorous on this side, and be less able to resist any destroying agent. It is likewise owing to this same cause, that reefs are more frequently breached to leeward by narrow channels, serving as by ship-channels, than to windward. If the corals perished entirely, or on the greater part of the circumference of an atoll, an atoll-shaped bank of dead rock, more or less entirely submerged, would be produced; and further subsidence, together with the accumulation of sediment, would often obliterate its atoll-like structure, and leave only a bank with a level surface.

Mr. Lyell, in the first edition of his “Principles of Geology,” offered a somewhat different explanation of this structure. He supposes that there has been subsidence; but he was not aware that the submerged portions of reef were in most cases, if not in all, dead; and he attributes the difference in height in the two sides of most atolls, chiefly to the greater accumulation of detritus to windward than to leeward. But as matter is accumulated only on the backward part of the reef, the front part would remain of the same height on both sides. I may here observe that in most cases (for instance, at Peros Banhos, the Gambier group and the Great Chagos Bank), and I suspect in all cases, the dead and submerged portions do not blend or slope into the living and perfect parts, but are separated from them by an abrupt line. In some instances small patches of living reef rise to the surface from the middle of the submerged and dead parts.

In the Chagos group of atolls, within an area of 160 miles by 60, there are two atoll-formed banks of dead rock (besides another very imperfect one), entirely submerged; a third, with merely two or three very small pieces of living reef rising to the surface; and a fourth, namely, Peros Banhos (Plate I., Figure 9), with a portion nine miles in length dead and submerged. As by our theory this area has subsided, and as there is nothing improbable in the death, either from changes in the state of the surrounding sea or from the subsidence being great or sudden, of the corals on the whole, or on portions of some of the atolls, the case of the Chagos group presents no difficulty. So far indeed are any of the above-mentioned cases of submerged reefs from being inexplicable, that their occurrence might have been anticipated on our theory, and as fresh atolls are supposed to be in progressive formation by the subsidence of encircling barrier-reefs, a weighty objection, namely that the number of atolls must be increasing infinitely, might even have been raised, if proofs of the occasional destruction and loss of atolls could not have been adduced.

The disseverment of the larger Maldiva atolls.—The apparent progressive disseverment in the Maldiva Archipelago of large atolls into smaller ones, is, in many respects, an important consideration, and requires an explanation. The graduated series which marks, as I believe, this process, can be observed only in the northern half of the group, where the atolls have exceedingly imperfect margins, consisting of detached basin-formed reefs. The currents of the sea flow across these atolls, as I am informed by Captain Moresby, with considerable force, and drift the sediment from side to side during the monsoons, transporting much of it seaward; yet the currents sweep with greater force round their flanks. It is historically known that these atolls have long existed in their present state; and we can believe, that even during a very slow subsidence they might thus remain, the central expanse being kept at nearly its original depth by the accumulation of sediment. But in the action of such nicely balanced forces during a progressive subsidence (like that, to which by our theory this archipelago has been subjected), it would be strange if the currents of the sea should never make a direct passage across some one of the atolls, through the many wide breaches in their margins. If this were once effected, a deep-water channel would soon be formed by the removal of the finer sediment, and the check to its further accumulation; and the sides of the channel would be worn into a slope like that on the outer coasts, which are exposed to the same force of the currents. In fact, a channel precisely like that bifurcating one which divides Mahlos Mahdoo (Plate II., Figure 4.), would almost necessarily be formed. The scattered reefs situated near the borders of the new ocean-channel, from being favourably placed for the growth of coral, would, by their extension, tend to produce fresh margins to the dissevered portions; such a tendency is very evident (as may be seen in the large published chart) in the elongated reefs on the borders of the two channels intersecting Mahlos Mahdoo. Such channels would become deeper with continued subsidence, and probably from the reefs not growing up perpendicularly, somewhat broader. In this case, and more especially if the channels had been formed originally of considerable breadth, the dissevered portions would become perfect and distinct atolls, like Ari and Ross atolls (Plate II., Figure 6), or like the two Nillandoo atolls, which must be considered as distinct, although related in form and position, and separated from each other by channels, which though deep have been sounded. Further subsidence would render such channels unfathomable, and the dissevered portions would then resemble Phaleedoo and Moluque atolls, or Mahlos Mahdoo and Horsburgh atolls (Plate II., Figure 4), which are related to each other in no respect except in proximity and position. Hence, on the theory of subsidence, the disseverment of large atolls, which have imperfect margins (for otherwise their disseverment would be scarcely possible), and which are exposed to strong currents, is far from being an improbable event; and the several stages, from close relation to entire isolation in the atolls of the Maldiva Archipelago, are readily explicable.

We might go even further, and assert as not improbable, that the first formation of the Maldiva Archipelago was due to a barrier-reef, of nearly the same dimensions with that of New Caledonia (Plate II., Figure 5), for if, in imagination, we complete the subsidence of that great island, we might anticipate from the present broken condition of the northern portion of the reef, and from the almost entire absence of reefs on the eastern coast, that the barrier-reef after repeated subsidences, would become during its upward growth separated into distinct portions; and these portions would tend to assume an atoll-like structure, from the coral growing with vigour round their entire circumferences, when freely exposed to an open sea. As we have some large islands partly submerged with barrier-reefs marking their former limits, such as New Caledonia, so our theory makes it probable that there should be other large islands wholly submerged; and these, we may now infer, would be surmounted, not by one enormous atoll, but by several large elongated ones, like the atolls in the Maldiva group; and these again, during long periods of subsidence, would sometimes become dissevered into smaller atolls. I may add, that both in the Marshall and Caroline Archipelagoes, there are atolls standing close together, which have an evident relationship in form: we may suppose, in such cases, either that two or more encircled islands originally stood close together, and afforded bases for two or more atolls, or that one atoll has been dissevered. From the position, as well as form, of three atolls in the Caroline Archipelago (the Namourrek and Elato group), which are placed in an irregular circle, I am strongly tempted to believe that they have originated by the process of disseverment.

The same remark is, perhaps, applicable to the islands of Ollap, Fanadik, and Tamatam in the Caroline Archipelago, of which charts are given in the atlas of Duperrey’s voyage: a line drawn through the linear reefs and lagoons of these three islands forms a semicircle. Consult also, the atlas of Lutké’s voyage; and for the Marshall group that of Kotzebue; for the Gilbert group consult the atlas of Duperrey’s voyage. Most of the points here referred to may, however, be seen in Krusenstern’s general Atlas of the Pacific.

Irregularly formed Atolls.—In the Marshall group, Musquillo atoll consists of two loops united in one point; and Menchikoff atoll is formed of three loops, two of which (as may be seen in Figure 3, Plate II.) are connected by a mere ribbon-shaped reef, and the three together are sixty miles in length. In the Gilbert group some of the atolls have narrow strips of reef, like spurs, projecting from them. There occur also in parts of the open sea, a few linear and straight reefs, standing by themselves; and likewise some few reefs in the form of crescents, with their extremities more or less curled inwards. Now, the upward growth of a barrier-reef which fronted only one side of an island, or one side of an elongated island with its extremities (of which cases exist), would produce after the complete subsidence of the land, mere strips or crescent or hook-formed reefs: if the island thus partially fronted became divided during subsidence into two or more islands, these islands would be united together by linear reefs; and from the further growth of the coral along their shores together with subsidence, reefs of various forms might ultimately be produced, either atolls united together by linear reefs, or atolls with spurs projecting from them. Some, however, of the more simple forms above specified, might, as we have seen, be equally well produced by the coral perishing during subsidence on part of the circumference of an atoll, whilst on the other parts it continued to grow up till it reached the surface.

The Great Chagos Bank.—I have already shown that the submerged condition of the Great Chagos Bank (Plate II., Figure 1, with its section Figure 2), and of some other banks in the Chagos group, may in all probability be attributed to the coral having perished before or during the movements of subsidence, to which this whole area by our theory has been subjected. The external rim or upper ledge (shaded in the chart), consists of dead coral-rock thinly covered with sand; it lies at an average depth of between five and eight fathoms, and perfectly resembles in form the annular reef of an atoll. The banks of the second level, the boundaries of which are marked by dotted lines in the chart, lie from about fifteen to twenty fathoms beneath the surface; they are several miles broad, and terminate in a very steep slope round the central expanse. This central expanse I have already described, as consisting of a level muddy flat between thirty and forty fathoms deep. The banks of the second level, might at first sight be thought analogous to the internal step-like ledge of coral-rock which borders the lagoons of some atolls, but their much greater width, and their being formed of sand, are points of essential difference. On the eastern side of the atoll some of the banks are linear and parallel, resembling islets in a great river, and pointed directly towards a great breach on the opposite side of the atoll; these are best seen in the large published chart. I inferred from this circumstance, that strong currents sometimes set directly across this vast bank; and I have since heard from Captain Moresby that this is the case. I observed, also, that the channels or breaches through the rim, were all of the same depth as the central lagoon-like space into which they lead; whereas the channels into the other atolls of the Chagos group, and as I believe into most other large atolls, are not nearly as deep as their lagoons: for instance at Peros Banhos, the channels are only of the same depth, namely between ten and twenty fathoms, as the bottom of the lagoon for a space about a mile and a half in width round its shores, whilst the central expanse of the lagoon is from thirty-five to forty fathoms deep. Now, if an atoll during a gradual subsidence once became entirely submerged, like the Great Chagos Bank, and therefore no longer exposed to the surf, very little sediment could be formed from it; and consequently the channels leading into the lagoon from not being filled up with drifted sand and coral detritus, would continue increasing in depth, as the whole sank down. In this case, we might expect that the currents of the open sea, instead of any longer sweeping round the submarine flanks, would flow directly through the breaches across the lagoon, removing in their course the finer sediment, and preventing its further accumulation. We should then have the submerged reef forming an external and upper rim of rock, and beneath this portion of the sandy bottom of the old lagoon, intersected by deep-water channels or breaches, and thus formed into separate marginal banks; and these would be cut off by steep slopes, overhanging the central space, worn down by the passage of the oceanic currents.

By these means, I have scarcely any doubt that the Great Chagos Bank has originated,—a structure which at first appeared to me far more anomalous than any I had met with. The process of formation is nearly the same with that, by which Mahlos Mahdoo had been trisected; but in the Chagos Bank the channels of the oceanic currents entering at several different quarters, have united in a central space.

This great atoll-formed bank appears to be in an early stage of disseverment; should the work of subsidence go on, from the submerged and dead condition of the whole reef, and the imperfection of the south-east quarter a mere wreck would probably be left. The Pitt’s Bank, situated not far southward, appears to be precisely in this state; it consists of a moderately level, oblong bank of sand, lying from 10 to 20 fathoms beneath the surface, with two sides protected by a narrow ledge of rock which is submerged between 5 and 8 fathoms. A little further south, at about the same distance as the southern rim of the Great Chagos Bank is from the northern rim, there are two other small banks with from 10 to 20 fathoms on them; and not far eastward soundings were struck on a sandy bottom, with between 110 and 145 fathoms. The northern portion with its ledge-like margin, closely resembles any one segment of the Great Chagos Bank, between two of the deep-water channels, and the scattered banks, southward appear to be the last wrecks of less perfect portions.

I have examined with care the charts of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and have now brought before the reader all the examples, which I have met with, of reefs differing from the type of the class to which they belong; and I think it has been satisfactorily shown, that they are all included in our theory, modified by occasional accidents which might have been anticipated as probable. In this course we have seen, that in the lapse of ages encircling barrier-reefs are occasionally converted into atolls, the name of atoll being properly applicable, at the moment when the last pinnacle of encircled land sinks beneath the surface of the sea. We have, also, seen that large atolls during the progressive subsidence of the areas in which they stand, sometimes become dissevered into smaller ones; at other times, the reef-building polypifers having entirely perished, atolls are converted into atoll-formed banks of dead rock; and these again through further subsidence and the accumulation of sediment modified by the force of the oceanic currents, pass into level banks with scarcely any distinguishing character. Thus may the history of an atoll be followed from its first origin, through the occasional accidents of its existence, to its destruction and final obliteration.

Objections to the theory of the formation of Atolls and Barrier-reefs.—The vast amount of subsidence, both horizontally or in area, and vertically or in depth, necessary to have submerged every mountain, even the highest, throughout the immense spaces of ocean interspersed with atolls, will probably strike most people as a formidable objection to my theory. But as continents, as large as the spaces supposed to have subsided, have been raised above the level of the sea,—as whole regions are now rising, for instance, in Scandinavia and South America,—and as no reason can be assigned, why subsidences should not have occurred in some parts of the earth’s crust on as great a scale both in extent and amount as those of elevation, objections of this nature strike me as of little force. The remarkable point is that movements to such an extent should have taken place within a period, during which the polypifers have continued adding matter on and above the same reefs. Another and less obvious objection to the theory will perhaps be advanced from the circumstance, of the lagoons within atolls and within barrier-reefs never having become in any one instance during prolonged subsidences of a greater depth than sixty fathoms, and seldom more than forty fathoms; but we already admit, if the theory be worth considering, that the rate of subsidence has not exceeded that of the upward growth of the coral on the exterior margin; we are, therefore, only further required to admit, that the subsidence has not exceeded in rate the filling up of the interior spaces by the growth of the corals living there, and by the accumulation of sediment. As this filling up must take place very slowly within barrier-reefs lying far from the land, and within atolls which are of large dimensions and which have open lagoons with very few reefs, we are led to conclude that the subsidence thus counter-balanced, must have been slow in an extraordinary degree; a conclusion which accords with our only means, namely, with what is known of the rate and manner of recent elevatory movements, of judging by analogy what is the probable rate of subsidence.

In this chapter it has, I think, been shown, that the theory of subsidence, which we were compelled to receive from the necessity of giving to the corals, in certain large areas, foundations at the requisite depth, explains both the normal structure and the less regular forms of those two great classes of reefs, which have justly excited the astonishment of all persons who have sailed through the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But further to test the truth of the theory, a crowd of questions will occur to the reader: Do the different kinds of reefs, which have been produced by the same kind of movement, generally lie within the same areas? What is their relation of form and position,—for instance, do adjoining groups of atolls, and the separate atolls in these groups, bear the same relation to each other which islands do in common archipelagoes? Have we reason to believe, that where there are fringing-reefs, there has not lately been subsidence; or, for it is almost our only way of ascertaining this point, are there frequently proofs of recent elevation? Can we by this means account for the presence of certain classes of reefs in some large areas, and their entire absence in others? Do the areas which have subsided, as indicated by the presence of atolls and barrier-reefs, and the areas which have remained stationary or have been upraised, as shown by fringing-reefs, bear any determinate relation to each other; and are the dimensions of these areas such as harmonise with the greatness of the subterranean changes, which, it must be supposed, have lately taken place beneath them? Is there any connection between the movements thus indicated, and recent volcanic action? All these questions ought to receive answers in accordance with the theory; and if this can be satisfactorily shown, not only is the theory confirmed, but as deductions, the answers are in themselves important. Under this latter point of view, these questions will be chiefly considered in the following chapter.

I may take this opportunity of briefly considering the appearances, which would probably be presented by a vertical and deep section across a coral formation (referring chiefly to an atoll), formed by the upward growth of coral during successive subsidences. This is a subject worthy of attention, as a means of comparison with ancient coral-strata. The circumferential parts would consist of massive species, in a vertical position, with their interstices filled up with detritus; but this would be the part most subject to subsequent denudation and removal. It is useless to speculate how large a portion of the exterior annular reef would consist of upright coral, and how much of fragmentary rock, for this would depend on many contingencies,—such as on the rate of subsidence, occasionally allowing a fresh growth of coral to cover the whole surface, and on the breakers having force sufficient to throw fragments over this same space. The conglomerate which composes the base of the islets, would (if not removed by denudation together with the exterior reef on which it rests) be conspicuous from the size of the fragments,—the different degrees in which they have been rounded,—the presence of fragments of conglomerate torn up, rounded, and recemented,—and from the oblique stratification. The corals which lived in the lagoon-reefs at each successive level, would be preserved upright, and they would consist of many kinds, generally much branched. In this part, however, a very large proportion of the rock (and in some cases nearly all of it) would be formed of sedimentary matter, either in an excessively fine, or in a moderately coarse state, and with the particles almost blended together. The conglomerate which was formed of rounded pieces of the branched corals, on the shores of the lagoon, would differ from that formed on the islets and derived from the outer coast; yet both might have accumulated very near each other. I have seen a conglomerate limestone from Devonshire like a conglomerate now forming on the shores of the Maldiva atolls. The stratification taken as a whole, would be horizontal; but the conglomerate beds resting on the exterior reef, and the beds of sandstone on the shores of the lagoon (and no doubt on the external flanks) would probably be divided (as at Keeling atoll and at Mauritius) by numerous layers dipping at considerable angles in different directions. The calcareous sandstone and coral-rock would almost necessarily contain innumerable shells, echini, and the bones of fish, turtle, and perhaps of birds; possibly, also, the bones of small saurians, as these animals find their way to the islands far remote from any continent. The large shells of some species of Tridacna would be found vertically imbedded in the solid rock, in the position in which they lived. We might expect also to find a mixture of the remains of pelagic and littoral animals in the strata formed in the lagoon, for pumice and the seeds of plants are floated from distant countries into the lagoons of many atolls: on the outer coast of Keeling atoll, near the mouth of the lagoon, the case of a pelagic Pteropodous animal was brought up on the arming of the sounding lead. All the loose blocks of coral on Keeling atoll were burrowed by vermiform animals; and as every cavity, no doubt, ultimately becomes filled with spathose limestone, slabs of the rock taken from a considerable depth, would, if polished, probably exhibit the excavations of such burrowing animals. The conglomerate and fine-grained beds of coral-rock would be hard, sonorous, white and composed of nearly pure calcareous matter; in some few parts, judging from the specimens at Keeling atoll, they would probably contain a small quantity of iron. Floating pumice and scoriae, and occasionally stones transported in the root of trees (see my “Journal of Researches,” page 549) appear the only sources, through which foreign matter is brought to coral-formations standing in the open ocean. The area over which sediment is transported from coral-reefs must be considerable: Captain Moresby informs me that during the change of monsoons the sea is discoloured to a considerable distance off the Maldiva and Chagos atolls. The sediment of fringing and barrier coral-reefs must be mingled with the mud, which is brought down from the land, and is transported seaward through the breaches, which occur in front of almost every valley. If the atolls of the larger archipelagoes were upraised, the bed of the ocean being converted into land, they would form flat-topped mountains, varying in diameter from a few miles (the smallest atolls being worn away) to sixty miles; and from being horizontally stratified and of similar composition, they would, as Mr. Lyell has remarked, falsely appear as if they had originally been united into one vast continuous mass. Such great strata of coral-rock would rarely be associated with erupted volcanic matter, for this could only take place, as may be inferred from what follows in the next chapter, when the area, in which they were situated, commenced to rise, or at least ceased to subside. During the enormous period necessary to effect an elevation of the kind just alluded to, the surface would necessarily be denuded to a great thickness; hence it is highly improbable that any fringing-reef, or even any barrier-reef, at least of those encircling small islands, would be preserved. From this same cause, the strata which were formed within the lagoons of atolls and lagoon-channels of barrier-reefs, and which must consist in a large part of sedimentary matter, would more often be preserved to future ages, than the exterior solid reef, composed of massive corals in an upright position; although it is on this exterior part that the present existence and further growth of atolls and barrier-reefs entirely depend.

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This book is part of the public domain. Charles Darwin (2001). Coral Reefs. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022,

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