[ Coral Reefs : Chapter V. 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 (Kotzebue’s “First
Voyage,” volume iii., page 331.); 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.

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 Lutke, regarding the Pacific; and from Moresby (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.) with 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 (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.) 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.

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
(The 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!), 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

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

Mr. Williams (Williams’s “Narrative of Missionary Enterprise,” page 31.)
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.” (Kotzebue’s “First Voyage,” volume iii., page 168.) A
storm lately entirely swept away two of the Caroline islands, and converted
them into shoals; it partly, also, destroyed two other islands. (M.
Desmoulins in “Comptes Rendus,” 1840, page 837.) 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.” (“West of England
Journal”, No. I., page 35.) 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 (Beechey’s “Voyage to the
Pacific,” chapter vii., and Wallis’s “Voyage in the ‘Dolphin’,” chapter
iv.), 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” (See an extract from Pyrard’s Voyage in Captain
Owen’s paper on the Maldiva Archipelago, in the “Geographical Journal”,
volume ii., page 84.): 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.

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

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

CC–The lagoon-channel between the reef and the shores of the now encircled

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 (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.) east and west 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.

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.

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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.


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.?)


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.


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
(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.),
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.

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 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 Lutke’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.)


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.


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.


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.

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