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The following text is taken from our latest book Atlas of the Maldives - A reference for Travellers, Divers and Sailors. This edition has been completely revised for 2018.
184 years ago, Captain Robert Moresby, completed the first comprehensive survey of the Maldives. His charts, completed in 1836, were so accurate, it was “now so easy to navigate the intricate channels of that vast group, as it is to thread the streets of London”.
The mapping of the Maldives was a significant achievement that resulted in not only safer shipping routes and increased trade for the region, but also provided Charles Darwin, who had recently returned from his voyage on HMS Beagle in October 1836, with much needed information to support his novel theory on subsidence and coral reef formation on volcanic, rocky foundations.
Darwin’s simple explanation was that the foundation of the atoll and barrier reef structures to which they were attached had subsided, and that during this gradual downward movement reefs had grown upwards.
“[The Maldives atolls] rested on the foundation of rocky bases which must have originally been at that limited depth for which reef building corals can grow; that were brought into the requisite position, or level, at different periods through movement of the earth’s crust, which if not uplifted into the requisite position, they must of necessity have gradually subsided into it.”
The theory, outlined in Darwin’s: The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842), challenged the established view on coral reef formation prevailing at the time. This view, stubbornly maintained by some in the British Admiralty for years even after the publication of Darwin’s Book, was outlined in The Surveys of the Indian Navy (1845):
" ... the present archipelago [Maldives] ...
consists of an immense chain or succession of submarine volcanoes, which have upheaved the crust of the earth to within a short distance of the ocean’s surface. Upon the summits of the cones of this ridge, coral forests have sprung up...The structure of what, in the language of the archipelago, is called an Atoll, tends strongly to corroborate the opinion we have formed on its volcanic origin. An atoll is a circular group of islands extending around a basin of deep water. The islands indicate the rim, and the basin the hollow of the crater.”
Darwin predicted the thickness of coral would be to a great depth. A fact that was not proven until more than 140 years later, when seismic testing and drilling was conducted in North Male Atoll in the 1970’s.
The depth of the volcanic base was measured at 2.2 kms and it has been estimated the Maldives have experienced a long-term continual subsidence rate of about 3-4 cm every thousand years over the past 50-60 million years.
Atlas of the Maldives (2018 edition), by Timothy Godfrey.
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