The romance of coral has still to be written. There still exists a widespread opinion that the coral reef and the coral island are the work of an "insect." This fabulous insect, accredited with the genius of Brunel and the patience of Job, has been humorously enough held up before the children of many generations as an example of industry--a thing to be admired, a model to be followed.
As a matter of fact, nothing could be more slothful or slow, more given up to a life of ease and degeneracy, than the "reef-building polypifer"--to give him his scientific name. He is the hobo of the animal world, but, unlike the hobo, he does not even tramp for a living. He exists as a sluggish and gelatinous worm; he attracts to himself calcareous elements from the water to make himself a house--mark you, the sea does the building--he dies, and he leaves his house behind him--and a reputation for industry, beside which the reputation of the ant turns pale, and that of the bee becomes of little account.
On a coral reef you are treading on rock that the reef-building polypifers of ages have left behind them as evidences of their idle and apparently useless lives. You might fancy that the reef is formed of dead rock, but it is not: that is where the wonder of the thing comes in--a coral reef is half alive. If it were not, it would not resist the action of the sea ten years. The live part of the reef is just where the breakers come in and beyond. The gelatinous rock-building polypifers die almost at once, if exposed to the sun or if left uncovered by water.
Sometimes, at very low tide, if you have courage enough to risk being swept away by the breakers, going as far out on the reef as you can, you may catch a glimpse of them in their living state--great mounds and masses of what seems rock, but which is a honeycomb of coral, whose cells are filled with the living polypifers. Those in the uppermost cells are usually dead, but lower down they are living.
Always dying, always being renewed, devoured by fish, attacked by the sea--that is the life of a coral reef. It is a thing as living as a cabbage or a tree. Every storm tears a piece off the reef, which the living coral replaces; wounds occur in it which actually granulate and heal as wounds do of the human body.
There is nothing, perhaps, more mysterious in nature than this fact of the existence of a living land: a land that repairs itself, when injured, by vital processes, and resists the eternal attack of the sea by vital force, especially when we think of the extent of some of these lagoon islands or atolls, whose existences are an eternal battle with the waves.
Unlike the island of this story (which is an island surrounded by a barrier reef of coral surrounding a space of sea--the lagoon), the reef forms the island. The reef may be grown over by trees, or it may be perfectly destitute of important vegetation, or it may be crusted with islets. Some islets may exist within the lagoon, but as often as not it is just a great empty lake floored with sand and coral, peopled with life different to the life of the outside ocean, protected from the waves, and reflecting the sky like a mirror.
When we remember that the atoll is a living thing, an organic whole, as full of life, though not so highly organised, as a tortoise, the meanest imagination must be struck with the immensity of one of the structures.
Vliegen atoll in the Low Archipelago, measured from lagoon edge to lagoon edge, is sixty miles long by twenty miles broad, at its broadest part. In the Marshall Archipelago, Rimsky Korsacoff is fifty-four miles long and twenty miles broad; and Rimsky Korsacoff is a living thing, secreting, excreting, and growing more highly organised than the cocoa-nut trees that grow upon its back, or the blossoms that powder the hotoo trees in its groves.
The story of coral is the story of a world, and the longest chapter in that story concerns itself with coral's infinite variety and form.
Out on the margin of the reef where Dick was spearing fish, you might have seen a peach-blossom-coloured lichen on the rock. This lichen was a form of coral. Coral growing upon coral, and in the pools at the edge of the surf branching corals also of the colour of a peach-bloom.
Within a hundred yards of where Emmeline was sitting, the pools contained corals of all colours, from lake-red to pure white, and the lagoon behind her--corals of the quaintest and strangest forms.
Dick had speared several fish, and had left them lying on the reef to be picked up later on. Tired of killing, he was now wandering along, examining the various living things he came across.
Huge slugs inhabited the reef, slugs as big as parsnips, and somewhat of the same shape; they were a species of *Bech de mer*. Globeshaped jelly-fish as big as oranges, great cuttlefish bones flat and shining and white, shark's teeth, spines of echini; sometimes a dead scarus fish, its stomach distended with bits of coral on which it had been feeding; crabs, sea urchins, sea-weeds of strange colour and shape; star-fish, some tiny and of the colour of cayenne pepper, some huge and pale. These and a thousand other things, beautiful or strange, were to be found on the reef.
Dick had laid his spear down, and was exploring a deep bath-like pool. He had waded up to his knees, and was in the act of wading further when he was suddenly seized by the foot. It was just as if his ankle had been suddenly caught in a clove hitch and the rope drawn tight. He screamed out with pain and terror, and suddenly and viciously a whip-lash shot out from the water, lassoed him round the left knee, drew itself taut, and held him.