2nd April 1836

South Keeling Islands
I went on shore. The strip of dry land is only a few hundred yards wide; on the lagoon side we have the white beach, the radiation from which in such a climate is very oppressive; & on the outer coast a solid broad flat of coral rock, which serves to break the violence of the open ocean. Excepting near the lagoon where there is some sand, the land is entirely composed of rounded fragments of coral. In such a loose, dry, stony soil, nothing but the climate of the intertropical regions could produce a vigorous vegetation. Besides the Cocoa nut which is so numerous as at first to appear the only tree, there are five or six other kinds. One called the Cabbage tree, grows to a great bulk in proportion to its height, & has an irregular figure; its wood being very soft. Besides these trees the number of native plants is exceedingly limited; I suppose it does not exceed a dozen. Yet the woods, from the dead branches of the trees, & the arms of the Cocoa nuts is a thick jungle.

There are no true land birds; a snipe & land-rail are the only two "waders", the rest are all birds of the sea. Insects are very few in number; I must except some spiders & a small ant, which swarms in countless numbers in every spot & place. These strips of land are raised only to the height to which during gales of wind the surf can throw loose fragments; their protection is due to the outward & lateral increase of the reef, which must break off the sea. The aspect & constitution of these Islets at once calls up the idea that the land & the ocean are here struggling for the mastery: although terra firma has obtained a footing, the denizens of the other element think their claim at least equal. In every part one meets Hermit-Crabs of more than one species, The large claw or pincers of some of these crabs are most beautifully adapted, when drawn back to form an operculum to the shell, which is nearly as perfect as the proper one which the living molluscous animal formerly possessed. I was assured, and as far as my observation went, it was confirmed, that there are certain kinds of these hermits which always use certain kinds of old shells. Carrying on their backs the houses they have stolen from the neighbouring beach.

Overhead, the trees are occupied by numbers of gannets, frigate birds & terns; from the many nests & smell of the air, this might be called a sea rookery; but how great the contrast with a rookery in the fresh budding woods of England! The gannets, sitting on their rude nests look at an intruder with a stupid yet angry air. The noddies, as their name expresses, are silly little creatures. But there is one charming bird, it is a small and snow white tern, which smoothly hovers at the distance of an arm's length from ones head, its large black eye scanning with quiet curiosity your expression. Little imagination is required to fancy that so light & delicate a body must be tenanted by some wandering fairy spirit.

Captain Fitzroy’s Journal
Until the 12th every one was actively occupied; our boats were sent in all directions, though there was so much wind almost each day as materially to impede surveying. Soundings on the seaward sides of the islands could seldom be obtained; but two moderate days were eagerly taken advantage of to go round the whole group in a boat, and get the few deep soundings… The two principal islands (considering the whole southern group as one island,) lie north and south of each other, fifteen miles apart; and as soundings were obtained two miles north of the large island, it may be inferred, I think, that the sea is not so deep between the two as it is in other directions. Only a mile from the southern extreme of the South Keeling, I could get no bottom with more than a thousand fathoms of line.

The southern cluster of islets encircle a shallow lagoon, of an oval form, about nine miles long, and six wide. The islets are mere skeletons—little better than coral reefs, on which broken coral and dust have been driven by sea and wind till enough has been accumulated to afford place and nourishment for thousands of cocoa-palms. The outer edges of the islands are considerably higher than the inner, but nowhere exceed about thirty feet above the mean level of the sea. The lagoon is shallow, almost filled with branching corals and coral sand. The small northern island is about a mile in diameter; a strip of low coral land, almost surrounding a small lagoon, and thickly covered with cocoa-nut trees.

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