Famous naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin is perhaps best known as the author of the 1859 study On the Origin of Species, which helped revolutionize biology and the study of evolution. What many don’t know is that he has also contributed to the field of oceanography.
Charles Darwin was born on 12th February 1809, in the town of Shrewsbury, England. He initially wanted to study medicine at Edinburgh and become a physician like his father, but he ended up not liking it. His father suggested that he should become an Anglican clergyman at Cambridge. He met botanist John Stevens Henslow there, and they became friends. This was the start of his love for natural sciences.
His book, The Voyage of the Beagle, is a detailed memoir of his time aboard the HMS Beagle, which set sail on 27th December 1831. The ship was to sail off the coast of South America to carry out chronometer surveys. Charles Darwin embarked as a naturalist, but he did not initially have much experience. Of the five years that the HMS Beagle’s journey lasted, 18 months were spent at sea. Among the places that he visited were Rio de Janeiro, Patagonia, The Falkland Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, the Australian Coast, Mauritius and, of course, the Galapagos Archipelago. It is in this time that he did research and observations that would lead him to his theory of natural selection. However, he also made very important observations regarding the geology of the islands and coastlines that the Beagle visited, especially the Coral Formations.
He proposed a theory regarding the formation of atolls (coral reefs that form small islands that have a lagoon in their center). According to it, they are produced by a volcano, which is sinking because of its weight. The coral reef at the rim of the volcano grows up as it sinks. Small coral islands are formed in a ring around the sunken volcano, as long as the rate at which the coral grows keeps up with how fast the island sinks. He published this in an 1842 study named “The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs”. He returned home in England on October 1836.
Charles Darwin may be best known for his research in the theory of evolution, but his contributions to oceanography are equally valuable.