This chapter examines the two instances when Darwin had the opportunity to research coral reefs in the field, at the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in April 1836 and at Mauritius the following month. The visits offered very different circumstances for research and offer contrasting case studies of Darwin’s approach to field work. At the first location Robert FitzRoy and the Beagle’s other officers and crew carried out a hydrographic survey of South Keeling atoll; at Mauritius there was no surveying activity for Darwin to draw upon. Taken together these episodes show how much Darwin’s scientific work had come to depend on his shipmates’ expertise and labor. At South Keeling, Darwin was eager to determine whether the atoll’s deep structure favored his new subsidence-based theory over the prevailing view that atolls formed atop shallow submarine volcano craters. In addition to his natural history investigation of the living and fossil corals atop the reef and in shallow water he gained support for his theory from the surveyors’ deep soundings. At Mauritius, by contrast, Darwin had to conduct soundings himself, revealing that hydrographic practices were essential rather than supplemental to his research on reef structure and the distribution of corals.
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