An early puzzle: Coral on top of Bald Head
Bald Head, dominating the entrance to King George Sound, was named by Vancouver in 1791. It was visible to the early seafarers ‘from 14 leagues out to sea’. Bald Head has retained its name and is often referred to by early visitors to the Sound in their journals.
Vancouver appears to have hiked to the end of the peninsula (later named Flinders Peninsula) as he observed in his diary the existence on the peak of Bald Head of ‘coral’. ‘Nowhere have I seen it so high up and so perfect’ he wrote in his journal. This seemed to him evidence that the over many years the sea level must have fallen.
The so-called ‘coral’ became a matter of fascination among the scientists who followed Vancouver’s expedition. Later visitors thought it might be petrified tree parts. Francois Peron, a naturalist on Baudin’s expedition, thought that the coral or petrified trees sections were in fact ‘more or less hard sandstone, which preserves merely the shape of the plants that served them as moulds’. They were not genuine fossils. Further, contrary to Vancouver, the French scientists interpreted the evidence as showing that the sandstone peninsula leading to Bald Head had risen from the floor of the sea. It must have been a ‘peaceful upheaval’, according to Peron.
Captain King, who visited King George Sound in 1818 and obtained specimens of the material, was of the view that the material was ‘merely sand agglutinated by calcareous matter’, essentially agreeing with Peron.
De Sainson and M, Gaimard, officers on d’Urville’s Astrolabe, wrote that on their visit to the top of Bald Head in 1826 they ‘did not find the faintest trace of any coral’. However, they did report that the top of Bald Head was ‘pocked with meteors’, a rather dubious claim.
To put matters to a temporary rest, none other than Charles Darwin in 1836 made the trip to inspect the limestone material and provided a detailed explanation in his account The Voyage of the Beagle. It was largely consistent with that of Peron and King. Interest in fossils, geomorphology, and variations in fauna and flora produced the intellectual ferment that eventually led to Darwin’s groundbreaking The Origin of the Species published in 1859.