At first glance, the Maldives appears as a group of islands with sandy shores, suspended in a cerulean blue ocean. But ask geologists, and they’d say that’s a wrong assumption.
Click start to play today’s Word Search, where you can find the word “atoll”.
For one, atolls are not primarily formed of sand. The beautiful Maldives are actually a group of coral islands, constructed diligently over thousands of years by tiny, sea anemone-like creatures called coral polyps. According to US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coral islands or atolls can take as long as 30 million years to form fully.
Think of volcanos rising above the ocean’s surface. Atolls are formed as a ring of coral surrounds the volcano. Long years after the volcano erodes and recedes into the ocean, the atoll remains, its coral reef surrounding a unique habitat that is protected from the sea: a lagoon.
The Maldivian atolls rest on top of an ancient volcanic mountain range just off the coast of India, rising from a coral base that is thousands of metres deep.
Atolls are some of the planet’s most complex, vibrant structures, according to US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa) Earth Observatory. And even though scientists have been studying them since the mid-1800s (English naturalist Charles Darwin was the first to outline how they form), atolls are still full of mystery and enigma.
Since they are located in remote areas of the ocean, they are difficult to reach, let alone comprehensively map or analyse.
But history has shown that these beautiful, innocuous coral islands have been perilous. Often hidden by ocean waves, they have been responsible for thousands of shipwrecks and stranded boats – from ancient Polynesian canoes to modern American warships. In other cases, countries like the US, UK and France have used their deserted, often uninhabited locations as testing sites for nuclear weapons. The first hydrogen bomb, for example, was tested by the US at Bikini Atoll, in the Pacific Ocean.
Today, several of the world’s atolls are beloved for their out-of-reach, picturesque locations and the incredible marine life drawn to their coral reefs.