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The vast majority of these islands are volcanic in origin.
The few exceptions have tectonic origins where plate movements have lifted the deep ocean floor on the surface.
The polyps belong to a group of animals known as Cnidaria, which also includes sea anemones and jellyfish.If the land subsides slowly, the fringing reefs keep pace by growing upwards on a base of older, dead coral, forming a barrier reef enclosing a lagoon between the reef and the land.A barrier reef can encircle an island, and once the island sinks below sea level a roughly circular atoll of growing coral continues to keep up with the sea level, forming a central lagoon.As communities established themselves on the shelves, the reefs grew upwards, pacing rising sea levels.
Reefs that rose too slowly could become drowned reefs.
The corals could then overgrow the hills, forming the present cays and reefs.