RSS Where do corals come from?

MASA Admin

8 May 2007
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For anyone who is a parent we all remember when we had to have “the talk” with our children. Similarly for everyone new to the hobby as well as for the many visitors we all have invariably the question arises: Where do corals come from?”

Unlike fish which everyone pretty much assumes come from a stream, pond or the ocean, the understanding of where corals come from and how they make their way to our tank is for the most part not well understood.

I say that because most hobbyists either get their corals from their local fish store, or as is often the case now they get them online, but in both cases their corals arrive in a bag of water in a styrofoam box. And while the propagation of corals and their shipping has gotten to the point of being common place, most of us do not appreciate what it takes to get corals to us.

What a typical single coral colony can look like on a reef. It was over 2 meters across

For those of us that have been lucky enough to get to go out collecting corals it really does provide an awakening as to what occurs in order to get these beautiful animals to us. Unfortunately because we now have access to so many gorgeous corals I fear that we may take for granted what it takes to get them here and what their journey entails.

First, most corals come from reefs in the tropics so their collection takes place in third world countries. Because of this many of the amenities that we take for granted are not common place there. This is not a criticism, but rather an acknowledgment of the ingenuity and dedication of the people who are doing the collecting.

Most of the collectors I have met worked for a collecting station. That is, a group of divers worked the reefs around a central location where they would bring a haul of corals and where they would be kept until they were shipped out. The divers for the most part were young men who dove with only masks, snorkels and fins.

A typical coral collecting boat

Almost none of the divers I came across used scuba gear to collect corals. The divers I met were some of the friendliest and knowledgeable people working the reef. When I talked about certain corals I was interested in, they would take us to the areas where they thought these corals would be present.

They had an intimate knowledge of the reefs they worked and amazingly could find the reefs they wanted without GPS or other means of navigation. More impressive however was their ability to dive and stay underwater for seemingly minutes at time while collecting the desired corals. It is my opinion that the Olympic committee must have banned them from competing in swimming events as I cannot imagine how anyone else could compete with these gentlemen who would swim in the ocean for 8 hours or more virtually every day.

The collecting boat full of styrofoam boxes full of damp coral colonies

I cannot help but remember how on one trip where we had filled up the collection boxes and had to return to the collecting station, how they opted to stay on the reef and play and collect while we were gone even though there was nothing to hold on to should they get tired. When we returned over 90 minutes later they were still swimming about the reef as though they had just gotten in the water.

as soon as I was on the reef I realized my tank was not even a speck

When I first got on the reef there were several misconceptions I had to overcome that being a hobbyist had given me. First was how big the reefs were and how three dimensional they are. Thinking I had a big reef tank, I had a 1200-gallon tank at the time, as soon as I was on the reef I realized my tank was not even a speck on a reef. Similar to that I had to get over the notion that my tank housed big colonies of coral, which was a joke as on the reef I saw some colonies as big as pianos as well as fields of corals where only one or two species completely dominated.

SPS corals being housed at the collecting station so that maximum flow could occur all around them

But the last misconception was the most relevant to the hobby: that the reef was like a supermarket and I could just swim by and pick a purple coral here and a pink one there just as I would boxes of cereal from a shelf. In reality most of the corals I saw were various shades of brown with little to no color and second the sunlight on the reef was so bright that it washed out most of the color from my vision.

From this I learned that finding the colorful corals we wanted took a lot of effort in that we would swim over virtually a football field section of the reef in order to find one or two colorful corals. Also we were swimming in daylight under a tropical sun and not at night with a blue LED light, so finding a colorful coral of appropriate size was at best challenging.

However, it did give me an appreciation of what the divers have to go through in order to find the corals coveted by the hobby. This is especially true now as I cannot recall the last time I saw a brown sps coral of any type. As I noted, most of the divers do not work with scuba gear, so this restricts most collecting to the top 20-30 feet of the reef. Once a desired coral is found, and only small colonies or sections of a large colony are now collected, it is chiseled from the reef and brought up to the boat.

On the boat, most of the time the corals are not stored in water, but rather they are placed in styrofoam boxes and wrapped in newspaper that has been dipped in seawater. So depending on how long the collection of other corals takes a coral could sit in this styrofoam box for a few minutes to a couple of hours under the hot tropical sun. Once the boxes are filled the boat, and it is generally a small boat, return to the collecting station.

The workers floating the corals before placing them in bags for shipment

At the collecting station the boxes are removed form the boat and the corals are then unpacked and if it is a good collecting station they are rinsed with clean seawater and then placed in holding vats. In the better collecting stations these vats may have pumps to supply water motion as well as protein skimmers and carbon filtration to remove the vast amounts of slime that these newly collected corals produce.

In the better stations the water in the vats is exchanged with clean seawater to further remove the waste produced by the corals. Needless to say all of this requires manpower and electricity both of which add to the cost of the corals collected.
As was the case when I was on the reefs being in a collection station with vats full of colorful corals is akin to being in a toy store as a kid at Christmas, you want everything you see. Usually all of the vats are filled every 3-4 days at which time they are packed in clean seawater and air-shipped in the ubiquitous styrofoam boxes to wholesalers all over the world.

A typical section of brown reef

Since very few of the areas that collect and ship corals have plastic, cardboard or styrofoam manufacturing near them, all of the supplies for shipping need to be shipped in, again adding to the cost of the corals. In addition, air freight from these countries is also a significant cost.
Once the corals arrive at their destination country they typically go through Customs and Fish and Wildlife inspection. All of this requires specific permits including CITES. This is done to make sure what is shipped is correct and to also reduce the likelihood that any one type of coral is over collected.

As with everything else in the process this too adds to the cost of the corals. Once all of this has been done satisfactorally, the corals are moved to the wholesalers, which are kind of mini-collecting stations. Here the corals are inspected with any that did not tolerate shipping removed and then placed in their respective holding tanks.

An atypical section of a reef with individual colonies sitting on top of a massive amount of “live rock”

At this point the wholesalers list these corals as available, with the better ones now showing actual pictures of the individual coral for sale. Then local fish stores as well as online vendors pick what they want and the wholesalers ship it to their facility. From here we hobbyists pick what we want.

After seeing what a coral goes through to make it to our tanks I could not help but be impressed by how much more resilient a coral is than I had ever thought. Most of us think of corals as delicate little flowers that will die if there is even the smallest parameter is off, but in reality a coral may have to go through as many as five transitions before making it to our tanks.

It is amazing to me that so many now make it, and that we are now able to not only kepe but have thrive so many different types of coral. These many transitions also explain why the roughest period for getting our corals to thrive is right after we get them. Considering all that they have to go through is it any wonder that this is the most difficult time. Considering this also explains why captive propagated corals do so well and are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the hobby.
Hopefully my description of what corals go through to get to us explains in part why they have increased in cost. But more importantly I hope I showed how strong these animals are that so many can go through the travails of collection and transport and still make it successfully to our tanks.

And now if someone truly wants to know where corals come from you can give them a pretty good idea of what it takes. Or if you get lazy you can just say the stork brings them, since now no kid I know believes that it brings anything else due to the internet.

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