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A Garden Under the Sea

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Animal Updates | Fish | Invertebrates

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

In Focus

Brightly colored corals - popup

When you visit the Aquarium, one of the first exhibits to catch your eye is Tropical Pacific Preview. This exhibit transports you to a shallow reef where brightly colored corals pop against a plain backdrop, while a royal blue tang fish weaves in and out of the water.

Aquarist Briana Fodor is here to give you a glimpse of what it takes to care for live coral here at the Aquarium.

Did you know that the neon-colored bunches of coral in Tropical Pacific Preview are alive? They sure are, and live coral needs constant tending just like a garden.

While most of the coral you see in the Aquarium’s larger exhibits is not real, our aquarists have learned so much about caring for these delicate animals in recent years that we have expanded the numbers of live corals in our exhibits.

In fact, the live coral exhibit requires my attention at least three times a week similar to other animal exhibits at the Aquarium!

Located behind the scenes is an area where we keep live coral and other animals. I’ll typically gather about eight pieces that are ready to be “planted,” like the small polyp stony corals and the bright blue Tahitian maxima clam you see in the photo above.

Most of the live coral in this area is grown sustainably from coral frags. Coral frags are like cuttings from a plant. We can cut a branch off a large colony and reattach it to grow bigger clones of that colony. It’s a form of asexual reproduction and naturally occurs in the wild when storms break apart larger colonies in the wild.

While I get my wetsuit and dive gear ready, our intern Celeste takes the buckets filled with coral down to the exhibit, where she’ll begin acclimating each piece to the water temperature they’ll be placed in. She also mixes the special putty that we use to attach the coral to the rocks in the exhibit.

Once we’ve set up the dive equipment, it’s time to start gardening underwater. Celeste hands me each piece of coral. I place it the bottom of the exhibit while I swim around looking for the right location to attach it. I keep the putty and some tools in a shark-themed fanny pack so that I can access everything easily.

Celeste or another volunteer walks around to the outside of the tank and helps me place each piece with a lot of pointing and hand gestures. She’ll also get my attention and alert me to pieces of coral that have moved slightly or fallen off of their original perch.

With a lot trial and error and research, we’ve learned a lot about coral and how it grows. For instance, some coral does better when it’s close to the light, while others fare better in the shadows. Gardening underwater really is a lot like tending to plants and flowers in an outdoor garden.

Next time you are admiring the bright oranges, greens, and pinks of the live coral in Tropical Pacific Preview, we hope you have a moment to take in the beauty of this underwater garden.