Today, Roberta and I are going coral gardening. I've given her the primer and now we're off.
The beach is right below Makaira. You walk down the steps, cross the road, and step on to the beach. Two minutes maximum walking distance. It's low tide, so getting out to the outer reef is going to be difficult. I put on my tough-soled shoes (they're my booties for diving) and walk out on to the reef with Roberta. There's no path, so I try to step only where no coral is growing. It's tough going - coral is everywhere, though it's not in the best of shape. Cyclone Tomas has shaved the top of the reef - the coral colonies look like day old beard stubble. When we reach mid-calf depth, we both lay down and skim our way across the remaining coral beds to deeper water.
Looking down, the view is amazing. The waves have imploded the reef, piling coral fragments into large heaps on the ground and scouring the reef down to the rocky base. I explain to Roberta that all she has to do is pick up a coral fragment and wedge it into a hole in the reef rock. Within a week, the coral fragment will grow skin at its base and attach itself. A coral fragment is essentially a clone from its detached parent and can suvive alone just fine. In fact, coral reefs grow not only from sexual reproduction, but from storms such as Tomas - where coral fragments are distrbuted out over a reef. The key however, is finding a fragment that does not have skin recession.
All corals have a layer of "skin". The skin contains zooxanthellae (besides being difficult to pronounce, they're single celled plants that convert the sun's radiation into sugars to feed the coral - a form of photosynthesis). If corals are knocked over and lie on the ground for too long, the skin on the ground side will eventually recede. Signs of recession are obvious: the coral is white and algae is growing on it. Even if there is a small patch of recession on an otherwise healthy coral fragment, it's best to leave the fragment on the ground. It's as good as dead.
The coral fragments on the ground are in all shapes, colors, and sizes. I tell Roberta that if she wants to have some creative fun, she can create a patch of reef with a certain coral scheme (like an English garden). For instance if she finds a lot of blue coral fragments, she can locate them all in one area and end up with a blue coral reef. She smiles pondering the idea. Of course, there's always a caveat to a rule: colors on coral are sometimes determined by their depth in the water. A coral that is brown at 15 meters, may turn blue at 1 meter. But if you place a blue coral fragment into the reef substrate at the same depth as you find the fragment, you have a pretty good guarantee that the coral will remain blue.
After two hours of snorkeling (and seeing the huge anemone colony from the previous blog post), we swam to shore. I had an absolute blast - one of the best days in Fiji and I wasn't even scuba diving! I could do this everyday and never get bored. Recreating a coral landscape - a place for fish to come and live - is just fantastic! So if you're keen on coral farming or just the idea - Makaira is a great place to come! There are acres upon acres of reef substrate that need planting!
The underwater coral pictures you are seeing are of an aquarium, where this same process is replicated. A coral frag is placed on or in "live rock", the aquarist adds light, clean water, and the proper nutrients (calcium, strontium, etc.) and the coral grows into a colony. Coral fragments in the aquarium trade sell anywhere from US$20 to $300 a fragment. Seeing all the coral fragments on the seafloor killed me: millions of dollars of inventory and no way of getting them to Los Angeles or Sydney for distribution. UGH!!!! I could be rich, rich, rich!!!!