The Waikiki Aquarium's Coral Collection

The Waikiki Aquarium has one of the largest coral collections in the world. Here’s why.

Photo: Courtesy Waikiki Aquarium

In many parts of the world, coral is now endangered or severely threatened,” says Waikiki Aquarium director Andrew Rossiter. Hawaii’s corals are not currently considered endangered, but damage to them is progressing due to factors such as global warming, marine activities and sedimentation.

For this reason, Waikiki  Aquarium is growing more than 127 species from the South Pacific and Hawaii. Think of the collection as an insurance policy of healthy coral, just waiting to be reintroduced into the wild if a species goes extinct.  

The program began in 1978, when Waikiki Aquarium biologists discovered a way to keep coral alive while in captivity. (The system the aquarium pioneered mimics the ocean, but in a tank: water flows in all directions, and artificial light simulates the wavelength of sunshine). Today, the technology is used worldwide.

How researchers get the coral is a delicate endeavor. “We locate a large colony, say about four feet by four feet,” explains Rossiter. “The coral has all these tiny little fingers on it, most of them about 2-inches long. We remove a finger, put it in an egg crate, then put it inside an incubation tank where it’s given ideal conditions to grow.” The cutting doesn’t hurt the coral. The finger usually replaces itself in about two weeks.

On the aquarium’s lawn, an exhibit called the Coral Farm demonstrates the growing process. A few years ago, coral in the tank grew so large that fish in the exhibit became cramped for space. The aquarium’s solution? It put out a bulletin to other public aquariums and research institutes offering free coral, so long as they paid for the packaging and labor costs. In six to eight weeks, the aquarium shipped more than 3,000 pieces of coral to locations worldwide.

“Some of these corals are very hard to find, so the beauty is that now those institutes and aquariums don’t have to go out into the wild to get their samples of coral,” says Rossiter. “Aquariums should be much more than just a glass room of fishes, they must encompass education, research and conservation.”

In October, Waikiki Aquarium researchers also welcomed live coral from Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, including a newsly discovered speciees. The corals will be displayed in the aquarium’s Northwestern Hawaiian Islands exhibit, which will debut in late 2010 or early 2011.


Photo: istock

 Coral Bullies

Corals may look sweet, but don’t let their beauty fool you. Some fast-growing species intentionally shade neighboring coral, preventing it from receiving light and food. Other species are more aggressive. Brain coral, for example, has a 6-inch sweeper tentacle, which it uses at night to zap corals moving in on its space, killing them on the spot. And you thought they just looked pretty.