a close up view of a brightly colored frogspawn coral with a striking contrast between a vibrant green fleshy body and bright purple tips.

Coral Brilliance: A Beginner Guide For New Reef Enthusiasts

Updated 2024. The Beginner Guide To Coral

For many saltwater enthusiasts, the allure of the hobby lies particularly in the realm of corals. These stunning organisms not only rank among the world’s most exquisite creatures, but also possess the remarkable ability to grow and reproduce indefinitely. To put it bluntly, coral colonies don’t experience aging in the same way humans do, affording them an indefinite lifespan.

Nevertheless, caring for corals can prove to be a complex endeavor. Evident from the state of our oceans, coral reefs are facing dire threats from temperature fluctuations attributed to global warming. Coral reefs play a pivotal role not only in supporting coral life, but also in providing sanctuary and nourishment for countless species of fish and invertebrates that rely on these ecosystems.

As members of this hobby, we possess the power to either contribute to the solution for our diminishing reefs or contribute to their further decline. Imagine acquiring a new puppy only for it to perish within its first year due to a lack of proper care. We ought to adopt a similar mindset when it comes to coral care.

Opting to begin with beginner-level corals not only ensures immediate success, but also imparts the essential skills needed to manage more intricate and challenging species. As our coral reefs face threats of extinction, let’s unite to foster coral propagation and preservation rather than extracting them from their natural habitats to languish within our home aquariums.

And with that, my passionate discourse concludes!

I) Characteristics Of A Beginner Coral

Let’s start this beginner guide to coral by clarifying the nature of a coral itself! Here’s the breakdown:

  • Coral is a stationary marine invertebrate, usually found in colonies consisting of numerous identical polyps.
  • Being sessile means that it remains fixed in one place and doesn’t move around (akin to anemones, except anemones are mobile).
  • Contrary to popular belief, corals are indeed animals, not plants.
  • While many are capable of photosynthesis, this trait isn’t universal across all corals.
  • Corals can be categorized into several groups: small polyp stony (SPS), large polyp stony (LPS), soft coral, and sea fans.

1) Hardy

Corals come in a range of resilience levels. For instance, there exist non-photosynthetic coral species that rely on consistent food in the water column to sustain themselves—making them unsuitable for beginners.

On the other hand, certain corals display remarkable adaptability, thriving despite the conditions we subject them to. A suitable beginner coral possesses robustness, resilience, and the capacity to endure a bit of mishandling as we navigate the learning curve.

product image of a coral feeder with a long tube, baster-like tip, and syringe like plunber
Julian's Thing Coral Feeder

2) Common

Avoid rushing to purchase an exceptionally rare coral species. Not only will it be costly, but its chances of survival are likely slim. Furthermore, it might have been removed from its natural reef environment where it could have thrived for years.

When starting out, opt for corals that are commonly seen in reefs and widely available in the marine hobby. Keep in mind that not all commonly found corals are automatically easy to care for, so ensure you undertake thorough research beforehand.

3) Tolerant Of Various Water Parameters

The most crucial aspect of maintaining a saltwater aquarium, and often the most challenging for newcomers, is consistency. Consider this: in the ocean, temperature alterations happen slowly, and especially in tropical regions where coral predominantly resides, changes are even more gradual.

Salinity tends to remain stable, and significant as well as minor elements maintain a consistent presence.

The vast expanse of ocean water makes it difficult to quantify its volume, and for water parameters to shift swiftly, substantial die-off or pollution is necessary.

In our home aquariums, changes can transpire rapidly, with swift shifts spelling trouble for corals. Therefore, a suitable beginner coral is one that can endure slight fluctuations as we adapt to this hobby.

front view of api saltwater test kit in original packaging. it's a semi-clear plastic box with a blue plastic lid. A label sticker covers the front, it's blue and yellow, and says API Saltwater Master Test Kit on it
API Saltwater Master Test Kit

4) Easy To Feed

In this beginner guide to coral, all the corals we recommend are photosynthetic.

Here’s the deal: photosynthetic corals house tiny organisms called zooxanthellae within their tissues. The coral offers a habitat for these zooxanthellae, which, in turn, provide nourishment through photosynthesis.

In essence, what this means is that a photosynthetic coral primarily relies on zooxanthellae for its nourishment, yet occasional supplementary feedings can still be beneficial.

small round container of benepets benereef coral food. White with a blue label
Benepets Benereef Coral Food

5) Peaceful

Although corals are inherently sessile, meaning they are fixed in one place, they can develop territorial behaviors as they expand. Much like anemones, specific coral species possess nematocysts within their tentacles, enabling them to sting neighboring corals.

Some species exhibit sweeper tentacles that only emerge during the night, capable of stinging nearby corals. A number of the beginner corals featured in this list fall under this classification, so ensuring each coral has ample space is crucial.

6) Ships & Acclimates Well

I strongly advise considering purchasing captive bred and propagated corals. This not only contributes to reef conservation but also ensures you receive a coral that’s well-adapted.

However, this may not always be feasible, so we suggest opting for corals with a proven history of successful acclimation and transportation. Still, it’s essential to follow proper procedures like drip acclimation, dipping, and cleaning for all new corals before introducing them to your display tank.

7) Grows Quickly

It’s a bit of a double-edged situation. Some corals grow at such a rapid rate that they can overtake your tank – not necessarily a bad thing, but it comes with its challenges.

For instance, I excluded Pulsing Xenia from the coral list due to its rapid growth. Unlike most stony corals, which grow slowly and allow for adjustments to calcium and alkalinity dosing, fast-growing corals can lead to quicker changes in your tank.

However, dealing with a fast-growing coral can provide valuable experience, and you’ll often find fellow hobbyists willing to share frags for free.

product shot of red sea AB+, a coral food. The tall rectangular black box is on the left, and the black circular bottle is on the right. In the foreground is the included plastic measuring cup filled partway with a yellow substance
Red Sea Reef Energy AB+ Coral Food

8) Not Prone To Disease/Pests

All living creatures will get sick from time to time.  You can’t prevent that.

But there are some species that are more prone to disease than others.  You might be asking yourself, “If these corals are prone to disease, how do they survive in the wild?”

Well, the answer is that in the wild there is incredible biodiversity that just can’t be duplicated in the home aquaria. A species that may be hardy in the wild, will die easier because some of its needs aren’t being met.

Two Part Dosing Kit

II) The Beginner Guide To Coral: Choosing A Healthy Specimen

If you’re making an online purchase, this section might not be directly applicable. Nonetheless, you can still use some of these approaches while researching vendors or considering a WYSIWYG coral.

For your initial research, LiveAquaria is a solid starting point. They’re an online retailer that I’ve personally had positive experiences with in the past.

1) Ask About Quarantine Procedures

In an ideal scenario, your local fish store (LFS) would implement a thorough quarantine period of 2-3 weeks for all newly arrived corals before selling them. If your LFS actually follows this practice, consider yourself fortunate and confident in buying from them!

When engaging with your LFS, inquire about their specific quarantine (QT) procedures. Do they utilize dedicated quarantine tanks? Are medications used? Do they conduct coral dips? Are pest inspections and removals part of their process?

Alternatively, do they promptly place the corals on display without quarantine? Clearly, the more robust their quarantine practices, the better.

World Wide Corals is known for an extensive quarantine protocol for their livestock, but keep in mind that their products may come at a higher cost.

small blue bottle on white background with black dropper for lid
Coral RX Concentrated Coral Dip

2) Purchase & Ask LFS To Hold For Two Weeks

After selecting your desired coral, consider requesting your local fish store (LFS) to reserve it for you for about a week. This precaution ensures that if the coral doesn’t survive within that timeframe, you’ll have confirmation that it wasn’t in good health, and you’ll be eligible for a refund or an opportunity to select a different coral.

Another practice you can adopt is to revisit the store after two weeks to reevaluate the coral for any indications of disease or issues.

While not all stores may offer this service, the reputable ones often do.

3) Buy Aquacultured Corals

Fragging corals can be a bit trickier compared to fish, mainly due to the extended time it takes (often years) for a coral to reach a size suitable for fragging.

Moreover, this approach isn’t always optimal due to the current practice of cutting corals into fragments for resale instead of allowing them to develop into larger colonies.

However, it’s worth noting that when you opt for aquacultured corals, you’re making a positive choice by avoiding the removal of corals from their natural reef habitats.

product picture on white background of coral frag kit. A blue leather like container is open with several different tools attached via elastic bands.
Coral Frag Kit

4) Check For Signs Of Illness/Pests

Assessing the health of corals can be a challenging task, as identifying illnesses isn’t always straightforward. But this beginner guide to coral will give you a few things to look out for.

1. Bleaching: Corals can expel their symbiotic zooxanthellae, resulting in a loss of color and a whitening of the coral. While not always fatal, it signifies stress.
2. Gaping Mouth: Some coral polyps are too tiny to observe, but larger LPS corals reveal their mouths. Healthy polyps should have firmly closed mouths.
3. Brown Slime: Certain corals are susceptible to brown slime infections, which can devastate an entire colony. This infection manifests as a brown jelly-like substance at the base of the polyps.

Detecting pests can be even more challenging, yet they can be managed with careful inspection and coral dipping. Conduct this process prior to adding coral to your display tank, which is why using a quarantine tank for all coral is strongly recommended.

Various pests such as worms, aiptasia, nudibranchs, and starfish can be potential concerns.

5) Polyp Extension

A vibrant coral should display extended polyps for a significant portion of the day. This polyp extension facilitates the photosynthetic zooxanthellae within the coral to absorb light and generate nourishment for the coral.

Since each coral variety features distinct polyp appearances, you can simply use your mobile phone to search for an image of a healthy specimen of the particular species.

III) Beginner Guide To Coral: Acclimation & Coral Dips

Acclimation

As an absolute minimum, it’s crucial to conduct a temperature acclimation process for all new coral. This process typically takes around 30 minutes and is quite simple.

Step one entails equalizing the temperature between the water in your tank and the water within the bag. A simple method to achieve this is to turn off your tank’s lights and gently float the bag inside. Allow the bag to float for about thirty minutes or until the temperature nearly matches.

Here’s a video I made all about it!

Dips

Dipping your corals is an essential step! The first time you try it, you’ll be amazed by the numerous tiny critters that are removed. Various products and techniques exist for coral dipping, but I’ll suggest a straightforward method that has proven effective for me.

If you’re interested in a more detailed approach, you can watch this brief video by clicking on this sentence!

I recommend using a product called Coral RX, shown below. This involves a straightforward process utilizing 2-3 buckets.

After completing the temperature acclimation, place your corals into a container with a mixture of water from your display tank and Coral RX. Using a turkey baster, gently direct a flow of water over the corals to dislodge unwanted hitchhikers. After approximately five minutes, thoroughly rinse the coral in another bucket containing clean tank water. Finally, you can mount the coral in either your quarantine tank or display tank.

product shot on white background. small black glass bottle with dropper on the left, with larger circular container on the right.
Brightwell Aquatics MediCoral Dip

IV) The Beginner Guide To Coral: Placement, Feeding, & Flow

Each type of coral comes with its own specific needs. Certain corals demand high-intensity lighting, positioning them closer to the tank’s top where the lights are situated. Conversely, some varieties require ample water movement, requiring placement in the direct flow path of a wavemaker. It’s important to familiarize yourself with your coral’s specific requirements before finalizing its permanent location.

Placement

Placement of corals revolves around light and water flow. It’s better for corals to receive too little light than too much, so it’s prudent to begin with lower light settings.

When determining where to position your coral, consider these factors:

1. Light: Part of acclimating your corals involves adapting them to your tank’s lighting. Many local fish stores (LFS) use lower levels of PAR in their coral tanks. If you were to directly transfer your coral to your tank without this acclimation process, they could suffer from bleaching and mortality. Gradually increase light intensity over a few weeks, starting with lower levels.


2. Height: For corals that require intense lighting, place them near the top of your aquascape. Corals preferring lower PAR levels should be positioned closer to the bottom.


3. Growth: Certain corals exhibit rapid growth and can spread throughout your tank or cover a piece of rock entirely. Green Star Polyps, for instance, grow quickly. If you wish to limit their expansion, consider affixing them to a smaller piece of live rock, separate from your main aquascape.


4. Aggressiveness: Some corals develop extended sweeper tentacles that emerge at night, stinging neighboring corals. If your coral exhibits this behavior, ensure it’s mounted at a distance from other coral species.

small white plastic tube with two blue screw on caps, one on each end
Tunze Coral Gum Epoxy Putty
large clear bottle of extra thick super glue with red removable tip
Extra Thick Super Glue

Feeding

All the corals listed below are photosynthetic, relying primarily on aquarium light for their nutrition.

Nevertheless, providing a weekly feeding to all corals can offer benefits. There’s a variety of excellent coral food options available, so you can find my recommendations in my gear guide titled “Top Five Beginner Coral Foods.”

PolypLab Reef-Roids Coral Food

Flow

All corals need water flow to thrive, without exception. However, specific coral species have varying demands for flow intensity.

Among our top ten beginner corals, a moderate level of water flow is necessary. This can be achieved using a robust return pump or a wavemaker.

Flow is crucial for corals to maintain their structure and receive nourishment. When placing corals, consider their flow requirements to ensure optimal conditions.

close up product shot of aquaillumination nero wavemaker. It has a black case body, and green propellers. It's on a white background, with swirling water around it to simulate water movement
AI Nero Wavemaker

V) The Beginner Guide To Coral: Top 10

1) Green Star Polyps (Pachyclavularia)

By PilarMeca - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19449198

Green Star Polyps (GSP) are an excellent choice for beginner coral enthusiasts. These encrusting corals exhibit rapid growth over surfaces such as live rock, acrylic, or glass. Featuring a striking contrast between a purple base and vibrant green polyps, many hobbyists enjoy creating GSP gardens by placing them on small rock pieces.

This coral is easy to propagate and attach using a bit of super glue. Once attached, it will quickly establish itself and start spreading.

Known for their robustness, there’s one important point to note. Keep an eye on their growth rate. Without proper maintenance, GSP can proliferate quickly and dominate your aquascape. Regular trimming might be needed to maintain a balanced appearance.

BRS Extra Thick Super Glue

2) Scoly (Scolymia)

By Jessica Rosenkrantz - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57496825

Unfortunately, I don’t have my own pictures to showcase this coral, but trust me, it’s much more impressive in person!

Scoly corals are among the most coveted LPS corals in the market. They display a stunning array of colors and patterns, and some single-polyp variations can even fetch prices exceeding $500 each!

Personally, I find those collector prices to be quite extravagant. I’m content with a more modest single-color Scoly.

For placement, consider positioning these corals at the tank’s bottom, providing them with moderate flow. Regular coral feedings on a weekly basis will contribute to their well-being, ensuring they thrive for many years to come.

3) Brain Coral (Favia)

By Anders Poulsen, Deep Blue (http://www.colours.dk/) - http://www.colours.dk/anders/diving/corals/honeycomb/honeycomb.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18440130

Apologies for the quality of this image! If you possess a better picture that you’re willing to share, feel free to send it my way, and I’ll gladly attribute it to you!

Favia corals are among the most prevalent LPS corals within the hobby. They exhibit a somewhat aggressive nature, extending long sweeper tentacles during the night. As a precaution, it’s advisable to position them a considerable distance away from other corals.

Moderate lighting and flow are suitable for Favia corals, and they’ll greatly benefit from weekly supplementary feedings. Available in an array of colors, these corals are beginner-friendly and quite straightforward to maintain.

Truly, just search “Favia Coral” in your web browser to witness the remarkable beauty they possess!

4) Toadstool/Finger Leather Coral (Sarcophyton/Alcyonacea)

Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]
Derek Keats from Johannesburg, South Africa [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Both of these options serve as excellent beginner soft corals. They are hassle-free to cultivate, and occasionally, they might even outgrow their space, requiring you to frag them and share with fellow enthusiasts.

The conventional leather coral on the right is reasonably priced, though its coloration might not be the most vibrant. On the left, the Toadstool coral boasts a vivid green hue but comes at a relatively higher cost.

Moderate lighting, moderate flow, and regular supplementary feedings will promote the flourishing of these soft corals.

For mounting them on your live rock, a rubber band works effectively. Over a couple of weeks, they’ll establish their attachment on their own.

5) Branching Frogspawn/Hammer Coral (Euphyllia)

a close up view of a brightly colored frogspawn coral with a striking contrast between a vibrant green fleshy body and bright purple tips.
By Gdiggers - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25342198
harum.koh from Kobe city, Japan [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Euphyllia corals undoubtedly rank as my personal favorites. A few years back, you could easily find these at a reasonable price, but more recently, their prices have surged.

Frogspawn and Hammer corals come in two varieties: branching and wall. Branching Euphyllia corals are somewhat easier to manage because if one branch contracts a disease, you can often excise it and save the rest of the coral. However, with wall-style corals, this approach isn’t feasible.

Wall corals also exhibit slower growth rates, making the branching type a more practical choice.

LPS corals do possess sweeper tentacles that emerge at night. To ensure their well-being, place them near members of their own species or far enough from other corals to avoid conflicts.

With moderate flow, moderate light, and supplementary feeding, these exquisite LPS corals have the potential to outlive you with proper care!

6) Elegance Coral (Catalaphyllia)

By Tappinen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Slightly more demanding to maintain compared to some of the other entries on this list, the Elegance Coral shares close kinship with Frogspawn and Hammer Coral.

For optimal placement, choose a sandy substrate, as this coral is recognized for doubling its size during the day. Ensuring ample space is essential to prevent stinging neighboring corals.

Moderate flow, moderate lighting, and supplementary feedings constitute its requirements. With a range of colors available, its sizeable fleshy polyps can beautifully gleam under actinic lighting!

7) Duncan Coral (Duncanopsammia)

Duncan Coral

Similar to the previously mentioned Elegance Coral, Duncans exhibit large fleshy polyps that remain extended both day and night.

Although these LPS corals can be affixed to the aquascape, they tend to thrive with a secure mounting in the sandy substrate.

Having been successfully aquacultured for years, these stunning corals do present a slightly greater challenge to maintain. They necessitate moderate lighting and flow to flourish.

8) Acan Coral (Acanthastrea)

© My First Fish Tank 2019

My second favorite coral, Acans offer an array of colors that seems almost limitless, with certain small fragments fetching prices in the hundreds of dollars!

No need to worry though, as this LPS coral is also available in stunning and reasonably priced fragments, much like the one depicted in the image above. I was fortunate to receive this coral as a gift, initially comprising two polyps. Within six months, it multiplied to 15!

Acans exhibit rapid growth and a peaceful disposition, thriving when affixed to your aquascape. They also appreciate weekly coral feedings and thrive under conditions of moderate flow and light.

9) Zoa Corals (Zoanthids)

By Inktomi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80885121

I assure you, Zoas are a subject of intense fascination among hobbyists! Their popularity has surged due to the extensive range of color variations, garnering a dedicated following that almost resembles a cult.

While this LPS coral might not top my personal favorites, its vibrant color diversity and rapid growth rate render it an excellent choice for novice coral enthusiasts.

However, a word of caution for buyers: certain Zoas contain elevated levels of palytoxin, a substance potentially harmful or fatal to humans. Prior to purchasing Zoas, ensure you educate yourself about safe handling practices.

These corals thrive in conditions of high flow and moderate to high light, swiftly forming a flourishing garden reminiscent of flowers in your tank. They also make for fantastic frags to exchange with fellow hobbyists!

10) Blasto Coral (Blastomussa)

Benzoni, F. [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

Completing our top ten selections are the Blastomussa Corals. These LPS corals bear a resemblance to Acans and Zoas, yet exhibit a unique polyp structure.

Renowned for their rapid growth, this LPS coral comes in several color variations, albeit not as extensive as the Zoas.

Endowed with a peaceful disposition, Blastos thrive in environments with low flow and moderate lighting. And yes, echoing the pattern of every other coral on this list, they too flourish with the advantage of weekly supplementary feedings!

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