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Many saltwater hobbyists get into the hobby specifically for corals. Corals are not only some of the most beautiful animals in the entire world, they can grow and reproduce forever! No joke, coral colonies don’t age like we do so their life-span is unspecified.
That being true, corals are also tricky to care for. As can be seen throughout our oceans, temperature fluctuations brought on by global warming are wiping out coral reefs. Coral reefs are not only important for corals, they play host to thousands of species of fish and invertebrates that rely on the reefs for their protection and sustenance.
As hobbyists, we can either be the solution to our disappearing reefs, or we can be contributors to their degradation. Imagine how you would feel if you bought a new puppy, and it died within its first year because you didn’t know how to take care of it? Well, we need to think the same way about corals.
Starting out with beginner corals will not only bring you more success immediately, it will teach you the necessary skills to be able to maintain more difficult to keep species.
As our reefs disappear, let’s all band together to propagate and care for corals, not tear them from their reefs just to die in our home aquaria.
And I’m now officially getting off my soapbox!
I) Characteristics Of A Beginner Coral
Before we begin, it might help to clarify what a coral actually is! So here you go:
- Coral is a sessile marine invertebrate that typically lives in colonies with many identical polyps.
- Sessile means it stays put and doesn’t move around (anemones are similar to corals except that they move.
- Corals are animals, not plants.
- Many are photosynthetic, but not all.
- You can place corals into several categories: small polyp stony (SPS), large polyp stony (LPS), soft coral, and sea fans.
Some corals are tough and others just aren’t. For example, there are non-photosynthetic species of coral that need constant food in the water column to survive… not a beginner coral.
But there are other corals that seem to thrive regardless of what we throw at them. A beginner coral will be hardy, will be tough, and will be able to stand up to a little bit of mistreatment as we learn the ropes.
Don’t go out and buy a super rare species of coral. Not only will it be expensive, but it will likely die. And more likely than not, it was pulled from the reef where it could have had a long life.
A beginner coral will be prevalent in the reefs. It will also be commonly found in the marine hobby. Not all common corals are easy to keep, so be sure to do your research.
3) Tolerant Of Various Water Parameters
The most important thing in any saltwater aquarium, and oftentimes the hardest thing to achieve for a beginner, is consistency. Just think about it… in the ocean, temperature fluctuates very slowly, and in the tropics (where most of the coral live!), it changes even less.
Salinity pretty much never changes, and major and minor elements remain pretty much constant all the time.
There are so many gallons of water in the ocean that I don’t even know what number to use, and in order for a water parameter to change quickly, it would take a lot of die off or pollution.
But in our home aquaria, changes can happen in a moment, and fast change equals fast death for corals. So a beginner coral is one that can tolerate a small amount of fluctuation that will occur until we get the hang of this hobby.
4) Easy To Feed
By far the easiest corals to feed, and all the ones we recommend below, are photosynthetic.
You see, there are small organisms called zooxanthellae that live in the tissue of photosynthetic corals. The coral provides a home for the zooxanthellae, and in return the zooxanthellae provide food via photosynthesis.
All I’m trying to say is that a photosynthetic coral will likely receive the majority of its food from zooxanthellae, but will still be able to benefit from occasional supplemental feedings.
Even though corals are, by definition, sessile (fixed to one place), as they grow they can become territorial. Like anemones, certain species of coral have nematocysts in their tentacles that can sting their neighbors.
Certain species have sweeper tentacles that only emerge at night , that will sting any neighboring corals. Several of the beginner corals on this list do fall into this category, so being sure to give each coral enough space will be important.
6) Ships & Acclimates Well
I highly recommend buying captive bred and propogated corals. You will be helping save the reefs while at the same time getting a well-acclimated specimen.
But this is not always possible, so we recommend only buying corals that have a long track record of success in acclimation and transport. But you still will always need to drip acclimate, dip, and clean all new corals before adding them to your display tank.
7) Grows Quickly
This is actually a bit of a double edged sword. Some corals grow so quickly that they can even take over your tank! Not necessarily terrible, but not always great.
I actually didn’t add Pulsing Xenia to my coral list because it grows too quickly. Most stony coral grows quite slowly, so you have time to make adjustments to your calcium and alkalinity dosing before things get too out of whack.
But a fast growing coral can give you some valuable experience, and you can almost always find a fellow hobbyists who will happily give you a frag for free!
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.
II) Choosing A Healthy Coral
If you are buying online, this section isn’t the most helpful. Although, you can utilize some of these methods while doing research into a vendor, or especially if buying a WYSIWYG coral.
A good place to start your research is Live Aquaria. They are an online retailer that I’ve had good success with in the past.
1) Ask About Quarantine Procedures
In an ideal world, your LFS will quarantine all new arrivals for 2-3 weeks before selling them. If your LFS actually does this, you’ve hit gold and are quite lucky. I’d say buy from them for sure!
Ask your LFS what their QT procedures are? Do they have separate quarantine tanks? Do they use any medications? Do they dip their corals? Do they inspect and remove pests?
Or do they just put the coral immediately on display? Obviously the more QT they do the better.
World Wide Corals does an intensive quarantine process for all their livestock, but you pay a premium for their products.
2) Purchase & Ask LFS To Hold For Two Weeks
Once you’ve chosen your coral, ask your LFS if they will hold them for you for a week or so. That way, if they die during that week, you know that a) it was not a healthy coral and b) you will get a refund or be able to choose another coral.
You can also return in two weeks to check your coral again for any signs of disease.
Not all stores will do this, but the good ones will.
3) Buy Aquacultured Corals
This is a bit more challenging to do with corals than it is for fish, primarily because it can take a long time (several years) for a coral to grow large enough to frag.
It is also not always ideal because there is a trend in this hobby to frag (cut) corals for resale rather than let them grow into larger colonies.
But that being said, when you buy aquacultured corals, you are not pulling it from the reef, and that is a good thing.
4) Check For Signs Of Illness/Pests
This is actually quite challenging to do with corals. Illness is really hard to recognize. Here are some signs to look for:
- Bleaching– when a coral expels its zooxanthellae, a coral can lose its color and turn white. It won’t necessarily die, but it is a sign of stress.
- Gaping Mouth– some coral polyps are just too small to see, but certain LPS corals are large enough to view their mouth. The mouth should be closed firmly.
- Brown Slime– common in certain corals, a brown slime infection can wipe out your entire colony. It looks like a brown jelly that appears at the base of the coral polyps.
Pest are also extremely hard to find, but the thing about them is you can remove them with a close inspection and coral dip. This is best done before adding coral to your display tank, which is why I will always recommend using a quarantine tank for all coral.
Worms, aptasia, nudibranchs, and starfish are just some of the possible pests.
5) Polyp Extension
A healthy coral should have its polyps out and extended for a good portion of the day. Polyp extension allows the photosynthetic zooxanthellae to consume light and produce food for the coral.
Every type of coral will have different looking polyps, so just pull out your cell phone and pull up a picture of a healthy species.
III) Acclimation & Coral Dips
At the very, very minimum, you need to drip acclimate all new coral. It will take you about an hour, and has a couple steps.
The first step is to equalize the temperature between your tank’s water and the water in the bag. The easiest way to do this is to turn off the lights in your tank and float the bag inside. Float the bag for thirty minutes or until the temperature is almost the same.
The second step is to slowly add water from your display tank to the water from the LFS. This usually involves using a bucket and some airline tubing. For a full demonstration watch the video by clicking this sentence.
Here are two options to help you drip acclimate your fish. FYI, I use the fancy one on the left!
It is crucial to dip your corals! The first time you do it, you’ll be amazed by how many little critters are removed. There are many different products and methods for dipping your coral, but I’ll recommend a simple one that has worked well for me.
If you want to see my more complicated method, you can watch this quick video by clicking on this sentence.
I recommend using the product below called Coral RX. It’s a simple process that involves 2-3 buckets.
After drip acclimating, you place your corals into a container with a mixture of display tank water and Coral Rx. Using a turkey baster, you gently blast the corals to blow off unwanted hitchhikers. After about five minutes, you vigorously rinse off the coral in another bucket with just clean tank water, and then mount the coral in your QT or display tank.
IV) Placement, Feeding, & Flow
Every species of coral has unique requirements. Some need intense light and will need to placed near the top of the tank, closest to the lights. Others need a lot of flow to thrive so need to be in the direct path of the wavemaker. Learn what needs your coral has before giving them a permanent home.
Placement is all about light and flow. Corals can tolerate too little light much better than too much light, so err on the side of caution and turn your lights down to start.
When deciding where to place your coral, think about a few factors:
- Light– part of the acclimation process is to acclimate your corals to your lights. Every LFS probably uses low levels of PAR in their coral tanks. If you were to just put your coral in your tank without acclimating them to the new, intense light, they would likely bleach and die. So turn your lights down, and slowly increase their intensity each day for a few weeks.
- Height– if a coral requires intense lighting, place them near the top of your aquascape. If they like lower PAR levels, place them near the bottom.
- Growth– Some corals grow quickly and can take over your tank or an entire piece of rock. For example, Green Star Polyps, which I recommend below, grow quickly. If you don’t want them covering an entire rock, consider attaching them to a smaller piece of live rock away from your main aquascape.
- Aggressiveness– Some corals have long sweeper tentacles that come out at night and sting neighboring corals. If this is the case, be sure to mount them far enough away from other species.
All of the corals below are photosynthetic and will receive the majority of their food from your aquarium light.
But that being said, all corals will benefit from a weekly feeding. There are many great types of coral food out there, so check out my gear guide “Top Five Beginner Coral Foods” for my recommendations.
All coral will require flow, period. But certain species require much higher flow than others.
All of our top ten beginner corals will require a moderate amount of flow. This can be provided with either a strong return pump, or wavemaker.
Corals need flow for both their structure, and to bring them food. So be sure to mount them in a place that most closely resembles their flow requirements.
V) Top 10 Beginner Corals
1) Green Star Polyps (Pachyclavularia)
A great beginner coral, Green Star Polyps (GSP) are an encrusting coral that will grow quickly over live rock, acrylic, or glass. With a beautiful purple base and striking green polyps, many hobbyist like to mount this coral on a small piece of rock, thus creating a GSP garden.
Easy to frag and mount, a small piece of super glue will hold the GSP to its new home. It won’t take long for it to start encrusting and growing.
Super hardy, I have one word of caution. Be careful what you wish for. If not checked, these polyps can grow rapidly and take over your entire aquascape. So be vigilant and trim as necessary.
2) Scoly (Scolymia)
So this picture does not do this coral justice! I just don’t have any of my own pictures!
Scolys might be the most sought after LPS coral out there. They come in various color combinations, with some of these single polyp corals selling for over $500 each!
Personally, I think that is a ridiculous collectors price, and I’d be quite happy with a more frumpy single color Scoly.
Place these corals on the bottom of the tank, medium flow, supplement with weekly coral feedings, and you should have a happy camper for years to come!
3) Brain Coral (Favia)
I’m so sorry for the quality of this image! If you have a better picture that you would let me use, send it my way and I’ll happily give you the credit!
Favia are some of the most common LPS corals in the hobby. They are quite aggressive with long sweeper tentacles coming out at night, so be sure to place them at a distance from other corals.
Medium light, medium flow, and they’ll benefit from weekly supplemental feedings. They come in a variety of colors and are easy to keep for beginners.
Seriously, just type in “Favia Coral” in your browser to see how beautiful these are!
4) Toadstool/Finger Leather Coral (Sarcophyton/Alcyonacea)
Both of these are great beginner soft corals. Easy to grow, sometimes they get too big and you have to frag them and give them to a friend.
The standard leather coral on the right is inexpensive, although not the most colorful. The Toadstool coral on the left is bright green, and costs quite a bit more.
Medium light, medium flow, and weekly supplemental feedings will make these soft corals thrive.
To mount this to your live rock, use a rubber band. It will attach itself after a couple weeks.
5) Branching Frogspawn/Hammer Coral (Euphyllia)
Euphyllia corals are hands down my favorite. A few years ago you could pick these up on the cheap, but lately the prices have skyrocketed.
There are two types of Frogspawn/Hammer corals: branching and wall. Branching Euphyllia coral are a bit easier to keep, because if one of the branches gets a disease, you can often cut it off and save the rest of the coral. But with wall style corals, this is not possible.
Wall corals also grow much slower, so you might as well pick up the branching kind.
LPS corals do have sweeper tentacles that come out at night, so be sure to place them either next to members of their own species, or far enough away from other corals as to not be a problem.
Medium flow, medium light, supplemental feeding, these beautiful LPS corals might live longer than you with the proper care!
6) Elegance Coral (Catalaphyllia)
A bit more challenging to keep then some of the others on this list, the Elegance Coral is closely related to the Frogspawn and Hammer Coral.
Best placed on a sandy substrate, this coral is known to double its size during the day, so be sure to give it adequate space so it won’t sting its neighbors.
Medium flow, medium lighting, and supplemental feedings are all it needs. Comes in a variety of colors, its large fleshy polyps can really twinkle under actinic lighting!
7) Duncan Coral (Duncanopsammia)
Quite similar to the above Elegance Coral, Duncans have large fleshy polyps that stay extended day and night.
These LPS corals can be mounted on the aquascape, but they seem to prefer a secure mount in the sandy substrate.
Aquacultured for years, these beautiful corals are a bit more challenging to keep, and require moderate lighting and flow.
8) Acan Coral (Acanthastrea)
My second favorite coral, Acans come in an almost limitless amount of colors, with some small frags selling for hundreds of dollars!
But not to fret, this LPS coral also comes in beautiful and affordable frags like the picture above. I received this coral as a gift, and it had two polyps. Six months later, it had 15!
Acans are fast growing and peaceful, and will do well mounted to your scape. They will also benefit from weekly coral feedings, and require moderate flow and light.
9) Zoa Corals (Zoanthids)
I kid you not, hobbyists lose their minds over Zoas! They’ve become a collectors item because there are so many different color variations. They really have a cult following.
This LPS coral is not my favorite by any means, but the diversity in color and how fast they grow make them an ideal beginner coral.
Buyer beware: Some Zoas contain high levels of palytoxin, which can cause sickness and/or death in humans. Be sure to learn about safe handling before buying Zoas.
These corals like high flow and moderate to high light, and will quickly create a flower-like garden in your tank. These are great to frag and trade with friends!
10) Blasto Coral (Blastomussa)
Rounding out our top ten are Blastomussa Corals. These LPS look quite similar to Acans and Zoas, but have a distinct polyp.
Fast growing, this LPS coral comes in a few different colors, but not nearly as many as the Zoas.
Peaceful in nature, Blastos like low flow and moderate lighting, and yes, just like every other coral on this list, will benefit from weekly supplemental feedings!