Online saltwater livestock retailer Drs. Foster & Smith’s Diver’s Den at Live Aquaria caught our attention over the past couple weeks with a new product quietly “snuck in” to the daily Diver’s Den emails. Listed under the invertebrates category, there it is, What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get Live Rock. As if WYSIWYG live rock wasn’t unique enough, we’re not talking about just any live rock, but fully-cured, man-made, no-reefs-hacked-apart-in-the-making-of-this live rock. Given all the renewed fever pitch about sustainability and aquaculture in the marine hobby, and knowing we always have a need for more rock, we asked Kevin Kohen, the director of LiveAquaria.com, what these new rock offerings were all about. Kevin in turn went one better and sent a taste test of two aquacultured live rocks for a head-to-head battle royale. Which rock pummels the other into rubble?
Hobbyist DIY Rock?
Perhaps we should preface this article by looking at the DIY rock that has been popularized over the past several years on internet forums. I myself was struck by a particular recipe my local club used to make our own rock. The recipe is roughly two parts portland cement, four parts oyster shell, one part aragonite, 2 parts solar salt. The rock created is very porous, a little brittle if you make it too thin, but generally not too shabby. Water pours through it like it’s barely even there.
The big problem? Even after 6 months of soaking and water changing, trying every internet trick in the book, my man made rock still pushes the pH of soak water right off the charts within 24 hours. Even with all sorts of lead time, we don’t know many hobbyists who are going to hold up an aquarium build for a never-ending wait on man made rock. And it’s not even purpled up yet!
Walt Smith’s Fiji Cultured Live Rock
Fiji Cultured Live Rock, distributed by Walt Smith Inc., has been around for many years now. A guick overview of the production process can be found at the Sasalu Tawamudu Fiji website. It is interesting to note that from the get-go, the rock “blanks” are fully colored. After a 6-12 month stay in the lagoons, the rock is harvested and shipped. The crew at the Diver’s Den goes one step further, fully curing the rock before offering up WYSIWYG rock.
The two pieces I received were still going through the curing process as they are three weeks from the anticipated DFS release date. Overall, the live rock is visually pleasing. The general consensus is that the shapes of these rocks are a bit uniform, most being oblong boulder type pieces. The composition seems to offer some porosity. Rumors that this rock contains reef-sourced materials may not be entirely accurate – these rocks do utilize pumice (volcanic rock) which washes up on shore, but that’s as close to reef-sourced materials as they get.
As you can see in the picture above, the base color of the fused rock is a coraline pinkish red shade. Even when hacked apart, the rock visually appears as if no damage was ever inflicted up on it, which might be a benefit to people who like to hack and drill their way into the perfect aquascape.
Fish Heads’ Real Reef Live Rock
Fish Heads’ new Real Reef rock is another take on the man-made, aquacultured rock for the aquarium market. Introduced only in the last couple months, this rock is another fused product that is seeded and allowed to become colonized before sale. Fish Heads’ offering diverges in two areas. First, the Fish Heads product never touches the ocean, instead fully cultured in closed systems. This reduces any possibility of pests. Second, the Fish Heads rock seems to be a more homogeneous mix of calcium carbonate that composes the rock base.
The appearance of the Real Reef rock is more akin to the larger old “coral skeleton” type live rock. Externally, there is more shape, branches, nooks and crannies than the Walt Smith Fijian rock.
Upon hacking it apart, the rock appears far more dense and truthfully, it probably does weigh more by volume. Coloration inside is that of a coral skeleton – the purple and red pigments on the rock appear to be more of a surface coating. It should be pointed out that this is how real reef rock from the reef would be.
And the verdict? It’s a DRAW!
Truly, both of these products have their strong points; Both cultured rocks offer a look that effectively mimics what you get with rock harvested from wild reefs. Walt Smith’s product may be a bit more “biologically functional” and is probably closer to the real product in that regard. Walt Smith’s offering also may help provide income opportunities for Fijians who no longer can harvest reef rock. Meanwhile, Fish Head’s rock may have the edge on diversity of shape and visual appeal and safety (with no exposure to “critters” other than what Fish Heads intends to seed the rock with), but I do wonder if the rock will provide biological benefits that match what real live rock is thought to do. In that regard, both man-made products may fall a bit short, being denser and less porous than some natural or DIY rocks. However, both rocks will be stronger, and in that regard more workable, than their natural counterparts.
In the end, both products really do come pretty darn close to the real thing. They certainly beat out what I concocted in my garage and when it comes down to it, maybe I didn’t really save any money considering that 6 months in, my own DIY rock is still unusable! Both man-made live rocks are comfortably priced as well – Real Reef is currently about $8/lb on the Diver’s Den ($199.99 for 25 lb), Cultured Fiji will run around $7.20/lb ($179.99 for 25 lb). Although this is more expensive than some live rock, consider it takes more work and expense to create and culture rock than to simply hack it off the reef and the Diver’s Den crew takes the extra step of quarantining and fully curing these products before offering them up.
Keep an eye on LiveAquaria’s Diver’s Den Invert section for both varieties of rock, fully-cured and quarantined, in classic WYSIWYG offerings. The rock currently ships with no extra live rock or weight surcharges (which means that if your Diver’s Den order is $225 or more, it ships free while that promotion continues – that promo isn’t offered on regular live rock BTW). We’d like to thank Kevin Kohen and Chris Mueller one more time for letting us sample these alternative products for the aquarist who doesn’t want live rock harvested from the reef environment.
FTC regulations require that we inform you that we were given this product for review, but our opinion of a product is never affected by how we acquire them