Last week we had the great fortune of returning from the Solomon Islands on a very special expedition to the Central Province, on behalf of Unique Corals, exploring for rare an unusual corals from this region of the Coral Triangle. Back in March we went to this part of the Solomon Islands on a more exploratory mission, mainly to dive and document what we saw.
After coming back from that first trip with lots of intel about a stupendous reef dominated by chalice-shaped corals, and the precise original location of the fabled purple monster Acropora, Unique Corals, Triton Lab and Reef Builders undertook a joint expedition to return to this fascinating coral rich part of the world and see what we could find, learn, and bring back.
While we spent the first part of the Unique Corals Expedition diving a really turbid reef collecting the most exquisite chalice corals, finally we had the chance to visit a particularly magical region of the Central Province near the Sandfly passage. The coral growth, abundance and diversity around Sandlfy and Buenavista islands is incredibly lush, and very poorly documented as it is quite challenging to get to, let alone to acquire compressed air with which to dive.
One coral that we had on our list of targets is the elusive Australogyra zelli, the branching moon coral which is known to be particularly common in this part of the Solomon Islands. Ever since we first saw the magnificent branching moon coral gracing the cover of Veron’s first stony coral bible, Corals of Australia and the Indo-Pacific, we knew that this coral was special and we ‘bucket-listed’ ourselves to see and document this very unusual species in the wild.
What makes Australogyra zelli such a Unique Coral is that it is the only species of moon coral that has an explicit branching growth form. Other so called “moon corals” like Favia, Favites and Goniastrea can sometimes developed a semi-branching growth form, these are small rounded branches which are incidental and indeterminate.
On the other hand, Australogyra zelli is committed to growing sharp and sometime majestic branches that are supported by a massive base. Aquarists could describe Australogyra as appearing to have features of both branching Hydnophora horn coral, and the widely available Favites russeli. The branching shape of Australogyra is not as fractal or geometric as Acropora, instead being much more massive and gnarly like Hydnophora. Meanwhile the surface of Australogyra is somewhat honeycomb in appearance like the surface of Favites russeli.
The reason that you probably have never head of Australogyra is that it’s very rare in the aquarium hobby, occurring in several regions of the Indo-Pacific but as far as the aquarium hobby is concerned, the Solomon Islands is the only place this coral has ever been exported to us. The other reason you’ve never heard of Australogyra is that it’s not a particularly good shipper.
The strong and sharp branches of Australogyra almost always pierce the bags in which they are shipped and so the colonies that make it for sale to aquarists are rarely in good shape, and usually do not have good shape to begin with. The other reason is that Australogyra is really a true coral lover, a coral connoisseur’s stony coral species.
Australogyra exhibits a subtle beauty and it takes a deep appreciation of this coral’s uniqueness to really understand what makes this coral special. We are very thrilled to not only have seen this coral in the wild, but to also have the opportunity to collect this species and select precisely the right size and shape of corals which we hope will transition to aquarium life when they finally re-enter the aquarium trade in the coming weeks.
This is the first installment of our summer series about our various trips to the rich coral reefs of the Coral Triangle, including the Unique Corals Solomon Islands Expedition. Stay tuned for many more incredible tales of real aquaristic diving in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines with countless observations of rare and unusual corals straight from the natural reef environment.