The Purple Monster Acropora is arguably one of the most infamous stony coral strains in the marine aquarium hobby, of all time. This particular strain of deep purple acro is the coral that kickstarted the whole idea of even having some corals that are exceptional and special compared to others, and it was the first limited edition coral to be named, and become highly sought after.
Even after nearly two decades in captivity, getting a frag of this rare creature is not an easy affair and seeing a small colony of Purple Monster is like seeing an aquarium unicorn. Despite having a relatively slow growth, the Purple Monster rewards it keeper with the deepest solid purple coloration of nearly any acro, and its oversaturated magenta tissue is sometimes punctuated by iconic white polyps that can serve as the calling card for having the “real deal”.
It’s with these fond and reverent thoughts in mind that we have always dreamed of tracking down the Purple Monster in its natural environment to see if we could find it, to see what its like in the wild, and of course, to collect some fresh stock and bring it back to the aquarium hobby. It’s been a little more than a month since we’ve come back from our second trip to the Solomon Islands, our tan has faded but the corals we brought back are settled in and coloring up quite nicely.
We are not superstitious about life, but when it comes to corals and reef fish, we don’t like to count our polyps before they extend and grow. Now that the stony corals we brought back are settled in to aquarium life and looking better everyday, we are ready to tell you about how we succeeded in not only finding the Purple Monster in its natural environment, but also bringing some back to Unique Corals – we are now enjoying the first new crop of wild Purple Monster since this coral was originally collected.
As part of a joint mini-expedition between Reef Builders, Unique Corals and Triton, we returned to the Central Province of Solomon Islands for the second time this year to learn about and collect chalice and SPS corals from some fascinating habitats. Myself (Jake Adams) and Tim Kelley, are both veteran coral divers and familiar with the inner workings of the Solomon Islands. Traveling to the edge of third world infrastructure is not easy at all but when it is all worthwhile when it comes time to sit down and write for you the story of rediscovering the Purple Monster Acro.
During the first part of our journey in the Central Province, we spent four days diving a shallow, turbid and nutrient enriched river passage where we had previously encountered a plethora of stunning chalice corals. After staring at Echinophyllia, Leptoseris, Astreopora and many other oddball corals for days, we were quite tired of diving in dirty water and looking at the same slice of inner reef corals.
So for the second part of the mini expedition to the Central Province we ventured even further away from civilization and infrastructure to go to the far western edge of this province. The goal in traveling towards the Sandfly passage was to find more outer reef like conditions with clear water and proximity to oceanic water.
With an almost religious esteem for the Purple Monster Acro, we knew what we were out there to do, but we really didn’t get our hopes up that we would actually find a wild stony coral that really matches up with the holy grail of limited edition and now domesticated aquarium stony corals. We knew that we were in the original collecting location of the Purple Monster Acro but we really focused on having some good dives, and also looking out for a coral we were pretty sure we would find, Australogyra zelli.
What we found in our first snorkel to explore the area practically blew our mind – we didn’t find the purple monster, we found “Monster Acros” of all kinds just about everywhere! What we mean by this is that there was a wide range of Acropora in this habitat which shared the characteristics of the infamous Purple Monster.
Once we realized that we were truly in the motherland of Monster Acropora the hunt for the real deal purple monster acro was on, and we knew exactly what to look for. The original morphology of the purple monster was a “christmas tree” shape with bright pink-purple tissue and light white or blueish polyps, especially towards the tip.
We didn’t just find the perfect wild analog to the purple monster acro, we found a whole stand of it with more colonies of this holy coral than we’ve ever seen in our life combined. This thicket of wild purple monster acro was like a perfect little forest of purple christmas trees. Nearby there were very similar ‘monster acros’ but with a more open branching shape and somewhat bluer coloration.
While this thicket of Purple Monster Acro was large by aquarium standards, it was easily dwarfed by the football fields of sprawling staghorn acros growing all around it. Interestingly we expected to find the “real” purple monster growing in some kind of sheltered and deeper habitat but in fact our grove of newfound treasure was growing at a pretty shallow 15 feet deep, with pretty good tidal flow passing through twice a day.
We were ecstatic to find and see the purple monster in the wild, and to document this iconic aquarium coral in its natural habitat for the first time ever. However, collecting this coral was only half the battle – the coral still needed to survive a long hot boat ride back to Honiara while wrapped in newspaper. It also needed to settle into holding at Aquarium Arts which held and shipped the corals for us. We had to “groom” the coral down to size to make the colonies more amenable to shipping, the coral needed to survive a nearly 48 hour shipping time all the way from the Solomon Islands, and then it needed to settle into aquarium life back at Unique Corals where the corals now reside.
Needless to say, these corals had to go through a lot to become tried and true “aquarium corals”. It’s been several weeks since the Purple Monster has been basking under aquarium lighting, first becoming pale from a chilly shipping experience, and then darkening up as it regained a healthy population of zooxanthellae in its tissues. We’ve gradually moved the new wild Purple Monster Acro closer and closer to full intensity metal halide lighting and we can really start to see the resemblance to “OG Purple Monster”, but one question remains . . . did we collect the real purple monster?
This last question is hard to answer without genetic testing, and ultimately the reef aquarium community will have to decide if this coral is exactly like the original purple monster. It’s got the shape, it’s got the color, it’s got the light colored to white polyps, and we are currently tracking down some pedigreed Purple Monster to grow alongside the new wild Purple Monster to find out how these corals compare under captive conditions.
What is clear is that we’re now enjoying a very beautiful and colorful stony coral in our aquarium that carries a really cool story with it. We even collected some of the “Blue Monster” Acro colonies that were growing alongside it for comparison, and we’ve got a whole stable of corals in our care that came from this exact geographical environment so as to create the most accurate biotope reef aquarium possible.
The saga of the purple monster and its solomon island reef-mates is far from over, but definitely peruse through the gallery below to see more juicy coral eye candy of this new wild purple monster in its natural environment.