1996 was an interesting year for a number of reasons as it was the year that Dolly the sheep was cloned, DVDs were launched and my Steelers lost to the dreaded Cowboys. There were no digital cameras, nor smartphones, and very few named corals and only 45 million people in the entire world used the internet.
Hobby-wise, kalkwasser was the drug of choice for maintaining calcium, we weren’t as concerned with alkalinity back then, improving flow via the Carlson surge device was thought the way to go to create current, I saw Leng’s Ecosystem filter method for the first time and Alf Nilsen and Svein Fossa published what I consider the bible of reefkeeping, The Modern Coral Reef Aquarium.
And as is the case today, and probably will be as long as the hobby is alive, corals and the availability of new corals is what drove the hobby. However, unlike today, Australia was not exporting live corals, nor were any of the smaller countries that now supply corals like Vietnam, Ghana and Malaysia.
Most corals then were coming in mainly from Indonesia and a new supplier, Fiji was really just ramping up. Back then getting corals, especially sps corals was difficult unless you lived near an airport that was a port of entry. Since most of the importers were on the west coast I still fondly remember flying out to LA in the morning, going around to the wholesalers all afternoon and picking corals, then going to Aquatic Depot in the evening.
We would get there around 8 o’clock or so when the boxes from Fiji were just arriving and we would help open the boxes and then Millie or Lech would let us cherry pick out the corals we wanted. We would then rebag them with fresh seawater and be out of there by ten so I could catch the red eye flight home.
If they got in a good shipment, I would fill a couple of boxes with corals to bring home to my friends near Pittsburgh. If it was a bad shipment, I would just fill a couple of gym bags full of corals, which at that time they let me carry on. I did this once a month, at least, for a couple of years and its now apparent why I have back issues.
I also recall that if the shipment was good it was like Christmas morning for all of us as we opened the boxes and saw so many new corals for the first time. I also recall that when a heat wave hit Fiji and LA you could smell the sickly aroma of the dying Acropora long before you even entered the Aquatic Depot building or they opened the bags.
The corals that came in during 1996 are still some of my favorites. The first of these is the yellow Fiji leather, Sarcophyton elegans. It may not be a big deal now, but back in 1996 there were very few soft corals that were colored anything other than beige or brown. So when the first yellow leathers became available they were a huge improvement for adding color to our tanks. Sadly this is also one of the first corals I learned how to propagate, and it was out of necessity.
They needed to be cut and propagated as they shipped so badly back then that as soon as they got here often the only way to keep them was to cut away any living tissue from the black tissue that seemed to pop up on arrival. What is still surprising to me is that many of these corals did not do well in our tanks, yet when I dove in Fiji they were everywhere and thriving and many times this was in areas that I would consider harsh and inhospitable to corals.
While the yellow leather was desirable due to its color another highly sought after coral in 1996, believe it or not was Xenia. So what we now often times consider a pest or an unwanted hitchhiker, back then was wanted due primarily to its behavior of pulsating polyps and since it shipped so poorly, it was difficult to obtain. However, to be more specific it was not just Xenia that was wanted, but it was actually Red Sea Xenia that was considered the most desirable.
Unlike its plain long and lanky brown cousin, Red Sea xenia was white or bluish white and it was stockier and its polyps pulsated much more rapidly, which is why it was so desired. Sadly like many of the corals that were desired in 1996, I have not seen Red Sea Xenia in probably the last 10 years.
While the first two most sought after corals back then were soft corals, some new hobbyists in 1996 considered the pink-tipped Elegance coral to also fit in that genre and why it was so desired. Due the large amount of fleshy tissue this coral presented versus its relatively small skeleton it is easy to see how this mistake was made.
Sadly since the general direction for keeping all corals at that time was to provide them with as much light as possible, many of the lps corals like these failed miserably as a result of our not understanding their needs. However, when they were kept under moderate light in what we would now consider “dirty” water, they provided an amazing display.
Another Fijian coral, and probably the most widely seen sps coral at that time was Acropora loripes. This was one of the first widely available Acropora back then that had a lot of color. These corals came in in just about every color of the rainbow, and since many of them were stressed, and we did not know better, we thought that the vibrant colors that they had when we bought them would be retained once we kept them in our tanks.
Unfortunately, this was rarely the case. Just as unfortunate this was also one of the corals that suffered the most when any of us had bouts of RTN in our tanks. This was also one of the corals that Steve Tyree showed off with the then new 20,000K Radium lights, which demonstrated for the first time that sps corals could be colorful and not just brown or beige.
Another example of how color put a coral in high demand was the pink birdsnest Seriatopora coral. Unlike now when just about every coral on the market has brilliant color, back then most sps corals were brown. So needless to say, when this bright pink coral made its appearance, it was immediately in high demand. This was also undoubtedly due to its unique structure compared with the bushy or staghorn Acropora that were also coming in.
While this coral did not have quite the demand for pristine water quality that many of the Acropora required, it did have a tendency to get overgrown with algae if nutrient levels were not kept low. Thus, like many corals that were coming in for the first time then, it was a teaching coral.
While different from most Acropora, the pink Seriatopora was not altogether different in its shape. I say that because 1996 was the first time I had seen Leng’s Ecosystem tank, and while the tank without a skimmer or trickle filter was impressive, even more impressive was the fact that Leng’s tank was stocked with the first Montipora capricornis that I had ever seen.
Unlike the branchy Acropora and other sps corals that I had seen regularly, seeing Leng’s 400-gallon tank full of colored flat swirling plates or cups in orange, green, red, purple and blue was amazing. Sadly I was and still am a poor photographer so none of the photos I took came out or really do it justice. Needless to say, when anyone saw these plates for the first time they immediately had to have them.
It is kind of sad that very few hobbyists now keep these corals owing to how fast they grow and how much space they eat up. Just as sad, is that even fewer let these corals grow to their full potential with their swirls, spikes and spires taking up valuable real estate in their tanks.
Leng got these Montiporas from many different suppliers, so some were from Fiji, while others probably came from the Solomon Islands. Back then the Solomon Islands supplied some of the most beautiful corals available thanks to the efforts of Dave Palmer and Bob Mankin.
In addition to these montiporas, some of the other most sought after corals of the time included a green Stylophora that originally came from the Solomon Islands. Unlike the more well-known pink S. pistillata, this stylophora had thinner branches, was bright green and had much better polyp extension. However, it was relatively rare compared to its pink cousin, and this lack of availability undoubtedly added to its desirability.
While a green Stylophora doesn’t sound exciting today, the purple Acropora tortuosa, also from the Solomons, and now known as the Cali tort, was and still is a hobby favorite. This was one of the first corals to be deep purple in one tank and then morph to blue or even light purple and green in another depending on the conditions.
Up until we started keeping this coral many of us assumed that once we had a coral in captivity it would pretty much retain the color it had when we got it. This coral clearly showed that that was not the case and that as conditions varied so too would the coloration of a coral. Probably for this reason this coral as well as many of the other torts have remained one of the most desired corals in many tanks.
While a deep purple coral will always be in demand, a deep purple coral with iridescent green polyps will be in demand even more so. Such was the case for the GARF bonsai Acropora, that was brought to the hobby by my friends Sally Jo and the late Leroy Hedlee.
Found in his tanks in Boise, Leroy sold and distributed frags to hundreds of hobbyists. As a result, this coral is still a standout in many of our tanks. This coral stood out back then even when we were using metal halide lamps and fluorescent actinic lamps. Now with the advent of LEDs and super blue LEDs the contrasting colors of this coral stand out even more making it able to compete with many of the newly named corals of today.
While the GARF bonsai has been around and sought after since 1996, the Purple Monster is a coral that was around in 1996, but due to its rarity and slow growth has been one of the holy grails of corals for much of the past two decades. Fortunately, in the past year Jake Adams found and brought back some of these corals to be propagated and eventually distributed to keep this coral with the purple popsicle color and unique growth form available to the hobby.
I’m sure that other hobbyists who were keeping reefs 20 years ago have other corals that they remember as highly sought after back then too. Fortunately, I have a good memory, over 100 boxes of slides and all of the magazines from back then to help me put this list together.
Seeing the corals then versus now it is interesting how many are now no longer sought after, especially considering that when we saw them for the first time back then it was for lack of a better term awe-inspiring. I wonder how many of us feel that way today when we see a new coral for the first time even when it has a cool name.