Triage on the Reef

About six months ago I noticed some small purple polyps growing around the crown of a rock I called “The volcano.” The rock formed a centerpiece of my reef. It’s the front rock on the right-hand side of the tank, and I selected it specifically for its resemblance to an underwater volcanic peak.

The yellow square shows the top of the “volcano” – and you can just see the fuzzy purple polyps beginning to move down from the peak.

As the months passed, the fuzzy purple coral spread. It covered the rock and surrounded the zoanthid colonies there. Eventually I noticed the zoanthids stopped expanding – mainly because the available growing space had been taken up by the purple fuzzy polyps:

When I showed this photo to the owner of Your Reef Aquarium (his name is John, and he raised or provided all of the corals in my tank) he said, “That’s the saddest photo I’ve seen in a long, long time.”

NOT the response I was looking for.

He explained that the little fuzzy corals (which he calls “spider polyps”) are invasive, fast growing, and certain to kill every coral in my tank, given time and opportunity. They kill by surrounding the other coral, growing up its polyps and suffocating them by overgrowth.

They couldn’t be scraped away because any piece that remained would return with a vengeance, and any bit that floated away would attach to another rock and “spread the love.”

I would lose the volcano, and probably most of the colonies living on it. The only hope I had was triage.

I bought a pair of new rocks to replace the volcano, headed home, and got to work. I pulled the entire volcano rock out of the reef tank and placed it in a bowl with water and a wet dish towel to keep the corals from drying out and dying:

I looked around to make certain no more spider polyps remained in the tank. Once I knew it was clear, I placed the new rocks in the reef.

Our scooter blenny, Jett, wasted no time investigating. (She blends in, but she’s sitting almost at the center of the big white rock.)

Then it was time to  start the operation.

I removed each zoanthid colony from the rock and used an X-acto knife to cut away any polyp that had spider polyps on or directly adjacent to it. That beautiful colony of purple and green Joker Zoanthids you saw surrounded by spiders? It had 49 polyps. I saved only 22.

It took just under 4 hours to clean, re-glue and return the viable zoanthids to the tank. At the end of the day, I saved about half of most colonies, and at least one of every variety the spider polyps surrounded.

Two weeks later, the tank is clean and all of the rescued corals have survived.

Lesson learned, though: never put off asking if something unusual is harmful. Another few weeks and I would have lost far more (if not most) of the reef.

Have you ever snatched a victory from the jaws of unexpected defeat? Would you have asked earlier about the fuzzy purple coral – or, like me, would you have thought it kind of pretty and waited until something seemed clearly wrong? Jump into the comments and share!