Introduction: Transplanting Corals

About: Socio-ecological artist working on coral reef restoration with an emphasis on habitat creation, ecosystem regeneration, and shore protection in collaboration with emerging coral science and innovative technolo…

In 2004 I learned how to transplant homeless coral fragments found on the seafloor onto life-supporting, artificial reefs. The photo above was taken in Bali. As you see these are quite large pieces of coral collected with many biologists and ocean lovers, like Tessa Divina pictured, focused on methods for reviving biodiversity in areas that had been devastated by dynamite and cyanide fishing, climate change, pollution, and disease.

I'm going to describe how to easily attach much smaller fragments onto human-made reefs without harming them. This is useful for ocean and tank experiments. In another Instructable I will share more about the coral cultivation method I'm exploring, known as electro-accumulation, mineral accretion, electrolytic (or electrified) reefs, and recognized as offshoots of Biorock and Seacrete. A totally fascinating amalgamation of chemistry, biology, ecology, art, electronics, and interdisciplinary innovation.

Step 1: Collecting

  • Learn to dive. Hopefully you are SCUBA certified, but if not, I only got certified once I was compelled to make habitat for corals, so maybe now it's your time.


  • Cloth Mesh Bag (for vegetables) to put your coral frags into as you carefully scope the seafloor. Depending on your diving level, make it easy for yourself to hold onto. I attach the drawstring to my wrist. You could also use a recycled plastic container with handles like the photo above I found on pinterest.
  • Bring small and medium clear/white zip ties along with you (gauge the size to the corals you will be collecting). Stashing them in your wetsuit cuff is great easy access out of the way place. Why plastic?! We are dying from plastic pollution. Good question. These have shown to be successful and easy to attach the corals. Corals do grow on them. I have used mild steel wire with pliers to attach also. It should grow over with mineral deposits, yet on occasion it hasn't worked as well. I highly recommend you try both and innovate!
  • Pair of small cross cutters, snippers to trim the tails. At the end if you trim all at once, easy to keep together and take bits back to shore with you so they don't float away and add more pollution.
  • You are looking for small lonely corals peeking from the sand that move EASILY when gently nudged with one finger. If they seem fixed at all, let them lie because they might be cementing onto a rock or onto a piece of dead, buried coral you can't see. Also, you want pieces that are still ALIVE, at least partially, which means they are not completely white. Dry white means bleached and dead. Sometimes a fragment has some part white yet still some color. This is a great opportunity to transplant it and see how the life support works to revive it.

Step 2: Transplanting

Now that you have a bag or pail of corals, you can pull out your zip ties or wires and begin to populate your reef making sure not to squeeze or smash them in the process. Many of them are already suffering from lack of nourishment and disease*, so we can hope they will find the calcifying substrate a suitable place to take hold and begin to colonize. Sometimes the corals can be placed snugly into a space in the structure and no need to attach with a zip tie. I have found lettuce coral (agaricia tenuifolia) to tension fit well into the steel mesh of Zoe shown here, They attach by themselves over time and grow through the opening and around the mineral-coated metal without any additional device.

These are images from one of our first days adding fragments to Zoe, a Living Sea Sculpture.

*Since I wrote this, sadly new and more deadly contagious diseases have emerged. It is not a good idea to transplant corals or move those without having some scientific training with coral biologists. Working in the field with them will assure you are supporting the global efforts and not inadvertently spreading pahtogens that are rapidly wiping many species out. So much that manhy species disappearing are being banked in universities and cultivation centers while people try to solve the problems and pathogens. Using renewable energy, water treatment plants, and stopping our pollution is critical now more than ever if we hope to have robust beautiful reefs protecting our shores and providing food, recreation, and beauty.

Step 3: Attaching Step by Step

Now that you've seen the overview scenario in the ocean, here I will show you with some coral skeletons (not alive) so it's more clear visually what we're doing.

  • You thread the zip tie around the artificial reef form. Here using steel EMM (expanded metal mesh).
  • Pull to secure.
  • Snip with your snips.

Done. Now take photos so you can document how your polyps grow over time.

Step 4: After 6 Years in Bali

And take videos!

Good luck cultivating corals!

Colleen Flanigan

Living Sea Sculpture