Sunday, July 22, 2012

Making Liverock Part 2!

Hi everyone, hope you all are having a great summer.  Let's continue on in making artificial liverock!

After lunch break, we got to start actually making rock from the cement mix.  As you can see the first trial didn't turn out good.  We had too much water and too much of the volcanic rock and really couldn't hold any shape.  We just ended up playing around with the mixture to get a feel for it.
The next day we tried again.  We got smarter this time and made small batches to the get consistency correct.  We even found pink grout color at one of the hardware stores, not quite the same as cement color but will have to do.  The color turned out to be pink, don't know why I expected to be more reddish when the label said "pink" - ha! ha!  Nevertheless we were excited to try again.
So it was starting to look better, still not the shape I wanted.
 No matter what we did, the form would just kind of sag down - frustrating!
One of the guys got creative and made this "pig" shape!
 Then we got the hang of things.  The trick was to not to touch the mix with hand, rather just kind of let it fall on its own forming the shape it wants to.  After this piece drys it would be turned over and the flat side would get formed.  Then it would have to sit out in the ocean probably for at least 4 months for the coralline and other things to grow to make it look like natural rock.  At this point we were confident that we could shape larger various pieces using this technique.
The next thing  I wanted to do was to find a way to produce the rock quick and easy.  Perhaps a mold would do the trick.  Like all things, have an idea, must experiment to try to make it happen.  So we were going to attempt to make a mold for the rock out of cement.  We poured loose cement into this form to start.
Got a piece of rock already made, better looking than ours but with more practice we could make awesome pieces I'm sure.
We used cooking oil to help the cement from sticking onto the rock too much.  Don't laugh, remember we were at the experiment stage, so anything goes that we might think it would help.

Then we placed the rock into the cement and waited.  Well, waited too long and it got cemented in!  Couldn't pull the rock out - ha! ha!
We tried again and kind of success.  Here is the mold and we applied lacquer so the rock being made would be easier to pull out.  The flat side then could be formed with loose cement to make it more natural looking.  This whole mold idea was promising, just have to experiment with it more.
Another idea we tried was to make a simple mold out of styrofoam.  Again brainstorming for ideas!
So here it is drying, kind of ugly shape but like I said, only an experiment.  
The idea worked, the shape now could be mass produced easily.  Using our technique of letting the cement falling, we could form nicer natural looking formations on the top of this rock - both sides that is!
When I get tired of working on one project, I like to start meddling around.  In this case, we had a bunch of single loose mushroom heads (left overs) in one tank.  For fun I glued the single pieces onto an artificial rock!  I trimmed down the rocks on the mushroom heads just big enough to be glued to the man made rock. I used regular cement so you can see the grey.  If I had access to the same color dye as the rock, then it would really look good.  Anyways you get the idea, and this is something that I want to produce in big quantities in the future.  Indonesians are masters at making these kind of things!
Just messing around:)!


So I hoped you liked this topic.  I got to experiment with ways of making artificial rock.  It was a good start, unfortunately I ran out of time and had to come home back to the US.  But, I am confident that we could produce premium great shaped man made rock in the future.  I hope you have learned something new from this post, and if you have other ideas or suggestions, please let me know I would love to hear them.  You can post a comment here or send me a message at


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Making liverock Part 1!

Hello everyone.  Today we are going to have some real fun, going to make artificial liverock!  Man made rock is crucial to the future of this industry.  After all, how long can we keep taking wild liverock from our reefs?  There must be a sustainability factor to keep our hobby going.

Years ago Anthony Calfo came out to Tonga to do some consulting work for me.  We talked about making artificial liverock at the time, even when we had quota for wild rock.  But I knew in the future wild rock quota would be taken away and I wanted to have something to replace.  Of course my predictions came true and few years ago, export of Tonga rock was banned.  And due to corrupt partners, I got screwed on my investments and hard work and never was able to fully work on any projects, including the  cultured liverock.  But things are different now as I have good partners and even have my own license to work with!

In my opinion four things need to be considered when making artificial rock:

1.  Must be made from readily available materials on the island.
2.  Must be made from materials that do not come from the sea, to avoid Cites issues.
3.  Must be light to make landed cost effective (very important).
4.  Must be appealing, good shapes and sizes to compete with wild rock.

One of the hardest things to figure out is how to make the rock not so heavy.  The basic component of the man made rock is cement, and cement is heavy.  Something must be mixed in to make it light as possible.  Things like pasta, fruit, plant leaves, etc.. can be  mixed in and later to rot out in the ocean to eventually make it light.  I even used styrofoam particles once but ended up being too light and floated! - yikes!.  Anyways the best material to use are normally available on the beaches of islands.  These are volcanic lava rocks that are extremely light and porous.   They float on water and  get washed up on the shores of far away islands by the currents.  So since volcanic islands are common in the South Pacific, these rocks are normally readily available.  In the above picture I am holding two of these pieces.  This picture was taken during one of my adventures in Indonesia.
As you can see, they actually float!

This Indo guy was chopping up the bigger pieces into smaller ones at one of my coral suppliers.  It looks like bags of cement are standing by to make artificial rock.  I never got to see samples of these liverock but I did see the ones made on Turtle Island Bali.  I looked for the pictures of those pieces but couldn't find it in my zillion picture database.  The rock was beautiful in color, solid purple coraline and everything.  But the rock was too heavy, the locals had used river stones to give it shape.  Also all the pieces had a flat bottom making them look unnatural.  But the main problem was that the rock was not able to be exported!

I got the full story and couldn't believe my ears.  After making tons of this rock and putting it into the ocean and taking care of it, the exporters that contracted out the local Balinese fishermen couldn't get permits to export the man made rock.  The reason was that although the rock was man made, it sat out in the ocean and things grew on it.  And these "things" need Cites to be exported.  So the exporters were told that the rock could be exported but under wild Cites for liverock.  Since the quota is very small for wild rock, there was no room for the man made stuff, customers of course chose natural over artificial.  So at the time, about 5 years ago, there were literally tons and tons of this rock sitting out in the ocean bottom.  I believe there must have been some sort of a misunderstanding with the government and the exporters.
Anyways that was Indonesia, but we are in Tonga now.  For a fact we could get permits to export man made rock, but first got to make some!  The above rock was made some time ago but never ended up in the ocean.  Note the color is red.  A red cement dye was used to make the base color more appealing.  Evidently while I was journeying around in Indo, the South Pacific Commission (SPC) had come to Tonga to aid in making artificial rock.  They had come and worked with the Tongan Fisheries in conjunction with the exporters to encourage cultured rock for export.  Unfortunately after the training was done, no one ended up moving on with the project. 

But I am back in Tonga and will start the aquaculuture liverock back up, along with a very special secret project that I've been wanting to do since the Indo days.  I'll let you know when the time is right on that!

Ok so let's try to make liverock.  First thing we need are those volcanic stones.  We drove about an hour from town to get to the other side of the island to this beach to look for the volcanic lava pieces!

First it was a pain since the small stones were mixed in with the sand.  We had to sort through the huge amounts of sand to get the little buggers out!
Then we hit jackpot!  We found patches some ways down the beach that were easy to pick up!
We brought back the stones to our facility at the Fisheries building.  We had collected a whole garbage can full!
A close up of the volcanic rock pieces.  These are small but I heard on another beach we can find bigger ones.  No worries as we were anxious to try to make and see how it comes out anyways.
We  mixed up cement and sand from a quarry first.
Getting the perfect mixture of sand and cement takes time to figure out.  This was our first time doing this so it was exciting.  The volcanic stones are thrown into the mix!
Finally water is added.  We didn't have a wheel barrow to mix the mixture, so it was harder to make the compound.
Here are the guys clearing a table to "make" the rock pieces!
Then it was lunch time!  My favorite is barbecue chicken for $5 Tonga Paanga ($3 US).  You get the surprisingly tasty chicken with manioke (cassava) roots.  Other barbecue options include lamb and hot dogs - woo hoo!
Another favorite food is curry chicken or lamb.  Tongans love curry and real cheap too, about $2.00 US.
Time to take a break before the fun begins!


Ok guys that is it for today.  I will have the second part of this thread in the coming days.  I hope you like this topic as I feel it is one of the more important subjects that I have covered on my blog.  Until next time...


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A day out in the water!

 Hello everybody, happy July 4th!  Just like here in the US, 4th of July is a big holiday in Tonga.  It is the birthday of King Taufa'ahau Tupou the 4th who passed away in 2006.  He was the King of Tonga for over 40 years.  My guys sent greetings as they spent the day on the beach roasting a pig and having a pic-nic.

And for today's topic, me and the boys go collecting corals!

The day was perfect!  The ocean was calm and the sky blue.  Here is my right hand man Teau (driving the boat) and his sidekick Tau.  They are originally from my neck of woods, the San Francisco Bay Area.  Destiny has it that they ended up on a South Pacific Island diving for corals, a long way from East Palo Alto!


This beautiful little island is surrounded by beautiful corals!  This was our first stop.  I have close up pictures of this picturesque get-away island that I will share on another thread.  We made a promise to ourselves on this day that we would come and roast a pig and have a pic-nic on this island before I left - and we did - going to be an awesome write up!  
We anchored and Teau and Tau getting ready to go look for the goods!  The guy manning the engine is our boat man Sione.  His main job is to secure the boat, help with diving gear, and putting away the corals into those bins you see.  Sometimes he will pull the anchor and follow the guys, watching the bubbles.                                    
My favorite thing to do (if not snorkeling goofing off) while waiting for the guys to collect the corals, is to do some fishing!  I was shocked when I hooked into this clown trigger, gave me a good fight for a little fella.  I love this fish to death and it brought good old memories when I first got into the hobby.  Like many others, I got hooked on keep saltwater aquariums starting with triggers - and the clown trigger was my favorite!

My excitement turned into concern when I noticed the belly was bloated.  Due to rapid rise to the surface, the fish was unable to decompress!

Quick thinking on my part, I grabbed a fly and bent down the barb and stuck it into the bottom of the trigger.  
After the hook broke the bloated air bladder, I was able to squeeze out the excess air.  He swam down as soon as I put him back into the water, think he will be ok.  Well that was an experience, catching and releasing a clown trigger with a hook and line - never a dull moment when you are out in the water!
The first to come up was Teau.  Along with corals, he had found a highly prized sea cucumber.  This species of pech de mer is the most sought after of the holothurians in Tonga.  It is found relatively deep so difficult to obtain.  In the recent years, the Tongan Fisheries has allowed export of these highly sought after delicacies.  They are gutted, cooked, and dried before being packed for export.  Most of these end up in the Asian market, so it is not surprising that most people doing this business are Asians.  A special license is required and when it is in season, the whole island fisher folks are busy collecting and selling to the processors/exporters.  I remember once, the price of local lobsters had sky rocketed due to the scarcity, simply because everyone was looking for sea cucumbers instead!

The local name of this sea cucumber translates to eight teats or nipples.  There are four of these nipples on each side of the giant hard slug.  This particular specimen would fetch around $50 US when sold to an exporter.  So as a diver, if you can find ten of these in a day, well you are doing very good!

Some corals that were collected.  Red or even pink gonioporas are not common, but the divers do find them from time to time.

Sorry for the blurred picture, but at least you can make out the nice stylophoras!

This big turbo snail makes a nice snack!  I have looked all over the place for small ones to export, but can't find none.  All of them are near this size, like I said before, everything is big in Tonga!

So here is the turbo snail without the shell, ready to be eaten raw.  Some tobasco sauce on this baby would be delicious!

A bin full of acros just collected.  The sun makes it difficult for any colors to show up.  This small acropora I'm holding is a green sarmentosa with orange tips!  The acros from this collection bin will be transferred to other holding containers, each wrapped in plastic to minimize damage.

Tongan xenias are hard to ship.  These are not the same weed like growing ones in our aquariums that refuse to die.  Generally we can only ship small pieces in big bags of water and oxygen, thus making the landed cost very high.  Still customers do order them and they are beautiful when fully opened!

A bin full of xenias.  Half of them will melt within a few days and only the super healthy ones will be exported. Normally I try to avoid these sensitive soft corals but some customers really want them and willing to take the risk!

With all of our bins filled with corals, it is time to head back in!

The sun was setting as we pushed toward home!

Right when we got to the wharf this guy was on a kayak tossing out lures.  We stopped to talk to him for a minute as I was very curious to see what he was after!

He was using this topwater popper near the wharf where street lights were shining onto the water.  He explained that the small baitfish would get attracted to the light and the bigger fish come looking for them -wow!

And dang, he already had two GT's (giant trevallies)!  I learned that monster fish lurk in the area and love top water plugs.  The only thing I can think of was to make sure to bring my striped bass surf plugging gear next time!  Got my blood pumping as fishing is my number one hobby, then comes corals - ha! ha!


Ok guys that is it for today.  As I type this, I can hear fireworks still outside.  As promised I will be updating with more adventures in the coming days, so please stay tuned.

Oh and I forgot to mention that during my last trip to Tonga, I worked on a secret project that is going to positively shake up the industry!  I will share this with you when the time is right:)


Aquaculture Northern Bali

November Corals Collection Part. 1

November Corals Collection Part. 2

Aquaculture - November Shipment

Coral Showcase - September 2008 Inventory

Holding Facility's Corals Collection Showcase 2007