Live Rock Overview

by birdfish

As you may know, live rock was in many ways the "silver bullet secret" to keeping saltwater tanks, especially reef tanks with corals. Though tanks with lots of high tech gear can be run without it, tanks with it can be run without lots of high tech and expensive equipment. I like some of both.

Good live rock can be one of the most aesthetically pleasing aspects of a tank full of beautiful, rare animals. It can also keep them alive! It contains all the bacteria necessary for nitrification and de-nitrification, key to the success of a reef tank. The best filter you'll buy will be your live rock ... it is both literally and figuratively the foundation of your saltwater aquarium.

Back in the 1960's the famous pioneering aquarist Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod would visit a guy in Indonesia that had what he called fantastic beautiful saltwater tanks, run with only an airstone. There were pictures of it in some of his early books. Yes there were few fish, but lots of what we'd now call awesome live rock! That was his secret. Just an airstone, and live rock.

There have been many types of live rock available. Fiji and Florida once produced most of the live rock in the USA (Fiji is now closed). Florida live rock is all aquacultured now, since harvesting was banned in the U.S. and its territories. The up side of FL rock is it can have corals on it, and be legal. But it's dense, so very heavy, which equals expensive. You'll need 50% more of it, at least, if not 100% more, than many types of Pacific live rock. Florida rock also often has unwanted hitch-hikers, such as mantis shrimp and bristle worms, which live through shipping because it is shipped in water to keep the coral and sponge life alive. You will almost surely have to address the unwanted pest issue with Florida live rock.

Any identifiable piece of coral on an imported, wild-harvested piece of live rock is cause for seizure by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department. So, Pacific Ocean harvested live rock is cleaned of these items. Though most of it is seeded with the eggs, spores or roots from these very same animals. We've seen hard and soft corals grow out of live rock, six months to a year after we got it. And it is shipped in air (called dry - since not in water), so 99.9% of the time if there are bristle worms or mantis shrimp (very very rare) they will be dead in the bottom of the box, having gone looking for water. International air-freight is most of the cost of the live rock, and why it can not be shipped in water.

For our first decade, our on-line speciality was getting our customers the freshest, highest quality air-freighted Pacific live rock from Fiji, the Marshall Islands, especially Tonga, and we were early distributors of the original Vanuatu. Other areas in which live rock was sometimes available were Bali, Jakarta, and neighboring islands like Sulawesi (Manado) and others, and it has come from Samoa and the Solomon Islands. Areas that didn't produce regularly had greater fluctuations in quality than those that did. It took some time to train them, but they eventually knew just exactly what we wanted. A show piece and a bunch of cherries in every box.

Live rock from Tonga was used to create this stunning aquascape ...

Scott's Reef
Photo courtesy of our customer Scott of Hammond, Indiana

Fiji Cultured Live Rock

Currently, there is cultured live rock from Fiji available that has been under water for a couple of years, looking fantastic. It is not actual old eroded coral pieces, but the overall visual effect is pretty close to what a reef of good Fiji live rock looked like.

Additional photos, including customer photos and comments can be seen on the following page ...

Fiji Cultured Live Rock

Fiji Cultured Live Rock

Live rock from the past ...
(currently or permanently unavailable)

Vanuatu Live Rock

Vanuatu Live Rock

The Vanuatu rock was sold as Australian rock over a decade ago since it flew through Oz on the way to the United States. Many considered it the best live rock they ever saw. Vanuatu live rock has been available, and the old consistency issues are no longer a factor; it was coming in fantastic. For many once they've gotten it, nothing else will do. Lots of great post-curing growth, especially many reported colored sponges. It's beautifully shaped coral pieces encrusted with coralline algae and other great stuff. It was often the lightest (least dense) live rock available, so most displacement per pound. Boxes weighed to 44 lbs. each, so a couple smaller pieces will be there as they bring weight up..... Always a big show center-piece, and a couple large A-1's in every box.

Java Live Rock

Bali Live Rock

Java live rock came from the island of that name in Indonesia. It was quite like the Irian Jaya actually. We had reports of starfish and anemones making it alive. Everyone was thrilled with it too. It was the good old-fashioned Indo rock you may have heard of. Covered in lots of different colors, and stuff, good coral pieces and shapes with lots of different types of corallines.

Manado Live Rock

Manado Live Rock

Although no longer available, Manado live rock was five-star, AAA real deal with great piece selection in every box, lots of different colors of corallines, sometimes macros, great coral shapes.

Fiji Live Rock

Fiji (wild) live rock is no longer available, but it has been a popular live rock for many years. It's important to distinguish what type of Fiji live rock is "out there" in the marketplace. It's not all the same. After nearly two decades of building a tremendous reputation for being the best cheapest most fantastic live rock, around 2005-6, seemingly about 90% of Fiji live rock became boat rock, that is, it rode a boat from Fiji to America. So it sat for weeks in a shipping container awaiting U.S. Fish & Wildlife inspection, Customs, etc. It was probably picked and packed a couple weeks in advance of shipment as well. Most boat rock is gray and cementy looking, but there are a couple of types and grades of it. Most will eventually grow the purple coralline back on it. It is bacterially active and is excellent for base or inner parts of large reefs.

Interestingly in part, the public demand for cheap-cheap-cheap is what drove the price war and created the boat rock. Though the Fiji (boat rock) did not compare to the old Fiji (air- freighted) live rock, they were both called the same thing by marketers. It was far from the same product it was, even though it was usually sold just as Fiji live rock without full disclosure, and has been for years since day one. Most places selling Fiji live rock do not say it is boat rock, as if it is the same famous-for-a-reason product of yesteryear.

Tonga Live Rock

Tonga Branch

Prior to Tonga closing for live rock collection in August '08, there were six distinctly different types available ... Vava'u (Deepwater), Eva, Uaniva, shelf, branch, and fusion. Tonga was first made famous for its red branch live rock, and then the other types mentioned above became as or more popular. Each type of rock had its own unique character and most of the people who got it thought it was the greatest live rock they ever saw. We had mastered the art of getting it from Tonga to our customer quickly enough to receive regular reports of everything from purple zoanthids to corals growing out of it. It really was World Class live rock and it's a shame that it closed down.

Marshall Islands

Marshall Islands Live Rock

Marshall Islands live rock was lightweight, porous and colorful. It has lots of shape and was most open internally of any type of live rock. It was often old dead porites pieces that fused together, so very branchy internally, full of nooks and crannies. It mostly only had this great beautiful shade of lavender coralline algae on it. Some reported never getting anything else ever. Once I got live Porites out of it, and a few zoos another time. But it was mostly the internal open space, and the lavender coralline. There was very little freight space, which was always the limiting factor in supply. But, in summer of 2007, it was closed down. There was hope that it will re-open, as the harvest was less than 1/20th of Fiji's, but recently recently much of the Marianas was named a marine reserve, so it is unlikely now that any rock will again arrive fresh from the Marshall Islands. One shipment of boated Marshalls was brought to LA. Bet that smelled good.  

Various Indo Rocks

There were several types of live rock available from Bali. So, the following was written when they were available. They were all good. Usually the live rock from Bali or Indonesia is individually wrapped in wet newspaper, boxes are lined with a plastic bag for moisture retention, so lots of cool stuff makes the trip. There was Alor, which had an excellent reputation, but varied.

"Blue Ridge" had encrusted pieces of dead Heliopora and was fragile. Then there was sometimes what we called Purple Popcorn, which was a very purple and bumpy rock. Irian Jaya was multi-colored or purple, with great shapes, good varied coral and coral rock pieces. It was sometimes more like Vanuatu live rock in that there were several colors of corallines on each piece, and not only purple. Everyone that got it loved it. We heard from one customer that he ID'd five species of macros on one rock! And he ought to be a botanist!

Notes from Birdfish ...


Almost all of this Pacific live rock, regardless of source, comes in boxes that weigh from 44-66 lbs. When you order live rock direct, it is not cured.

The most important things to remember are to NOT blast it with light when it first comes in, and to keep LOTS of current on it. WATERFLOW and PROTEIN SKIMMING (or water changes) are the two very important things to do. These simple rules will allow your live rock to cure with very little loss of coralline and other life on it. Most of which you can't order. The best stuff on it, is spores in it you can't see, that will grow in a few months. IF you keep it clean while curing. The solution to pollution is dilution, don't fret over throwing some water away the first week or two. It will make a big difference in what grows in a month or two.

Please see our article Curing Live Rock.

You may also be interested in our Live Rock FAQ.


An important note ... remember the sun at high noon on the equator is only 6500 Kelvin. That means, less at other times of the day, or under overcast skies, etc.   There is no 20,000 Kelvin in the wild.   There is no such animal. It is often the over-lighting of these new super bulbs, which can kill corallines, and corals. They ARE a marvel of technology, but the product they put out is nothing any animal in the sea is adapted to, or has ever been exposed to.

I once watched a large wholesaler in L.A. replace all his 10K's with 20K's when they came out, and watched 500 beautiful purple and blue acroporas turn brown in two days! So, let's be careful with the light out there folks!

Always run a blue light only photoperiod for an hour or two hours on either side of your white full-light sun period to simulate sunup and sundown. Start with just blue light after a week or two of curing. Then put a couple hours of white light between blue cycles. Then slowly increase that until you get to the final daylight photoperiod of 2 hours blue, 8 hrs. white, 2 hrs. blue which is close to what it is in the real world.

You don't want to light it during curing when you can't yet get some snails on it to control any algae bloom. A little blue for an hour or two is fine to check it out better.... but watch the nose prints on the glass.


Our rock is fresh ... it doesn't sit around on the warehouse floor for a week before we ship it to you.
(Note: We put this sentence on our website in 2000 and it, to this day, is the most copied sentence off our website, with many of live rock sellers on the Internet having lifted it directly from here ... some of whom sell rock that is stored on the floor.)

All of our live rock is shipped almost immediately upon landing at LAX. So, often faster than a wholesaler in the east gets it and before he sells it to a retail store, you have it. We meet the plane and are waiting for Fish & Wildlife to clear it, so, the day we ship it to you will be based on the day the rock arrives at LAX.

You must order in box lots ... the box approximate weights are listed on our Live Rock Photos & Pricing page. We only ship to your local airport. Only in the lower 48 United States and Alaska (illegal to ship it to Hawai'i). Freight rates vary with airline, and distance across country. Coast to coast, it is usually about $1.00 per pound. The first box is high, you pay the minimum charge the airline has for one box regardless of weight since one box is only around 50 lbs. Two boxes freight is usually only 50% more than one box, and three boxes only 25% more on that. Under a hundred pounds, one box, you pay a little higher for air freight. Still a fraction of a door to door service. Pickup is easy as eatin' cream pie. Please plan ahead so you can place your order with enough time for us to arrange for the arrival of your rock.

You may send us an e-mail if you wish to inquire regarding your shipping, or if you have any other questions. Also, please try to keep a flexible schedule regarding your shipping day ... sometimes things run like clockwork, but sometimes the schedules can occasionally change ... in other words, please don't make a solid plan to take the day off from work or plan your vacation around your shipment. You can pick it up after work and it will even be fine the next day. Shipments can not ship from overseas at the last minute for a bunch of reasons.

The bottom line is you can get the same box of rock your local store does from the same exporter and importer, without it going through as many hands for a lot less by picking it up at the airport yourself. Remember, freight terminals are often at different places than passenger terminals ... usually signed on way into airport. (All airline tracking and contact information will be sent to you when shipment goes.) We don't recommend this for everything, but where live rock is concerned, you're not taking the risk of touchy, sensitive livestock that might not eat! What you need is the best freshest island-to-you real deal live rock to build your reef with.

Additional live rock photos from the past ...

Live Rock Photo Gallery

Live Rock Archive Page

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