We all have seen the beautiful black coral necklaces that have been sold in Hawaiian jewelry stores but this coral species is not black! Only the coral skeleton is black but the actual live coral is bright orange or tan in color.
Hawaiian stony corals are made of a calcium carbonate structure similar to concrete. The live coral that makes their hard homes is soft and looks like a tiny upside down jellyfish. The black coral has very colorful polys and also produces a thin layer of flesh that covers the black skeleton. These beautiful corals produce branches and look like small orange trees growing on deep water reefs. In Hawaii they are found in low light areas of high current. As divers we see them in dark caves at 50 to 100 feet deep or on steep dark underwater cliffs at depths of 80 to 125 feet deep!
Free divers in the past use to dive down with a rope and a hand saw. While holding their breath they would saw off a large black coral and tie it to the rope where a person on a boat up above would pull up the 50 pound coral to the surface. Some very famous Hawaiian divers drowned trying to collect black coral as it was a very dangerous job but the corals were sold for a lot of money to make jewelry.
Once the black coral was brought to the surface the colorful live coral polyps died and left behind their back skeleton of which was polished to shinny black tree looking designs sold in the stores at a high price. Maui black coral became quite famous and was sold in high end stores all around the world. It became so popular that by the mid 1990’s almost all of the black coral had been removed from the reefs here in Hawaii except small colonies that lived in deep water caves that the divers could not get to!
Black coral is now fully protected from collecting here in Hawaii and is starting to grow back in water shallow enough for us to see it while scuba diving. There are certain fish species like the long nose hawkfish that only live in the branches of black coral and they too almost went extinct when their coral homes were removed. Now we are seeing this fish species recover as there is more black coral to live in every year.
‘ekaha ku moana was also very important to the ancient Hawaiians as it was ground up and used for medicine. It was said it could cure lung issues and diseases in the mouth.
You can see what the live black coral looks like in my movie The Worlds Guide To Hawaiian Reef Creatures up on my educational web page at www.underwater2web.com and also have your children learn all about our Hawaiian coral reefs in our summer Coral Reef Kids Camp with our non profit at www.reefguardianshawaii.org.
Aloha from under the surf.
Terry Lilley, a marine biologist, lives in Hanalei. His websites include underwater-2web.com and www.gofundme.com/5urrm4zw.