Jody Grow raises corals and other marine animals and sell them to hobbyists across the United States over the Internet. pennell photo - Bob Pennell

Plexiglas Oceans

When someone says "Medford," what comes to mind? Pears, certainly. Ocean coral, certainly not.

Surprisingly, a growing number of aquarium enthusiasts do make that second, improbable connection. They've been buying corals, starfish, anemones, giant clams and other saltwater creatures from two Medford guys who have mastered the delicate art of creating a saltwater environment miles from any ocean.

Keith Dunn teamed with the aptly named Jody Grow to raise corals and other marine animals and sell them to hobbyists across the United States over the Internet.

Totally Exotic Corals specializes in "the stuff that blows people's minds," says Grow, showing a visitor his personal 300-gallon aquarium, which fills most of a wall in his house. Brightly colored fish swim around brilliantly colored corals in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some send out little spikes like tree branches. Others look like a head of beautifully painted cauliflower.

Grow focuses on the nuts and bolts of maintaining the dozens of saltwater tanks where they grow stock. He maintained an aquarium as a kid growing up in Eagle Point and had dreams of becoming a marine biologist, "but the money (for college) just wasn't there," he recalled.

He followed his dad into mill work, and worked on the side cleaning and maintaining other people's aquariums. He grew some corals on his own, and started selling some to local enthusiasts.

Mill work wasn't fulfilling, and one day his wife encouraged him to do the aquarium thing full-time.

About a year ago he teamed with Dunn, who developed an appreciation for corals while living in Hawaii. Together they import corals from the warm water oceans of the world and sell "frags" (pieces) to other hobbyists. The small pieces grow into larger colonies when provided an appropriate environment.

The corals come in a fantastic array of shapes and colors that reflect the diversity of marine environments. Their common names (lavender eyes, blue aura, pink metal, purple dreams) suggest the variety of forms that they've developed. Grow, of course, knows them by their Latin scientific names.

Dunn tends the business side of the operation, working with contacts he made years ago in the South Pacific to procure stock for resale from exotic places such as Vanuatu, Tonga and the Red Sea.

Much of their stock is now grown commercially in protected ocean waters (mariculture) rather than harvested from wild corals. Awareness of the fragility of corals has increased around the world, Dunn said, and many countries now promote mariculture to discourage the harvest of wild corals.

Dunn said the trade in corals is regulated internationally by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, usually known as CITES (pronounced SIGH-tees), and many nations have banned or severely limited harvest of wild corals (as well as tropical fish) to preserve what they have.

"We stay away from species that aren't sustainable or don't do well in (home) systems," Grow said.

Since Dunn and Grow don't have an ocean, they keep their own stock in Plexiglas tanks. In the coral business, that makes them aquaculturists rather than mariculturists. They have to provide the right mixture of minerals to promote coral growth.

"You almost have to be a chemist," Dunn said.

Water temperature is a critical factor, too. Water that's too hot can bleach the color out of corals, so they have to cool their tanks during Medford's long hot summers.

Grow said modern technology has made maintaining a saltwater aquarium much easier than it was when he was a kid. That in turn has attracted more people to the hobby and created a demand for the corals they sell.

They try to provide a wide range of specimens to attract everyone from the hobbyist starting out on a limited budget to connoisseurs who want instant gratification. Prices range from $30 or $40 for small frags of common corals to as much as $300 for giant clams that may be 12 inches across.

"To make it into a business you've got to have a little bit of everything," Grow said.

Most corals can't go dry, so they have to ship their stock overnight in saltwater.

Although Grow never became a marine biologist, he may have ended up in just the right niche after all. Most scientists have to narrow their focus to one species, and devote their career to its study. Grow gets to spend time learning about hundreds of species while he nurtures them.

"I've talked to lots of marine biologists," he says. "They want to do what I'm doing."

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