The Art of Artificial Coral

Considering that coral reefs can take 100,000 to 30 million years to fully develop in the wild, it’s no surprise that the majority of corals found in National Aquarium exhibits are artificial.

Published January 24, 2018

In the wild, corals are like people—each piece is different. To achieve a heightened state of realism in our exhibits, the National Aquarium exhibit fabrication team goes to unparalleled lengths to create the illusion of real coral reef habitats.


The first step in recreating some of the most ecologically diverse places in our ocean is getting inspiration straight from the source. After extensive research, members of the National Aquarium exhibit fabrication team have a few options when it’s production time: sculpted, molded or a hybrid process.  

Sculpted coral is essentially made from scratch, and deciding which materials to use is up to the expertise of our staff. Consider the branching fire coral, for example—our fabrication team discovered that repeatedly dipping stainless steel pipe cleaners in liquid urethane rubber was the perfect way to replicate the branching arms that are indicative of this species. 

On the other hand, the molding process involves using real coral skeletons to create a two-layer mold: an inner flexible mold and an outer rigid mother-mold, or mold jacket. The flexible rubber mold reproduces the fine polyp detail of the coral skeleton, while the rigid jacket holds the overall shape of the coral head. Materials and techniques have improved over the years, but the basic process of flexible molding has remained relatively constant since the 1970s. 

An example of a hybrid process that is oftentimes employed for large branching corals involves dissecting a coral head into individually moldable pieces, casting these pieces and reassembling them for the finished product. 

The artificial coral found in exhibits throughout in the Aquarium replicate the astonishing diversity of coral habitats in our ocean—places of incredible ecological importance that face threats such as increasing carbon dioxide levels, chemical pollutants and storm damage. There is good news, however; there are actions we all can take, such as reducing our individual carbon footprints, that can help protect the future of coral reefs around the world!

Learn more about coral reefs, and how you can help protect them!

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