Shipping live corals is always tricky, however shipping live corals during the winter months is downright risky during cold spells, snow storms and freezing rain. If you have an option I would suggest not even shipping livestock during the winter months. But if you must ship during the winter months hopefully this article will provide a good guide line to insure that your corals will survive the trip.
During the milder spring & fall months some items can survive two day shipping. However, during the fridged winter months nothing is worth risking two day service on. Only ship live corals by overnight shipping! Is priority overnight shipping worth the extra cost? It depends on if it is actually offered in your area. Just because you pay extra for priority overnight shipping does not mean it will arrive at your door at 10:30am in the case of FedEx Priority Overnight . To quote the web site “Overnight delivery by 10:30 a.m. to most US addresses; by noon or 4:30 p.m. in remote areas”; what they consider remote areas might surprise you.
There are several companies offering overnight delivery services. To keep this article simple it only focuses on shipping with FedEx. Priority Overnight is commonly offered as the fastest shipping method by most on-line sellers. However, FedEx does offer even faster options:
FedEx First Overnight : Overnight shipping by 8 to 8:30am based on destination zip code .
FedEx Same Day : Door to door within hours, depending upon availability.
Best Way to Ship
The single best tip I can provide is to not have the corals shipped to your door. Instead, have FedEx ship to the local depot and have them hold them there until you can pick up the package. This sounds complicated, but it is really easy. Just call the shipper you plan to use (such as FedEx) to find the closest depot, get the address and phone number. Have the shipper send to this address. Be sure to tell them this is the drop off depot. In the case of FedEx the shipping document has a special check mark to indicate this. This offers several advantages:
- Your package is not left on a cold door step if you happen not to be home.
- Your package is not on an ice cold truck for several hours before reaching your door.
- No extra fee if shipped on Saturday to the depot as there is no delivery to pay extra for. (Typically an extra $10.00 is charged for Saturday delivery if sent to your door).
Therein is the secret. Most people work Monday thru Friday and do not want to take a day off to receive a shipment. If you have a depot within driving distance, you can pick up on Saturday with no time off from work, no extra fee to pay, and your corals are neither subjected to several extra hours on a cold truck nor any rough handling by the driver. If the package is going to be held at the depot then you have no reason to pay extra for priority overnight shipping. The FedEx Standard Overnight  shipping method is sufficient.
Preparing Coral Frags for Shipping
What if you are going to be the shipper? How do you package the corals to insure they will survive? Like anything else in this great hobby, you can do it in many ways. The following documents one of my recent coral shipments to a fellow hobbyist located in the state of Washington (I’m in New York). A coast to coast shipment in the dead of winter seemed like the ideal shipping to document.
Pictured in Figure 1 are the three coral frags being shipped. Clockwise from the top, Metallic Green Montipora digitata, Orange Montipora capricornis, and a Greenish unidentified plating Montipora sp. The corals are kept in small holding dishes with fresh tank water during preparation for shipping. Both plating Montipora corals produced significant mucus and the water was changed as needed.
Stony corals ideally are shipped floating in the bag. This helps the coral shed excess mucus from the stress of shipping by allowing the coral to sway and bounce around a bit. My early attempts involved trying to tie a knot around the base of the coral to hang it. I had very poor success rates with the coral staying tied – the rough handling during shipment frequently dislodged the coral from the monofilament line (fishing line). And as you can imagine tying a knot around a plating coral is no easy task without doing some damage to the coral.
I’ve found that attaching the monofilament line using super glue gel to the base of the coral where the coral was separated worked much better. See Figure 2 and Figure 3! The glue is placed directly on the porous skeleton and not on live tissue. When the package arrives it is very easy to remove the monofilament line – the super glue blob snaps right off.
The super glue gel will take a few minutes to harden enough to support the coral’s weight. I suggest leaving the coral submerged in its holding dish. The super glue gel will develop a thickened skin instantly once placed in water.
In Figure 4 the Styrofoam is cut about halfway thru with a thin sharp knife. This creates a slot where the monofilament line will be placed. The shape of the Styrofoam is not important; I just happened to have L-shaped Styrofoam handy which I cut into thin slices about ½ inch thick. Any chunk of Styrofoam in the area of 2 x 2 x ½ inches will be more than plenty to keep typical sized coral frags floating.
Take the monofilament line and wrap it around the Styrofoam as shown in Figure 5. Be sure the line stays snug in the slot cut with the knife. Typically, it is not necessary to tie this into a knot to keep it snug. If enough extra line is present and you have nothing better to do, feel free to tie a knot. Notice in Figure 5 that the super glued monofilament line is easily holding the weight of the coral frag even out of water.
Bagging Coral Frags
Figures 6, 7 and 8 show the corals bagged with the coral frags free floating from the small section of Styrofoam. Only place enough water in the bag to keep the coral suspended off the bottom of the bag. Excess water is not needed and only adds to the shipping weight of the package.
Several years ago I had issues with bags leaking and rupturing during shipping. I attribute this to cheap bags typically used by local fish stores and other on-line suppliers (I reused the bags). I now use very strong polyethylene bags (commonly called poly bags) that are 8 x 20 inches and 4 ml thick. The typical kitchen garbage bag is about .6 mil think while industrial trash liner bags are typically 1.2 ml thick. A 4 mil thick shipping bag will not get punctured and I have yet to see one leak. Double bagging is not needed. There are lots of vendors on the Internet selling quality poly bags. Expect to pay something around $80 for a box of 1000 (split an order with friends or local reef club).
I’m amazed at what some vendors have done to seal bags. Some of them are just about impossible to open. I received bag from more than one vendor sealed with metal tabs that just could not be removed without pliers or wire cutters. Some of them tie knots that are impossible to remove without destroying the bag. (I only make this point because I’ve talked to many hobbyists who keep bags for future use).
I’ll briefly describe what I do: Spin the bag to make a handle like you normally would in closing a bag. (Do not spin it so far that the bag becomes firm and rounded like it is pressurized. The air in the bag may expand during shipping via overnight air methods. The bag should have some room for the air to expand into – see Figure 8.) Take a rubber band and wrap once around the twisted plastic bag and pull the end of the rubber band through the loop as pictured in Figure 9. Then wrap 2 more times around the twisted bag – make sure the bag does not untwist while handling it. Then fold the twist flap in half to bend over it as shown in Figure 10. Wrap the rubber band around a few more times until all slack is used. That in itself is enough to make a water tight sealed bag. However, just to be safe wrap two or three more rubber bands as tight as possible. To open the bag, simply take the folded twisted plastic handle and pull it straight. With a strong pull the rubber bands will pop right off and you can untwist the bag to open.
It is important to take care in packaging the corals. I remove the Styrofoam box liner from the shipping box. Then just as used in cooking, I use a layer of aluminum foil to help retain heat as shown in Figure 11. In all honesty, I have no proof that this makes a real difference. However, it only takes a few seconds to add the foil and the theory seems sound to me. The extra care taken to improve packaging impresses the customer which may be worth it in itself.
Each of the coral bags are placed into a single larger bag, in effect double bagging them all at once. Just in case something should leak, it will contain the water. The second bag also acts as an insulation barrier to retain heat (see Figure 12)
With the bag of corals centered in the shipping box the extra space in the shipping box is used up with filler bags. Filler bags are just bags filled with Styrofoam peanuts as shown in Figures 12 and 13. I find keeping the peanuts in bags reduces the mess in opening the box and makes it easier to be reused.
A critical part of the success in shipping corals during the winter months is having a heat source that will last overnight. Typical heat packs sold as pocket warmers at store checkout counters tend to last from 4 to 7 hours. This is not long enough to be useful for shipping purposes. Some people think that adding two or three heat packs will make up the difference of a heat pack not lasting long enough. Do not do this! Two or three heat packs will be more than enough to cook the corals. Heat packs lasting 12 to 16 hours can be used in a pinch if you can not find something better or if temperatures are expected to be unseasonable warm. Ideally, you want heat packs which last 20 or more hours, which can often be found at sporting goods stores. The heat pack pictured in Figure 14 is a 20 hour heat pack (the package pictured says “Warm Pack”; however, it is typically called a heat pack).
Heat packs are nothing more than a few simple ingredients such as (iron, water, cellulose, vermiculite, activated carbon, salts) which creates an exothermic reaction once exposed to oxygen in the air. An exothermic reaction gives off heat, just like our heat pack. The iron powder and the oxygen in the bag react to form iron oxide. This process is called oxidation. The salt speeds up this reaction and is therefore a catalyst. The vermiculite ensures that the heat stays in the baggie. The iron oxide that is formed is a compound .
Fe + O2 → Fe2O3 + heat
Different vendors use different methods to generate the heat. The backside of the heat pack pictured in Figure 14 says it will maintain a minimum temperature of 104°F (40°C) for 20 hours. It claims an average temperature of 130°F (54°C) with a maximum temperature reaching 155°F (68°C). It’s easy to see why two or more heat packs can easily raise the shipping water temperature beyond the range corals can survive at.
To prevent the heat pack from overheating the bag which it lays on during shipping, the heat pack should be wrapped in several layers of paper as shown in Figure 16. The paper helps to diffuse the heat and prevent localized hot spots in the media from over heating the bag it is in contact with. Figure 15 shows the heat pack removed from the packaging. Some heat packs need to be squished and crumpled up a few times in order to start the reaction process. The particular product documented here does not. The instructions on the back of the product will specify if anything special needs to be done. I prefer to handle the heat pack until I can feel it getting warm. If the packaging had any holes which allowed air to interact with the product, it could be a dud. Make sure the heat pack starts warming up before sealing the package for shipping. This type of heat pack can not be reused once it has been used. Discard it in the trash.
Finally a top layer of aluminum foil is put in place to help trap heat rising from the heat pack as pictured in Figure 17. The Styrofoam cover should fit snugly. It’s not a bad idea to run a strip of tape all the way around the Styrofoam box to prevent the two parts from separating, plus making the package air tight. As pictured in Figure 18 the Styrofoam package is inserted into large plastic bag and taped shut to create as snug a fit to the Styrofoam box as possible. This is then slid into the shipping box as pictured in Figure 19. All seams on the shipping box should be carefully taped shut. If the box is not already marked as “Perishable” and markings showing which way to stack the box then draw this information directly on the box manually. You could try asking for such stickers when you drop off the box for delivery.
When filling out papers to ship the package, take care in the wording you use. Don’t lie outright claiming it is a box of shoes or something, but don’t outright declare the corals as animals either. If they ask you if it is a plant or an animal… put on your best confused face and agree it’s a plant. The person behind the counter has likely been trained that they do not accept live animals as cargo for shipping. To quote the web site “FedEx does not accept live animal shipments as part of its regularly scheduled service. Live animals will be accepted when the shipment is coordinated and approved by the FedEx Live Animal Desk.” . This is generally meant for domestic animals such as cats and dogs which can not be shipped in unpressurized and unheated cargo space. FedEx has a Flying Tigers Air Cargo Service which they use to transport such animals. It is not worth having this debate with the clerk. FedEx does have a Live Animals department  which you can call if you are interested in getting more official details.
A more specific reason why FedEx may not accept your shipment is a little known and often forgotten policy. I’ve yet to have a shipping clerk ever reference it. FedEx Restrictions, section 15, which states “Ornamental Marine Life, including Live Fish. FedEx will accept, on an exceptional basis, shipments of ornamental marine life. The term “ornamental marine life” includes live freshwater plants or fish, and hermit crabs that are not for human consumption or bait purposes, are maintained in closed systems for personal, pet industry or hobby purposes, and which will not be placed in waters of the U.S. “Coral will not be accepted”. 
The phrase “Coral will not be accepted” is the part to worry about.
Although not the focus of this article, Restrictions, section 15 does make references to fish as well “FedEx will accept shipments of ornamental marine life when either the shipper or recipient is a licensed commercial or business entity who is in the business of selling live freshwater plants, fish or hermit crabs and who is not prohibited from making such shipments by federal, state, or local regulations. For example, shipments from pet stores to consumers are acceptable. Shipments must be sent via FedEx Priority Overnight service, and shipments must be tendered to FedEx on days that will not require transit over a weekend or holiday. Signature Release is not available for these shipments. “ 
“Licensed commercial or business entity” can ship such items but this does not leave much room for the hobbyist.
FedEx Restrictions 16, starts by saying “The following items are prohibited and will not be accepted:”  and proceeds to list a conflicting item: “b. Live animals, including birds, reptiles, fish except via our Flying Tigers ® Air Cargo Service.”
It has been my experience that if corals arrive dead and they were delivered on time and the box was not physically damaged then FedEx will not compensate you for the value of the animals even if you paid extra for the insurance. They tend to be quick to jump at “we don’t allow shipments of live animals” and move to push you off the phone. I’ve read message threads on the bulletin boards with mixed experiences on this topic. Some have better luck than others. They may also blame the death on inadequate packaging if the packaging was not inspected prior to shipping. FedEx Restrictions, section 15 states “Pre-shipment procedures, which include but are not limited to packaging approval, must be met prior to FedEx accepting any ornamental marine life shipment. Customers must contact their FedEx Account Executive to complete these pre-shipment approval procedures.” 
“NOTE: The packaging of live fish for domestic shipping must be tested and approved by the FedEx Packaging Design and Development department prior to any live fish shipment being accepted by FedEx.” 
Luckily very little of this is ever enforced. It seems it could make a significant dent in this hobby if it was.
The temperature outside here in New York was a crisp 21°F (-6°C) when I dropped the package off at FedEx at 3pm. By 10:00pm that night the temperature had dropped down to 9°F (-13°C) and I was a bit worried about the shipment. It got much colder than I expected it to and I probably should have held off another day for a warmer night.
When the package arrived in Washington at 12:20pm, the local temperature was 47°F (8°C). According to the fellow hobbyist the temperate of the bags was at 61°F (16°C) and the pH had dropped to 7.5. After floating the bag for 20 minutes the Montipora digitata polyps were already starting to extend. They were slowly acclimated over 1.5 hours and then super glued to the reef structure. Within 4 hours of being added to the tank the corals were showing full polyp extension. The scrolling Montipora corals took a little longer to show the polyps, but were fully extended later that night.
This was clearly a complete success. The package traveled over 2,600 miles taking close to 24 hours to be delivered from the time I dropped it off at FedEx to the time the package arrived at its destination. Considering seawater with a salinity 35ppt (such as my tank water) will begin to freeze at 28°F (-2°C)  and this package spent several hours at temperatures well below freezing, a drop of less than 18 degrees in the shipping water was pretty impressive. A heat pack lasting more than 20 hours, or a night with warmer temperatures would reduce this temperature drop significantly.
If I had the resources, I would like to be able to send out multiple packages one night with a temperature recording device to be able to more accurately test the difference between packaging methods. If you have access to such recording devices and would like to help with this please feel free to contact me.
- FedEx Priority Overnight Guidelines: http://www.fedex.com/us/services/ waystoship/usexpress/priorityovernight.html?link=4
- FedEx First Overnight Guidelines: http://www.fedex.com/us/services/waystoship/usexpress/firstovernight.html?link=4
- FedEx First Overnight Destination ZipCode list: http://www.fedex.com/us/services/pdf/ZipcodesFOIF.pdf?link=4
- FedEx Same Day Guidelines: http://www.fedex.com/us/services/waystoship/usexpress/sameday.html?link=4
- FedEx Standard Overnight Guidelines: http://www.fedex.com/us/services/waystoship/usexpress/standardovernight.html?link=4
- FedEx Shipping Live Animals Policy: http://www.fedex.com/us/services/termsandconditions/liveanimals.html?link=4
- FedEx Restrictions Policy: http://www.fedex.com/us/services/termsandconditions/restrictions.html?link=4
- Freezing Point of Seawater: http://newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/gen99/gen99263.htm
- Exothermic and endothermic reactions: http://www.elmhurst.edu/~chm/demos/ColdPak2.htm