BROOKSVILLE — Stepping through the door at Ocean Prime Corals is like entering the deep blue sea. And the ambient hue entices customers to scoop up the many colorful creatures that dwell among its reefs.
To owner Ben Dzugen, the seascape comes naturally.
"I've always been around reef tanks, almost 21 years," the 21-year-old said.
The young entrepreneur created the seascape for the shop — which opened in October — using actinic, or blue-green, light, selected for its aesthetic appeal and for the health of the corals.
"The coloration brings out the very vibrant colors (of the corals) and targets chlorophyll in the algae, makes it grow," Dzugen said. Algae is a needed food for the corals, which are tiny sea animals with limestone skeletons.
Corals are much in demand as living decor for saltwater aquariums.
Sea floors of many colors are recreated in numerous tanks throughout the shop, corals of sun-bright yellow bursts, iridescent orange florals edged in stunningly contrasting purple, silver-gray lava look-alikes seemingly sprinkled with decorative red sugar.
Shop helper Sabrina Castro demonstrates a coral's health, gently touching with a wand the wafting petallike fronds of a tiny, tree-shaped specimen. The fronds snap shut, just as they do to consume a thread algae or an insect-size shrimp.
The shop sells corals, the food they eat, saltwater tank supplies, aquarium lighting and saltwater fish.
"It's surprised me, in Brooksville, how many "reefers," saltwater enthusiasts, are in the area," Dzugen said.
His corals come from Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
"You have to go through regulations to protect the reefs," Dzugen said. "I try to buy for the sustainability aspect … either aquaculture or mariculture" — in other words, from coral farms. Specimens are snipped from parents, "like trimming a hedge," he explained.
Although Dzugen has a highly prized Australian scoly coral with a $1,200 price tag, he emphasized, "When I was a hobbyist, one of the things that frustrated me was the cost."
He offers single-head polyps and various-sized frags (a small piece or colony of coral) for $5, variations for $10 and $15.
"I want everybody to enjoy the hobby as much as I do," he said.
For Dzugen, a 2011 graduate of Hernando Christian Academy, the shop serves as more than an economic enterprise. The current student at Pasco-Hernando State College considers it as a sort of internship toward a university degree in marine biology, along with job experience in international commerce.
As a budding businessman, Dzugen has kept his overhead low. His "employee" roster? All volunteers.
"Mom, my aunt, little brother and I, my brother's girlfriend, another girlfriend, friends who help, Sabrina and Maggie (Castro)."
Mom is Jackie Dzugen, who maintained all of the reef tanks with which her son grew up.
"We're still pretty young," said Ben Dzugen, "but we're getting there."
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]