As a scuba instructor, I have been fortunate to enjoy the magnificence of our coral reefs and the non-stop activity of its vibrant life. Remaining virtually motionless, called hovering, one can easily observe a four foot square area of the reef and gain valuable insight to making their reef tank more successful.
Lack of motion brings the reef to life with fabulous creatures of all shapes and sizes revealing themselves in their endless quest for food. Within moments, the stark contrast between the open water ocean and the closed systems of our reef tanks becomes quite apparent. Rather than ‘recycling’ the same water over and over, the gentle ocean currents bathe the reefs with nourishment and whisk away the waste. Another revelation is the tendency of some hobbyists to overstock reef aquariums.
When creating a reef aquarium health plan, include the following:
1. Have patience.
This is probably the most important aspect of a healthy reef aquarium. Nothing pays off more than the patience to do in-depth research concerning the needs, habits, compatibility and adult size of every organism prior to acquisition. It is tempting to fill a new reef tank with fish but adverse water quality issues may result.
2. Avoid overstocking.
It is tempting to add ‘just one more fish’ to replicate a brilliant reef you snorkeled on during a Caribbean vacation. Remember, the ocean reef might have been teeming with fish in a small area but unlike a closed-system aquarium, there are millions of gallons of clean water constantly flowing through a reef.
Research the needs, habits, compatibility and adult size of every organism prior to acquisition. Photo by Stephen G. Noble
3. Quarantine new fish, invertebrates and live rock covered with algae and invertebrates.
Making the effort to set up a quarantine tank cannot be overstated. Ensuring that new fish and corals are disease free might take a week or two after purchase. Quarantining gives them an opportunity to acclimate to feeding and adjust to your water parameters. A diseased fish can rapidly infect a reef tank. Particularly devastating is if it dies in one of the tank’s many hideaways. A total dismantling of rockwork might be required.
4. Feed properly and carefully.
Natural reefs consist of producers (algae, zooxanthellae, phytoplankton) and consumers that eat others lower in the food chain. Fish are the easiest to feed with so many prepared foods available. Take care not to overfeed and use foods approved for marine fish. Avoid using feeder goldfish and any other foods that could introduce dangerous parasites into your tank. Feeding corals is an art. Hermatypic and Ahermatypic corals each have unique requirements and research concerning the needs of the specific corals is essential.
Observing your tank daily can alert you to any hazardous changes. Photo by Stephen G. Noble
5. Attention to detail.
Create and record benchmark values for your water parameters and equipment performance. Establish a log book for recording weekly water testing and equipment inspection results. Periodically compare your benchmark values to current values. Clean your equipment such as in-tank sensing probes. Verify their calibration against your benchmark. Check the volume of water flowing through your filtration system. The water flow capacity of filtration hoses and powerheads reduce over time as they slowly become fouled by a buildup of debris.
6. Use four of your five senses.
Sight, smell, sound, and touch can alert you to any hazardous changes in your aquarium. Smell the tank for unusual odors. Look for anything unusual that has changed in the tank. Change is often very subtle. For example, competition exists between organisms such as corals, sponges and anemones. These organisms can slowly compete for the same piece of real estate and or overhead lighting. Over time, some of the faster growing corals such as Acropora yongei could actually impede your tank’s water flow. Every day, look at your tank’s temperature and the displays of electronic monitoring equipment. Observe your fish for signs of stress or disease. Suddenly active or inactive fish might indicate poor quality water or a number of other irritations. Listen for rattling sounds indicating an impending failure of equipment. Filtration motors that are hot to the touch could be about to fail.
7. Remember that bad news does not get better with time.
Take quick action upon discovering cloudy water (green or white) indicating a microscopic algae or bacteria bloom. High levels of surface foam could be the result of a poorly functioning protein skimmer, severe overfeeding or both. Small white specks on fish sides and fins could mean an Amyloodinium infestation. This highly contagious disease can result in a staggering death rate if not immediately treated.
Your tank will evolve over time so pay particular attention and look for subtle changes. One helpful tool is to make initial images of your tank and periodically take additional photos. Compare the images to help identify changes and to also enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Testing water is easy with the availability of so many easy to use testing kits. Record results. Photo by Stephen G. Noble
Reef tanks are long-term projects that evolve over the years and a solid health plan will help you succeed. Enjoy your reef tank!