One of the biggest problems that confront many new reef aquarists is the difficulty of obtaining accurate information. Frequently, stores or salespeople would rather turn a quick buck than offer sound advice. It’s a real shame since reef keeping is such a rewarding hobby, but one which requires skill, patience, and most of all knowledge.
Almost every new reef keeper goes through an initial period of frustration due to a lack of accurate information and ill-informed advice. First and foremost, knowledge and experience are the key ingredients to a successful reef tank. No sum of money or fancy equipment can make up for a lack of know-how. Now that I’ve stressed the need for knowledge, let’s cover some of the basic essentials. I firmly believe that there are three key ingredients to a beautiful and healthy reef aquarium.
Light, Live Rock, and Protein Skimming
Now, these are by no means the only important factors that go into a successful tank, but they are the strong foundation which everything else rests upon. Let’s briefly cover each topic…
Most corals are essentially photosynthetic animals. A major portion of their nutrition comes from the sun’s energy since they share a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae. In an aquarium, we must attempt to provide a suitable alternative to natural sunlight. This is accomplished through high-intensity lighting (either metal halide or fluorescent bulbs of the proper spectral wavelength). Improper lighting is probably the most common mistake beginning aquarists unwittingly make. In short, do not skimp on the light!
2. Live Rock
A coral reef is built from the remains of millions of calcium depositing creatures (corals, clams, arthropods, etc…). Over time, calcareous algae cement these skeletons together into a large framework which future generations use as a suitable substrate for growth. Live rock is essentially a chunk of the reef with many of its accompanying organisms left intact.
In an aquarium, live rock serves several purposes. It accomplishes the role of a biological filter by providing a substrate for helpful bacteria to live and convert harmful chemicals into inert nitrogen gas. Live rock also serves as a natural looking framework for the coral specimens in the tank. Finally, pieces of live rock often contain many tiny creatures such as shrimps, worms, algae, and sponges which hitchhike along with the rock from the sea to your living room. Unlike a “show tank” with its sterile gravel and plastic decorations, an aquarium with beautiful live rock is a miniature ecosystem. The higher the quality of live rock you purchase, the greater your chance for success. Optimum live rock is often light and porous, covered with pink and purple coralline algae, and oddly shaped with plenty of nooks and crannies.
3. Protein Skimming
The final key ingredient to a successful reef aquarium is protein skimming. Unfortunately, it is an ingredient that is often overlooked or neglected. The process by which protein skimming works is fairly complicated, but the basics are simple. Air bubbles are injected into a chamber of aquarium water, where they interact with the saltwater and rise to the surface. Proteins, carbohydrates, and toxic substances gather on the surface of the air bubbles. As the bubbles rise, they produce a thick foam which is then skimmed off and removed from the system.
Protein skimming not only removes a large majority of the wastes produced by the aquarium’s inhabitants but also fiercely oxygenates the water. Although some reef keepers advocate “going skimmerless”, beginners should use every available tool at their disposal to make the initial learning process as easy as possible. I have briefly glossed over the three key ingredients to a healthy reef tank.
Hopefully, those of you who are just entering the hobby will take this information to heart and then do your own research and learn more about each individual topic. Certainly, one could write volumes about any one of these topics alone. The purpose of this article is to serve as an introduction to each subject and not to delve to deep into their technicalities. In future articles, we will learn many more of the intricate details which lend themselves to a beautiful reef microcosm. Until then, happy reef keeping!!