Ask the WWM Crew
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At the pinnacle of demands for optimum and consistent water quality are so-called reef systems. These units can be distinguished on the basis of their gear; specialized lighting and filtration and/or the full-spectrum of life they ideally support.
There are few human-made works of art (I can't think of any) that compare with a full-blown tropical reef set up, with incredible shapes, colors, patterns in algae, fishes and invertebrates, all mixing and moving in their ways.
There are no "secrets" to producing and keeping such a collection; only a few steadfast rules regarding lighting, filtration-results, and set-up. We'll cover these in turn.
Reef aquariums are not for everyone; they are expensive to build-out, furnish, populate and maintain, time-consuming, and of types of marine systems, those most prone to "disaster". For these reasons and more, I implore you to practice on the less-demanding set-ups we've discussed so far, and to read some of the several excellent specialty books in this field before going further.
Largely depending on what kinds of photosynthetic organisms, and how hard you want to "drive" them, the intensity and quality of light is a function of arranging a mix of full-spectrum fluorescent lamps and fixtures, in whatever output formats. As a matter of looks, metal halides and other novel illumination may be considered for increasing system brightness and human appreciation.
Study of the variety and species of reef life available to you will reveal that some organisms are near-surface or deeper-water that require more/less light. They should be placed accordingly so that they neither "burn" or fade from lack of light.
Going out and measuring water quality parameters in the wild, what do we find? Not surprisingly very high and constant pH, conductivity, redox, dissolved oxygen... and virtually no "metabolites" or chemical nutrients (ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, cresols, phenols, phosphate). Why? For one, because of currents that vigorously mix the air, beat calcareous materials into solution; that by themselves and 'feeding' photosynthetic organisms (mainly planktonic algae) raise the "desired" physical/chemical values. Currents otherwise "blow pollutants/nutrients away" into the "sink" which is the world's oceans.
Secondly, in synergy with the action of the oceans currents, the sum-total action of living processes on the reef absorb, web, net, accumulate and distribute what they can from the non-living world and each other.
What this means to the aquarist is that their artificial filtration must be vigorous and exacting in removal of excess materials/chemicals from the water. There are two approaches or ways of readily accomplishing these ends. Let me tell you of the one I was part of as a boy first.
My initial exposure to "reef-keeping" occurred in the mid-sixties as a worker bee for a Philippine wholesaler. I saw the large (for the time), a few hundred gallon concrete and glass tanks of Earl Kennedy in Manila, stocked with live rock, corals, some other invertebrates, with a few fishes. How was this miracle of keeping all these animals alive accomplished? Lollipop's (Earl's pet name) approach to reef-keeping was extensive (as opposed to modern system's intensive); we used "natural" lighting; he had very sparsely populated tanks with Spartan feeding.
We would go out and collect the planktonic food with window screens hung over the side of a panga (boat) sieving out what we could from the surface. Mr. Kennedy would feed very little of this daily.
Current "intensive" reef filter technologies include variations on the thema of wet-dry trickle filters, "Berlin" skimmer as-a-principal or only filter, algal-scrubbing adjunct, and other live rock/algae/sand formats. These systems are crowded with life, much more than earlier versions.
Though there are many sub-types of reef systems, some with a focus on organisms not found at the water's surface, some "cold-water", none should be denied the benefits of energetic water flow. Some writers endorse the use of "extra" or alternate fluid moving mechanisms not associated with filtration; whatever you utilize, make it brisk. Reef organisms are simulated by strong flow, and water movement serves to diffuse and distribute oxygen and wastes. Though there are many sub-types of reef systems, some with a focus on organisms not found at the water's surface, some "cold-water", none should be denied the benefits of energetic water flow. Some writers endorse the use of "extra" or alternate fluid moving mechanisms not associated with filtration; whatever you utilize, make it brisk. Reef organisms are simulated by strong flow, and water movement serves to diffuse and distribute oxygen and wastes.
An integral part of all reef systems is the use of calcareous rock and/or sand (see photo). This catch-all "live" and non-living material performs several critically important functions; in reality, it is what makes the system a reef.
Chemically and physically the living and non-living components of this 'decor' ameliorate water quality. Calcareous matter buffers the pH. The biological processes that all the types of life that are the "live" component of the material render the system's water more nutrient-free.
Biologically, "everything under the sun" comes attached and in between the rock and sand. I've seen octopuses, mantis shrimps, sponges, stinging-celled animals of every type, even fishes as "freebies" on/in live rock. These communities can add and take away so much from your intended livestock. They can be food as well as fodder for hobbyist complaints. Stinging fireworms, fire corals, mantis shrimps and other unwanted hitchhikers are as common as desirable forms in live rock. And "sand" is not much "better/worse".
A few useful points concerning live rock and sand. They should be calcareous, made up mainly of aragonite/calcium carbonate, not sedimentary or siliceous. I've seen non-"coral" based materials offered for sale in the trade. Don't buy them, they don't do the jobs the calcareous materials do.
Smell it, live rock/sand have an "ocean" odor, clean and distinct, not rotting. See my further notes below on Set-Up concerning live rock/sand.
You are referred to the previous three Sections on proper procedures for putting a marine system together. The components may be different in specifics, but their operation and order of introduction are the same.
The biggest difference here is really just a matter of degrees. A functional "reef" system very readily processes metabolites to non-noxious forms. Whatever design/engineering/operation model you use, wet-dry-under tank, "Berlin", "algal-scrubbing", et al. technology the intent is to quickly and thoroughly remove toxic biological products and by-products. The biggest difference here is really just a matter of degrees. A functional "reef" system very readily processes metabolites to non-noxious forms. Whatever design/engineering/operation model you use, wet-dry-under tank, "Berlin", "algal-scrubbing", et al. technology the intent is to quickly and thoroughly remove toxic biological products and by-products.
Is different here as well. As you'll recall, we waited with fish-only systems to turn our fractionator on after nutrient cycling was established. In fish and/or just invertebrate systems, this tool's use was initiated between the cycling and the introduction of non-fishes. With "reef" systems, the skimmer should be on full-tilt before the introduction of any livestock. Which conveniently brings us to:
What is the largest living "thing" on this planet? I'll give you a clue, it always has been the biggest life form. Still stumped? We'll many Life-Science types consider barrier reefs, with the GBR (Great Barrier Reef) of Australia, being the current winner, to be "one large super-organism". My point is, though western reductionistic notions define a separation between those who believe them and the rest of their environment, the real living world is inseparably, indistinguishably interlocked with it's "outside". Live rock and sand are (part) of the living reef in the wild and in captive systems.
Author's vary in their advice as to how and when to place live rock and/or sand into a "reef" tank. Some suggest putting it in a separate sump, placing part at a time, "curing" it in a quarantine facility... Here's my take on the issue; after setting up and checking the environmental gear and controllers for a week as previously prescribed, place all or ostensibly all the live rock/sand into the system. Do I suggest you rinse it in some of the "aged" seawater? Sure, if it's real stinky; otherwise just put it in. Live rock goes in over non-living "base" rock (coral skeletons), the sand as your purveyor instructs.
A rapid "succession" of events occurs, that can be a visual and olfactory shock to the uninitiated. Be patient.
Next comes a waiting period, a few weeks (generally 2-4) for those elements in the mix to die, eat, be eaten; make the system ready for the addition of (more) invertebrates and possibly algae and fishes.
With your test-kits you'll record a more or less standard scenario of nutrient cycling, but with a twist; if/when you detect the accumulation of nitrates, they will probably start to decrease at some point. Welcome to the world of real reef keeping.
A properly set-up and stocked reef system is actually the closest thing marine systems have to being maintenance-free. With attention to balancing the living and non-living components of a reef set-up, they become homeostatic. This being said, the average reef-keeper does spend a few to several hours a week checking water chemistry, adjusting salinity, feeding the livestock, and generally fooling with the system; it's just so enjoyable, most aquarists are unaware of, or don't begrudge the time commitment.
I don't want to dissuade you from pursuing a "reef-system"; my intent is only to urge your considering what an involved enterprise it is. Most tropical reef set-ups have thousands of dollars into them, with their keepers spending hundreds more a month on gear, organisms, food, electricity... and the animals living an average of a few months. Is this challenge for you?
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