Building a reef aquarium is very interesting and exciting. In the aquarists mind is a picture of the finished article, a beautiful enclosed world created by him/her and, holding hands with nature, all should be well.
It usually is too. The information that is available today is vast and a search on the internet or a modern book on the subject usually gives an answer, particularly to a beginner.
Once the reef has been constructed and the livestock introduced the end result can be seen. Corals that are so attractive and fish that are available in so many shapes, colours and sizes. If the reef has been carefully completed then it will not be overstocked and the aquarist is fully aware of what must be done to maintain the seawater quality. All seems well and as said it usually is.
When the reef has been in existence for a week or two more often than not the aquarist will notice that an adjustment here and there would be beneficial. Maybe a coral would be better placed somewhere else. Maybe a reef rock or two could be moved to increase stability and/or appearance. Not a problem, this is normal.
Continuous fiddling with the reef is not so good though. The fish should be settling down into their new home and finding security and reasonable peace. The corals don’t want to be moved too often so that they too can settle and expand. Corals need sufficient light and correct seawater flow but once this is achieved they are better left alone to grow. Of course the very fact that they grow could mean that in time they will need pruning so that other corals do not lose their seawater flow and/or light. Pruning a coral (usually called ‘fragging’ as frags are produced that can be used to grow new corals) is not required often but when it is needs serious consideration and care.
Routine maintenance is the only other regular requirement where the interior of the aquarium is entered. For example this includes routine seawater changes, cleaning the glass panels of algae and maybe siphoning out any unwanted debris. During these operations many fish will hide though some more bold types often don’t particularly when the reef has been in existence for quite a while and the regular maintenance becomes more known to the fish.
Maintenance operations are necessary for the health of the reef as it is a very small amount of seawater locked in a very small space. A reduction in quality in any area, particularly seawater quality, will soon lead to problems.
So what is this ‘leave it alone’ thing? An aquarium has to be interfered with from time to time as said but excessive interference is not good. Hands in the aquarium moving rocks about time after time is an example. Fish learn where all the holes and passageways are within the reef. Watch them for a while, sometimes one will go into the reef at one end and emerge somewhere distant. This could be part of a security strategy for escape from predators or simply cruising with an eye out for food. Most fish will also have a spot to hide in at night where they feel secure. Often on nearing lights out fish will go into their holes as they have got used to the routine of approaching ‘night’. Perhaps white lights turn off leaving just blue actinics on and then these turn off creating a ‘dusk’ sequence. So the fish get into a routine and any disruption to this will reduce their security, or put another way increase their stress. Stress is definitely unwanted.
Corals are not like fish surely! They seem a bit like plants in the garden, surely stress is not a part of their lives. It seems that it is. Touch a coral and for the most part it will deflate in a defensive way. Keep brushing corals and they too will not have the stability of environment they like. Moving them about too much is bad too as often this means a change in seawater flow and an increase or decrease in lighting intensity. As said, a settled coral may grow to excess and interfere with other corals, which means some fragging has to be done. This is not often though and, like routine maintenance, is part of necessary reef maintenance for health and well being.
Another reason for not continuously messing with the reef is that it will naturalize well. Assuming that the seawater is of high quality and lighting is as required, the reef will slowly develop on its own. With a bit of luck the aquarist could find that desirable algae has been introduced with live rock and settles into some areas of the aquarium. This could be brown or red shades and some nearly black. In addition the more common calcarous algae, often of a pinkish hue, can spread. This latter can develop some wonderful shapes and forms. The overall appearance of the reef can become so much more natural and beautiful.
Apart from the necessary actions that are required on all aquariums, leaving it alone is a good idea. Though it does take some discipline (which along with patience is a necessary part of an aquarist’s life) the changes in the overall appearance of the reef makes it well worth while.