It doesn’t happen very often, and that’s because the great majority of aquarists care for their aquariums carefully. It doesn’t matter what type of aquarium it is, fish only, coral reef or mixed reef, we all know it needs attention if it is to remain at its best.
What happens is that a novice aquarist is very short of time because of say employment commitments and his/her aquarium doesn’t receive the attention it should. Or perhaps the aquarist is visiting a friend who also has a marine aquarium and notices that it is clearly deteriorating. Or maybe there is just a call for help, friend to friend. Whatever the situation is, there is a call for diplomacy and comment, followed by action. The action could come from the aquarium owner with help or it could all be down to the helper. The action is to decrease or eradicate the aquariums increasing problems, first aid if you like.
Once everything is on an even footing and feathers haven’t been ruffled (easily done, how about a really subtle comment such as ‘You obviously couldn’t afford the aquarium, you’ve made a real mess of it, why did you take up the hobby, I’d give it up anyway you’re useless’) by the careful use of words it is time to start assisting. This assistance goes in stages similar to other usual actions with an aquarium.
The first and obvious thing is to clean the viewing glasses, as this makes following action easier. The interior needs to be seen! This initial clean could be straightforward or not, it depends on the age and interior conditions. If the alga is the soft type it will clean off easily with an algae magnet and possibly the assistance of a razor scraper. If there is a calcareous alga involved then the razor scraper will be needed. Careful use of the scraper is required to avoid damage to any silicone joints.
Now that the interior is more clearly visible an interior inspection helps. Do the fish appear in reasonable health and are the body shapes normal and not thin? Hopefully feeding hasn’t been overlooked. Is there an internal alga and is it a problem? For instance, large amounts of green hair or slime algae can be considered a problem. It suggests poor seawater quality. Are there signs of the aquarium weed Aiptasia? If corals are present how do they appear? Are they extended and healthy looking? If not it could be because of poor seawater quality and/or lighting problems.
Once these observations have been made a plan of action can be devised. The first requirement is high seawater quality. If the aquarium has been neglected then routine seawater changes will have been missed. However, doing a nitrate, phosphate, and pH test could be surprising. Nitrate and phosphate could read as undetectable and this could be down to the presence of algaes, which use these as nutrients. pH could read in the acceptable range particularly if the test is done during the lights on period. The algae could be releasing plenty of oxygen which could elevate the pH. Despite this, the seawater is likely to have low or depleted trace elements and needs ‘freshening’. A 25% seawater change is a good idea, ensuring that the new seawater is at the correct temperature and SG (specific gravity). Note whether the aquarium is fish only or reef, if the SG is too low for a reef then slowly increase it (the guideline is 1.024 or 1.025) and the same for a fish only (the guideline is 1.022 to 1.025). Routine seawater changes should be resumed of course (the guideline is 10% of the net gallonage of the total system per week).
Now that seawater has been tackled, if there are nuisance algae problems action can be taken on those. When a routine seawater change is being done, or more often if desired, this algae can be removed. Hair algae can be removed by hand or by twisting it around a small stick, a laborious and unexciting task but one that is necessary. Slime algae can be siphoned out and disposed of with the old seawater. The nuisance algaes are likely to return and need further removal repeatedly, but as nutrients are removed and with continued physical attacks they should go over time.
With a fish only system lighting is not as important as it is with a reef. It is likely that the bulbs and/or tubes (more likely tubes only) have not been changed at a reasonable time. On fish only lighting have a look at the ends of the tubes, if they are much darkened they could require changing, if they are flickering when on they obviously need changing immediately.
A reef lighting system needs closer attention. The system could be fluorescents, metal halide bulbs or a mixture of the two. Hopefully the owner will recall the last bulb change but if not proceed as on the fish only with fluorescents. Check the ends, are they darkened? A halide bulb is more difficult as it will appear very bright anyway. In the case of both metal halide bulbs and fluorescent tubes, have a look at the aquarium inhabitants, corals that is (not the algae, it could be thought it is growing well but this growth could be assisted by a change in spectrum). The corals could appear to be fine, fully extended with polyps fully out. If this is so then it is likely the lighting is fine. The problem with this is, how long for? If the corals look unhealthy, limp, partially extended and similar then it is likely the lighting is at least contributing to the condition. Over a period of time the spectrum shifts and the power reduces. The lights, metal halide and/or fluorescent tubes, should be replaced.
Now a return to the seawater is required. Maintenance has not been completed and this leaves the question about whether the equipment is functioning properly or not. Flow rates can affect coral health in particular, also fish health if it is really poor. Sluggish flow rates will also affect the gas exchange capability of the system, meaning that oxygen content will not be as it should be. A check should be made that the seawater input of each device is clear; it is likely they will need cleaning. Once cleaned a check of the output should be made to ensure there isn’t a problem with the internal area. If the output appears low then the device, after being disconnected from the electricity supply should be opened up and the impellor and shaft inspected. These checks apply to powerheads, return pumps, protein skimmers and calcium reactors; in fact anything that moves seawater for any reason.
So seawater quality has been considered, also nuisance algae. The apparatus supporting the aquarium has also been considered. Anything else?
Aquarists want their aquariums to look good. So now that the very basics for a good environment have been tackled, improvements in cleanliness can continue to be done which will also improve appearance.
Some aquarists use decorative sand beds. As the aquarium has been neglected, the sand bed is likely to be dirty. If it has been properly constructed it will probably be coarse sand of 1 to 2 inches depth. Cleaning this isn’t a problem. If it is not particularly dirty, stirring the sand with a clean stick at the same time as siphoning out seawater at a routine change can be done, the siphon follows the stick. With some care, not much sand will be sucked out. If the sand is very dirty, it is probably better to siphon the sand out, clean it externally, then replace it. In either case, the whole sand bed does not need to be done at once unless it is practical to do so, just do it in sections. A clean decorative sand bed goes a long way to sprucing up a sad aquarium.
What if there is a deep sand bed (DSB) or a plenum? These cannot be simply stirred or siphoned out as to do so would destroy the filtration capability of the bed. In good condition and health these beds are not usually clean and white, they often look scruffy. If they only look scruffy then let them be. If absolutely necessary carefully siphon out detritus from the surface. This will not be easy as a bed of this type, a DSB in particular, should have been constructed of fine sand and this is easily sucked up into a siphon. The sand should be minimally disturbed. If the bed is really dirty, and dirt has penetrated deeply, then the only action could be to start again. This will, as said, destroy the filtration capabilities. The bed can be siphoned out but this will take time, though the bed has fine sand, the DSB for example is usually 4 inches or more in depth. It could be decided that once the sand has been removed it is too difficult to properly clean it, so new sand could be obtained and the bed reconstructed. Destroying a plenum or DSB also means that any life that depends on it is more than likely to be lost.
Now the aquarium looks more as it should! As time passes, the corals should react to the improved lighting and restored seawater movement, the fish should be happier with the increased oxygen. There are other actions that could be needed – for example if there are planted algae in the sump it could need thinning out, any Aiptasia or other nuisances will need to be dealt with.
The aquarium though should be on its way back to its potential. With a bit of luck, the aquarist who has done the helping out will have earned the concrete friendship of him or her helped, and they in turn could have renewed interest in the aquarium. The helper also has the satisfaction that it was he or she who brought the captive world back from the brink.