Wild coral reefs don’t think (if they could) in terms of ‘yesterday’ as we understand it. Yesterday could be a thousand years ago or more. This is the wild reef overall of course, not the multitudes of organisms that make it up. The ‘yesterdays’ in that case could be as ours.
We marine aquarists tend to think in terms of days, weeks and months. We wait for the bio-filter to ‘mature’. We watch as the captive reef settles and marvel at the incredible sights that Mother Nature created and we obtained. Slowly (in our terms) the captive reef changes and develops.
‘Yesterday’ is a direct literal word and also a suggestive one. Paul McCartney of the Beatles sang ‘Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away’ and this could have been a literal yesterday or months or even years ago. In this case we’re talking of years, quite a few in fact, forty plus and more.
Marine aquarists then were a different bunch; they were generally patient and careful and had to be. The modern aquarist is but not in the same way. The grounding for this care and patience in bygone days was lack of knowledge.
The internet wasn’t even a possibility or an item of science fiction. Marine aquarium books, there weren’t any. It was word of mouth and hope. The hobby itself didn’t really exist, as to be a hobby as such needs a largish following. The early marine aquarists were really dedicated hopers, stumbling along from problem to problem. It was believed that clean salt water was the answer and as soon as any problem reared its ugly head seawater changes commenced, often to no avail. The seawater itself wasn’t as we know it, it was a very basic mixture of ingredients obtained from chemists and home mixed. All that were kept were a few fish and perhaps an invertebrate or two. Nothing seemed to last long, something clearly was wrong.
Then a Mr. Straughan (an Englishman I believe) came along. He also was concerned about seawater cleanliness and spent some time considering how this could be achieved without changing seawater quite so much. He recognized that there existed one item in the aquarium that would make a very good solids filter – the sand. Most aquariums of the time had coarse sand on the base. What he did was pump seawater down into the sand under a plate so that it flowed up again through the sand. The debris became trapped and the seawater was noticeably cleaner. The amount of seawater changing reduced.
The fish lived longer and Mr. Straughan was sure that the increased cleanliness was the answer. In a way he was correct, the seawater was cleaner but not only from debris – also from the toxics ammonia and nitrite. Bacteria had developed within the sand and were fed with oxygen laden seawater. Mr. Straughan as I understand it was never sure about the toxin reasoning but this was the case – he had created an under-gravel bio-filter. Who suggested the presence of bacteria I do not know, but it was correct of course.
It wasn’t long before the marine hobby started to grow now that such a barrier had been overcome. This was apparent because commercial under-gravel filters appeared so there had to be a market. Pet shops started to keep some colourful marine fish, often damsels, which really advertised themselves. Numbers of fresh water aquarists moved to the marine side.
It was at this point that I became involved, being one of those fresh water aquarists. I saw some damsels and.. well, the seed was sown.
The very earliest marine aquariums were glass held in place by angle iron (just think of the problems with salt water). Attempts were made to combat this with stainless steel. However, my aquariums were glass and silicone sealant thank goodness!
Those aquariums were successful for the most part, but fish only. Keep corals, don’t be silly, impossible! We should have known, it had been said earlier that keeping coral fish was impossible, at least for any length of time.
My fish only aquarium was decorated with a sand base (with an under-gravel filter) and dead bleached corals. How awful that sounds now. We used to put the dead coral skeletons in fresh water, perhaps with bleach in, to kill and remove any living or once living material so reducing the chance of pollution. After careful rinsing, into the aquarium it went. I thought it was so wonderful having these colourful fish and they seemed happy and healthy enough. Thank goodness I never suffered from the dreaded wipe-out when all fish died. This wasn’t from ammonia, nitrite or disease (though disease did claim a lot of fish) but something was obviously doing it – all fish wiped out in up to a week or so. It still isn’t known for sure what caused it at least to me; some argued it was algae causing toxicity (how?).
One day something magic happened – a protein skimmer came on the market. It was air driven and the bubbles travelled in the same direction as the flow of seawater, so contact time wasn’t brilliant. It worked though and the tank wipe-out became a thing of the past. So it seems dissolved organic matter could have had something to do with the wipe-out? Perhaps so.
Improvements continued in small ways, such as the under-gravel filter had its seawater flow reversed. In other words, instead of seawater being pumped down under the sand and then up through it, the seawater travelled down through the sand and then came up tubes. This lowered the under-gravel’s major problem which was the accumulation of detritus which could seriously reduce effectiveness because of less seawater flow, but it didn’t cure it.
Things moved on and gathered pace – as the marine hobby grew in popularity so more and more manufacturers recognized the potential market. Manufacturers are of course in competition so products became better. An example of this was (and is) the canister filter which had been in use in the freshwater world for many a year. This moved to marines and many bio-medias appeared, one of the best being sintered glass (this is the bio method I used, and still used until recently).
So here we are today. The hobby is at a point that would have made aquarists such as Mr. Straughan gasp in amazement. The fish we keep are so varied. Then the corals, what can be said? With a combination of both the captive reef is born.
In comparison to those early days we have a much easier life, even compared to when I began with marines. This is based on knowledge not necessarily in the grasp of aquarists but with manufacturers who are able to produce so much advanced equipment to maintain seawater quality. Lighting too, there are many choices of bulb or fluorescent tube tailored for corals, whose light requirements in those early days were unknown. Protein skimmers are mainly no longer air driven but use electricity, with seawater flowing through clouds of tiny bubbles achieving a high contact time. Then all the rest of the equipment available such as calcium reactors, aquarists don’t even have to top up the seawater if they don’t want to, they can use automation. Tap water isn’t good enough; we can super filter it with a reverse osmosis unit!
So when that beautiful captive reef is watched what a foundation it is built on. We have a great deal to thank those early pioneer aquarists for. The stress we modern aquarists feel from time to time really shrinks in comparison to the efforts, stress and frustration that must have existed then.