This seems to be a bit of a nonsense. How can there be a natural reef aquarium? An aquarium is a container with seawater and captive livestock. A natural reef is a large entity out in the wild and home to millions of free life forms.
There is sense in the title however. Let’s look for the sense of it.
The salt water aquarium has been in existence for decades. The hobby languished in the doldrums for many, many years as it was without doubt very difficult. Only the most determined of aquarists had any measure of success, and that was often short lived.
With the huge advance of saltwater aquarium technology over the last two decades, the hobby has become much easier and more open to all. Generally, set the system up correctly and do the correct aquarium maintenance and all will be well. This occurred not that many years ago when under gravel filters and canister filters were the norm. The hobby expanded immensely.
Success breeds success. As the hobby expanded, so did commercial interest. Competition to build better and more efficient equipment began.
At this point, salt water aquariums were artificial. They were run on the nitrogen cycle, of course, but were mainly decorated with dead white corals and fish.
A massive breakthrough occurred when someone had the idea of using live rock. Who this person or persons were I do not know. Live rock is bacteria laden and comes from near the reefs. In other words it is a natural process. It was discovered that live rock has an amazing filtration capacity and, within reason, can deal with the full nitrogen cycle. This is more than under gravel and canister methods can do.
This lead to the so-called Berlin system. The live rock used for filtration is supported by efficient protein skimming. This skimming removes many substances before the filtration starts to work on it. Now the salt water aquarium had changed: it now relied on a natural filtration system. The natural reef aquarium is much nearer.
The Berlin system is still used today, or the basis of it. The live rock filtration is now helped by deep sand beds (DSB), plenums (a raised DSB), algae beds, and the like. These additions assist in keeping the seawater to a very high quality. This in turn means that the aquarium system can support a higher diversity of reef life.
These systems are very advanced compared to the days of the pioneers, even to the possibilities of just fifteen or less years ago. The one trend that stands out is the move towards natural systems. There is no way that an aquarium reef will ever be able to support the variety of life that a wild reef does: some of this life is too large, or too delicate, or too narrowly specialised to be maintained in captivity. A modern reef system tries to mimic nature as far as possible, where live rock, sand, assistive algae, small and larger snails and shrimps etc are present. It has evolved from being simply an artificial reef. It is now a natural captive reef.
I look at my aquarium DSB and watch all the small creatures scurry about their daily business, particularly at night. This is nearly as fascinating as the main display. But forward the march towards improvement goes. Advanced pioneering aquarists try this and that. It is probable that the salt water system of the future will be a series of aquariums, most small, each representing a natural function on the wild reef.
So the natural reef aquarium is here, and what an improvement it represents.