SPS Corals – Are They For The Beginner?

More than two decades ago the marine aquarist would be pleased if fish survived in the aquarium, never mind corals of any type. The aquarium would have a fairly deep coarse sand bed, and underneath the sand would be an under-gravel filter plate. Another filtration method was a canister filter.

Canister filters can still be put to good use but for the most part under-gravel filters have seen their day. However, the advance of aquarium technology has changed a lot of things. No longer are marine aquariums decorated with white dead coral skeletons on a sand base, they have rock structures (often live rock) with just fish, or contain a full captive reef.

Having a living reef in an aquarium was an impossible dream to those earlier aquarists. Now, though, aquarists can achieve water quality at a high level by using commonly available equipment, and just as important can keep the quality high. Many of the captive reefs that are kept by ordinary aquarists are stunning, whatever the size of aquarium. They are so good that potential aquarists see them and are often persuaded to go to the local marine store to see what is available. Once at that point they are very nearly committed.

So should a potential aquarist consider corals at all? If so, should SPS (small polyp stony) corals be considered?

The ideal answer is ‘no.’ For the sake of the livestock, it would be better if the new aquarist obtained experience before moving to corals. This does not prohibit the keeping of marine fish – in fact, with a fish only aquarium the aquarist could keep some fish that are unsuitable to the captive reef, and also more of them. A really colourful and interesting display is obtainable.

The important point about keeping fish only is that it permits time for experience to develop – experience in maintenance. Ongoing maintenance is essential for success with an aquarium of any type, and particularly with a reef of SPS corals and their particular demands. It allows the aquarist to experience feeding techniques, one area that is more than likely to cause grief with seawater quality. All the required maintenance will become routine and used to, and that other essential will also develop – patience.

However, as said, the above describes, to my mind anyway, an ideal world, having fish only to start with. In the real world, the new aquarist is faced with enormous temptation. All the equipment available suggests that ‘it isn’t hard’, and indeed it isn’t – all things into consideration. The one thing that will never change is that no matter how much sophisticated equipment there might be, if the basics understood by the aquarist are lacking, which of course includes the necessities of husbandry, there are going to be problems or even failure.

So let’s consider the aquarist who is looking to set up a reef tank and cannot be dissuaded. Fair enough.

From the outset it needs to be understood that the fish that could be kept will be restricted. The types kept must be ‘reef friendly’, but there are plenty of those. The number of fish in the aquarium needs to be restricted, and this restriction applies to size as well as actual numbers. There could be, say, two largish surgeons or four small 2″ or 3″ size other fish. (This is not a guideline, just an ‘out of the air’ example.) Larger fish in ones put pressure on seawater quality equivalent to smaller fish in greater numbers.

Ok, so the aquarist wants to keep corals and accepts there will be restrictions on fish numbers. So SPS corals?

Again, I would attempt to dissuade the newcomer from taking the plunge into SPS corals. Look at the unarguably beautiful soft corals with their lovely pastel shades, different shapes, and how some sway so attractively in the currents. Many aquarists prefer soft corals to the hard types (including me). The great thing about soft corals is that they are generally easier to keep (there are exceptions) and have a better chance of surviving the mistakes a beginner could make. Soft corals are generally available and make a very attractive display.

At this point most newcomers will have got the message. There will be some who are adamant that it is to be SPS corals or nothing. Ah well, ok.

I’ll now appear to contradict all that has been written above – there isn’t any reason why SPS corals cannot be kept by the beginner. But, the aquarist must be willing to sit down and learn and hopefully have a mentor, such as a friendly local experienced aquarist or a local dealer (who is genuinely interested in livestock welfare and not just sales). This is a good thing for any type aquarium system, but particularly so for what some see as the pinnacle of the hobby.

SPS corals make the most demands. The aquarist carries sole responsibility to meet those demands (as with any aquarium type). Just a couple of examples – to start with, seawater movement needs to be strong, so powerful and possibly more pumps or powerheads are required. Seawater quality has to be high, and within this there is a requirement to maintain, for example, a high calcium level. This will mean in a smaller aquarium using supplements, or in a larger one employing equipment such as a calcium reactor. This equipment needs maintenance and of course costs additionally in the first place. Then there is the lighting. This will need to be powerful, so metal halides will usually be employed. If the aquarium is a deep one, then higher wattage bulbs will be needed to permit sufficient light penetration. Along with heating, metal halide lighting is hungry for electricity, and electricity becomes ever more expensive.

There are those newcomers who have come into the aquarium hobby and made a success of it from the start. I bet they got down to it and did a lot of research and checking before making the final commitment.

There are also those newcomers who follow a list and set up an aquarium system, or buy a full system that is ‘plug and play’. All is fine at first, then problems arise, get worse, calls for help are made and after stress and possible livestock losses things are sorted out. The aquarist’s experience suddenly increased, at a cost.

Or there are those who join the hobby, do the research and find it straightforward. There may be the odd problem but it is sorted out. There may be the odd livestock loss. Overall, the aquarium is thought to be successful. Then it declines and is sold off. This is often because it is decided that the hobby is not for the aquarist. The ongoing maintenance becomes boring or gets in the way of other more tempting activities. Or, or maybe and, the cost of running the aquarium, mainly electricity, is high and perhaps too much.

I, along with other aquarists, want more newcomers to come into – and stay in – the hobby. The hobby is growing and that is a very healthy situation.

If experience is gained by advancing in steps, then the likelihood of problems is much diminished. Moving forward in steps reduces the danger to livestock – how sad it is that livestock is lost under any circumstance, there are considerable losses within the hobby and the majority of those are probably with newcomers. The newcomer will have found by experience the cost generally of running an aquarium and the effort required to maintain it and is more able to decide if the system should be upgraded to deal with more difficult livestock.

It is a personal opinion of course, but the answer to the title is “No.” Aquarium requirements seem to be confusing to many newcomers anyway, and, based on that, the ‘higher up’ the difficulty ladder the more confusion is going to arise.

Whatever marine system is set up, there are going to be demands. It is essential the aquarist understands the needs of the livestock and this means research and also experience.

It has been said that ‘knowledge is everything.’ It has also been said – ‘don’t build your house on sand.

  1. very well written article. especically for a person who is a very experienced freshwater aquarist contemplating taking the plunge into reef-keeping.

  2. Hello Jeremy.
    You’ll already have the essentials in place no doubt, patience and the willingness to learn. Keeping marines isn’t so hard despite what some believe, but as stated in the article marine life, as with freshwater life, need a proper environment. All the best.

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