Aquarists Online Sun, 19 Jul 2015 11:49:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Simple Aquarium or Super Aquarium? Sun, 19 Jul 2015 11:48:30 +0000

It seems to be an easy guess that most aquariums bought will come under the ‘simple’ category. New aquarists will be advised what is required – the simple aquarium – and it probably will not be until very much later when considerable experience has been gathered that more advanced ideas might surface.

So what is a simple marine aquarium? It has nothing to do with the livestock, it’s the equipment. The starter is of course the aquarium itself, the box without which there will be a bit of a problem! Some aquarists place the aquarium on furniture which needs to be sturdy because of the weight of aquarium and seawater. Best of all, in my view anyway, is to put it on a stand which can be purchased at the same time as the aquarium. This provides cupboards below in which various articles can be stored and electrical outlets placed. Then comes the essential equipment, the basics that are required to maintain the livestock. This includes suitable fluorescent lighting and controllers plus timers, heater(s), often two circulation pumps, a properly sized protein skimmer which can be either hang-on or free standing, and a stick on the glass thermometer. There are other basic requirements of course, such as sea salt and basic test kits, these are ongoing requirements which need new purchases from time to time.

An aquarium properly set up with the basic equipment as above and correctly furnished and stocked will, subject to satisfactory ongoing maintenance, be quite sufficient for a successful marine aquarium. It will bring satisfaction and great interest to the aquarist. There aren’t any statistics available, to my knowledge anyway, but most marine aquariums are based on the ‘simple’ description.

‘What about the sump?’ would be an immediate question for some aquarists. The sump is not a basic requirement – there are a lot of aquariums that are successful without one. Having a sump does not place the aquarium into the ‘super’ bracket either. However, a sump is highly desirable if it can be accommodated, below in the cabinet is a very good location. It does demand a pump to get the seawater back to the aquarium after it has overflowed down and provides additional gallonage which is good for seawater quality (the additional gallonage is not used in calculating fish load). The sump can also be used to accommodate some equipment thus removing it from the display aquarium. So a sump is not basically necessary but definitely desirable.

Ok, that’s the ‘simple’ aquarium what’s this ‘super’ bit? What changes the aquarium into a so-called super aquarium? The super aquarium is when the aquarist spends a considerable amount of money obtaining electronic monitoring equipment. A straightforward example is the thermometer – the ordinary one is replaced by an exterior version with a probe in the seawater, a digital readout thermometer. What’s the advance in that, the thermometer is still displaying the seawater temperature? There could be more accuracy but that’s it really. Another example of electronics for the aquarium is the external heater controller, again where there is a probe in the seawater. Another example is the pH controller and another the ORP controller. The super aquarium could also have an advanced LED lighting array instead of fluorescents, there is a good argument for LED’s.

So why does the aquarist spend money on electronic equipment such as those given as examples? The only real reason, for the amateur aquarist anyway, is personal interest and desire. Desire is the same as having that sporty car rather than the ordinary one that can get to places just as well in safety and comfort. Some aquarists with this electronic equipment have it stacked inside a cabinet – open the door and there are a load of numbers available so it can be said that seawater testing is easier and less test kits are needed. Some other aquarists just want the aquarium to look very modern and extra exciting, they have the electronic equipment on view with the generated numbers giving some impression of advanced science. Whatever the reason this electronic equipment is purchased for it isn’t a waste of money provided it makes the aquarist happier and feeds a genuine desire and as long as the livestock are properly maintained and remain the central interest.

There isn’t any reason why a super aquarium fully equipped with electronics shouldn’t be purchased or a basic aquarium fitted later with electronics if the buyer has a fat enough wallet. It certainly doesn’t do any harm to the livestock if all is set up properly. Ongoing maintenance such as partial seawater changes is still required. The aquarium glass still needs cleaning. The electronic equipment needs to be checked from time to time to ensure the readings are in fact correct.

The simple aquarium is the one for me, with a sump if desired. Simplicity aids success. There is a requirement for the same ongoing maintenance and perhaps a need for more routine testing but is that difficult? No. The livestock remain the central pillar of the whole thing. Marine fish and corals are beautiful and that is enough.


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Fish Loss And Replacement Sat, 20 Jun 2015 15:37:13 +0000

The reef aquarium looks beautiful, walking by it always attracts the eye. The aquarist is so pleased, everything that was said about research and patience was worth it. The inner aquarium world is settled, healthy and vibrant.

It has been said by me before that the aquarist is really an employee, not of the life in the aquarium so much, though it sometimes seems that way, but of Mother Nature. It’s she who really decides everything based on the conditions within the aquarium so maintaining a healthy aquarium environment is obviously worthwhile. But there is one event that is not always based on conditions, it just occurs and this is death. One day a fish is there and apparently happy and healthy and the next nowhere to be seen.

The aquarist completes a feed and hopes the fish will appear, but no, it never does. How has this happened?

To be truthful who knows but there are possibilities. When the fish was purchased what age was it? – simple answer, we don’t know. Perhaps it had come to the end of its natural days, hastened maybe by the stress of capture and transport. Disease can be ruled out generally if the fish has been present for a long time. If the fish was a recent or more so a very recent addition then checks need to be made on the other fish (a general ongoing check should be routinely made anyway, an easy time for this is at feeding). Are there any signs of disease, any little white spots on the skin or fins, any changes in breathing, any changes in general behaviour? Hopefully not. Some disease problems require treatment by copper and in a reef system this is impossible as copper will have a very detrimental effect on corals. The best way is to treat new fish at the other end – immediately after purchase – by placing them in a quarantine tank for at least two weeks preferably four. This permits the aquarist to easily watch for signs of disease and if anything appears it can be much more easily treated. This goes a long way in avoiding the horrible problematic question of disease in a reef system. To jump back a bit, fish should be carefully studied at the shop for signs of problems in the first place, nothing should be taken for granted.

Anyway, what about the missing fish? Few aquarists will be willing to wreck the reef in a search for it. Unless the location of the fish is obvious and it can be reasonably easily removed, the best way is to leave the fish and increase the seawater quality checks particularly if the fish was a large one. The fish will follow the route of all dead things and disintegrate naturally and in a reef environment probably feed tiny reef inhabitants in the process. Normal partial seawater changes should continue unless there is a need for a temporary increase because of, say, nitrate. The aquarist following a loss procedure will reinforce confidence in the ongoing health of the aquarium.

Right, so the period following the fish loss hasn’t indicated any problem. Is the fish to be replaced? The normal answer to this is yes, but if the fish load was at maximum or a little over then that other word, discipline, arises. Take the opportunity to accept a reduction in fish load and reinforce the sea quality equation. If there isn’t a question of overload or close to it then other considerations arise. Are the remaining fish peacable, a little aggressive or just aggressive. The new fish will not be a member of the club so will need to be able to withstand the actions of the current inhabitants. Also, in the other direction, the new addition should not be likely to give trouble to the current inhabitants by being too aggressive. Also in addition, the final size of the new fish needs to be considered, first so that the fish load doesn’t become excessive causing seawater quality loss and second so the fish can find a place to go at night in order to avoid stress. Many of the caves and crevices might well be occupied by the current fish who will not take kindly to a takeover bid. The procedures for fish replacement are much the same as those for initial stocking except that the new fish is joining the existing club.

While on the sad subject of fish loss the occasion can arise where a fish has not hidden away but is obviously struggling, unable to swim properly, floundering about or possibly laying on the sand or floating at the surface. Faced with this the aquarist sees the obvious – there is nothing to be done for the fish. Should it be left? Or should the aquarist end the misery? Having accepted there is nothing that can be done the aquarist can quickly place the fish in a small bag. Then having quickly twisted closed the top of the bag, the bag can be swung very hard against a solid surface, say a brick wall, a rock etc. This will end the misery of the fish and that of the aquarist.

If the aquarium has been carefully set up in the first place and if proper attention has been given to livestock selection, plus ongoing maintenance is done properly the potential for problems is much diminished. Fish might die as all life eventually must. However, the major part of the aquarium’s life will be as desired: colourful, vibrant, fascinating, educational and stress reducing.


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Do We Really Need Seawater Changes? Sun, 17 May 2015 16:37:39 +0000

A while ago on a marine aquarists forum I saw a comment that the writer never did any seawater changes. The response was generally hostile with a few reasonable and helpful replies. I thought that the hostile replies were incorrect or at least too early. No question was put about how long the aquarist had been keeping a marine aquarium or why he thought that changes were unnecessary.

A new marine aquarist has quite a lot to learn by research which is usually on the internet and/or by reading books. It certainly isn’t difficult the marine aquarium hobby but some time needs to be given to education. This time is a commitment to the livestock that will eventually be kept and should help to ensure them a long and healthy life at the same time giving much pleasure and satisfaction to the aquarist.

Partial seawater changes are necessary and should be carried out initially weekly. The guideline for the amount changed is 10% of the total net gallonage including any sump. This guideline applies to the start of the aquarium and as the aquarist gains experience and learns the trends of his/her aquarium it can be adjusted up or down.

The source of the seawater is obvious, either purchased salt to be mixed or the natural stuff. The latter is fine if a sufficient amount can be transported successfully and an area of collection is known that is definitely not polluted. Once collected and at home the natural variety needs to be allowed to stand so that rubbish, minute or otherwise can sink to the bottom. The clean seawater is transferred and then heated and aerated before use. The majority of aquarists use the packaged variety, that is salt that needs to be mixed with fresh water then heated and aerated. The fact that most aquarists use manufactured salt is not a comment on the unsuitability of the natural stuff but the fact that most aquarists cannot access unpolluted seawater because of distance etc and/or do not have a means to transport it.

But why do we need to do these changes? The seawater in the aquarium usually looks clean and clear, the inmates seem to be happy. Have a look at the sea sometime, look at the huge area that can be seen and consider that this is just a tiny part of the whole. When looking at the sea, in your mind’s eye take your aquarium and put it in the area. Small or what! Really insignificant in volume.

In their natural habitat sea creatures have a huge volume of seawater available. Natural pollution is insignificant. In an aquarium the volume of seawater is very tiny in comparison and there is a price to pay for this. Pollution starts to build, partly from the sea creatures own metabolism and partly from the aquarist’s well meaning efforts such as feeding which leads to some pollution. In addition seawater contains trace elements and these reduce, a partial seawater change replaces these or at least partially.

As time goes on the trapped pollution increases. A good example of pollution is nitrate, something that rears its ugly head for some aquarists particularly beginners. Nitrate is produced from left over food and the natural breakdown of the creatures own processes, it also appears when the biological filter is housed in a powered canister. It can also be found in poor fresh water supplies used with manufactured salt. Nitrate is a food for algae which at the worst can ruin an aquarium with loads of unwanted algae everywhere.

So that’s it really – partial seawater changes are completed to protect the purity of the seawater and help maintain its composition. This is clearly a good thing for the aquarium inmates and also a good thing for the aquarist as it reduces the potential for problems.

Knowing how much seawater to change is easy. Start with the recommended 10%. Keep a chart and each time a nitrate test is done jot down the result, these results over a period will indicate if the changes can be slowly reduced or need to be increased. If there is a need to increase then pay attention to possible causes and take action. If they can be decreased keep monitoring until there is certainty of stability. Whatever the aquarist decides upon it is best to continue seawater changes if only to introduce partial replacement of trace elements and freshen the water.


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An Algae Reducer And Oxygenator? Sun, 19 Apr 2015 09:56:29 +0000

Ah, now the picture above is the way we should feel when we view our aquariums: peaceful, relaxing, colourful and any other fitting words that can be thought of. Many aquarists do get this, including myself. Just sitting and looking, a great stress destroyer. Maintenance becomes more enjoyable, feeding the fish – well yes, everything.

Sometimes things can go wrong though for some aquarists. When the aquarium was set up and completely newly stocked all was wonderful. The aquarist felt so proud of the achievement. As time passes small anomalies are noticed, a bit of brown here, a bit of green there and these bits seem to increase in size either slowly or surprisingly quickly. Eventually the aquarist realises the problem that is developing, it’s algae and not the various types that are welcome and add to the beauty of the aquarium. It’s the yukky stuff. A very technical term but all aquarists know what it means.

Usually there is good reason why yukky green or brown hair or slime algae has appeared and a check of seawater readings will often confirm contamination. Often nitrate is present in too high an amount, or phosphate that can also cause trouble. These are the first to check and the checks are easy. Nitrate in a reef system should be 10 ppm (parts per million) or lower, in a fish only system 30 ppm or lower. Phosphate should be at best undetectable, or no more than 0.03 ppm.

If the readings are unacceptable obviously something needs to be done. First a check of newly made up saltwater (such as that prepared for a partial change) should be completed. If there is an unacceptable reading then check the fresh water supply, the salt used for the mix isn’t the culprit. If the supply is tap water this can sometimes be contaminated. If it is, then don’t use it as delivered, obtain an RO (reverse osmosis) filter. The water has to go through a membrane which is very very fine. The water leaving the filter is usually 95 to 98% pure. To protect the membrane there is usually a carbon filter first. The filters are not usually too pricey. It is worthwhile having an RO filter whatever as there are often elements in the fresh water that are not required.

If the fresh water in use is acceptable, then the problem is with the aquarium or more accurately with the aquarist. If the system has been set up with all required equipment of the correct size (protein skimmer etc) then that is not the problem. Perhaps it is over enthusiasm leading to over stocking. The desire to get life in the aquarium is very strong and tests patience with everyone. Those without any experience could have ‘one of those and one of those, oh yes let’s have one of those….’ which leads to potential incompatibilty of specimens and also aquarium overload. Overload is where the biological filter has trouble coping with the number of fish present. The formula for fish load should not be exceeded and should take into account the eventual size of the fish. The larger the fish are the less fish there should be. What is ‘overload’? It is mainly (there are other consequences of overloading) where the biological filter which performs the nitrogen cycle (ammonia/nitrite/nitrate) cannot deal with the amounts the fish are producing. This is made more serious as the fish have to be fed, as there are too many contamination by overload is made worse. A simple way to check the holding capacity of the aquarium is to allow as a maximum 1/2″ (approx. 1.5cm) of fish per gallon of seawater excluding any sump. The 1/2″ excludes the tail. Fish grow of course and it is the final size that is considered. So if a 2″ (approx. 5cm) fish grows to 4″ (approx. 10cm) then that equates to 8 gallons. Introducing livestock should be done very slowly to allow the biological filtration to adapt and cope (the biological filtration should be initially matured before livestock introduction). Particularly with a reef tank where corals that are more sensitive to seawater quality are present half the potential fish should be slowly introduced. If all is well then another could be introduced, then perhaps another after a good period of time and so on.

Ok, so nitrate is present, the aquarium is not overstocked and the seawater going in from week to week is nitrate free. The next thing is the feeding regime. Uneaten food rots down and presents even more work for the biological filter. So feed slowly, just a little at a time making sure that as much as possible is taken by the fish. How this is done varies as some fish have extra dietary requirements. Overall though fish lose their desire to get the food when more or less full but they can still look as though they will eat more by hanging around. Many also learn to look hungry by hanging around when exterior movement is detected, this is a response that is natural: ‘Any food, I want it!’ Resist this. Inexperienced aquarists can overfeed by kindness and concern for their livestock.

Two final points. The first, is the biological work performed by an exterior or interior power filter? If this is so, then the filter will convert ammonia to nitrite and nitrite to nitrate, but unlike live rock, it will stop at nitrate and release nitrate into the seawater. This is because the removal of nitrate requires an environment very low in oxygen, and of course the power filter is pumping oxygenated seawater through. So if a power filter is in use an increase in the amount of seawater routinely changed could bring the nitrate level under control.

The final point? Well, that’s about the title. Oxygen presence in seawater is lower than in freshwater and the higher the temperature the less oxygen there is (another reason not to overstock). So the seawater needs to be well oxygenated this being mainly accomplished by seawater movement and the aquarium seawater surface, plus any weirs etc. How can oxygenation have anything to do with the prevention of algae in the aquarium?

I use a hang-on protein skimmer. When originally fitting it I found that the short plate outlet from the skimmer didn’t reach the seawater surface because of the aquarium horizontal side struts. Therefore I manufactured from clear plastic a short extention plate over which the returning seawater could run back to the aquarium. There are two very low seawater retaining walls glued to each side. It has a shallow slope and measures only 4″ across by 3″ front to back (approx. 10cm x 8cm). The seawater flows fairly slowly and covers the plate to a depth of about 1/8″ (approx. 4mm). The plate is under and close to a marine white fluorescent tube, about 3″ (approx. 7.5cm) away. The plate came into use over 13 years ago.

The plate started to discolour with this and that. It is cleaned each week with a tooth brush. I noticed after a while that short, stiff and bristly algae growth had begun and this continued until all the plate under seawater was covered. The tooth brush pulled out bits of rubbish but nothing to worry about, the bristly algae remained. Then I noticed green algae coming out, not a lot but it was there and still is. This the tooth brush easily removed still leaving the bristly algae in place.

‘Oh dear’ thought I, ‘not the dreaded green filamentous algae!’ But no, nothing appeared like that in the aquarium from the start and never has for more than 13 years. There is colourful and desirable algae present in the aquarium but nothing unwanted. Relief!

Obviously the closeness of the plate to the light has helped generate the green algae and perhaps the bristly brown stuff too. Clearly there has to be some nutrients available to feed this algae. The nutrients must be low as the aquarium tests are fine. Whatever nutrients are present are being removed by the plate algae and as the nutrients are very low this can only be good.

So as an ongoing assistance to algae control a plate could be placed in an appropriate position under the lights where it is easy to get at and clean. If not a skimmer, a small pump could be used to cause seawater flow over the plate. Growths of some sort could occur which could be, likely will be of benefit to the aquarium. A thin layer of slowish flowing seawater takes up oxygen readily, so even if algae nutrients are not taken up by algae growth there is an enhancement to oxygen saturation which can’t be bad. The plate is very cheap and easy to make with plastic and silicone. It’s worth a go and can be easily removed if desired. The plate described above serves 41 gallons.

Unwanted yukky algae is a real pain and can take time and patience to remove. Getting rid of it or not getting it in the first place by careful planning and ongoing care will bring back the peace and stress reduction that most aquarists enjoy.


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The Best Accessory – A Sump Sun, 08 Mar 2015 17:46:03 +0000

There it is, a beautiful fish only or reef aquarium. All is done, a variety of fish swimming about, if a reef among and over colourful corals. What can assist the life in the aquarium and make it more interesting for the aquarist? If fully stocked it shouldn’t be another fish or coral.

So, nothing to be done then. Well there is something that is of great benefit and expands interest even further. It is suitable for a fish only or reef system. It can be added later or when the aquarium is being put together. It’s a sump.

A sump is definitely not an absolute must by any means. There are plenty of successful marine aquariums about that don’t have one. However, there are benefits to installing a sump.

If the aquarist is good at basic silicone and glass construction, the sump container and divisions can be completed by him/her at low cost. If there is unsurety about keeping things watertight, then obtain a ready built aquarium and put divisions in, if the silicone used for the divisions is not particularly neat and professional no matter as it’s all in a cupboard. (Note that silicone suitable for aquarium use must be used.) Or get it all built professionally.

Usually, but not necessarily, a sump is installed in the cupboard below the aquarium. This puts it out of sight and at the same time gives easy accessibility. It is simply a glass box which very obviously needs to be watertight.

So the first requirement is to decide what size the sump is to be. It needs to be the maximum size possible at the same time leaving room for plugs and sockets, any power filter (which is possibly going to be redundant anyway) plus any other aquarium paraphernalia that can’t be housed elsewhere. In addition it needs to be remembered that access is required, from the two sides to an extent but mainly from the top, the aquarist needs to be able to reach everywhere inside reasonably comfortably. Also check the height of any equipment that might go into the sump and protrude above the seawater surface such as a protein skimmer. Be sure that the sump, front to back, is large enough to take the heater(s), these are usually very easily installed.

The simplest but still effective glass divisions within a sump are two giving three spaces. The first division leaves a narrow first space to take heater(s), the second division leaves the widest empty space and the final division gives enough space for the return pump and protein skimmer. It follows that the size of the return pump and protein skimmer need to be known before the spacing is decided. Once that is done, the sump construction can proceed. The seawater needs to flow between all three spaces without any unwanted restriction. This is achieved by having overflows (underflows as well on more complicated sumps). So the overflow at the first division must be high enough to cover the heaters, easily done. The first division should be high enough to at least equal the height of the second division and the second division height is determined by the requirement of the return pump and the protein skimmer leaving a fair amount of seawater above them. In effect, the first division could be the same height as the second.

So, the seawater comes in via the heater area, overflows the first division, fills the middle section, overlows the second division and is pumped back to the aquarium at the same time as being skimmed.

What of the middle section then, what’s that for? Let’s wait until the seawater coming from and back to the display aquarium has been considered.

The return pump which sits in the sump has been mentioned. Suitable flexible piping takes the seawater to the aquarium over the top rim at the right of the aquarium (not an absolute but the pump is on the right in the sump). Gravity is used to take the seawater down into the first section of the sump. The best way to achieve this is by having a drilled aquarium. This drilling is easier than might be thought, but sensibly any doubt and a professional can do it, either before the aquarium is taken home or when at home. The seawater will flow through a curved right-angled fitting which is placed and sealed in the drilled hole. Then flexible tubing is connected to the fitting and a secure outlet placed in the sump, the first section. To prevent any mini-bubbles a pure white small cotton bag can be used over the outlet making sure the water passes through the bag without restriction, though this could be found to be unnecessary. It is necessary to place the drilled hole as high as possible to ensure that the top water-line in the display aquarium is acceptable. This doesn’t present a problem though, as a curved right-angle corner can be placed inside the aquarium on the fitting which can be swivelled to achieve the seawater level. For security and peace of mind it is best to use a fitting and overflow pipe larger, even twice the diameter, as the pumped inlet pipe. As a check, when the system is operating turn off the pump and ensure the seawater doesn’t rise excessively (ie overflow) in the sump as some seawater will still go down.

‘Er, wait a minute, my aquarium is full of seawater and fully stocked.’ No problem, reduce the level of the seawater for a while, giving time for the hole to be drilled and the sealing silicone to set (24 hours is often quoted for the silicone). There is usually enough seawater headroom in the aquarium so level reduction is not a problem for the aquarist or livestock.

Another way of getting seawater to the sump is without drilling. This uses a siphon, a basic one is constructed of a curved piece of pipe over the edge of the aquarium and a tube going to the sump. As the pump sends seawater up so seawater flows down the siphon. There could be problems, the first is if the pump stops as the siphon will continue to operate before the seawater level breaks the siphon. This is easily checked by allowing seawater to flow down with the pump turned off – when the seawater in the sump has risen to fairly near overflowing mark the siphon and shorten it. This is then the point at which the siphon will break. Flow rates are important with a siphon as well. I would say a drilled system is the one to use, siphons don’t make me happy, a very small amount of extra effort is worth it. Maybe that’s just personal. There are more sophisticated siphon systems.

The sump can have a basic cover over it such as plastic. It will help control humidity in the cupboard it’s in etc. It will possibly need cutting so it will go over any protrusions such as the protein skimmer.

Ok, so what can be placed in the middle section of the sump then? First of all, nothing! It can be left empty for as long as wanted. Perhaps later interest will suggest say a deep sand bed (DSB). This will assist the filtration of the aquarium and give additional interest for the aquarist, with loads of minute ‘beasties’ going about. Perhaps, if nitrate is a problem, seaweed such as Caulerpa can be grown, this will use nitrate and when harvested some nitrate will go with it. This means lighting is required though, on at the opposite time to the aquarium lighting. But these things can come later.

The basic sump as described is easily obtained and fitted, with perhaps a little professional drilling. As said it brings advantages: it moves much of the technical equipment out of the main aquarium thus enhancing the display, it increases the seawater volume making the ‘seawater per fish’ greater and also gives the aquarist the opportunity to widen the marine horizons by developing perhaps a DSB etc. Are there any disadvantages? Not really though the seawater amount changed routinely will increase a little. The guideline, at least at the start, is 10% of the net seawater gallonage including the sump so the sumps net gallonage needs to be known. Also additional fish should not be introduced to the main aquarium because of the additional gallonage in the sump, the fish are still in the confines of the aquarium and it could cause stress. The advantage of the additional seawater will also be lost of course.

The sump described here is basic (nothing wrong with that). Using a search engine and inputting ‘marine aquarium sump’ or similar will bring up a lot of information, ready built units for sale, kits for sale and different designs. A sump is definitely worth having giving the aquarist more scope and the aquarium inmates a bit more of the ‘ocean’.

Finally, often in the below aquarium cupboard are electrical outlets, sockets and similar. Salt water and electricity are potentially dangerous. With sensible care no problems will arise.


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The Banded Brittle Star Thu, 19 Feb 2015 12:06:59 +0000

A reef aquarium is a wonderful picture for the aquarist or anyone else to watch. Once the reef is complete often the aquarist will wonder if there is any way it can be ‘improved’. Sometimes the diversity of life can be widened thus adding to interest.

A creature that is definitely different is the banded brittle star, properly called Ophiolepis superba. It is a creature of the coral reefs and has no difficulty in moving among the rocks and over sand. It is a scavenger and should not harm corals, small mobile invertebrates or fish. It is reasonably easy to keep, in other words reasonably hardy. On purchase the brittle star could be say 4″ (circa 10cm) and could grow to say 10″ (circa 25cm) arm tip to arm tip, though likely to be smaller in an aquarium. The suggested minimum size for the aquarium is 30 gallons.

When a brittle star is introduced to the aquarium the aquarium must not be newly set up. This is because stability is required – the biological system (ammonia/nitrite/nitrate) should be completely stable. Once this is proven by testing over time the next requirement is stability of the seawater specific gravity (SG), there should not be any variation, except very small because of say evaporation before a top-up. This is also proved by regular testing. The brittle star is sensitive to sudden salinity variations. So the aquarist should be certain that the SG parameters are acceptable.

The banded brittle star will live happily in a mixed reef system and as it is a mixed reef it is unlikely there will be certain fish present, for example angels (excluding the dwarf types), larger wrasses, triggerfish etc. A larger crab or harlequin shrimps will also bring problems. Though unlikely to be present, a predatory starfish will cause trouble. If any of the aforementioned types are present then do not introduce a banded brittle star as it is likely to be generally investigated, nibbled or worse.

Once the decision has been made to have a brittle star then certain procedures should be followed. The dealer should bag the star underwater being very gentle. When travelling, unless the journey time is very short, provide some insulation around the bag to conserve heat. Once home the bag should be floated in the aquarium and the acclimatisation procedure patiently followed. Using a teaspoon remove the first teaspoon of seawater from the bag and discard it. Place a teaspoon of aquarium seawater in the bag, leave for a few minutes then repeat. Keep doing this for an hour or more, whatever is needed, depending on the size of the bag and the amount of seawater to be changed. After the appropriate time the star will be ready to go into the aquarium. Gently and very slowly allow the free space in the bag to fill with aquarium seawater. Lower the bag into the aquarium as close to the bottom as possible and gently turn so the star can escape, it is likely to hide fairly quickly. The star will find a refuge among the rocks but, for luxury accommodation, a large clam shell or two is ideal.

Brittle stars are efficient nocturnal scavengers but should be fed. Feeding should start as soon as possible after introduction to the aquarium, say after the first night and towards the end of the first aquarium lights on period. The food should be fresh or defrozen fish etc, cut to about the size of a pea. Place the morsel as close as possible to the star, hopefully any seawater current will not move the food. Once the star has settled it is likely to be seen when the lights are on, and could respond to food availability in the same period. If this occurs, feed the fish then the star if the fish steal the star’s dinner. One feed a day should be enough, reduce the feeds if obviously required.

So why is the word ‘brittle’ used in the name? This is because the star can shed an arm or more as a defensive mechanism (they grow back), this can also occur if the conditions are too extreme. Fortunately, the banded brittle star is reasonably hardy and doesn’t shed an arm for little reason.

The banded brittle star can be obtained fairly easily but there is a warning (well, there has to be at least one!). The colours can vary quite a lot though not extremely so. If the dealer is selling some called ‘green brittle stars’ don’t buy one as these are predatory unlike the banded brittle star.

The reef aquarium can be so interesting and, once settled and even coming out in broad daylight, the banded brittle star certainly adds to it.


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The Emperor Angelfish Sun, 18 Jan 2015 13:38:55 +0000

There are many beautiful fish available to the marine aquarist and one of these is the Emperor Angelfish, properly called Pomacanthus imperator. Purchasing this fish when young gives the aquarist in effect two fish over time.

Some fish can be recommended without qualification as they are not problematic. This is not so with the emperor unfortunately. There are clear constraints and also the fish could find the surroundings too much to its liking!

First it is always assumed that seawater quality is excellent, as it should be of course – this is a requirement for all marine inmates. The next problem is size, or eventual size anyway. Many emperors are sold as juveniles at say 3″ (circa 8cm) or so. They are so beautiful that the aquarist could be tempted and lose that oh so important discipline. The fish is transported home and settles well. Unfortunately, this little fish can grow to around 1ft (circa 30cm). This is clearly going to be a problem for many aquarists as their aquarium just isn’t big enough. The minimum sized aquarium should be 100 gallons, better around 150 gallons or more, the amounts exclusive of any sump. If the aquarist has an aquarium of sufficient size, fine.

The fish is not for a reef aquarium. That short statement knocks the suitability of the emperor on the head for many aquarists even if their aquarium is large enough. Again, large aquarium or not, resist the temptation because the emperor could find your reef very likeable, including the corals, tube worms, shrimps when moulting etc. They are likely to be nibbled at or eaten, not something that is going to endear the fish to the aquarist. So there’s the next constraint, the emperor needs a fish only system. It should also be remembered that the emperor will not be happy with another emperor, or any fish with colouration similar to its own. So the large aquarium could have an emperor plus a few others, remembering that fish size reduces the number of fish the aquarium can house.

If the emperor is still considered a potential addition to the aquarium, then feeding is the next consideration. Emperors are not particularly picky but do require a suitable diet to maintain colour and health. There isn’t any reason why decorative ‘live’ or ordinary marine suitable rock should not be in the aquarium, remembering that swimming space for the fish is required. If this rock has algae growing on it then the emperor will graze it regularly. It’s unlikely that the algae will survive and reproduce quickly enough, so various chunks of rock can be selected and, one by one or more as necessary, taken to another tank or lit sump and left to allow algae to develop. This way there will nearly always be a rock for the emperor to graze on. This green diet can be supplemented by the use of blanched lettuce leaves and algae that can be purchased from a shop. ‘Vegetarian’ flakes could also be of some use. The green content of the diet should amount to at least one third, the rest can be made up of frozen food such as shellfish, krill etc. Marine flake food can also be fed. Failure to feed a suitable diet could well result in a ‘sad’ fish – malnourished, poorly coloured and ill. Juvenile fish are likely to begin to fade more quickly.

Juvenile Emperor Angelfish

Ok, so the aquarium is large enough, the aquarist is happy with the restrictions of size and potential tankmates, and diet will be properly followed. The beautiful emperor will be a wonderful addition, it shouts of the colour and vibrancy of the reef.

The extra that the aquarist achieves is, as mentioned in the first paragraph, the equivalent of two fish. When obtained as a juvenile the colours and patterns are completely different to the adult and the gradual change can be observed. Both versions of the same fish are beautiful, though the adult emperor is more imperial. I don’t know if the correct reason for the two different fish patterns is known, but it has been thought that the juvenile is protected from any unwanted attention from adults.

It must be remembered that the emperor is not suitable for every aquarium, space is needed and if a coral reef is desired the fish is not suitable. There are other fish of this family that are similar in this respect. Discipline, patience and research are the watchwords – there are other fish that can enhance and not damage a reef and plenty suitable for those with a smaller aquarium. But if everything is suitable for the emperor – including the aquarist! – then wow, all acknowledge the emperor of the reef.

(Photo: Emperor Angelfish –

(Photo: Juvenile Emperor Angelfish –

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I Can’t Afford Live Rock, Am I Being Cruel? Sun, 14 Dec 2014 13:40:55 +0000

It’s exciting, setting up a new marine aquarium and at the same time it can be frustrating as there is a fair amount to sort out. Initially it can be confusing obtaining the information on this and that and what is actually needed followed by the actual size required. We get there in the end though and it’s certainly worth it.

One of the reasons why the aquarist is so careful when purchasing equipment is to make sure the eventual livestock will be adequately supported. It’s also to make sure the amount of money spent is necessary and not wasteful – nothing wrong there.

The aquarist eventually gets to that very essential support for the aquarium, the biological filtration. This is provided by bacteria and deals with the deadly ammonia and nitrite, also nitrate. These are generated within the aquarium by the livestock and the first two are killers. The only acceptable reading for these is zero. Nitrate is not deadly but can cause real problems if not controlled, such as excessive nuisance algae. The guideline maximum reading for nitrate for a reef tank is 10ppm (parts per million) and for a fish only 30ppm. Both should be as low as possible.

The aquarist’s discovery of the biological cycle (ammonia to nitrite to nitrate) and the recommended way of dealing with it gives rise to the ‘cruelty’ question. The modern recommendation is to use live rock. Why is it called ‘live’? The rock is loaded with the bacteria that deal with the above-mentioned ammonia, nitrite and nitrate. The aquarist knows that in the wild the fish live among rocks and this seems the best way of providing a top line environment. It is. Another advantage is that live rock can deal with, within reason, the full biological cycle (also known as the nitrogen cycle).

Live rock is expensive. Putting a couple of rocks in is not sufficient, there must be enough to support the livestock. Sufficient rock as quoted by the dealer could be just too much money. Should the aquarist give up and not proceed further because ‘the best’ will not be available? There’s a simple answer and it is ‘No’!

The requirement is to give the livestock a fully supportive environment. So there is a need for rocks so the fish etc can find security (and make the view for the aquarist more natural of course). They don’t need to be live. Wait though, don’t buy any rocks yet.

The biological cycle can be achieved by using a powered cylinder filter. This is a unit that has an integral pump sitting on or in a cylinder that is filled with biological filtration material. Well, that’s not completely correct, there is filtration material to remove debris first to protect the biological material. It is necessary and really important to make sure that the lift rate of the power filter is sufficient to take the seawater to the highest point required, often the top rim of the aquarium. This distance can be quite large as most power filters sit below the aquarium in a cupboard. Manufacturers often give this information.

The power filter price is acceptable so all is sorted then. Yes it is but there has to be a downside of course. Live rock will deal with the complete biological cycle. The power filter will not, nitrate will be produced in the aquarium but not removed by the filter. Why? The bacteria that deal with nitrate require an oxygen poor environment, this is achieved deep in the live rock but the seawater flow through the power filter is oxygen laden. The nitrate has to be controlled by not overstocking, not overfeeding and completing regular partial seawater changes. These are required anyway so it isn’t a big deal, though the partial seawater changes could need to be a little larger. The guideline for these is 10% weekly of the total aquarium gallonage including a sump if present. The amount can be adjusted as the aquarist’s experience grows.

Ok, the power filter it is then. What of the rocks? Natural cycles occur within the aquarium and bacteria that are required for the biological cycle are present within the aquarium up to a point not just in the power filter. So when the rocks are bought don’t buy solid dense lumps, get craggy porous ones of various shapes ensuring they are marine aquarium suitable. They shouldn’t be powdery or flaky. Once the reef is made, leave them alone apart from any initial necessary adjustments. These rocks will become home to bacteria and will also be able to house those that deal with nitrate as they are deeply porous. This takes time and requires patience, it will not happen overnight or over a few weeks. I did this and it took 10 months before I could safely turn off the power filter (well, remove the biological material anyway, the power filter is still in use).

To check for rock becoming live is easy but great care is required. Once the rocks are aged for many months or even up to a year the power filter can be turned off and a very regular check for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate done. Any sign of the former two and the power filter is back on. WARNING – There is a danger and it is real and needs attention. If the power filter is turned off and the rocks are not sufficiently ‘live’, the power filter needs to be turned on again. If the power filter has been turned off for a good while the biological capabilities of the filter could be seriously damaged and the livestock could be in danger.

To mainly avoid the above described danger the aquarist could have initially obtained two smaller power filters (remembering to check for the lift capability). They are both loaded with biological filtration material. When the time comes to try turning them off turn one off. Leave the other running for a month or more. Test for ammonia and nitrite. When all is found clear for a month or more turn the other off. Continue testing. The bacteria on and within the rock should increase as the impact of the power filters is removed. Don’t take chances, patient testing and time is required.

The aquarist could be quite happy to leave the power filter running, nothing wrong with that. The livestock will be quite happy and healthy, fish and/or corals. It just means a little more maintenance, including cleaning the filtration material in the power filter on a regular basis (only the initial filter material to remove debris, not the biological material! The debris material can be cleaned under a tap. If absolutely necessary, the biological material can be very gently washed in aquarium seawater). Also perhaps there could be a need for larger partial seawater changes to reduce nitrate.

Some requirements for the marine aquarium are essential, such as heater(s), circulation pumps, protein skimmer etc. Rocks make the scene look natural and also provide hiding places for the livestock which reduces stress. If ‘live’ rock can be used, great. If not then ‘dead’ porous rocks could be obtained and when they have coloured up they’ll look lovely. If power filters are in use for biological filtration and the aquarist has doubts or worries about turning them off, don’t.


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The Flame Angel Mon, 17 Nov 2014 11:08:37 +0000

It has been said many times that the successful marine aquarium is a spectacular sight: beautiful fish and corals with matured reefwork making it all look very natural despite the glass box.

There are many fish that could be chosen to help produce the scene as described above and it can be confusing. As usual the aquarist needs to show patience and do research so that the fish (or coral) chosen is compatible and will not cause disruption or grow too big. The angelfish are a clear choice as they display lovely colours and certainly enhance any display.

Hang on though, what about size and hardiness? Size is the first problem as many angels, such as the Emperor and Koran can grow to 12″ (30.5cm) or so, much too big for many home aquariums. There is a group of angels that only grow to between 2″  to 5″ (circa 5 to 12.5cm)  and these are the main interest to the home aquarist with a smaller aquarium. Understandably they have been called ‘God’s gift to aquarists’.

When considering purchasing the fish at the shop the usual rules apply – does the fish swim and breath properly, are the fins solid and not ragged, is the body clear of marks and well shaped and does the fish feed. A dealer will usually offer a little food to the fish to demonstrate the last point. Take time there isn’t any hurry.

So then, the really beautiful – it could be called spectacular – flame angel. The proper name is Centropyge loriculus. It is one of the larger dwarf angels and is capable of growing to about 5″ (circa 12.5cm). It is not the hardiest of the dwarf angels but is reasonably so in a high quality environment. The home aquarium should be fully matured, not newly so, as the flame angel likes to graze over rockwork looking for small surface algae and other morsels to eat. To maintain health and colour it needs green food, one reason for the requirement for a mature environment – if green food in a small quantity is not available then small supplements are required from time to time. Overall the fish has an omnivorous tendency going for most things available including flake. It is generally safe with corals though it will often nibble at green looking specimens but usually doesn’t do any damage. To avoid stress there needs to be rock work so that the fish can choose a place to hide in the dark. It seems clear that the best environment for the flame angel is a reef system, or less so a low stocked mature ‘fish only’ containing rock work.

So no problem then if the fish goes into a reasonably aged environment with rocks? There is usually something and so there is with this fish. Despite the ‘angel’ tag it isn’t completely sweet as it is quite bad tempered and is likely to chase off other fish that come too close, unless they are clearly bigger. Also, there is a risk of trouble if other fish have any colour that is close to that of the angel. So that’s a further consideration to bear in mind. Like damsel fish, it could be better to make the flame angel the last introduction to the community.

I have had a flame angel for 11 years in my soft coral reef system. It has demonstrated the bad temper mentioned earlier but has not caused damage to the other fish, a blue damsel and a royal gramma. The flame angel has chased the damsel but the damsel is much too quick, disappearing into rockwork, and the royal gramma hangs about its favourite hidey hole a lot though it does go further afield regularly. The royal gramma is ignored now for most of the time as it has grown, at least I assume that’s the reason why. As far as corals are concerned (all soft corals) the  flame hasn’t damaged any at all ever. The fish does gently ‘mouth’ the green star polyps (Pachyclavularia) when passing but as said never causes any damage.

There is another safeguard against innapropriate purchase of a flame angel and this is price. The fish is usually quite expensive and this alone will make the aquarist pause for thought. However, if the price is right, if the intended high quality environment is mature and if the tankmates are appropriate the flame angel will make a superb addition.



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Stress And The Marine Aquarium Sun, 19 Oct 2014 10:57:51 +0000

The two just don’t go together, or rather they shouldn’t. The marine aquarium is a peaceful and relaxing world that the aquarist can view with pleasure. The pressures of day to day living can be reduced by just sitting and gazing. Well, usually anyway.

With the marine aquarium there are two kinds of stress, the first hits the livestock and the second the aquarist. The aquarist normally isn’t stressed at all without the first type and it’s the aquarist who for the most part causes the personal stress. All a bit crazy really.

It has been said that environment is everything. This applies to all species of life no matter where or what. Make the environment poor and there will be repercussions: moderate, severe or deadly.

So the fish and , if a reef system, the corals are heavily dependant for health on their environment. Now it’s clear where this is going! The aquarist has to ensure that the environment for the livestock is correct and continues to be so. When the system is constructed there must be adequate means of maintaining, say, salt water quality, for example a properly sized protein skimmer. The temperature of the seawater needs to be correct, so there needs to be adequately sized heaters. All equipment needs to be adequate and the essential items present. The seawater needs to be of high quality without excessive nitrates (leading to yukky algae) or the deadly ammonia and nitrite. Those are the obvious things but it goes on from there.

Whether the system is a reef or fish only there has to be adequate places for the fish and any other lifeforms to hide, so rocks need to be used to create caves and crevices. Providing rocks in a fish only system reduces the seawater gallonage and reduces the fish carrying capacity but at the same time reduces or removes stress. The fish don’t know they are in an aquarium, as far as they’re concerned the need to hide from predators at certain times such as at night is essential. Hide or die. Even if there are rocks present there shouldn’t be too many fish or some are going to be stressed as they fail to find shelter. Fish overstocking based on gallonage is bad and also based on security.

Even if security is adequate there will be stress if timid fish are in the presence of aggressive ones or even a predator. That fish that attracts the eye of the aquarist, is it compatible? ‘Compatible’ is a very important word in the confines of an aquarium.

Fish stress can lead to severe problems in the aquarium, some fish could be so nervous that they don’t take food because of the presence of other more aggressive ones and could even starve to death. Or fish could have torn fins or develop disease.

So the aquarist is clearly doing no favours to him/herself by not providing a high quality environment. When keeping a marine aquarium was being considered sick fish and green yukky (technical word that!) algae were not included. The marine aquarium is supposed to calm and give enjoyment, hence the presence of  an aquarium in some dentists’ waiting rooms. The aquarist in some cases is his own worst enemy, buying on sight and/or on impulse. There isn’t any need for it, none at all. There is a huge amount of information available on the internet and in books and none of it is difficult, a scientist’s white coat isn’t required.

So sit and watch the aquarium in fascination, the colour and movement of one of Mother Nature’s great achievements. Feel any stress drain away. Or note the unwanted algae, the sad looking colour faded fish, the closed up corals and the scummy seawater. The stress generated in the struggle to recover the aquarium investment is definitely not pleasant.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the difference between success and failure. Maybe the desire to recreate a marine scene and protect the life in it, rather than spend money on a glass box and put fish in is the difference. The first shows genuine respect and, though Mother Nature doesn’t give a cast iron guarantee, pleasure and a stress free hobby should be on the way.

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