Reef aquariums, which by definition are saltwater aquariums with the focus on colourful corals and other invertebrates rather than fish, have been steadily gaining in popularity in the last few decades. Its not hard to see why, they look amazing!

How good does this reef look?

How good does this reef look?

Mini-reefs are a bad idea for inexperienced beginners!

Many aquarium stores now sell ready-to-go mini reef aquariums packed with coral, ready for you to take home. Sadly a lot of people fall in love with the alien shapes and array of colours and take them home having no real idea how to care for them properly. A thriving reef tank is another kettle of fish (excuse the pun ;)) entirely to a freshwater aquarium with fish only to look after.

Coral reefs demand pristine water quality, moderate to strong water movement, appropriate spectrum, powerful (usually) lighting and nutrients such as calcium to keep the reef building organisms in peak health. Corals and other non-moving invertebrates are very intolerant of nitrates and phosphates produced by fish excrement and uneaten food, you have to do a lot of partial water changes and clean up well, especially with a small tank size.

How is a reef aquarium different from a saltwater aquarium?

A reef aquarium traditionally is based around corals and features other compatible non-moving and/or moving invertebrates and usually a couple of reef-safe fish (but now the reef purists don’t bother with these!), usually Live Rock and a protein skimmer is employed and a host of other equipment like dosers and meters are optional extras. Once I began to dabble in reefs the addiction soon overcame me, now an aquarium without corals now looks incomplete to me!

Reasons why keeping a reef aquarium may not be as easy as the aquarium shop guy tells you….

Reef keeping can be a complete minefield for the novice (and the under-educated expert as well) and these are the reasons why:

  1. Invertebrate compatibility can be tricky to figure out which corals (for example) are compatible with what fish and what sessile (non-moving) invertebrate and also what motile (moving) invertebrate. Many marine organisms feed on corals and corals may react to each other with chemical warfare, many corals cannot be placed with other species because they release toxins into the water or deploy nasty stinging tentacles. Often it can be easier to re-create a particular reef biotope for example using all Indonesian reef crest inhabitants because in these situations you know all the organisms will already be compatible because they have evolved together.
  2. Necessity for pristine water quality all the time; reef building organisms are more difficult to keep happy than fish; they come from very stable, nutrient poor ocean environments and this is what we will need to recreate to keep them thriving. Nitrates and Phosphates must be kept to an absolute minimum (undetectable levels are ideal) and water movement needs to be moderate to strong. Not only this but calcium needs to be added to the water, the alkalinity needs to be kept high as do various other trace elements such as iodine, strontium, iron.
  3. Too many reefers believe that it is possible to have a reef aquarium using second rate, bargain bin equipment. This will ultimately lead to massive problems in the long run as this stuff just isn’t up to the job and needs upgrading, fails or needs to be replaced putting your expensive marine life at unnecessary risk. For example I know of a number of “reefers” who wiped out their entire tanks with disease just because they didn’t want to spend money on a small basic quarantine tank. If you want an awesome reef aquarium you should be prepared to spend some money on decent equipment that actually works well, it will pay itself back in the long run.
  4. Not enough time; a reef aquarium is a delicate piece of art that requires a certain amount of upkeep from its owner, as the water quality needs to be consistently good, you will get very good at partial water changes, dosing your tank and testing water parameters and making adjustments if needs be. Reef building organisms can swiftly deteriorate if they are neglected for too long, all this upkeep takes a bit of time and if you don’t have the time to learn about the organisms within and carry out the maintenance required, a reef aquarium is not for you.
  5. A lack of knowledge is a recipe for disaster with a reef aquarium; other than the compatibility and the care requirements there is still a fair amount to learn in regards to keeping a thriving reef especially in regards to providing pristine water quality and addition of elements necessary for good coral reef growth. Many people still go to the fish store and buy something because it was just “so pretty” then realise they have no idea what it is and how to care for it correctly but by then its too late and it has died. Do not rely on your fish store/pet shop for vital information, you need to get reading or get on the Internet seeking reputable sources of reef aquarium information.
  6. A mini reef aquarium system crash; as I said earlier with the increasing popularity of the mini aquarium (less than 40 gallons) there has been a huge interest in setting up mini reefs. The problem with using an aquarium this small to house corals and other invertebrates is the tiny water volume. A smaller volume has much less buffering capacity than a large tank to protect its inhabitants from fluctuations in temperature, pH, and nitrate, which are the common culprits to wipe out a reef. In my opinion get the biggest aquarium you can afford and unless you completely know what you are doing stay away from the mini reefs.

If you have ticked off the warning list above, researched your invertebrates well and really have taken the time to learn all about what it takes to make a reef aquarium thrive, plus have got some good quality equipment, you really are giving yourself the best chance to succeed.

Saltwater Aquarium Advice