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So you want your own bit of ocean. Firstly, then, visit an oceanarium like Sea World, Orlando with its coral reef aquarium. Hopefully, the staff will be patient enough to brief you on the pros, and cons of keeping mega-reef tanks. You will have similar problems, albeit on a much smaller scale.
The major difference between reef, and salt, or freshwater tanks is that the reef is a veritable eco-system, with the fish, invertebrates, and plants interacting symbiotically. Reefs also tend to emphasize invertebrates over fish. Invertebrates include coelenterates like hard, and soft corals, and sea anemones; crustaceans such as crabs, and shrimp; sea urchins; starfish; tube worms; mollusks like snails, clams, and octopodes. When choosing fish, keep their numbers small and only introduce coral-friendly and non-carnivorous fish like blennies, clownfish and angelfish.
Another important difference is the cost, and sophistication of the reef equipment, and the effort necessary to maintain the ecological balance. Because virtually everything in the reef tank is alive, it has to replicate the ocean as far as possible. This primarily entails installing a sump pump to ensure water circulation, and to simulate constant wave motion, otherwise the sensitive coral, and anemones will die. Corals, being territorial, are hyper-sensitive as regards living space; they can’t be in too close proximity, or else they will turn aggressive, exuding chemicals, and nematocysts, i.e. defensive venomous, coiled threads, at each other. Stress must be minimized otherwise the corals’ immune systems will diminish making them susceptible to diseases.
Living rocks are another specialty of reefs. These are imported rocks containing micro-organisms, and sea creatures, some of which must be eliminated by treating the rock; usually curing it for a month, or so with frequent cleansing, essentially to eliminate ammonia. When cured it can be shaped to form caves, and other holes for the invertebrates to take refuge in. Many of these invertebrates have a functional purpose, cleaner shrimp; for example, help to eliminate algae, while snails and crabs eat waste products.
Of crucial concern is the tank size, the consensus of opinion is that the minimum size should be 40 gallons, and the domestic optimum is the 70 gallon tank, which is about 18 inches deep. The filtration equipment is very specialized; some even advocate having protein skimmers to prevent the break-down of organic pollutants. Also because saltwater contains less oxygen than freshwater of the same volume, it’s necessary to have more aeration than in a freshwater environment. The water must also be changed on a regular basis.
The chemical balance is another major factor, having to consider temperature, phosphates, calcium, alkalinity and pH ratios. Lighting is another crucial feature, UV minimizes the risk of disease, and specialized, time-phased lights are used to highlight the coral to its best advantage.
It will be apparent that keeping a reef tank is no mug’s game. It’s costly, time-consuming, and takes a great deal of expertise. Seeking advice from reef aficionados locally, and via the internet is a must. As is comprehensive self-education via books, videos, and e-books. However, the end result is spectacular, and environmentally friendly, helping to preserve a threatened ecosystem.
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