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Adventures in Reef Keeping
To get started, here's an example of a successful reef aquarium set-up by a friend of the author, Osama Zabin of Palatine, IL.
The Beginning (a bit of my Bio)
My first exposure to marine aquariums happened in 1964. A friend and I were heavily into freshwater aquariums, each of us had multiple aquariums ranging in size from ten to a hundred gallons, and we were on a mission to purchase whatever rare or exotic fish we could find. We were always in competition with each other. Since our home town, Madison, WI was lacking in decent local fish stores (LFS) we would periodically venture off to Milwaukee, WI or Chicago, IL where the pickings were much more interesting. We never came home empty handed.
It was on one of these adventures I spotted my first saltwater aquarium teeming with beautiful reef fish. I was instantly and forever hooked. The prices were atrocious and therefore out of my meager budget. I was "stuck" in freshwater for the time being. But the sheer beauty, bright colors, diversity of form and variety was mind boggling. I HAD to try a saltwater tank. (It would be years before anyone could keep a "reef" tank.) I had to set up a saltwater tank out of my passion for everything aquatic. I was and still am a fish nut!
When you have multiple aquariums, as my friend and I had, you naturally lean toward breeding and selling the offspring. It is a way to have the hobby pay for itself. Many hobbyists have gone into business successfully using this avenue. It was 1966 before I had accumulated enough money from the hobby business to pay for my first saltwater tank. It was a 30gal long with crushed coral substrate, a Danner Supreme hang-on-the-back box filter with filter floss and carbon, a heater, glass top and standard single bulb fluorescent light fixture. I didn't know it at the time but, this was a set-up designed for failure! I stocked it with a couple of fish, hermit crabs and lord knows what else. Two weeks later, it was devoid of all life forms except bacteria. I was sure I had bacteria because the corpses were being consumed by invisible invaders.
This failure devastated me. It's common to lose fish from time to time but to be wiped out literally overnight was a blow to my heart. From the age of 9, when my dad bought me a goldfish and a bowl, I ate, breathed and lived for the aquatic realm. Anywhere I went, if there was water to explore, I was in it. My mother used to tell her friends, "I can't wash Dick's cloths with out finding frogs or snakes in his pockets". I don't remember putting living things like that in my pockets. But, my mother was known as an honest person. So, maybe she was telling the truth. In any event, as a child, I was known as the "water boy" of the family.
In 1968 a book was published, "The Saltwater Aquarium in the Home", by Robert P.L. Straughn of Miami, FL. This book changed my life and set me on a course of saltwater discovery that hasn't let up for 38 years to date (2006). I was so fascinated by Bob's book, I struck out for Miami, FL one day to meet him. Robert was a diver, collector and operated his own saltwater fish store. He also shipped fish supplying public aquariums, universities and LFSs around the country with beautiful, healthy, net caught fish. Drugs and even dynamite were being used in the Philippines to catch fish for the burgeoning saltwater trade around the world. The demand exceeded the supply. Bob deplored the use of drugs or any destructive means to catch fish. This man was a conservationist long before it was fashionable to be a conservationist. Bob was well aware of the fragile nature of our coral reefs and did his best to promote their preservation.
Bob Straughn explained the Nitrogen Cycle (remember, it was 1968) and taught me the latest successful method of keeping saltwater fish alive. It was the under gravel filter. Yes, that was the secret of the time. You can still be successful utilizing the UG filter but, we don't recommend it and discourage it use in saltwater aquarium husbandry. It requires a high level of maintenance to maintain balance of the Nitrogen Cycle. If neglected, even for a short period of time, it can cause serious Nitrate problems leading to other more serious problems. DON"T use the UG filter! That said, I used it successfully in all my early salt tanks, even doing installations in bars, restaurants and private homes. But, to be successful using it, I had to vacuum the gravel every 30 days thoroughly without fail or disaster soon followed. I was willing to do it back then because there wasn't a known alternative at the time. I developed a reputation as "the go to" salt person in Madison and beyond.
By 1974 I was completely out of freshwater and up to my eyeballs in saltwater tanks. I was able to keep fish alive for years at a time instead of weeks or months as in the beginning. People were searching me out to help them achieve success with their saltwater tanks. I obliged willingly because keeping things alive became a passion for me. My love for saltwater fish quickly expanded to include anything from the coral reefs around the world. The Indo Pacific nations in particular provides some of the most diverse biotopes to behold.
As other people made discoveries publishing their findings in trade magazines and publishing books, I devoured the "new" teachings and put them to use learning more from my own experience using their methods. The use of different substrates, crushed coral, crushed oyster shell, dolomite, silica sand, quartz gravel and others brought varying degrees of success and failure. Some would be okay for a while, seemingly working, and then a crash would occur causing death or algae outbreaks of horrendous proportions. It was a constant maintenance nightmare. Plus the expense of replacing dead animals. It wasn't pretty in the "good old days".
Advances in equipment began to arrive on the scene, many from Germany and Holland. I'm not going to chronicle their coming nor from which country. But, some of the most significant improvements came about because of wet/dry trickle filtration, protein skimmers, ozone generators, ultrviolet sterilizers and test kits that measure the critical elements of the nitrogen cycle, Ammonia, Nitrite and Nitrate, also PH and specific gravity. Artificial salts were being produced using laboratory grade ingredients bringing with them a new level of quality. Two of the best back then were Instant Ocean and Tropic Marin. Still two of the best today. I've used both, liked both but Instant Ocean is easier to come by and cheaper so, that's the brand I've used for 38 years. After being in the business part time and full time, retail, wholesale, installation/maintenance since 1974 I've retired to FL.
In 1992 I began my attempts at growing coral. After some initial failures I began having some success. Of course success was being achieved by others too. I followed the teachings of prominent people in the business and research fields like Borneman, Delbeak, Tullock, Calfo, Fenner and others. I was passionate about this hobby all my life so, it came as no surprise to my wife, Sue, that I would continue the business here in FL.
So, let's begin with a question everyone asks when they begin thinking of setting up a reef tank. What are the three most important traits a person must have to be a successful reef aquarium keeper? I'd have to respond with - PATIENCE! PATIENCE!! AND MORE PATIENCE!!!