Trial and Tribulations of an OLD Reef Tank (A 25+ year journey with a saltwater tank)
by Paul Baldassano
Growing up on Long Island New York, I was always surrounded by water so the obvious thing to do was start a fish tank. My parents, owning a fish market probably helped. As a toddler, I would have to stay in the store all day. Of course other kids had toys, I played with dead fish.
They were boring but the live lobsters and crabs were always fun. Anyway, as far as I can remember, I always had a fish tank. Every once in a while my father would bring me home some creature that was still alive from the Fulton Fish market in Manhattan. I would put it in fresh water (Who had salt water ?) Naturally, it would usually be dead by morning. Gradually, I learned that some animals required salt water.
I had a 40 gallon fresh water tank for many years. After you've raised angels, betta's, zebras and mouth brooders you just have to progress to the next thing, which for me was brackish. The only problem was that I got drafted into the army. This is not going to be a war story, but I will say that I got to see red tail sharks in a small pond in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia. And on "R and R," I did some SCUBA diving in Australia. Anyway, when I got home, I found out that although my tank was still set up, the only fish that was left , a large catfish, had just died the week before. I don't think anyone fed it in the year that I was gone. After putting some cheap fish back in the tank, I started to add a little salt each day. After a while the tank had a tetrodon puffer, archer fish, mono and scat. At the time, that was all the brackish water fish on the market. Then one day in 1971 I was in an aquarium store in Manhattan, and I saw the most beautiful fish I have ever seen. It was a blue devil. There were also sergeant majors and dominos. That was the extent of salt water in those days.
I knew that I wanted some of these fish, but I didn't know anything about them. So I bought some magazines. "The Marine Aquarist". It was printed in black and white and I still have about ten issues of it. I read everything I could about salt water fish. To save money, I figured I would go down to the beach and get some water. Then, I saw that my neighbor had some nice looking blue gravel in his driveway, so I collected some of that. I bought some bleached coral and put in the blue devils and the tetradon puffer. The blue devils lasted about a day. It must be the gravel, I thought. Out with the gravel and in with about three inches of beach sand. Ocean beach sand is very fine. I put in some dominoes (which were not real cheap then at the time). They lived a few weeks. But I noticed that the sand was turning black at the bottom. When I stirred the sand It stank up the entire house. That's when I learned about hydrogen sulphide. Out with the sand and in with some new stuff, dolomite. I also thought that my choice of water was not the best so I bought the only salt available--"Marine Magic", I also bought a new invention, a "Sanders Protein Skimmer."
Now I was keeping fish alive at least for a few months. Invariably, the fish would get spots and I would lose almost everything overnight. I read somewhere about copper treatment for these parasites. The recommended course was to put in twenty pennies to a gallon of water. This definitely will kill parasites. It will kill everything else too if you leave them in too long. Copper test kit! What was that?
After people got tired of the penny "cure", we went to copper scouring pads, the kind you clean pots with. It was a two inch pad for a gallon of water. This had the same effect as pennies. Eventually, someone invented test kits and liquid copper sulphate. Before this, saltwater fish were extremely difficult to keep. Most fish would die in the store.
One day I saw that the puffer was laying on it's side and he had an obvious lump on one side. Since this fish had been with me since the fresh water days and he seemed to really thrive in the salt water I had to try to cure him. He was placed in some wet cotton and iodine was applied to the lump. With an Exacto knife, I made an incision and scraped out all of the tumor. I put more iodine on the incision and returned him to a small tank with Chlorimphenicol and Neomycin thinking to find him dead in the morning. To my surprise he was still alive. Every day would lift him out of the water and put some food in his mouth with a tooth pick. This is how I feed all puffers that will not eat. Being a puffer, they will try to inflate when removed from the water. This act of opening their mouth makes it easy to force feed them.
After a few weeks of this he was back to his old self again. My wife, who has much more interest in clothes and exercising, (it could be worse) likes to buy me gadgets for Christmas, which is OK with me. She bought me an Ozonizer and I still use it and think it is a definite plus. That was the early years, but I still have not lost my obsession to try new ideas. My wife and I got SCUBA diving certifications and we would go to the Caribbean occasionally to do some diving. Of course, on our way home our luggage was a lot heavier than when we left. I would always fill up on dead coral and rock. It was legal in those days.
Customs officers just looked at you funny. The coral was all white and when algae grew on it you took it out and bleached it. That was the only kind of salt water tank there was. It was always written that live coral could not be kept in a tank. A few people like Lee Chin Eng kept it, but he lived in Jakarta next to the ocean, he used natural water and the tanks were outside.
Then in about 1982, I upgraded to a one hundred gallon tank. Everything in the old 40 gallon tank was transferred to the larger quarters. To save money I used local natural water. I collect it in plastic garbage pails. When I get it home I diatom filter it and add regular "Chlorine bleach" at a rate of one teaspoon to five gallons of water. Then the water is aerated for a week and double the dosage of chlorine remover is added. After a few more days it is safe to use. It is safe to use unless you use fresh scent chlorine bleach which will kill almost everything in the tank within seconds. (don't ask)
The tank always had hermit crabs, "local" green crabs and snails but now I was putting in anemones. (I stopped adding copper to the tank about three years before this) They were one of the first inverts that you could get. I built a lighting system with four flourescent lamps and a remote ballast. The lamps were hung about one inch above the water on cables. Since the tank was built into a wall you could not see this installation. When I wanted access into the tank, the lights would raise above the water on pulleys. I then installed a reverse flow under gravel filter. I had a five gallon tank behind the main tank, the water would siphon into the small tank then through the prefilter and into a plexiglass manifold where it would then be directed down three tubes all on one end of the tank. The tubes run under the gravel and connect to the undergravel filter in three locations. A homemade wet dry was also added. Since there was no sump, the wet dry was placed above the tank behind the wall. The water just drained out of the bio-ball chamber and into the tank. I know all this is overkill but why do something simple when you can make a career out of it. That's why they call this a hobby. Originally, there was a sheet of black plexiglass an inch from the back glass with holes in it. The purpose for this was to hide the tubes and also the back glass. After my prized purple fire fish got caught behind this plastic, I decided to hide the tubes with rock, and I installed a shield on the last lamp to shade the back glass. I had an old "Sanders" protein skimmer that I got about 1975 but it was much too small for this size tank so I built one. It was about three feet high and made out of a plexiglass tube. It worked well for many years until I built a venturi model five feet tall. After a few failed attempts I designed and built a venturi valve for about $2.00 that worked perfectly. This skimmer worked so well that I sold a few of them to stores and wholesalers to use on their tanks.
On my tank the waste from the skimmer goes into a five gallon bucket under the tank. I made a float switch that hangs over the bucket and shuts off the water to the skimmer in the event of an overflow. I know that it's hard to imagine a skimmer putting out five gallons of waste all at once but if you have twenty purple sea urchins that all decide to spawn at the same moment it can happen, and although urchins are kind of small they spawn for a couple of hours. I don't know where they keep it all but it can be real messy and it does not smell real good on a carpet. Did I mention that my wife exercises? A lot!
The corals looked good but not great. The nitrate was always high, usually in the thirties. I hesitated but then I removed the wet dry filter. No major catastrophe happened. The nitrates went down under ten and have stayed there ever since. Now I SCUBA dive in New York as well as the tropics and I have a boat. Not a ship, but a boat. One day while I was launching this boat at low tide I noticed that the rocks along the sides of the ramp were jet black and very porous looking. They were irregular shaped and when I picked one up I noticed dozens of amphipods scurrying about. One side of all these rocks was flat and I immediately realized that it was old asphalt. You guessed it, my reef is now about thirty percent asphalt. It looks much better than live rock.
Coraline algae grows much quicker than it does on reef rock and it's free. Please do not rip up your street to get free rock. I would not use it if it were not underwater for many years. Being underwater a long time makes it very porous and any metals and toxins will be washed away. Now since I have too much rock I just collect the amphipods that are very abundant and dump them in my reef. While SCUBA diving in New York, I also collect purple sea urchins. I use these in my reef to be a constant water test kit. If the urchins are healthy so is the water. They also eat unbelievable amounts of algae.
Recently, the urchins started dying. I did all the tests I could think of but found nothing. Then the corals started going. I did a one hundred percent water change and I was still losing corals. Some of them I had for eight years. I also lost a five inch Tridacna clam. I realized that my town just switched to a new water company. I called the company to ask if they were adding anything to the water that would affect the tank. They told me, "of course not!", just "zinc orthophosphate" to control corrosion in the pipes. I said, "WHAT!!? Do you know what zinc does to corals?" It's worse than the copper cleaning pads I used thirty years ago.
Wintertime is no time to go to the beach to collect water. On the ocean beaches the surf is very rough, with waves over six feet and the water is about 40 degrees. I am a SCUBA diver but I am not crazy. On the bay side the water is calm but it is kind of questionable to use in a reef. The water is too rough now to launch the boat. I quickly went to the supermarket and bought bottled water. I put all the livestock in plastic tubs with new water. I could not get enough bottled water to fill the tank so I got a 2" PVC pipe 4' long and filled it with new carbon and poly filters. I dripped water through this twice to fill the tank. The remaining corals started to look a little better. I just received a reverse osmosis filter and since this model makes fifteen gallons a day, I am waiting until it cranks out one hundred gallons so I can change all of the water. In the spring I still go back to natural, but I will use RO water for topping up. Now I use VHO lighting (still homemade) but the reverse undergravel, the skimmer, the asphalt, the natural New York water, the urchins and the amphipods are still there. There was a pair of banded coral shrimp that spawned dozens of times, those blue devils lived seven years and hatched out many babies. A pair of seahorses also had many babies and there has not been a parasite seen for about fifteen years. Most of the leather corals have offspring all over the place. And remember that tetradon puffer? He lived twelve years.