By Bob Goemans
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The 'LIVING' Marine Aquarium Manual

Basic and Advanced Husbandry for the 'Modern' Marine Aquarium

by Bob Goemans

Chapter 1. The Groundwork

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Personal Viewpoints & Environmental Concerns

How many aspects of the hobby should be understood before setting up an aquarium? No doubt many, which probably greatly underestimates the situation! And knowing where problems can exist prior to experiencing them is not only beneficial to the species being maintained, but also your own wellbeing as stress is detrimental to all creatures. Before beginning to elaborate on these aspects let me voice some personal philosophy.

All hobbyists, and those soon to be hobbyists, find the aquatic environment quite alluring with many trying to recreate in their home or place of business one of the most fascinating habitats on this planet - the coral reef. These areas, which only occur within about 30 degrees of latitude from the equator, are environmentally stable, yet biologically very active. Its beautiful environment changes little from season to season. Salinity remains the same, sunlight penetrates its clear nutrient poor shallow waters, and temperatures remain quite pleasant. Nevertheless the biological activity in this stable environment undergoes constant changes as its animals and plants strive to exist.

Its beautiful animals and pristine environment present the onlooker a unique ecosystem challenge to properly maintain in a closed system, (aka - aquarium). Fortunately, this past decade has seen major advancements, both in scientific and commercial research that has made doing so far easier than what it took 3 or 4 decades ago. And because of that, it has put marine aquarium keeping within the reach of most people. In fact, new technology and philosophies are now allowing even the neophyte an opportunity for long-term success. That's all well and good, however, I would not feel I've got it off my chest so to speak if I did not first address the environmental issues raised by the marine aquarium hobby, especially those that involve reef aquariums.

During the early years of this marine hobby, the 70's through the early 80's, aquarists utilized the undergravel filter (UGF) and aquascaped with bleached coral. That resulted in an unnatural looking environment which was stressful for its inhabitants. Then came a major expansion of the hobby into what was called 'reef' aquariums in mid 80's. Besides the demand for fish 'replacements,' there was now an additional demand for live rock and coral animals. This caused some areas in the wild to be overly collected and even though articles bringing this aspect to light were warranted, it caused others to view the hobby, especially the 'reef aquarium' side of hobby to be immoral. This 'immoral' position has, of course, been proven mostly wrong as hobbyists and collectors banded together to correct most of these ills thereby proving it to be an extremely educational activity that has opened new avenues for learning and caring for nature.

Now, with the use of updated methods for establishing ecosystems the aquarist is duplicating nature with ease. Aquariums with very natural looking interiors, greatly improved equipment, and a steady supply of quality water and proper maintenance can easily provide long-term survival for many species that just a few years ago were thought to be difficult or impossible to maintain. In fact, the more we learn the more we will be able to protect and nourish the very things that are important to us. Our goal should continue to be improving the hobby and industry through communications, teamwork, education, aquaculture, and legislation.

Nevertheless, there still remains a disturbing practice in the wild; that of capturing some ornamental fish with cyanide. This practice not only destroys the surrounding reef where this poison is released, but is also non-discriminatory in what fish are enveloped in its cloud of toxic chemicals. We know from past history that fish caught with cyanide, as some of the Philippine fish still are, will continue to eat but not assimilate vitamins and minerals from their food and therefore can appear perfectly healthy for varying lengths of time, then suddenly die. In addition, fish other than those having 'aquarium' market value simply go to waste in those treated reef waters or possibly are consumed by local people endangering their long-term health.

Therefore, local shops should place more emphasis on stocking net-caught or captive-bred specimens when feasible. Yes, these animals may be somewhat more expensive but in the long run the aquarist will find them actually the least expensive as they are already use to captivity and the foods normally available in the trade. And these shops will carry them if their customers demand it! Moreover, customers should ask their local shops to join the American Marinelife Dealers Association (AMDA), the International Marine Alliance (IMA) and the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) and support their philosophies, rules, regulations, codes, practices and procedures, as they are dedicated to promoting captive-bred specimens and support wise conservation practices.

Furthermore, as a retired environmental contracting manager I have seen battle lines drawn between corporate giants, aquarists, and/or small businesses on one side and environmentalists on the other side. Confrontation between 'them' and 'us' is not the way to resolve differences of opinion, whether it concerns the logging industry, national parks, wild life reserves or the collection of marine fish, invertebrates, and/or live rock. In many of these cases the only winners are the attorneys!

There's also no doubt we humans have a vested interest in all these areas, yet reducing ourselves to the animal level and causing injury to our fellow citizens is deplorable. Using trickery or taking something said and using it out of context to further one's position is also deplorable. There is no doubt over-fishing, dredging, over-harvesting of live rock, and poorly planned shoreline developments endanger delicate reef ecosystems. Yet, aquarists and environmentalists must work together and develop a sensible plan to protect what remains and still ensure a flow of 'products' from the wild.

And if I were to rank the problem areas concerning the environment, certainly 'pollution' would be my very first choice. Second, over-fishing by certain major foreign fishing fleets, which I personally know has almost ruined some areas of the beautiful Sea of Cortez would be my next choice. Only after another dozen or so items were added would I add the collection of live rock and corals. Even though I consider this to be very low on the list of environmental problems, it still should be accomplished in moderation. The same forethought given to 'fish farming' can be used in the collection of items of interest to the marine aquarist. Anything can be over done! One magazine, one organization, one aquarium society, one individual, one company will not change things. But join all these forces together, such as with the organizations mentioned above, and there will be a powerful voice that will be heard!

Let's now proceed to examining a very prudent approach to setting up an aquarium and begin by asking 'The Big Question.'

The Big Question

There is always a starting point with everything! Without a good understanding of what it takes, both in money and the general knowledge required to setup a marine aquarium, most neophytes become disappointed sooner or later and leave the hobby. When they sell off their equipment, they are lucky to receive a tenth of their original investment. This may greatly disappoint them and may never return to what I believe is one of the most educational hobbies in this world. One savior before this occurs may be the reading of this book and/or some personal tutelage by those far more experienced. Joining an aquarium society is another good way of gaining knowledge before 'jumping in' so to speak.

There's no doubt most people become mesmerized when they see their first marine aquarium. They are fascinated by the graceful movement of colorful fish and/or intrigued by the wide variety of invertebrates. Yet, with this fascination comes responsibility to provide the best possible living conditions for these organisms, along with the fact there is not an endless supply of these creatures! And it should never be thought of as a simple matter of going to a local store to find a replacement when needed.

In fact, only through good planning and education will the animals we strive to maintain in our captive marine environments have a better chance for survival. We are responsible for their care and should have a certain degree of proficiency in this hobby 'before' we attempt to keep them. Therefore, understanding the theory behind the operation of the equipment that make possible our little slices of the ocean and the general principles of seawater chemistry are very important.

Jumping into this hobby without first doing some research is like driving a car with your eyes shut. Your chances for crashing have greatly increased!

When people interested in starting up a marine aquarium first contact me, I like to tell them that when they set up an aquarium, they become God-like! They are creating an environment that animals and plants are going to inhabit, a world by itself, small, yet totally self-contained in one envelope. And that I'm a firm believer in having a plan, whether that's for business activities or home projects. Depending upon the activity, it may be a one-year plan, with some as long as five years. I say this here because a 10-gallon fish-only starter aquarium has a way of developing over time into a 300-gallon reef aquarium. Therefore, I like to start our first meeting by asking The Big Question: "Why are you doing this?" That is usually followed by numerous other questions, e.g., asking how much they know about the hobby. Actually, I want to be comfortable with what my client(s) wants to accomplish. I don't want them wasting marine organisms, their money or becoming discouraged in the future. If necessary, I'd rather have them put off their endeavor until the time or conditions allow for it to be properly accomplished. If everything is proceeding along in good fashion, I then ask what type of system they want: fish-only; simple invertebrate system; anemones and clownfish; Berlin system; plenum system; mostly soft corals; mostly stony corals; and my list goes on from there. And I should note that the time is taken to discuss what's involved in each. Besides problems with budget, I find type of aquarium environment the most troublesome area to initially resolve.

After we discuss focus, I try to layout what this living environment will cost to accomplish. All too often people are not prepared for all the associated costs to complete a system from ground zero. Sometimes they only look at the cost of the aquarium itself and have then already failed to realize that was only a small cost factor of the entire project. What does it cost? Well, if they want to set up what I would 'then' call a typical/average 100-gallon reef aquarium from scratch and outfit it with living rock and various animals the cost could be about $4500 US. Major equipment will probably cost about $2400, live rock about $600, animals about $1000, and support supplies about $500. If the system of choice is within the client's budget, we move on and discuss other factors such as the electric bill, location of home electrical outlets, electric consumption limitations, proper location in the home, possible need for a chiller, and the ever present desire to add one more pretty specimen and where that may go. If the budget is broken, the client's wants are again reviewed, both short and long term. We also discuss the possibility of looking in the classified section of the local newspaper to see what may be available as used equipment. Sometimes, perfectly good used equipment will allow a system to be created that the original budget would have never allowed if purchased new.

Quite often many beginners think they can add various equipment upgrades at a later time if needed to save on the initial budget. Yet, when the time comes (in their opinion), there always seems to be some reason they cannot, e.g., not enough space or the budget will not now allow it. So I always present a plan for the optimum system for the desired goal, even if the client's present budget will only allow a barebones system. There is nothing like looking ahead at the costs associated with improvements to the system. Better to know now, than make costly mistakes later!

Since I do not sell aquarium products, I ask my clients to discuss the items in the 'plan' with other experienced hobbyists and if possible, someone who has nothing to gain from the purchase of the equipment. To be very honest, I would rather have clients rethinking what they are about to get into than having them fail somewhere in the future. I would rather even lose a client and sleep well knowing the hobby has been well served by asking some tough questions!

Therefore, if you're thinking of setting up a marine aquarium or expanding the one you already have, ask yourself what its goal is going to be and what it's going to cost to get there. Then read the rest of this book to get a broader understanding and if still feasible, go for it.

Always remember, one of the major KEYS to success is 'patience.'

System Methodology

With much of what has been previously discussed in mind, it should be obvious that system goal and budget should adequately be resolved before proceeding further. Since budget aspects are not a topic that can be discussed here, as those are individual specific, lets first concentrate on some different types of aquarium environments as this in my opinion is what needs to be addressed up front so the equipment needed to fulfill that goal can be identified and then become items in the allotted budget.

Past experience has shown some newcomers to the hobby want an aquarium dedicated to only fish, generally called 'fish-only' systems. Others want a reef system containing a wide variety of fishes and invertebrates that colonize certain areas in the wild, almost always simply called a 'reef system.' In between those two main thought trends is a mix of very special environments, e.g., those that will mirror a lagoon, possibly a reef crest, mangrove environment or those dedicated to seagrass beds among others. All are quite fascinating, and all require dedication to certain aspects of that particular environment.

Since there is a right way, a wrong way, and a middle road approach to just about everything in this world, why should it be any different in the marine aquarium hobby. Even though everything described throughout this book may be informative, it may not always be needed for the desired system or practical to carry out or achieve. Nevertheless reading through this entire work and becoming enlightened can help accomplish a more trouble free environment, no matter what the goal.

Furthermore, no matter what the goal or how it may change, one basic factor pertains to all types of systems - the need for adequate filtration. Knowledge of basic biological processes is a fundamental precursor if overall system health is to occur and this important factor is covered in detail in Section Two. And the 'techniques/methods,' e.g., Jaubert/NNR Plenum, Berlin, and Algal Turf Scrubber methods will be described within that Section in Chapter 8. For now, lets stay with general interior 'themes.'

Themes & Goals

Lets begin with the fish-only system and then discuss the reef system since these two are by far the most popular goals. Keep in mind this is not a discussion on 'how' to set up a particular system, simply a brief overview of them. Nevertheless, one must make a selection before one begins, then investigate the particulars involved and the cost and time it takes to maintain before actually procuring any items. And keep in mind, whether or not the desired system remains efficient will depend upon the time and effort spent to keep it and its inhabitants healthy.


Whether the aquarium is big or small or the fish are large or little, the desire here is to usually stay with different fish species that are compatible with each other and utilize commonly available foodstuffs. Occasionally, fish-only aquariums are dedicated to a single species or genera if breeding is the goal or the species is known to be a terror in mixed company or needs an environment solely suited to its needs.

Even though water quality is not as vital as it is with reef aquaria, it still remains the number one cause of diminishing fish health, with nutrition following closely behind. In these type aquariums periodic and adequate water changes can probably keep water quality from diminishing to the point it would affect fish health, but nutrition does require more effort to adequately fulfill health requirements, especially when there is a mix of vastly different type feeders.

For what's it worth, past experiences have shown that many fish-only aquariums become overcrowded and/or their inhabitant choices are not fully compatible with other tankmates. Such conditions often lead to the system becoming nutrient rich and/or having stress/disease related problems. It's the 'there's definitely room for one more pretty fish' syndrome, which has caused the downfall of some hobbyists! Furthermore, some of these systems are overfed or even worse, underfed in the hope of maintaining better water quality.

One of the pluses for fish-only systems is they do not require the expensive equipment that most reef aquariums need to stay functional. These can do well on inexpensive low to moderate lighting and filtration equipment, such as fluorescent light fixtures and the trickle filter. Nevertheless, most should be equipped with a quality protein skimmer, and this and other forms of equipment will be discussed at length in the on-going text. Furthermore, fish-only systems do not need an array of special additives, as do many reef systems.

Since basic filtration methods and equipment will suit most fish-only aquariums quite nicely, the only wild card so to speak is with the vast number of different type fishes. Compatibility, nutritional needs, areas of location in the wild (pertains to aquarium aquascaping), size and temperament are among some of the attributes that need research before they are purchased and placed together in one enclosure. Once the desired species and their needs are identified, if still a good choice for the desired goal, a decision can be made as to an appropriately aquascaped and equipped aquarium to house them.

Reef Aquarium

To basically put this goal into a few words, it's a desire to keep fish and/or invertebrates in an aquarium that overall has the appearance of a natural reef in the wild. These systems can be high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech and still be successful. Yet all have a far greater chance of failure than fish-only systems because they contain animals that more often than not need very specific high quality water parameters. Then add to that many of these systems need high intensity full spectrum lighting, excellent water movement, a larger array of water testing than fish-only systems and no doubt additional 'high' tech equipment such as calcium reactors, chillers and protein skimmers to remain fully functional.

In addition to the above needs, there is an array of biological filtration configurations, e.g., Berlin method, Jaubert plenum, and the use of various depth sandbeds and volumes of live rock that can be applied to fulfill one's goals.

It's also a must to research the fantastic array of invertebrates that are available as their needs vary greatly, even more so than what occurs when it comes to selecting fish! Then there's seawater chemistry and without a good knowledge of how to maintain its more important parameters your investment as a whole may be lost, often sooner than you think possible. And except in the smallest aquariums water changes will not be adequate, at least without 'great' cost, to maintain those important seawater parameters, e.g., pH, calcium, alkalinity, and magnesium.

The choices are wide and ranging from extremely high tech and costly 'reef' systems designed to maintain coral/invertebrate species demanding the best possible parameters to those quite simple having species that would normally do well in bay-like or nutrient rich back reef locations. Their cost, i.e., reef systems, can be far and above that of fish-only systems to set up and maintain.

Easy Reef

For the reef system beginner, there is sometimes a need for a very simple, truly non-technical, inexpensive and easy to setup and maintain system, and I call it 'Easy Reef.' In fact, I've always answered questions asking if expensive equipment is necessary to have a successful reef aquarium with a 'NO.' That's because over 30 years ago I had a 75-gallon glass aquarium with live rock collected in the Sea of Cortez, macroalgae, undergravel filter, hang-on-tank (HOT) filter, two powerheads, a few corals and fishes all lighted by two, double-lamp fluorescent metal shop lights laying directly on the aquarium top that utilized General Electric Chroma 50 and Chroma 75 lamps. It didn't look too pretty with those shop lights on top of the aquarium, but the aquarium environment where it really counted was excellent and it went on for years without a single problem. The odd thing about this aquarium at that time was I didn't call it a 'reef aquarium.' It was just another in my way of thinking a natural looking aquarium with a bio-load tuned for the equipment utilized, which I simply called an 'invertebrate tank.' The real key to its success was that the aquariums incoming waste products did not exceed the aquariums capability to oxidize or export those waste products. In addition, the invertebrates were carefully chosen so they could be adequately maintained under regular wattage fluorescent lamps.

This 'easy reef' aspect is mentioned here because there are some new hobbyists that may have to balance their aquarium desires with caring for their family and mortgage, therefore not able to afford highly expensive aquarium equipment such as a multi-thousand dollar lighting system, five hundred dollar trickle filter, eight hundred dollar protein skimmer, four hundred dollar redox equipment, and the list goes on and on. Yes, there's no doubt this type of equipment will provide for a greater degree of success, especially in large more complex systems, but, it's quite possible to have a far less complex, yet very successful reef system if its bio-load is well planned to fit the equipment that can be afforded. And what could easily be considered an 'easy' reef is shown in the attached photo where it has no substrate, uses mainly lots of live rock for its basic filtration needs, and is under stocked with easy to care for fish and inverts thereby creating little demand on its biological filtration processes and/or your time to maintain.

Similar type lamp enclosures are still feasible; in fact the same exact brand lamps are still available today! And with keeping all equipment needs quite simple, the rest of the budget can be applied to the selection of its inhabitants. And to make Easy Reef a long term success, its bio-load should be limited to animals that can thrive under low wattage fluorescent lamps, e.g., mushroom/disc anemones, Tubastrea coccinea (Orange Polyp Coral), Heliofungia actiniformis (Plate Coral), Clavularia viridis (Green/Clove Palm Tree), Catalaphyllia jardinei (Elegance Coral), Trachyphyllia geofroyi (Open Brain Coral), Cynarina lacrymalis (Open Meat), Plerogyra sinuosa (Bubble Coral), and, Lobophytum pauciflorum and L. crassum, (two types of Scalloped Leather Coral). Notice I did not mention Turbinaria peltata (Chalice/Cup Coral), Galaxea fascicularis (Star Coral), Physogyra lichtensteini (Octopus Coral), and many other stony corals along with Tridacna clams because they require more intense light and very good water movement.

Besides limiting the type of corals in this less complicated system, the types/numbers of fish should also be limited. Gobies, damselfishes, angelfishes (Centropyge), blennies, cardinalfishes, hawkfishes, basslets, clownfishes, and some surgeonfishes and wrasses are among some good choices. Just keep in mind that one inch of fish, not counting the tail, per five gallons of water is still a fairly good rule-of-thumb (yet overly simplified and more about it will be discussed further along in this book) that should not be exceeded. Remember the word 'excessive' and if you control your aquarium appetite your 'Easy Reef' may outlive you!

Specialized Environments

As aquarists become more proficient some move towards maintaining systems dedicated to certain environments and the needs of the animals that normally call these locales their home. Let's briefly describe a few of the more popular 'specialized' environments and their specialized needs keeping in mind the goal here is to 'replicate' as close as possible the exact same locations in the wild. Therefore, research needs to be accomplished as to preferred lighting, temperature, water motion, depth, and nutrient levels before the fitting flora and fauna are chosen.

Reef Crest

This would be an environment where the goal is to maintain the high-energy areas that dominate reef crests. Exceptionally good water movement, very strong lighting and an extremely low nutrient content is needed to support corals that normally inhabit such areas in the wild, e.g., Acropora tenuis, and Seriatopora hystrix. A somewhat vertical structure built with coralline covered rocks and topped with these sturdy corals with an open forefront area inhabited possibly by a shoal of tangs in a large aquarium would be a gorgeous sight. High intensity lighting, high-pressure water pumps, protein skimming, and a calcium reactor are among equipment needs.


Even though mangrove areas in the wild are not considered reef areas some low light coral specimens and a wide array of juveniles fishes can be found in these environments. Captive systems can be set up to maintain similar species, however, mangrove trees/leaves need extremely good lighting such as that provided by metal halides or some of the higher quality LED fixtures becoming available or actual sunlight. Keep in mind the shade mangrove leaves may provide can limit the type of corals such systems will support.

Generally, these systems have a deep sandbed or a mud-like substrate to encourage algae growth and are quite low-tech except for the quality of the lamps used to encourage mangrove growth. Nevertheless, the one in the photo has a shallow bed and is an excellent overall example of a mangrove system. FYI, sometimes aquarists place mangroves in their main aquarium thinking it will help provide better water quality. Even though there is some filtration provided by the root system it's not enough to affect larger systems and in all honestly only provides more of a conversation item.


In the wild, seagrass zones are nutrient rich areas that receive nutrients from the run-off of nearby land surfaces and from incoming and outgoing tidal changes. Various species of seagrass can be maintained in a shallow system lighted by strong light. These true plants need a deep sandbed, 4 - 6 inches (10 - 15 cm) that can possibly be enriched with Latterite to provide an iron rich substrate, which helps to foster growth. With moderate alternating water currents, when well established these are good environments for mandarinfishes and pipefishes as they generally are areas where small crustaceans abide.

More Choices

One might now think there are many nice themes to choose from besides the more popular fish-only or reef aquarium. But wait, there's even more! Just as you may think a reef is a reef, not so, as there are two basic forms, oceanic and shelf reefs. Those called shelf reefs are found in fairly shallow Continental Shelf coastal waters from just a few feet (1 m) deep to about 600 feet (200 m), and are more nutrient rich than oceanic reefs because of their close location to coastal areas. Because of this greater propensity for nutrients, many of the soft corals and algae preferred by many hobbyists are found in some of these areas. Oceanic reefs form away from the Continental Shelf, such as what develop from volcanic activities, e.g., those in Hawaii, Tahiti and/or Atolls. These too develop an array of coral invertebrate; with stony corals often found in dominate numbers, basically because of their higher quality seawater.

Each are capable of forming different style reefs within their area of existence, such as bank reefs, platform reefs, fringing reefs, and barrier reefs, with 'lagoons,' i.e., shallow areas that collect sand and have slow to moderate water movement, forming between or around them. These too can present the hobbyist with ideas for interesting and often challenging themes that can differ from the somewhat standard 'reef aquarium' theme, e.g., upper reef slope, reef front, sand zone, reef gorge, and cave aquarium to mention just some, which are somewhat discussed below to 'wet' your appetite.


Slow-flow environments/calmer inshore areas that are protected by reef crests are also another goal by some aquarists. These areas, where leather corals, Heliofungia actiniformis, Alveopora gigas, Trachyphyllia geofroyi often abound, are perfect species for such goals. Possibly a shoal of blue damselfishes would add the perfect finishing touch. In fact, low tech or no tech methods can fulfill most system requirements.

These systems differ from sand zone systems described below in that they have a limited area for the open sand surface area. Most often these have sloping walls of live rock along their side and back areas where various forms of corals are placed. Its open sandy area, to depict a white-bottomed lagoon, generally fills a more central aquarium frontal area. Because they often encompass a wide range of corals, equipment needs to mirror that of the 'average' reef aquarium. In fact, this style and that of the general reef aquarium can often be considered one and the same.

Platform Reef

Sometimes called a 'Patch' Reef, these elevated projections are found between the outer barrier reef and the shoreline or inside the boundaries of atolls. Those that reach high enough are usually covered with corals and sometimes develop their own fringing reefs. To illustrate such a happening in aquaria requires a preferably tall aquarium where one or more vertical projections having a more or less flat top arise from its sandbed. These projections can have footprints of irregular shapes, or simply be round or oval. Their vertical sidewalls can have various low light corals cemented to their lower levels, with corals requiring greater intensity, such as Needle Coral Seriatopora hystrix cemented near their top edges. On their upper flat surfaces, corals requiring high intensity light, such as Cauliflower Coral Pocillopora damicornis, Cluster Coral Stylophora pistillata, and Blue-tipped Coral Acropora gemmifera stony corals are well suited.

Because there is an array of different environments in this theme, e.g., low light and low current, open sand areas, moderate light areas with moderate water movement, and high intensity light and water movement areas, there is a wide choice available when it comes to animal life that can be employed in this type ecosystem. Much research needs to be accomplished before stocking a system such as this.

As for equipment needs, surface water movement should be quite swift, with more gentle currents near the aquarium bottom. Lighting should be very intense over the upper portions of the projection(s), therefore; specific lighting can be applied to just that area(s) with less intense lamps used over the remaining surface areas. Because there is an array of invertebrates, some needing sufficient amounts of calcium to continue their growth, calcium reactors and/or Kalkwasser dosing units are highly recommended, as is the overall quality of its seawater. Nonetheless, this theme provides one of the more overall satisfying 'reef' environments, as it incorporates many different biotopes and their associated animals. Challenging to accomplish, yet quite satisfying once up and running!

Sand Zone

This style environment does better in an aquarium having a greater distance between its front and rear panels (depth) than do most aquariums. Therefore a customized unit or a large aquarium simply turned sideways may be needed to fulfill its goal. And the bigger its footprint, the better the finished product will look, as 90% of its base area is dedicated to its open sandbed surface area, which should be a fine grained material, e.g., about 1.0 mm and about 6 inches (15 cm) or greater in depth.

Generally, the back area of this style aquarium is covered with rock or planted with eelgrass/seagrass, e.g., Thalassia hemprichii, with the remaining frontal area a smooth sandbed with little or no obstructions. A piece of blue colored plastic can be applied to the back outside of the aquarium to help provide an appearance of greater depth when viewed from the front. Some mangrove trees may make an interesting addition if they have the proper lighting. Equipment needs are fairly simple when compared with most reef aquariums, as calcium reactors and high-pressure water pumps are not required. In fact, sand zone systems do better with low water movement, and if not containing plants, anemones or corals needing intense light would do well on ordinary household fluorescent lamps.

Should the aquarium be large enough, e.g., 250-gallons or larger, a Blue Spotted Ray, Taeniura lymma, could make a nice addition. However, there must be no obstructions such as small rock pillars or bommies, as it can be injured when forging for food or attempting to cover itself and rest in the sand as they do in the wild. If not suited or desired, then small rock pillars/bommies can be placed at different locations throughout the frontal bed to breakup the seemingly uninteresting look of the large open/unencumbered bed area. Shoals of the Green Chromis, Chromis viridis and/or the Banggai Cardinalfish, Pterapogon kauderni, are nice additions. Also well suited are some wrasses in the Cirrhilabus genera, pipefish in the Doryrhamphus genera, Jawfish in the genera Opistognathus, and a Mandarinfish or two among others.

Low to medium light corals, such as those found in similar areas in the wild, e.g., Fungia, Heliofungia, Slipper Coral Herpolitha limax, Meat Coral Cynarina lacrymalis/C. deshayesiana, Open Brain Coral Trachyphyllia geoffroyi, Elegance Coral Catalaphyllia jardinei, Alveopora gigas, Goniopora spp., Mushroom Corals, and Bubble Coral Plerogyra sinuosa are all good choices for this environment. The deep sandbed is also ideal for sand-sifting cucumbers, brittle stars, feather dusters and the Horseshoe Crab Limulus polyphemus, which is an excellent sand stirrer. This is certainly a different looking environment from that of a 'reef' aquarium, one that requires less maintenance and expensive equipment than the more complex reef systems.

Reef Gorge

This depicts the opening between two almost vertical walls and requires a deep aquarium, with deep meaning the distance between the front and rear panel so as to have a pleasing result. Live rock, artificial rock or foamed panels as described further along in this book can be used to create two horizontally, loosely 'S' shaped walls, each having a sloping outer edge and inside vertical wall. They are placed in the aquarium so the vertical walls face each other at a desired distance apart and with each structure angled so the human eye can only see partway into the gap between them, and with its frontal opening at a wider distance apart then its rear area. Each structure should not touch the back panel so as to allow fish to completely swim through the opening between the walls. The upper area above the top inner wall side of each unit should come very near the aquarium surface and be somewhat flat for a short distance, then slope downward as needed to fit the physical boundaries of the aquarium. The physical appearance of the walls and sloped areas should be rough enough so as to be able to place/cement corals at desired locations. Also give some thought to lining the outside back of the aquarium, should it be clear, with some dark blue plastic or Plexiglas material to give the environment a feeling of greater depth.

There should be a moderate water flow through the gorge opening, preferably entering from the rear and exiting at the front, and conveniently located magnetically held powerheads should suffice to accomplish this aspect. A shallow bed of fine sand, 2 - 4 mm would suffice, except in the gorge area itself where larger grain and/or pebble size stones could be used to depict fallen material from the vertical walls.

Low and slow growing corals that prefer high intensity lighting, such as Ricordia florida and/or R. yuma are ideal to line the upper most edges of the walls. Small sponges are ideal to line parts of the shaded vertical walls, as are some small gorgonians, e.g., Swifia exerta. Where the flow is moderate, as is light intensity, a small bubble coral, e.g., Plerogyra sinuosa could be attached to a portion of the vertical wall, preferably near its lower frontal opening where space would allow for its expansion. Corals, depending upon their need for light, can be placed at different levels of the sloping sides with common mushrooms filling many of the lower areas.

Along with cleaner shrimp and various types of fish, especially those liking to swim through 'gorge-like' opening such as tangs and pigmy angelfish, a gorge style aquarium may be somewhat a challenge to set up, but a splendid environment to enjoy.

Caves, Holes & Ledges

These style aquariums do not require high intensity lighting, which is definitely a cost savings feature. In fact, in some styles, inexpensive 'blue' fluorescent lamps combined with white household lamps will suffice, as the corals inhabiting this environment do not require the same spectrum and intensity as do corals living near the surface. And if one wished to adorn their structures with non-photosynthesizing corals that need frequent feeding, then additional filtration equipment is required to keep the overall nutrient load in check. These style systems are an opportunity to have something quite different from the average 'reef' aquarium.

There are a few interesting possibilities among many; one incorporates a 'doughnut' shaped structure as the focal point, another calls for building a wall along the rear of the aquarium that varies in height and thickness filled with various sized caves and finger thickness holes, while another portrays a protruding ledge and the type of corals that normally grow beneath it.

As for the doughnut theme, which is especially suited for tall aquariums, a structure is formed using the methods described in the topic 'Aquascaping' found in Chapter 6 that depicts a large 'doughnut.' The larger the structure the better its inside hole dimensions, e.g., a 24 inch (60 cm) or larger central opening to secure free flowing large corals such as Carnation corals Dendronephthya klunzingeri and/or D. rubeola. Other interesting species ideally suited for such a location are the Limp Corals in the Family Nidaliidae, genus Chironephthya. These soft corals can also be cemented at different locations along the inner ring surface. Around the outer ring Purple Lace corals Distichopora violacea and Rose Lace coral Stylaster roseus, along with yellow, orange and/or red tree sponges Haliclona compressa/Ctilocaulis spp., and the red gorgonian Swiftia exserta can be attached. These and some other sponges can be attached/placed at and around the bottom areas of the structure. Also, Feather Dusters are an ideal bottom species, such as Sabellastarte magnifica.

As for fishes, this low lit and heavily fed system is ideal for a shoal of Lyretail/Jewel Anthias, Pseudanthias squamipinnis, which also require a diet of meaty foods fed often per day. Therefore both corals and fish can be fed at the same time. And since the structure with its spreading base for support will take up much of the aquarium's floor space only a shallow bed of sand is needed to fill-in around its base, helping to reduce overall maintenance.

Another theme for low-lit environments is the 'cave' aquarium where the majority of the rear area of an average height aquarium is a walled structure of varying height and depth (front to back). Depending upon aquarium volume several large caves, both with and without back entrances along with holes the size of human fingers can line its frontal areas. Besides the soft corals mentioned above, the stony Orange Sun Coral Tubastrea aurea makes a very good choice to attach to its frontal areas, especially those around the larger cave areas as they are in the wild. Keep in mind this coral needs daily hand feeding of meaty foods and this works well in this style system as its access is easily available.

Eels of various and appropriate sizes, and especially Comets, e.g., Calloplesiops altivelis, and a shoal of Cardinalfish, e.g., the Banggai, Pterapogon kauderni, and/or the Threadfin Apogon leptacanthus, along with some of the Blennies that like to spend their time peeking out small tunnel-like holes, e.g., the Bicolor, Escenius bicolor are excellent additions, as are some Scarlet Cleaner Shrimp, e.g., Lysmata amboinensis. This cave structure can take at least a third or more of the aquarium's footprint (front to back), therefore a shallow frontal sandbed works well.

The 'Ledge' theme is another of the low-lit themes and basically replicates the growths that prefer to live under an overhanging ledge, such as the Orange Sun Coral Tubastrea aurea. The structure itself, because it is top heavy must be securely formed as a whole unit if possible, or if the entrance into the aquarium is through small openings as are those often found in acrylic aquariums the units should be size to fit through the available openings and then interlocked with each other once inside the aquarium to remain sturdy. See Aquascaping in Chapter 6 for details.

The structure should line the entire rear wall of the aquarium and incorporate areas in each upper corner for a powerful forward pointing water pump for water flow as describe below. The top of the ledge can either be at water level or slightly below, with the ledge itself protruding about 12 inches (30 cm) or slightly more from the surface of its lower wall/structure base (an upside down 'L' shape). A deep or shallow sandbed can be applied, and if going with a deep bed one may want to try a Sea Pen, e.g., Cavernularia obesa, as it needs to be 'rooted' in deep sand and does better in nutrient rich waters. In fact, all of the non-photosynthesizing corals mentioned above make perfect specimens for this interesting theme, and as for fish there are various species of Lionfish that fit this environment perfectly!

Keep in mind these are all nutrient rich environments because their corals depend on plankton for their nutritional needs, therefore the systems need to be heavily fed several times per day, e.g., large amounts of 'green water' or baby brine shrimp. Also, there must be sufficient current, yet not overly fast, to keep specimens such as Carnation Corals free flowing so they can utilize their surface areas for adequate collection of foodstuffs. And the best direction of flow would be upwards from the aquariums lower frontal area. This can be attained by pointing rear corner, possibly magnetically held powerheads/pumps near the surface with their flow towards the front aquarium panel where its flow is then forced downward, then flows to the rear and back upwards. Furthermore, special attention needs to be applied to minimizing phosphate. Canister filters that use a quality brand phosphate remover and activated carbon should be employed.

Reef Slope

In the wild there are often two areas that are called reef slopes, with one more properly called 'Fore-reef Slope' and the other, 'Back-reef Slope.' One faces the open ocean, i.e., Fore-reef Slope' and is constantly battered by wave action, especially on the side of the structures that normally face into the wind. The other, Back-reef Slope, is on the backside of the reef facing inward to the shoreline, therefore receiving far less wave action. Depending somewhat upon depth, each has a variety of corals that inhabit their slopes, nevertheless, both are somewhat representative of the average reef aquarium as hobbyists utilize the slope-effect to house their choice of corals. The main difference lies in the amount of water movement its corals receive, with those on the Back Slope needing less than those on its frontal ocean facing side.

The angle of the slope somewhat depends upon aquarium size, with large aquaria allowing for a more gradual slope, therefore providing more area for coral placement. If trying to duplicate an ocean-facing slope, surface water movement towards the slope should be quite fast, with more gentle currents impacting the Back Slope design. Lighting should be very intense over the upper portions of each, as corals naturally found in these areas require brilliant/strong lighting. Because these would be mostly stony corals, they also need sufficient amounts of calcium to continue their growth, therefore calcium reactors and/or Kalkwasser dosing units are highly recommended. Attention must also be paid to overall seawater quality and not allowing the system to become nutrient rich, as unwanted forms of algae can plague the entire aquarium. As in the Lagoon theme mentioned above, these often encompass a wide range of corals and its equipment needs mirror that of the average reef aquarium.


As discussed above in 'The Big Question,' the place to begin one's venture into marine aquarium keeping is to 'first' decide what style system he or she desires. With some of the more popular 'themes' discussed above, there should be one, possibly more that 'wets' one's appetite. If not, its general description should be researched further before jumping in so to speak. In fact, there are many fine books, many of them mentioned in the 'References' section of this book that discuss aquarium keeping themes among other valuable subjects. Please avail yourself of these publications as only through good planning and education will the animals in captive environments have a reasonable chance for survival.

Once there is a theme preference, the next area to examine would be the equipment and materials needed to construct and keep it functional. To simplify matters I've assembled equipment needs into four broad ranging chapters titled: Miscellaneous; Water Processing; Filtration; and, Lighting. Then followed those with a chapter dedicated to the various 'Materials & Products' that are possibly involved in getting a 'system' up and running, including a topic dedicated to 'Aquascaping,' to complete this works first section.


Lets now turn to Chapter 2, which discusses 'Miscellaneous Equipment.'