Note from the Editor:

Starting a saltwater aquarium can be frustrating. There is a lot to learn, a steep learning curve, and many learn what they need to know after they needed to know it. Many experienced reefers look back on the days when they first started and shake their heads. There is so much they wish they had known; so many rules that those beginners didn't think applied to them.

So, in a departure from our regular fare, we have below an article written by one of our forum members, a saltwater aquarist, who during his first few months of reefing has already experienced Uronema, fish death, fish jumping out of the tank, choosing the wrong lights, hanging lights at the wrong distance from the tank, and a complete tear-down and restart.

The reefer writes a letter from his older self to his younger self in the form of a letter. This style of writing is called an epistolary piece, known in world literature since at least the middle 1400's.


1st try.

Photo is courtesy of @ccombs , ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

Dear @ccombs:

I know right about now you are excited for your tank to arrive. You are excited to fill it with water. You are excited to fill it with an underwater world very different than yours. Before you start doing anything, take a deep breath and read what you will wish you would have known.

1) Patience

You think you know patience. Alas, you don’t. Saltwater takes a different kind of patience; it is different than patiently potty training your dog or being patient with that difficult client. This is not the type of patience that it took to do a home renovation where you worked on it a little every day. This type of patience requires you to do a lot of work and then just stop and wait. Oh, you have waited for awhile? Time to wait some more. Right now it sounds easy doesn’t it? This type of patience requires you to look at your tank and see an ugly mess. You will want to put your hands in and make it better. Please resist the urge. Make a game plan, stick to it, keep your hands out of the tank.

2) Gimmicks

This industry is filled with products that promise rapid and instant results. Avoid them. If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Your tank will eventually be a thing of beauty; it just takes time. Starting a tank is building a good foundation, and if you do not have a solid foundation now and try to take shortcuts, things will begin to crumble later. Listen to me. I know.

3) Quality Gear

Trust me, I know how much you love cool tech. Instead of getting a bunch of cool gadgets, focus on fewer pieces of high-quality gear. You will be better off in the long run slowly adding quality pieces than replacing a lot of cheap pieces over time. I know you think you will top off your water daily, but you won’t. Go ahead and get that ATO [Automatic Top Off] you don’t think that you need.

4) Quarantine

I see you just read about experts who don’t use a QT. Here is a hint for you: you are not an expert. You have not yet seen enough disease or problems to spot a fish who needs treatment. Go ahead and set up a quarantine tank and methodically choose and treat fish. Even if you get all disease-free fish, it will be inevitable that you need to deal with injury. If you prepare now, you can rapidly treat injury and infection instead of scrambling later. Here is the funny thing about diseases, they always seem to pop up Sunday evening when everything is closed.

5) You Are The Rule--Not The Exception

You are funny: you think you will be the exception, but you won’t be. You will deal with disease, you will deal with things going wrong, you will deal with unhappy corals. Instead of playing catch up later, follow best practices now. Take the time for your tank to stabilize before adding that coral or anemone. Learn better husbandry before you buy that mandarin. The vast majority of mandarins die from starvation in their tanks.

Second try.

Photo is courtesy of @ccombs , ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

6) Rules

Finally, you have read extensively and you see there are a ton of rules about the hobby and a lot of ideal parameters to remember. Don’t focus on memorizing these rules, instead learn the reasoning behind them. When you learn reasoning instead of rules, you will actually understand what is happening in your tank. This understanding will allow you to diagnose problems in your tank and make adjustments accordingly. The forum is fantastic for advice, but at the end of the day you are the one who will need to troubleshoot and fix whatever is not looking right. Don’t just memorize the nitrogen cycle, learn what is actually happening. Don’t just memorize ideal parameters, learn what they are doing and why they are important. You will soon find that parameters (especially things like nitrates) are highly debated. Learn what is actually going on and make an educated decision; don’t just follow the first piece of advice you receive blindly. In regards to parameters, focus on stability more than achieving that perfect number that will make other reefers jealous.

Having a reef tank will be challenging, rewarding, frustrating and wonderful. Enjoy the moments of peace and do not give up. The moments where things are going right--even for a second--are all worth it. If you pay more attention to the journey and less to the destination, you will have the time of your life.





We encourage all our readers to join the Reef2Reef forum. It’s easy to register, free, and reefkeeping is much easier and more fun in a community of fellow aquarists. We pride ourselves on a warm and family-friendly forum where everyone is welcome. You will also find lots of contests and giveaways with our sponsors.


Author Profile: @ccombs has a terrific build thread you should read.

He is a newer aquarist who has quickly learned that a reef tank should be approached like everything else in life- with a smooth and methodical approach. He travels for work and often finds himself waking up in a new city every day. When not at work you can find him at home with his gorgeous wife or playing fetch with their pup.