Diving Back Into the Reef

Flippers on. Mask secure. Breathing tube feels good and I'm ready to go – over the side and into the water.

I've found my way back into a reef for the first time in over 13 years, and it's a whole new world down here. The light is so bright and everything is much more colorful than I remember. And the critters? Awesome! There are fish I have never seen before. And are those corals? Seriously, are those things for real? - so much color and so many different shapes and sizes spread out all over the place. It feels like I've gone to snorkeling heaven. But I must admit, it is a bit unnerving. I thought I knew what I was doing down here, but I have so much to learn. There are so many letters and numbers and videos and links and ohmyheavens my head is swimming!

A little history
Back in 2002, my husband and I had two children, with another on the way. We didn't get out much. We also had a pet store in town with an amazing collection of both freshwater and saltwater fish. Like many other families with young ones, we'd go in there every month or so just to look around. The kids loved it, especially in the winter (as it was toasty warm in there). We wanted a hobby the whole family could share in. So we got a saltwater aquarium.

We used this same local fish store (LFS) as our only source of information, equipment and livestock. It was (and still is) an excellent LFS. We got a 75-gallon tank, with a small sump under the stand. Hubby insists we had a protein skimmer, but I think he's wrong. (He forgets stuff.) I do remember “bio balls.” We had very basic lights, nothing fancy. (Filtration was the hot topic, not lighting). We got all of our saltwater from the LFS – hauling in big jugs every ten days or so for water changes. It looked like a major pain, but hubby did it so I didn't mind.

I remember a lot of green hair growing on the rocks. It wasn't too long before we got our fish and a few corals. It was a pretty tank, sitting in our living room all bright and cheery. Visitors thought it was super cool, and we were felt pretty proud of ourselves. Of course, things did die inside that pretty box. Not all at once, but it was a 50-50 shot that any fish or coral would last more than a couple months. I'm sure we could have tried harder and spent more time and money to increase our chances of keeping things alive. But we were no different than most people with a reef tank. Back then, healthy, long-lived home reefs were the exception, not the rule. So, after a year or so, we got tired of spending money on the “will it live?” rollercoaster and sold the whole set up to a friend. We were sad to see it go, but life went on.

The old tank - with Deb the fish and the exotic sun coral. We brought Deb home in a plastic bag.

Deb lasted only a few months. Shameful, but that was the way it was. I don't remember how long the coral lasted, but I am quite sure it wasn't there when when we finally called it quits.

Fast Forward
Thirteen years later, we are in our “forever” house, and the kids are mostly grown. We're in our early 50s, and winters stink up here in Michigan. We crave warmth. We took our first ever trip to the Caribbean in January and went snorkeling for the first time. That did it. I decided that if I have to suffer through Michigan winters (I do) then I need a warm vibe close by to keep me from going totally insane. So we jumped in in April, bought a used system off Craigslist, and immediately noticed a lot of changes.

Arrival of the new tank! (bigger, better)

We got it used off Craigslist. (Those are the grown kids)

Coral insanity

By far, the most obvious difference I see is the corals. There are now so many, many more genus, species, varieties and a seemingly endless number of forms and colors available to the home reefer. “LPS,” “SPS,” “Zoas” and “softies” - these are all new words to me. And these words refer to things that are actually living in real people's tanks, in their house! Thirteen years ago, the general impression was only super-aquatic-biology majors could master a true eye-popping coral reef tank. Our LFS was really, really good at their saltwater tanks, and they were hired to set up and maintain tanks at the mall and fancy new cinema lobbies. But even those tanks were “so so” compared to the things I now see regularly on this forum, on You Tube and on other social media hangouts.

Some coral insanity (seen right here on R2R)


(photos by Fishman78, a.k.a. Danielo)

My first reef tank had Xenia (lots of Xenia), a few mushrooms, one of those “hammerhead” things and a super-exotic sun coral. We tried an anemone but no luck. And I am pretty sure our tank was “average” in terms of coral life. Back then, any corals beyond the basics were in that realm of “it might live, it might not.” Yes, we knew we had to have stable water chemistry to keep corals healthy. But it got really scientific after that, and most people didn't go there. I still don't know (yet) what I have to do to grow a zoa garden or a lovely basket of goniopora. But I know I could learn how to do it without going back to school for a biology degree. It is truly a brave new world - where it is entirely possible to grow an SPS tank in your living room. (Did you know there are people out there, right now, actually growing their own, “new” varieties of color-crazy corals in a tank, as we speak?)

For real - yeah, this is a real photo of someone's real zoa garden. Wow.
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(photo by jourdy)

Serious science, or not
Thirteen years ago, reefs tanks were the newest things in saltwater. The idea of “live” rock serving as a natural filter was cutting edge, at least at the home hobbyist level. I remember our LFS had to knock out a whole wall of shelves that stored that neon-colored plastic “coral” and instead install big tanks for stewing real rocks. But anyone who wanted to consider themselves a “reef keeper” had to have a firm grasp of the science behind bio-filtration to be successful. For an average person like me, that meant a lot of brain work, calculations and chemistry. I remember talking to our LFS guy back then and having him go into a long, complicated, chemistry-intense lecture about spiking and dipping and peaking and, well, it freaked me out!

But this time around, our LFS guy skipped over most of that science stuff and simply said “You just gotta let the cycle start and wait.” No complicated calculations. No formulas. No chemistry sets and test tubes. “It's a natural process,” he said. “Give it time. Be patient. Things will eventually stabilize. Relax.” Since jumping back into reefing, I have found this same sort of “relax and let the natural process work” mindset exists far beyond our LFS – here on Reef2Reef and in many other online reefing spots. That is not to say there are not a lot of hardcore, chemistry-loving, scientifically minded reefers around. We love them, we need them, and their scientific minds contribute greatly to the hobby as a whole. But it is perfectly possible to have a successful reef tank without being able to pass a chemistry exam. Thank goodness.

In your living room! It is actually now possible to have awesome reef in a box in your living room - even if you aren't an aquatic biologist or chemistry major.
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(photo by Toby Broadfield)

Blinded by the light
Reef tank lighting has gone all kinds of crazy since I was last in the water. Thirteen years ago, it was the chemistry that had my head spinning. Now it's the lighting. It literally gives me a woozy feeling just thinking about what I should have to grow what I want. Right now, we are in a holding pattern in terms of lights. We are running a hodge-podge of used lights from used systems we got on the cheap. We are saving up for “good ones” (or waiting for a rich relative to die and leave us a stash of cash). But when I start to panic about what we don't have, I remind myself the near-freebies we have now are much better than what we paid real money for 13 years ago. And our Xenia look just fine. (I like Xenia so don't go there.) But I admit, the recent release of the Radion Gen 4s had me seriously amped up, and I don't even know what PAR stands for! (But I know my LPS and SPS dreams are directly dependent on the weight of my piggy bank.)

Crazy awesome
(photo by jourdy)
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Free shipping!

Let's face it, you can get pretty much anything online these days. It's the way we do business. But 13 years ago, you would never hear “Yeah, the UPS guy dropped off my sailfin tang this morning.” Or “I got a Salted Agave and Bananarang in my cart so far, but I think I'm gonna add one of those Bling Blings before I check out.”

Back in the good ol' days, the fish in your tank came from a fish store. Period. You walked in with some money and walked out with a plastic bag filled with Chucky the clownfish. Your options were limited, but you knew exactly what you were getting. If you wanted more variety, you had to shop around (by literally driving around). Trying to figure out which fish stores were “good” and which were “bad” was serious business. If you got a fish from a bad place, there went your whole tank. (Remember, quarantine tanks were not considered necessities back then.) Last time around, I think I was vaguely aware of a few fish freaks who lived on the edge and ordered critters online, but I would never do such a crazy thing.

But even now, even though I know in my head that buying online is the new normal, it's been really hard for me to trust this new way of stocking a tank. True, I do lots of online window shopping. But seeing all the fish and coral that could be mine with just a click of the mouse gives me a “free-fall” sort of feeling – scary and wonderful at the same time. I do confess, however, I did order four little corals online a few days ago. (They were on sale!). They are not here yet. But Lord help me if they turn out healthy and happy, for I fear I shall be hopelessly hooked.

Xenia buddy This is photo of a fellow R2R reefer's tank where Xenia are having their way. I think it looks just fine! (photo by Neptune 555)

Swim buddies
Of all the new and exciting things I've seen since jumping back into a reef, the most heartwarming thing has been discovering how many other people are down here too. Thirteen years ago, I had to make the long trek to my LFS to talk to other reef fans and get real-time information. It was extremely cumbersome and slow. But now, thanks to Google, Reef2Reef and the many other online gathering spots, I can talk and read about reefing 24-7.

However, with all this information flying by at DSL speed, I've found you have to develop a discriminating eye for what to grab on to and what to avoid. Clearly, I think Reef2Reef is a rock-solid place to hang out and soak up some high quality reefing love. But the sheer amount of advice and “expert” information floating around here, and around the Internet in general, is often overwhelming. One could easily get carried away. In all honestly, all this instant gratification, both in terms of information and stuffyoucanbuy, is seriously feeding my tendency to overindulge. My tank is on my mind all the time, and I have a serious case of HITS (hands in the tank syndrome). I have to force myself to slow down and repeatedly tell myself “no, you do not need to buy anymore corals or fish for at least a month!” (But that doesn't mean I can't check the most recent R2R threads and live vicarious off of someone else's new BTA!)

Bummer's Reef - currently going through some uglies but that's ok. We're relaxing, letting the cycle happen, trying to be patient.