Learning and Understanding

Learning and Understanding

This past fall and winter were a bit trying for my tanks due to the amount of travel I did and the resultant time away from my tanks. I have to admit that they were more neglected than they had been for quite some time and it showed. As a result, I lost a few corals and fish, some equipment failed due to neglect and some things were changed owing to what I learned in my travels. Looking back on why some of these problems occurred, made me think of what I have learned and how I could put that into practice. While I have been doing this a long time, so you would expect that I had learned a lot, but unfortunately I still make some of the same mistakes I made when I started. So as I was thinking about this, it made me realize yet again that this hobby really is about constant learning. That is, even as we grow and develop and get better at this, there is still a great deal of learning that needs to occur and just as important once we have learned something we need to retain it and not relearn it again. This may sound simple, but in my own case I have relearned the lesson of why I need to test my water frequently as I have learned the hard way that letting some parameters, especially alkalinity fluctuate wildly, is a sure recipe for losing corals. So even though we all know this, the question is why do I (we), still let this and other things we should have learned happen from time to time? This made me think about a more fundamental question: how do we learn to do things in this hobby and more importantly how do we learn to do things right and continue to do them?


Only when you have learned this hobby well is it possible to grow corals as healthy and robustly as these

Learning is a fundamental aspect of human evolution in that literally from the day we are born we start learning. By the same token, from the moment we add water to a glass receptacle the process for becoming successful in this hobby requires almost constant learning as well. For some learning occurs almost magically in that they are seemingly successful from day one. But for many others, myself included, learning and mastering this hobby requires patience, time and a slow steep learning curve that for many of us takes years. That this learning may be so difficult is probably the result of many factors not just one. The first of which is that there is no one “perfect” method or recipe for success in this hobby. If there were everyone would do things exactly the same. So while I may do things one way and have success, someone else may do it a completely different way and have equal or greater success or do it my way and fail, and as a result if someone observes various tanks and tries to learn from them, or more likely, takes the best from these methodologies they are unfortunately more likely to fail than to succeed. And while there are some known standards, at least we think we know the standards, even some of these can change when they are analyzed. Case in point being my last article on the parameters of some masters. Those tanks were not chosen to prove a point or make a statement, but were chosen simply because they were successful and I thought it would be interesting to compare their parameters with one another’s. So seeing how successful each of them were while having higher than what were considered optimal nutrient levels, to me at least, indicated that once again there is still much to learn.


Even when all the lessons about growing corals are learned it is still possible to lose a coral for a simple reason such that it has grown so well that it shades itself.

This then gets me back to the original question: how do we learn about the hobby and more importantly how do we learn about it so that we can be as successful as possible. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective there are actually lots of ways to do this. In the early days of the hobby before cell phones and computers, yes there actually was such a time, much of the learning occurred via a trial and error. That is when one of us was lucky to get a “new” coral or fish we would try various things to determine what was necessary to keep it alive. Water testing was minimal back then, so most manipulations entailed moving it around under different light intensities or moving it from place to place to see how the current within the tank affected it. Back then the motto for keeping just about every coral was bright light, food water motion, nutrient levels as low as possible and every fish was feed it live brine shrimp until it started feeding and then frozen. Needless to say, this was not the optimal or most cost effective way to learn how to keep marine organisms successfully, but at that time it was one of the few ways to learn. At that time very few of us had ready access to the ocean or had visited an actual reef, so our learning was limited to what we had on hand and what we gleaned from other hobbyists. The good thing was that when one of us had success it was quickly shared as everyone wanted everyone else to be successful, as that typically meant that we would all then move on from that fish or coral onto the next one. So that is how we learned and how most of us progressed from keeping mushroom anemones or star polyps to leather corals and Sinularias or Xenia, to Euphyllia and Bubble Corals to eventually Montiporas and Acroporas.


Take advantage of all of the shows that are out there and go to learn not just to buy.

It may seem easy now, and it actually it is in that now we not only simply keep these corals alive but we get them to grow and even reproduce, while back then the goal was simply not to kill them, or to get them to die slowly. Yeah, I know that is a sad way to look at things, but back in the 80’s and early 90’s that is how it was. As I said, this was due to the only way to learn about this hobby initially being through trial and error. However, as things progressed so too did how we learned things and as a result books and magazines started to proliferate to expound on these successes. In the early days of the hobby we learned from no fewer than a half dozen magazines that came out on a regular basis including SeaScope, AFM, FAMA, TFH, Marine Fish Monthly and Aquarium Frontiers. This may sound crazy now, but most of us that were trying to have successful reef tanks, we waited with baited breath every month for these publications to come out and bring us the latest developments in the world of reefing. These publications were our first glimpse into how the Dutch mini-reef should be set up, introduced us to the Berlin method, the use of kalkwasser and the then new use of Actinic blue lights just for starters. I would love to say that these articles led to immediate success by everyone in the hobby, but that would not be true. Even with these articles showing how to do things, with some providing step by step instructions, many of us still had to go through our own process of trial and error yet again to match the success shown by these authors. It is funny looking back to see that as soon as some of these methodologies came out like the trickle filter or the Jaubert plenum system how many of us jumped on them and changed our systems even when we had relatively successful tanks. I still remember taking down my own 240-gallon tank and redoing it with an operational plenum because of the perceived success I saw that Jaubert was having. And I did this despite the fact that this tank was already relatively successful. Once again this makes me wonder if by our nature we only learn by doing something ourselves in this hobby or can we actually learn from others and particularly other’s mistakes.


When you see amazing talks like this one given by Jamie Craggs you will realize how little we know and how much more learning is required.

Sadly, I am convinced that I personally only learn from making my own mistakes, seeing how I have made many of them more than once and in talking with others in the hobby, this also seems to be how most of them eventually learn as well. While learning from one’s past mistakes seems to be difficult for some of us in the hobby, collecting things is not. In this regard, many if not most of us tend to collect a lot of things over the course of time. Like most of my friends, I have boxes of stuff that I have used and then retired throughout the “storage” areas of my house. Some became obsolete, others never lived up to what they were sold as, while others are kept under the auspices that you never know when you may need them or will use them again.


Every time you add new equipment there is a learning curve that will take some time to master so that you optimize the use of this equipment

In this regard, one of the things that I’ve kept the most of like this, are books and magazines devoted to the hobby. As I mentioned above many of them are from the early days of the hobby when things were being introduced. However, I have been looking through them lately and I forgot how much information they contained and how much I learned from them. As a result, after I had looked through a few of them I decided to go through all of the books and magazines that I had collected since 2000. This may not seem that recent, but in terms of the hobby a lot of information has come out during this time and sadly much of it I either had forgotten or I had not paid attention to it when I read it the first time. So this time when I read through all of this material I tried to keep track or write down pertinent information that I found valuable to my learning about the hobby. It is kind of funny as when I went back over this material it was like everything else in that hindsight is 20/20. By that I mean if I had remembered or written down or learned from these past articles I hopefully would have not made some of the recent mistakes I made.


There is a wealth of information in books and magazines as well as the internet that you should tap into.

For example, one old European magazine I read through had a long discussion on the use of lanthanum chloride as a means of reducing phosphate levels. Having been a believer in the 0 phosphate rule up until recently, I had used this compound on several occasions with good results at reducing the phosphate levels in my tanks. However, what I did not know and what was pointed out in this article is that lanthanum chloride, while being great at reducing phosphate, should only be used so that the resultant precipitate does not come into contact with sps corals. Paraphrasing what the article said, if the precipitate is allowed to come into contact with the corals it may be taken up and mimics calcium in the coral’s structure. However, once it is taken up it will prevent or reduce further calcification and the coral will show reduced growth or even possible loss of tissue over time. Now unless you had used lanthanum chloride, as I had, and let the precipitate flow all around the tank, and then had slow tissue necrosis from the base of some of your corals for seemingly no reason, which I also had, this article probably would not have meant much. But having the ability to go back and learn from an old article taught me that if I wanted to use this compound again, I needed to keep it in a reactor of some type away from my sps corals. Which has been written about but never explained. While this has been discussed in numerous ways over the years, until I read this old article, it never clicked for me as to why I was having this problem, since this occurred some time after I had used the lanthanum. Again this is another example of my learning from my own mistakes and then having it explained to my why it happened.


Don't limit your learning to only commonly available books as there are many other books not available in English that can also teach a lot.

This happened a second time when after treating a tank for cyanobacteria several of the photosynthetic sponges died suddenly after flourishing for months. I attributed their dying to be a result of the cyano dying and poisoning them. However, again I learned from an “old” journal that some photosynthetic sponges may have cyanobacteria imbedded in their tissues. So as a result, killing off the cyano inadvertently also killed the sponges off due their acting symbiotically with the sponge. So because I found an explanation for why this happened I learned not to do it again when I had sponges and cyano in a second tank I had. Because of what I learned from these old books and magazines I am now going back over my entire collection in the hopes of finding more bits of useful information like these. After now reading through dozens of old magazines I realize how much information has been published, as rarely after reading one of these did I not learn something. Sadly, when I read these the first time I was not advanced enough to even think of the need to reduce phosphate or keep sponges, but as we get better and better and more advanced there is lots of information that has been published that may help us learn as we keep more difficult or unique organisms. .


Only by going to lectures and traveling have I learned what it takes to spawn sps corals in our tanks.

Each of these publications came out long before the internet became the source of all knowledge, so some of what was written is not easy to find on the net. Also to me the internet is now a double-edged sword in terms of learning in that a great deal of knowledge is contained on it. But as a result, I get lazy and I do not think I learn as much as I once did as I now just Google or YouTube something when I want to learn a fact or a skill. So this makes me question if I am actually learning, or if I am just living in the moment in terms of managing or gathering information about this hobby and my tank. This may be an age issue or an educational issue, I’m not sure, but in my magazine and book collections I still have the issues that contain articles that are relevant to the basis of the hobby and from which I actually feel I learned the basics. On the internet I do not see these same pillars of information from which I learned so much. The other more negative edge to the internet is that by it’s very nature you can be as anonymous as you like. Obviously this allows for information to be shared and gathered that otherwise would not be possible. But at the same time, it allows anyone to seemingly be an “expert” on anything, which can be problematic especially in a hobby where since the hobby began anecdotal evidence plays such a big role. Now if you have enough posts, this seemingly makes you knowledgeable, instead of how it used to be where one had to display what they had learned before they were considered an expert or they published an article for which they were accountable. This is not an indictment of the internet as a source of information, as obviously you are using it to read this article, but rather that you should be wary of learning everything just from what you read and make sure your source is reliable.


When you are traveling try to learn about other's tanks. Many hobbyists enjoy visitors and showing off their tanks. This tank in Italy has so much to teach.

In terms of reliable sources as teachers, this is another area that has changed dramatically in recent times. In the past at shows like MACNA, or the Western Marine Conference or IMAC, the biggest draw were the speakers. These shows brought in speakers from all over the world to share what they were doing as at that time there were significant differences in how people in different parts of the world managed their tanks. While there is much more uniformity now, there still are significant differences. As a result, these speakers helped us learn and significantly improved the likelihood of our success. Unfortunately, today the draw seems to be almost exclusively the availability or rare and colorful coral frags as opposed to it being an opportunity to learn. When I have gone to see the speakers at these shows, and I try to attend as many as I can, the attendance at these talks has been for the most part disappointing. This to me is quite distressing, as despite doing this for as long as I have been, I still have learned a great deal at almost every talk I have attended. So again I am worried that too many hobbyists feel they can learn all they need to from the internet and are missing out on all of the really unique and interesting things that others are doing that never makes it to the net. Plus, at these talks I have also learned that I see personal photos these individuals took that never make it to the net. And getting to interact with these individuals also allows one to learn first hand from someone who is doing cutting edge stuff. And again, not all of this makes it online.

The same is true in how much interaction there now is through the clubs or societies who used to be one of the best ways to learn how to be successful, especially for new people in the hobby. Clubs and societies were one of the ways that many new hobbyists learned from experienced other hobbyists who had a vested interest in having them succeed. There used to be workshops on everything from spotting diseases, to feeding to quarantining new fish. These were great ways to learn, with there being little downside as it was like getting to do the trial and error with out the chance to fail. It also was useful in that these clubs stressed the need for patience and also that some corals were better corals to start with than others. Now since immediate gratification is much more pervasive in the hobby this kind of learning does not occur as frequently, which in my opinion is a shame as this kind of learning not only helped build success, but it also helped build relationships and at least to me that I still one of the bet parts of this hobby.

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Only by learning from others will we succeed in keeping corals and other life that at present is considered impossible.

To me at least, these relationships have been one of the best ways that I have learned over the years and have added immeasurably to my enjoyment of the hobby. As I wrote about a while back, one of the things I really miss is taking road trips with other hobbyists. Not just because it was fun and a chance to get away and see other shops and people’s tanks, but also because it was an opportunity to learn what others were doing in a relaxed atmosphere where no one was put on the spot. This one on one learning from friends and people you trust is still one of the best ways to learn about the hobby and while it may not occur as often on a road trip as it used to, it still is something that everyone in the hobby should seek. Finding a mentor or someone who will at least help you when you are having trouble or a problem you don’t understand is something that has been a part of the hobby and how we learn since the beginning of the hobby. Some of the friends and mentors I have had have been my friends now for over 25 years and have taught me countless things that would have taken me years to learn if I had just relied on making my own mistakes. So I strongly suggest that for anyone just getting started in this hobby find someone who they trust that is willing to help them and discuss this hobby. I also suggest that if they can find someone who is near them, because as good as they can be at describing the things that are going on in their tank, being able to have someone come over and see it first hand is far better.

Everyone learns in different ways, with no one way being better than another. While this is true, the most expensive and frustrating way to learn about his hobby is through individual trial and error. It is far more efficient and time-saving to learn from the mistakes of others and then not make those same mistakes yourself. Unfortunately, this has been a difficult lesson for me to learn for some reason, but I hope that those of you reading this will learn from my mistakes and make use of all of the resources now out there to help you succeed in this hobby. The best of these ways to learn, at least in my opinion, is to develop friends who share this interest so that you can learn from one another. This hobby can be a lot of fun and quite rewarding, but it can also be frustrating and expensive, but these negatives can be reduced if you develop friendships to learn from and share the good as well as the bad with. I try not to tell anyone what to do, but I do suggest that you take the time to read what other’s have written both online and in books or magazines and us the vast amount of information out there to your advantage so that hopefully you get successful as quickly as possible. Then, just as importantly, share this information you have garnered to teach others and help them.
About author
Mike Paletta
Michael Paletta’s actual career is working in genomics in breast and colon cancer for Genomic Health. He has been an avid reef keeper since 1984. He has kept personal reef aquaria ranging in size from 20 gallons to 1200 gallons and has helped set and build other reef aquaria up to 4,000 gallons in size. He currently maintains several reef aquaria including a 300 gallon sps dominated tank and a 75 lps tank. He has also consulted for The National Aquarium in Baltimore as well the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium.

Michael has published over 100 articles on various aspects of reef keeping in SeaScope, Aquarium Fish Magazine, FAMA, Practical Fishkeeping, and Coral Magazine. He has also published two books: The New Marine Aquarium and Ultimate Reefs. Michael has been invited to speak at various venues around the world and across the country and has given over 200 such talks.

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