Today's profile number two (2) is of a reef aquarist who has had saltwater tanks for more than 15 years. R.L. lives in Florida, and after numerous snorkeling trips, on a lark he picked up a 35G aquarium at a garage sale and figured he give saltwater a try.
He’s also an expert on seashells, and he volunteers at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, the only museum in the United States devoted solely to seashells and mollusks. He spends as much time on Reef2Reef as his busy schedule allows, trying to “pay it forward,” so to speak, helping newcomers get started on the right foot.
At one time, R.L kept three tanks—600G of saltwater—but has downsized recently to one 40G cube full of zoas and anemones. He’s retired now and wants to have the freedom to travel with his wife.
I asked him some questions, and now you can hear what he has to say in his own words:
How did you get started with SW?
I moved to SW Florida in 1999 and occasionally would take weekend snorkeling trips to the Florida Keys. I fell in love with shallow water snorkeling off the beach. I find it way more fun than snorkeling out at the big reefs that are too deep to allow me to get up close and personal . Then one day while walking around our neighborhood, I saw a 35G aquarium and metal stand at a garage sale. I thought why not have some saltwater fish at home, so I bought it. At the time I didn't even realize I could keep corals, anemones or any other critters alive in an aquarium. I was a real neophyte!
Why did you downsize? from three tanks and 600G of saltwater?
I got up to three tanks, four if you count the 25G frag tank, while I was downsizing my business (working less and less), and I had more spare time. Then I retired, and it was easy. I did spend a lot of time doing maintenance and playing with rockscapes and unusual critters.
After my wife retired, we started doing more things together like traveling, and I had less time to play with the tanks. Around the same time I had a disaster with my main display tanks (a 125G and a 50G cube with a shared 60G sump/refugium). The main tank was 80% SPS and 10% LPS corals, and one night the chiller started and never turned off.
When I got up the next morning the water was below 60F and by the end of the day 90% of the SPS and LPS corals were white skeletons. So I kept some zoas as frags and my anemones and other critters, sold off all my tanks, and built a new 40G cube with a 30G sump/refugium with 3/8" glass and started a mostly zoanthid and rock flower anemone tank. The objective was to make it as much fluorescent corals as I can find and still be an easy tank to care for.
I love the fluorescence, and I tell people all the time that in the evening with just the blue LEDs on, the tank looks like Pandora at night (from the movie Avatar). I only wish there was a way to get a good photograph of the fluorescence, but I haven't found anybody who can do it justice. More and more I'm focusing on livestock that fluoresces under blue light because I love that look even though it's hard to photograph.
R.L.'s 40G Display Tank on the right and a 15G frag tank on the left.
Photo courtesy of R.L., ©2018, All Rights Reserved
What's everything in the 40G?
Livestock I've bought for the tank:
About 60 different zoas, 6 softies, 5 LPS and 9 SPS.
About 10 adult Rock Flower anemones and 25+ babies from 3 different spawns over the last 18 months.
There are 4 Maxi-mini anemones and 1 Rose Bubble Tip.
A very old Pajama Cardinal, a Six Line Wrasse, an Indigo Basslet, a Purple Dottyback and a small Scopas Tang.
One cleaner shrimp.
Several small white feather dusters and a couple of spaghetti worms.
Livestock I've collected locally at the beach or while snorkeling in the Florida Keys:
A colony of green/blue zoas.
A Yellow Sea Cucumber and a filter feeder sea cucumber.
A Red Flame Scallop.
An Emerald Crab, a few hermit crabs and a handful of Porcelain Crabs.
About 25 snails mostly Turbos and a few Nassarius.
There is 1 big Serpent Star and 3 or 4 smaller serpent and brittle stars.
A couple of small local pistol shrimp.
One Curly-Cue anemone and one Rock Flower Anemone.
A couple local sand dwelling anemones I've pick up at the beach.
A small sea hare from the beach.
A porcelain crab with the combs extended to trap tiny organisms in the water column.
Photo courtesy of Reef2Reef archives via BeakerBob, ©2018, All Rights Reserved
Does it have a sump?
Yes, it's a simple 30G, 2-chamber sump/refugium with a filter sock, some Chaeto and a skimmer. I don’t use any reactors for carbon, GFO, or phosphate removal.
Do you turn over your Chaeto manually?
No, only because there’s not enough yet. I have a gyre-style pump in there to encourage it to turn over on its own. I just added an egg crate wall to keep the Chaeto away from the pump. Now I have to add a screen to keep the Chaeto from going over the baffle into the main return pump. It’s always a challenge with a small sump when you’re trying to use a lot of it for a refugium.
When you collect stuff (legally) is it for your own tank? What kinds of things do you collect?
I only collect stuff for my own tank(s). When I had three tanks set up, one was basically for local stock. It was a 65G (4'x2'x14").
When we walk the beach here in SW Florida, we find porcelain crabs, pistol shrimp, peppermint shrimp, baby serpent and brittle stars, sea cucumbers, clams, gorgonians, sea hares and more. We find many of these inside sponges and clumps of macroalgae that wash up after cold fronts with strong west winds (almost exclusively in the winter.)
Snorkeling off the beach and around small offshore islands, we find a variety of anemones including rock flowers, a couple of zoas (not very exotic), gorgonians, lots of different snails, coral banded shrimp, flame scallops, small clams, several different kinds of crabs (lots of emeralds and rubys), feather dusters, and several different urchins. I've tried collecting some sponges but I've found them are very difficult keep and my best result was about 8 months.
What are you not allowed to collect there off of Florida?
No stony corals (SPS or LPS), no live rock, no condy anemones, and there are a number of restrictions on fish. But I rarely try for fish because they can be very hard to collect. There is also a long list of things with limits, like only 5 polyps of soft coral per person per day. Some counties and cities have even more restrictions, like Lee County, for example, limits all live shellfish and Sanibel Island restricts live echinoderms (stars, cucumbers, and sand dollars.)
Do you have a chiller on that main tank now?
No. With the new DC pumps and cool LED lights, my tank only gets about 1 degree above room temperature. In the summer, we keep the house between 79 to 81 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m considering getting one in case we lose power for an extended period of time due to something like a hurricane. We have an 8K watt generator but it struggles to run the house A/C with everything else turned off.
Have you set up any safeguards for the new chiller?
No. I could get an Apex that could have shut down the old chiller if the water got too cold, but I just don’t care for that level of automation/computerization.
Have you ever had any problems with your crabs like the Emerald?
Not that I’ve noticed. The main problem with them is that they are algae eaters, and if the tank is free of algae, they struggle to get enough food. Now, after I feed the fish, I drop a fishing line with a clip and some nori down to the sand, and sometimes they come out and eat.
I see your tank isn’t covered. Is that ever a problem?
No. None of my critters in the tank are jumpers, and I want the best gas exchange I can get between the water and air for CO2 out and O2 in.
So, for this tank/system, did you use live rock and live sand from one of your previous tanks?
I thoroughly washed sand from the old tank. Some of the rock was from the old tanks and some was new. The new setup had no cycle at all. I had zero ammonia and zero nitrites right from the start. The new tank was set up with rocks, fish, and other critters and corals all in 2 days.
What's your water change routine?
I don't really have a water change schedule. What I do is when the water in my frag/holding tank needs a change, I'll pull 10g out and replace it with water from the 80g DT & sump system and then add 10g of new saltwater to the 80g DT & sump system. If the frag tank is in really bad shape due to my having stuff I've collected contaminating the water, I'll do a second water change the same way. This is because the frag tank is only 16g and 2 changes of 10g each is easier than 1 change of 16g. LOL! I'd guess on average I change about 10g every 3 or 4 weeks and that's more due to the condition of the water in the frag tank with just a HOB filter than the need of the DT which has a filter sock, refugium with chaeto and a good skimmer.
Do you have a deep sand bed (DSB) in the new tank?
No. I have used one before that worked well, but now my sand is only 2”-3” deep. It’s just enough for me to keep Rock Flower Anemones in PVC end caps and keep the end caps buried in the sand. I just had my third round of RFA babies, which I’m very proud of as their propagation is not common in aquariums.
Rock Flower Anemones
Photo courtesy of R.L., ©2018, All Rights Reserved
And what is that last photo?
That is the view of the tank from the side. You can see how I made a sloped platform out of egg crate and PVC pipe to stack the rocks on. That leaves all the sand open for critters like the sea cucumber who need sand to survive. My flame scallop and small feather dusters and sand anemones all like it under there as well.
Side view of display tank.
Photo courtesy of R.L., ©2018, All Rights Reserved
In closing, tell me what advice you would give to newcomers in this hobby?
My first advice would be to lower your expectations and take your time getting through the first six months to a year after you have water in the tank. So many mistakes are made, so much livestock is lost, and so many people get distressed or depressed due to pushing too hard and adding too much, too fast. Along that same line, read all you can, and if you live someplace where there is a local club (R2R offers a list), join it and make friends with a couple of people who are interested in helping newbies. It can make a HUGE difference. Don't be shy, ask for advice and help.
I'd also go against the grain here and say that the urge to go bigger isn't always a good idea. A bigger tank costs more to buy, more to stock, more to maintain and takes up way more time. After 12 years in the hobby I downsized from a 180g DT with a 75g anemone tank, to a 120g DT and a 40g anemone tank and just 2 years later I downsized again to a single 40g tank. But it's more fun because I'm not always working to fill it, it's small enough that it's already full of very fluorescent zoas and rock flower anemones. Every evening I look at it with lots of blue LEDs and I'm always amazed at how cool it looks! I wouldn't trade my tank for the tank of anybody else I know! And it's not because it's the biggest or has the rarest coral or the most fish. I like it best because it fits my desires perfectly.
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Author Profile: Cynthia White
Cynthia received her BA in English from NYU a long long time ago. Then she lived in Europe for six years. She has been a freelance writer and editor for over 20 years. Now she is a writer and editor on staff at R2R, where her forum nickname is Seawitch.
For 15 years, she kept a dozen freshwater tanks, bred cichlids--Cyphotilapia frontosa--and sold them to pet stores in Calgary. Finally, after years of study, she has come to saltwater side. She lives in British Columbia, Canada, with her husband and three special-needs dogs, a five-minute walk from the Georgia Strait.