Spotlight Profile of a Reef Aquarist (#3)

Read up on one of our forum members, @ca1ore, who has had saltwater aquariums for over 30 years. He talks about his successes, failures, and...
  1. Simon Ellis (R2R member @ca1ore), a Connecticut reefer with 30 years of experience, is a frequent contributor to the Reef2Reef Articles Section. He recently wrote the article about building your own Algal Turf Scrubber (ATS), and the article about automatic water changes.

    He's the perfect candidate for our Profile of Reef Aquarist, and, as luck would have it, he's also a professional writer among other things. So, what he has to say is not only informative but beautifully written. I asked him a series of questions, and you can read his answers in his own words (in italics.) Enjoy.

    For beginner aquarists reading this article, in Simon's photos note how large and mature the corals are.

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    View 1 of display tank.
    r2r3IMG_0517.JPG
    Photos are courtesy of @ca1ore, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.


    How long have you been doing the aquarium thing?


    A long time--been keeping aquariums since the early 70's, though no SW until around 1987. Was into planted tanks for a long time before transitioning to mostly reef tanks by 1995. I still think The Optimum Aquarium (by Dupla) is the best aquarium book written--even though it's a somewhat blatant 'commercial' for Dupla, it introduced me to a while new world of aquarium technology and techniques, much of which is applicable to reef tanks. Anyhow, other than a 4 year 'break' 2008-2012, I've been keeping reef tanks for over 30 years.

    Why did you start?

    Always have found aquatic ecosystems fascinating; and I do think of my aquaria as ecosystems, whether FW or SW. Considered going into marine biology as a career, but concluded that there were only two decent jobs in the industry - Jacques Cousteau had one, Robert Ballard (discoverer of the Titanic graveyard) the other. Not literally true, of course, but I decided to chase a business career while keeping aquaria to 'feed' my aquatic interests.

    What was your first tank?

    My very first tank was a 20-gallon metaframe (slate bottom, tar sealant and aluminum corners) for guppies and mollies when I was 10 years old (1971); my first salt water tank was a 30 high with a few rocks and fish in 1985; my first reef tank was a 4' 120 in 1987 (maybe 1988). I moved quite a bit back then and always used that as an opportunity to get a bigger tank.

    Do you buy or build?

    Both. I'm an experienced woodworker, so anything that involves making a mechanical structure is fair game. Built a large plywood tank back in the early 1990's--to only moderate success--and have made many different algae scrubbers, skimmers and sumps. I always build my own stands, though in recent years I buy the tank. I do plan to build a really huge plywood aquarium at some point.

    What tank or tanks do you have now?

    Other than a few as-needed quarantine tanks, I have just one system now. It's big - the main display is an eight-foot 450, with an attached 12oXH refugium, 60 frag tank, 2o-gallon RDSB, 10-gallon lagoon and then the sump--at about 700 gallons in total.

    View 2 of display tank.
    r2r3IMG_0164_zpsa23670da.jpg
    Photos are courtesy of @ca1ore, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    What's in them?

    Fish and inverts.

    The main display is a mixed reef, mostly focused on fish and SPS; the refugium is simply for any animals that cannot thrive in the main display; the frag tank is mostly snips from the main tank, though I do occasionally buy new corals. I have always considered myself to be a fish-first reefer, and I tend to keep populations that most would judge to be waaay overstocked. Currently, I have close to 130 fish across the tanks in my system. I've got a build thread, Simon's 450 that details the current tank.


    Have you encountered any major problems along the way?

    Of course. Two major tank crashes and a couple of resets. On tank crash was the result of a ATO gone wild, the other a result of a house boiler failure while I was on vacation (bad stuff always happens when you are away). Resets were a result of a majano plague and a leaky tank (aforementioned plywood tank).

    Can you think of any mistakes you've made that you wish you had done differently?

    Even though I quarantine ALL fish now, I did not always. Although I know QT is amongst the most debated topics in reefing, I am a firm believer that it helps much more than it hurts. before QT, I would always compare building a fish population to playing craps in Las Vegas - you're ahead, you're ahead …… go for one more …… aaahgh, lost it all. Add one more fish, it has velvet, and there goes your entire population. Since I moved to QT, I have had far greater success at building a large fish population. Other than that, I am a strong proponent of redundancy. I use a controller on my tank, and like it just fine; but I am mindful that it represents a single point of failure, so I have designed redundancy into the system.

    I am also a big proponent of buying quality equipment - I think it pays for itself in the long run. OK, I get that most new reefers don't stick in the hobby so a cheap pump may be just fine, but for those long-tenured quality does pay for itself. I figure out what the implications of failure would be if I were out of town …. and make sure to invest in quality where those implications would be dire.

    What do you think is your greatest success?

    I think the proverbial 'proof is in the pudding' ….. and I'm pretty happy with my current pudding. It is certainly the nicest and most well developed tank I have ever kept.


    Acanthurus polyzona, Mauritius Convict or Zebra Tang or Black-barred Surgeonfish.
    r2r3IMG_0321.JPG
    Photos are courtesy of @ca1ore, ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

    What do you like about modern reefing …. and not like?

    The ability to access information is unparalleled ….. though I do lament the demise of good reefing books (mostly killed off by the internet). I can also imagine that online must be bewildering for the newcomer. Writing a book requires commitment and knowledge; posting on a forum or making a youtube video requires neither. As much as there is good information/advice, there is also bad information/advice. It's easy for me to navigate because I know everything, but for the novice or beginner ….. OK, so of course I don't know everything, but I have identified a handful of fellow reefers (some on R2R, some not) that are my go-to sources should I have questions or am considering something and want feedback. I'd suggest that a novice reefer do the same.

    I also think the technology available to reefers today is awesome ….. light years ahead of where we were 30 years ago. I was amongst the first in my area to use metal halide lighting (a DuplaSun LI), yet there were no reef-specific bulbs to be had. I used an Osram neutral daylight, double ended 250 watt bulb. Reef specific bulbs did eventually appear, but those early days were 'wild and woolly'. I don't think folks newer to the hobby really appreciate how much bubblegum and bandaids went into a reef system back then.

    I am suspicious of new approaches, not because I don't like new approaches, but because too many of them are yet a new set of clothes for the emperor. Some survive the test of time, but many do not.


    Where are you at now? Planning anything new or different?

    I keep getting bigger tanks. I view an aquarium like closet space - crap expands to fill the available space. My 450, as large as it its, is now essentially full - where's the fun in that! So, though it is some years off, I am already conceptualizing its successor.

    Do you have family that help and take an interest in your SW tank(s)?

    I have two teenaged boys--they like the tank, and would miss it if it were gone, but they have other interests that don't include actually helping with the tank. They are my 'muscle' though, so any lifting jobs are theirs.

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    Special Thanks: Reef2Reef thanks Simon Ellis for taking the time to tell us about his aquarium adventures.

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    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.

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    Author Profile: Cynthia White

    Cynthia received her BA in English from NYU a long long time ago. 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.

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