With summer being upon us and life being a little less stressful and gas being cheap, I decided to go on a reef keeper’s road trip. My friend Jim Gintner of Eye Catching Coral and I visited Brett and Todd at Cherry Corals to catch up and see what was new in the hobby. In the early days of the hobby, Barney Rubble and I, I know many of you think I’m that old, used to frequently go on these types of trips with many of our nearby reef fanatics.
However, with the advent of the internet and expensive gas, these trips have become less frequent. In fact while on this trip I realized that it has been at least ten years since I last went on such a trip. Over the course of the ten hours I realized that I miss taking these types of trips, so since I also realize that many of you have never been on such a trip I would explain the merits and finer details of making a reef road trip.
I generally do not look for things that require more driving since for most of the past 30 years lots of driving has been an integral part of my life due to my job. However, after reflecting on the many reef road trips that I took, I now recall fondly how many of these trips were some of the most fun and informative times I have had in the hobby. Before the advent of the internet and online shopping and expensive gas, a reef road trip was an integral part of the hobby.
During the early years of the hobby much of the equipment that we now take for granted was not readily available. As a result, we often had to travel a fair amount in order to find a store that catered to the saltwater side of the hobby. Similarly, reef safe fish and corals and invertebrates were not stocked by many shops and so it was necessary to drive to the few stores around the country that stocked them. Lastly, many local aquarium societies would often bring in speakers from out of town, so if there was someone you wanted to hear speak it also often required a road trip to hear the latest on what was new in the hobby. As the name implies, a reef road trip could be any trip that was taken by more than one person that had something to do with reef keeping. However, I must admit that some of these trips were simply an excuse to just get out and do something fun in the hobby.
I also was very lucky in that I was able to take many of these types of road trips with some of the smartest and most knowledgeable people in the hobby. The beauty of these trips, many of which were as much as 6, 8, or 10 hours long was that for the most part the only thing really discussed during them were different aspects of the hobby. Much of the time was spent comparing notes on what each of us were doing, or if we found a new source for something, or more importantly what we found that didn’t work.
Much of the early work in the hobby was total trial and error, so these discussions were often us humorously recalling what our many errors were. These trips were also when I found out that many of the really good hobbyists besides being smart also had a good sense of humor, as when you lost a then-expensive $100 coral for no reason that you could determine, having a sense of humor was crucial otherwise many of us would have spent a lot of nights crying. So sharing these experiences with others in the same boat was a key part of the early learning in the hobby.
Some of these trips were made with only two of us in the car, but the best trips I remember had three, four or even five of us jam packed in the car. On none of them was any alcohol consumed, but I still remember some vigorous debates during the course of the drives. I learned all about water chemistry and how crucial maintaining alkalinity was on my yearly road trip with Tom Frakes, then of Aquarium Systems, to see Dick Perrin propagating corals at Tropicorium.
The first time I saw all the corals that were being propagated there, it felt like the closest thing to Christmas morning I had experienced in a long time. I also remember driving to Baltimore with Charles and Julian and discussing the merits of using a trickle filter versus the advantage of taking it off and going with the then crazy notion of using a “super-sized” protein skimmer. The trip to Cleveland with Charles and Scott Michael was also memorable as during it we debated on why so few fish were “reef-safe” in our tanks. After much debate we concluded that probably the reason so few were safe was that we were usually not feeding them enough lest we dump too many nutrients in our tanks and cause an algae bloom, there were no phosphate removers, and as a result the starving fish had nothing else to pick on but our corals.
It is also hard to imagine but I used to drive to Ed’s in East Stroudsburg Pa with any hobbyist I could find in the Pittsburgh area to pick up the only Acropora available anywhere as far as I knew at that time. Why it is hard to imagine is that it was a 4 ½ hour trip, one way, and at that time all of the Acropora were only beige or brown colored. Yet still I made the trip with at least one other reef pal in tow at least a dozen times. In even crazier fashion I remember flying to California a number of times only to then drive around with three or four other hobbyists visiting every store and wholesaler that would let us in.
We would all come home with numerous bags of corals and fish, most of which we had never seen before, and we would then do our best to keep them alive. On our next road trip we would share with one another how we did and share the “secrets” of our success. Lastly I remember driving to see Sanjay and the tank at Penn State with my friend Dr. Michael Fontana every year for over 15 years. I had helped Dr. Fontana set up the first truly large, 1400-gallon, reef tank I had ever seen. The three hour drive up consisted mainly of discussing the merits and pitfalls of a large versus small tank, while on the drive back the discussion focused on how psyched we were about the hobby after seeing Sanjay’s amazing tank yet again.
Those were the kind of trips that help to make lifelong friendships in the hobby and allowed for a level of debate about everything in the hobby that I feel is being missed today. While the internet is a great way of communicating information, a reef road trip allows for a level of discussion that rarely occurs online. Part of this is that in a car giving someone a hard time about a decision they made does not produce the level of scorn that sadly occurs too often online when someone has a difference of opinion. Also sharing ideas in a car together with one’s fellow hobbyists and doing something in common like seeing an amazing tank or even a unique coral produces a level of camaraderie that sadly is often lacking in the hobby.
This hobby is great in that a lot of it including much of the enjoyment of one’s tank tends to be done alone. Sadly this is often now more the case than it used to be, even though the internet allows one to post pictures almost constantly of how one’s tank looks and is evolving. I say this as one of the most fun reef road trips that used to occur all the time was a “tour of the tanks” in a specific locale. This tour consisted of people with tanks they wanted to show letting others in their area know, either through their local club or pet store.
People from all stages of the hobby would all get together and drive from house to view each other’s tanks. During these tours you could see what equipment people were using and how well it was working, what fish and corals were getting along as well as aquascaping ideas. The internet allows all of this now, but there is still nothing like seeing a tank in person and asking the tank owner questions on the spot. I’m sure that in some places these are still occurring, but I do not think they are as big a part of the hobby as they used to be?
I know many people do not consider driving a long distance in a car to be fun, and for the most part they are right. But if there was one thing that I would bring back from the past it would be the reef road trip. It really can be a great time to have a small group of people in the intimate space of a car discussing something we are all passionate about without having to worry about getting flamed to our peers. In fact my trip with Jim was so much fun and so informative, we are planning another trip, to be determined, this summer. So if anyone in the Pittsburgh/Cleveland area is up for a reef road trip let me know and maybe we can put together a reef road trip caravan. But if you are not in our area I suggest you talk with your nearby fellow reefers and set up a trip. Even if it is just a visit to a few local stores, having the opportunity to hang out with people of similar interests in a relaxed setting is one of the best parts of the hobby.