I would love to say that I never make mistakes. But as anyone who knows me knows, I do make them, and sadly I make them way too often, especially in regards to this hobby and how long I have been doing this.
You would think that as long as I have had a reef tank I would now be immune from the mistake bug, but sadly that is not the case. For the most part, this is a hobby that we do alone in our homes, unless we are lucky and have a spouse, significant other or other family member who shares our passion.
As a result, when we do make a mistake we often keep it to ourselves or share it with one or two other of our close reef keeping friends. And let’s be honest, none of us like to admit when we mess up. Luckily I have enough friends who are also experienced reef keepers who trust me enough that we discuss when have made mistakes. I will discuss some of these mistakes below, but the names are changed to protect the innocent.
As with most mistakes, reefkeepng mistakes fall under two categories, mistakes of commission and mistakes of omission. The first of these mistakes is one of commission and it has been made by pretty much everyone in the hobby I know. What is funny is that it is the one mistake that actually requires the most action on our part, yet we all still make it. It is of course adding a fish inappropriate for our tank.
I don’t mean adding a Caribbean fish to a Pacific coral decorated tank, but adding a fish that eats things that it is not supposed to eat. While we all add angels or Tangs, or other fish with the understanding that they may turn out to be coral eating fiends, I’m talking about adding fish thinking there is no way they can be a problem.
In some instances, this is due to our not doing our homework, like when we add a pure coral eater, but in some instances it is arrogance in that we think we can keep a fish from doing what it does naturally or that will grow to a size way too big for the tank it is placed in. I have seen “baby” Vlamingi tangs placed in 180-gallon tanks and a Sohal tang in a 120 as well as lots of big angels in even smaller tanks.
But one of the worst mistakes I saw made by an experienced hobbyist is when a friend added 3 tiny squirrelfish to his huge well-stocked reef tank. When I say well-stocked, it literally contained several hundred anthias and fairy wrasses as well as cardinalfish and other small fish. At first the squirrelfish hid most of the day, as they are nocturnal hunters and they only came out to feed when the tank was fed in the evening.
However, over a relatively short time, less than a year, these three beautiful red fish grew to almost 8” in size and as is their nature began eating just about any fish they could fit into their mouths. For the first couple of months that this was happening, the owner of the tank did not realize what was occurring other than fish seemed to just be disappearing from the tank with no bodies being found.
Since the squirrelfish were then feeding exclusively at night once they reached a large size the owner almost forgot that he had added them to the tank. Then by chance, when he was moving some live rock around he disturbed the cave where the squirrelfish hid during the day and saw how big they had become.
Upon seeing them and how large they were it immediately made sense why fish were disappearing without a trace. Unfortunately, since his tank was in excess of 1000-gallons getting them out proved to be a difficult task. He tried no only traps, but even put a hook and line in to try and catch them fisherman style.
All of these attempts were in vain, so eventually he had to pull everything out of the tank and drain it to get the fish out. Needless to say this mistake was an expensive lesson, even for this experienced hobbyist. Hopefully we can all learn from this not to add fish that eventually can cause major problems.
Just as adding a fish that may grow to be problematic is a mistake of commission, so too is adding a fish or coral without properly dipping and quarantining it. As we all know, not at least dipping all new corals and frags and fish is at best like playing Russian Roulette with your tank, so too is not quarantining or isolating these new animals too.
Unfortunately, the eggs of many pests are seemingly impervious to dipping, so unless you either remove all newly acquired frags and corals from the plugs or substrate to which they are attached, even dipping them is not enough. I found this out again the hard way when I did not isolate a newly acquired maricultured Montipora colony and introduced the incredibly resistant and real pain Montipora eating nudibranchs to my grow out system.
As a result, I am now in the third week of twice weekly dipping of all of the Montiporas in that tank as well as middle of the night inspections. Yeah, you would think I would heed my own advice. But at least I dipped the colony first, who knows what else I may have introduced had I not done that. So I’m assuming since I did it numerous of my equally experienced friends have probably also done the same thing.
In addition to dipping and quarantining everything another “shortcut” that I see taken is to not properly acclimating new fish and corals after quarantine. In my tank, all new fish and corals once properly quarantined are also then acclimated slowly to their new tank. Corals are started at the bottom of the tank and gradually moved up to the level they will be mounted at over a few weeks.
All fish are placed in a clear box and allowed to also acclimate for at least a week and usually two. Using the box acclimation approach has reduced the mortality of newly introduced fish dramatically. It is a pain and makes the tank look unsightly for a couple of weeks, but to me noting the survival rate once I started using it makes this more than worth it.
In addition to acclimating all new fish, fish and corals also need to be acclimated to new equipment. I know that not many of us think of this, but I have begun doing it and am not losing things for what I consider stupid reasons. Equipment that the tank and its inhabitants need to be acclimated to include lights, pumps and powerheads, calcium and media reactors.
I learned about lighting acclimation the hard way when I switched from halides to LEDS and then again when I switched from an early generation LED to a later generation one. When viewing these lights after the switch I did not think they looked that brighter and were actually less bright than the lights they replaced. As a result, they were run full power from the start.
Needless to say a major bleaching event occurred. At first I did not understand why, but the reason is simple: these lights focus almost all of their light downwards rather than spreading it throughout the room, so when looking at the tank it initially looked less bright. So now all new lights are started at low intensity and gradually increased. Similarly, all new pumps and powerheads are also started at less than maximum intensity which is gradually increased.
I learned to do this the hard way as well. When I added some new powerheads at full intensity on a couple of occasions fish seemed to be unaware of its suction and unfortunately several were sucked into the intake. So now all new powerheads are started at half power and ramped up and this gives the fish time to get used to the intake force. Since I started doing this I have not lost a single fish in the powerhead intakes.
I do the same thing with new pumps as I have inadvertently sheared off tissue from corals when I added pumps at full power. Obviously corals are slower to react to changes in flow, so when new pumps are added, or even when old ones are cleaned and become more efficient, they are run at lower power than they will event7ally be run at. Then over at least a couple of months they are gradually ramped up. This gives the corals time to grow in relation to the flow and not be killed by sudden new flow.
Lastly when new media reactors are added or when new media is added to them I also now get them to full power slowly. I do this for media reactors as a result of seeing from the frequent testing I do that suddenly running a GFO, carbon or other type of reactor full bore it is possible to rapidly change the composition of the tank water.
While running a large GFO reactor full bore I have seen not only the phosphate level in a tank drop rapidly, but have also seen the alkalinity level drop significantly as well. Since the goal in every tank is stability, I now run these when added new or with new media initially at a slow flow rate and then gradually increase it over a week or so. The goal is not only to have them remove undesirable compounds slowly but also not affect anything else quickly either.
In addition to not allowing the tank to acclimate to new equipment one of the other mistakes that we seem to make when adding new equipment is not reading the directions. Since many of us who have been were here when there pretty much were no directions when we got a new piece of equipment we got used to not reading them. Now with every piece of equipment or additive there are now definitive directions on how to use everything, yet we still do not read them.
Case in point, a week or so ago when I was talking with a friend he admitted that he had recently added a supplement and while adding most of the bottle he did not see much of a change or improvement from using it. But when he neared the end of the bottle he just dumped it all in. As a result, this produced stressing in some corals, bleaching in others and in one big colony there was a major color shift.
When we looked at the bottle it clearly said not to exceed adding a certain amount. Clearly he had not read the directions. I wish I cold say I was not guilty of doing this too, but I have at least gotten better at it so now as with new equipment I gradually acclimate my tank to anything new I am using. So now when I start adding anything new to my tanks I do so at much lower than recommended amounts until I am sure it is doing no harm.
As you read this you are probably thinking that I am a patient man, since I am willing to take my time in these seemingly things. However, I can confidently say I am not. In talking with many of my friends about this topic I have found I am not alone in this regard, especially in relation to the next two mistakes that experienced hobbyists still make. The first of these is that many of us still do way too much impulse buying.
This usually happens at a shop or a show, but can even happen online when we see something that is unique or “one of a kind” or that we have not seen before we immediately have to buy it. Having done this for much of my time in this hobby, I have come to realize that this is neither the best nor the smartest way to fill a tank. I say this as has has led me to realize that it then leads to the mistake that often accompanies it: thinking more is better.
Unfortunately, it has taken me a long time to understand that more in this hobby does not make things better, more is just more, not necessarily better. As a result of this steep learning curve I am no longer acting like a drunken sailor on shore leave buying everything in site and then trying to find room for it. I am now trying to plan what I am going to add, make space for it before I buy and acclimate in and then leaving it alone to grow instead of constantly finding something new to replace it and then having to constantly move stuff.
Speaking of space, that is one of the other mistakes I see still being made: not giving new frags or corals enough space to grow and thrive in. Since we have gotten so good at growing corals, it is now possible to have a tank looking full in as short of a year to eighteen months. So it is not necessary to fill every inch of a tank with frags or small colonies when a new tank is started.
By providing adequate space not only does this allow the corals the chance to grow into nice full colonies and show their full potential, but it also minimizes the energy they have to put forth “fighting” other corals when they are growing out. It has been my experience that when given adequate space frags grow faster and healthier than when they are placed too close to their neighbors and as a result have to commit energy to defending their turf. Unfortunately, I must admit that a few times this year I have not heeded this advice and have paid a price in coral battles. So despite being an old hand at this I still make the same mistakes I used to make at times.
While most of the above mistakes are those of commission, there is one big mistake that is pure omission. Over time most experienced hobbyists know when their tank is doing well and also know when there is a problem. Unfortunately, over time we tend to start to take it for granted that we innately know this so as a result we start to take it for granted that we know what is going on in our tanks and that we can predict when a problem will arise.
As a result, we stop doing regular testing or maintenance or any of the small pain in the butt things we normally do. By not doing these little things what could be a little problem because we caught it early and corrected it becomes a big problem and requires significantly more time and effort to correct. So having learned this the hard way, I no loner take for granted that my tank is perfect and I don’t need to do the small things.
There are lots of mistakes everyone makes with their tanks, but being an old-hand at this I have learned which ones still can happen so I now try to make an effort to prevent them from occurring. Having a tank is not like having a TV aquarium where you just turn it on and it runs itself. You need to do lots of small things on a regular basis to keep it successful and thriving.
When you make a mistake don’t get upset, correct it and move on. And even better after you’ve corrected it share it with a friend so that you both learn from it. To this day one of the most important aspects of this hobby is to still learn about it and learn from your mistakes. And hopefully sharing them with others will help them no to make them too.