Congratulations to community member billygoat and his 18 gallon nano reef for being selected for our March 2020 Reef Profile! Housing a unique collection of coral, fish, and invertebrates specifically from Caribbean reef regions, this nano reef is one special biotope. In this article billygoat shares his experiences in the hobby and this aquarium's journey over the past year. Share your comments and questions in the comments section below, and be sure to follow his aquarium journal for additional photos, history, and information about this gorgeous nano reef tank.
Billygoat's 18 Gallon Caribbean Reef Biotope
Display: Cobalt C-Vue 18 gallon all-in-one aquarium (20” x 16” x 13”)
Rock: 10 lbs. Aquacultured Florida live rock
Sand: 20 lbs. (~2”) CaribSea West Caribbean Reef live sand
Lighting: Kessil A160WE Tuna Blue with Kessil X Spectral Controller
Heater: Cobalt Neo-Therm 75w
Circulation: Sicce Syncra 1.0 return pump and EcoTech Marine Vortech MP10 wavemaker
Auto Top-off: Tunze Nano 3152
Mechanical Filtration: Filter floss (changed weekly)
Chemical Filtration: 2 tbsp. BRS Rox 0.8 Carbon (changed every 2-4 weeks)
Additional Media: Bag of MarinePure Gems in the sump
Established December 2018
I perform a 2-3 gallon (approx. 15%) water change every week. When doing a water change I only add or remove water from the rear chambers of my tank so as to avoid disturbing my livestock as much as possible. I do not vacuum or stir my sandbed in any way, except by gently agitating the very top of it with a turkey baster from time to time.
I also scrape the glass periodically with a Flipper Nano, usually once a week (or two weeks if I’m feeling lazy), and I give the rocks a once-over with a baster once or twice a week as well.
Every 3 or 4 months I disassemble and clean my return pump and soak my wavemaker in a vinegar solution. Every 6 months or so I pull out my heater and give it a good scrubbing.
Dosing & Testing
Early on I did not bother with dosing, but as the tank started to fill up with corals I started a simple manual dosing regimen of BRS Alk (daily) and BRS Calcium (weekly). I test alkalinity about twice a month and almost never test anything else.
I feed my fish once per day, usually with Ocean Nutrition Prime flakes or PE pellets soaked in Selcon. They occasionally get frozen mysis as well. I also target feed my gorgonians once or twice a week with a mixture of Reef Roids and Brightwell PhytoGold-M blended with a few drops of Selcon.
Atlantic Chalk Bass (Serranus tortugarum)
Masked Goby (Coryphopterus personatus)
Yellow-headed Jawfish (Opistognathus aurifrons)
Candelabra gorgonian (Eunicea calyculata)
Purple plume gorgonian (Muriceopsis flavida)
Purple sea feather (Antillogorgia sp.)
Purple sea rod (Eunicea flexuosa)
Rusty gorgonian (Muricea elongata)
Silver bush gorgonian (Muricea laxa)
Yellow sea whip (Pterogorgia citrina)
Caribbean mushrooms (Discosoma carlgreni and D. neglecta)
Encrusting corky fingers (Briareum asbestinum)
Zoanthids and Palythoa
Hidden cup coral (Phyllangia americana)
Star coral (probably Siderastrea or Stephanocoenia sp.)
A very large red brittle star (Ophiocoma wendtii)
Green porcelain crab (Petrolisthes armatus)
Rock flower anemones (Phymanthus crucifer)
Snails: Dwarf and Florida Cerith, Planaxis, Nerite, and Nassarius
Tons of hitchhikers, including tiny feather dusters, bristle worms, sponges, micro brittle stars, etc.
My desire to start this tank began with nostalgia. I grew up on the little island of St. Thomas in the West Indies, where I lived until I was almost ten years old. I have many fond memories of snorkeling through the clear waters of the tropics and observing all the wonderful life that they hold, but I haven’t had a chance to go back and visit the islands since I moved away decades ago. Driven by a desire to see those tropical seas again, I one day found myself looking up pictures of Caribbean sea life on Google, which in turn led me to discover some photos of mind-blowing aquariums that feature that sea life, and so forth down the internet rabbit hole until I finally stumbled across Nano-Reef.com in late 2018. Soon I found myself obsessively scouring the Tank of the Month archives and marveling at the huge variety and amazing beauty of all the aquariums featured here. After a whole lot of reading I discovered yardboy’s Florida biotope TOTM from way back in 2008, and that pushed me over the edge: I decided that I had to have one of my own! A Caribbean biotope aquarium seemed like the perfect way to create a beautiful display in my home and also bring back some great memories without actually having to travel across the continent to visit the tropics in person. After I made up my mind to get started everything came together pretty quickly, and my new tank got wet on December 15th, 2018.
December 15, 2018 - First Fill
I decided to start the tank with aquacultured live rock straight out of the Gulf of Mexico. I used this rock to both start and sustain my cycle. The cycle went smoothly and quite quickly, but in retrospect I probably would have been able to sustain more of the life that hitchhiked in on my rocks if I had cycled the tank first and then added the rock afterwards. Regardless though, the rock brought a huge variety of super cool micro life forms into my tank, including several stony corals. From the moment I put those first rocks in my tank, I knew I was already hooked.
In the beginning I was a little nervous, as I had never kept a home aquarium before and knew I had a whole lot to learn. I resolved to take it slowly, do a lot of reading, and do my best to keep things stable. I also decided that I wanted to make my tank a low-maintenance, “natural”-style system that used as little equipment as possible. With that in mind I started off with the idea that mine would be a macroalgae-dominated biotope, with a few soft corals and gorgonians thrown in for good measure.
Things change however, and all tanks evolve over time. I quickly discovered that macro tanks have a whole lot more going on than I anticipated. Between having to balance inputs of trace elements, provide adequate amounts of light, keep nutrient levels up, control the growth of epiphytic pest algae, and all the myriad other concerns that macro-dominated systems face, it became clear to me that macro algae tanks are actually a whole lot of work! On top of that, I also ran into problems with pests that came in on my live rock, especially macroalgae-eating Eunicid worms. Once these grew large enough they started slowly consuming all of the fleshy macroalgae in my tank. Eunicid worms are almost impossible to remove, and I didn’t want to turn my whole tank upside-down just to try to get rid of them, so I decided that I would need to change my approach.
Thankfully, this was also just about the time that I discovered the beauty of Caribbean photosynthetic gorgonians. With their upright, branching growth patterns and beautiful fuzzy polyps, gorgonians seemed like the perfect way to populate my low-profile rockscape and utilize the vertical space in my tank. The more I read about them, the more I fell in love with these hardy and iconic Caribbean corals. After a whole lot of research I decided to officially shift the focus of my system away from macros and towards gorgonians and other softies, and today my tank is home to seven different species of gorgs along with a diverse collection of other shallow-water soft corals native to the West Indies. With barely any macroalgae left in my display, the current state of my system is not really what I had in mind when I first started out, but I’m nonetheless pleased with where it ended up!
Disasters & Accidents
I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes. The first I can remember involved a very ill-informed freshwater dip (which in retrospect was probably entirely unnecessary) that ended up killing two beautiful purple plume gorgonians. This was totally the result of a lack of research on my part. A hard lesson to learn, but that’s how it goes in this hobby sometimes.
Later on I also made a serious mistake with my lighting. In December of 2019 I upgraded my Kessil A80 to a Kessil A160, but forgot to switch the new light over to the new lighting schedule that I had programmed into my spectral controller. As a result, the A160 started out running on the A80’s old schedule, which had the light maxing out at 100% intensity for 6 hours per day. This meant that I was inadvertently barbecuing my livestock with three times as much light as intended, and to make matters worse I didn’t notice my mistake until a week and a half later! This massive lighting blunder ended up killing several of my gorgonians and partially melting some of my zoanthids, but amazingly, most of my livestock survived. Just goes to show the resilience of soft corals, I guess.
I consider my tank to be complete, with no more room for livestock and no real need for any other equipment. From time to time I dream of upgrading to a 40 gallon setup with even more gorgonians, but for the foreseeable future I plan to simply keep this system going for as long as I can.
Advice For New Hobbyists
Take it slow!
I know it’s been said many times before, but this hobby is definitely not a race. Do plenty of research before making any sort of new purchase for your tank, whether it be equipment, lighting, livestock - whatever. Proper planning will serve you very well in the long run.
Get the best equipment you can afford.
I believe that when it comes to equipment, less is more. However, I also think it’s important not to skimp on the quality of the equipment you do choose to employ. If I had a chance to start over knowing what I know now, I would get a very nice heater, powerhead, and light right from the get-go, rather than slowly upgrading each piece and ending up with a big box of unused spare parts. The price of quality reefing gear seems really daunting in the beginning, but if you get the good stuff right from the get-go you actually end up saving quite a bit of money in the long run.
Observe your aquarium.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s very important! One of the most crucial skills an aquarist can acquire is a feel for when things are going well in one’s tank. The ability to simply glance at your animals and know whether or not they are happy is an invaluable asset to have, and it’s a skill that comes from countless hours of observing your aquarium and learning the habits of its inhabitants. We put lots of time, energy, and money into building our reefs, so don’t forget to look at yours!
It’s really easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff it takes to keep a reef tank going. Keeping all of your fish foods, testing kits, supplements, fragging equipment, and other reefing paraphernalia together in one location, preferably close to your tank, can take a whole lot of stress out of the hobby. I ended up buying a plastic shelving unit for $20 from Home Depot to store all of my gear on, and it’s made things considerably easier for me.
There are a lot of different opinions about aquacultured live rock out there on the internet these days, but I have to say that choosing to begin my tank with rock right out of the ocean was one of the best decisions I’ve made. The incredible variety of micro life forms that ocean rock brought into my tank is truly amazing - I got everything from macroalgae and feather duster worms to hitchhiking corals! Sure, I’ve seen my fair share of pests too (I’m looking at you, Aiptasia), but after 15 months of observing my tank I can definitively say that the benefits of aquacultured rock far outweigh the costs.
Part of the reason that ocean live rock is so good is because of the diversity of life that it brings into one’s tank. Biodiversity is essential for the maintenance of every living ecosystem on Earth, and home aquariums are no exception. A healthy balance of different types of algae and microorganisms helps enormously to keep one’s aquarium stable. My tank has experienced its fair share of “ugly” phases and algal blooms, but never have I seen any of my various pests go completely out of control. I firmly believe this is due to the relatively high biodiversity in my system.
Biotope aquariums are a unique and interesting way to approach the hobby, but they can also be a bit challenging. Sourcing livestock from a specific region often involves a lot of expensive online ordering, and the restrictions of a biotope can prove somewhat difficult to abide by in the long run. If you’re interested in starting a biotope tank I encourage you to give it a shot, but just make sure that you know what you’re getting into!
Sourcing livestock in a sustainable way is key for the long-term viability of the aquarium hobby. Aquaculture is the hot topic in sustainability these days, but I think that gathering a collection of purely captive-bred animals is not the only way to put together a responsibly-stocked system. Tanks that focus on macroalgae or fast-growing, easily-propagated invertebrates (gorgonians, for instance!) are also good examples of sustainable home aquaria.
High-end SPS tanks that explode the brain with kaleidoscopic colors are absolutely incredible, but they’re not for everyone. Don’t feel pressured to join the ranks of the SPS squad if you think it’s not for you, and certainly don’t let the daunting thought of keeping delicate, expensive corals alive dissuade you from starting out in the hobby to begin with. Remember that no one is keeping score - you don’t have to keep any of that stuff if you don’t want to - and that it’s possible to put together a beautiful reef aquarium with nothing but soft corals and time!
Many thanks to all of the community members who have offered me advice and guidance over the past year, and to everyone who frequents my journal thread and provides me with constant encouragement and support. I owe an especially big thank you to Christopher Marks for building this wonderful and welcoming community. Nano-Reef is definitely a very special place, and I don’t think I’d have gotten into this hobby at all if I had not discovered it. And most of all, thanks of course to my dear sweet mother, for introducing me at such a young age to the mystery and wonder of the sea.
It is a tremendous honor to have my humble aquarium featured alongside all of the stunning reef tanks commemorated here in the TOTM archive. I hope that my system can inspire other reefers down the line, just as many others here on N-R have inspired me.