Congratulations to community member SaltyTanks and his 40 gallon nano reef aquarium for being selected for our January 2021 Reef Profile! With thoughtful planning and careful dedication, this mixed reef has evolved into a sculptural masterpiece. In this article SaltyTanks shares his experiences in the hobby and this aquarium's journey over the past two and a half years. Please 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 stunning reef tank.
SaltyTanks' 40 Gallon Mixed Reef
Display: 40-Gallon Innovative Marine NUVO Fusion (24” x 20” x 19”)
Lighting: Ecotech Radion XR15w Gen-4 with diffuser (AB+ color preset for 8 hours + 2 hours of blues for sunrise/sunset)
Circulation: (1) Might Jet 538 GPH return pump w/2 spin stream nozzles; and (2) Icecap 1k Gyre
Temperature: (1) ViaAqua 200 watt titanium heater; (2) Honeywell fan; (3) Inkbird thermostat/temp controller
Mechanical Filtration: (1) Aquamaxx HOB 1.5 skimmer; (2) filter floss
Biological Filtration: (1) Real Reef dry rock; (2) Caribsea Fiji pink sand; (3) CerMedia Marinepure biofilter balls; and (4) Chaetomorpha algae
Chemical Filtration: (1) Seachem's Phosguard; and (2) activated carbon
Top Off: Tunze Osmolator 3155 Auto Top Off with 2-gallon bucket reservoir from Home Depot
Established July 2018
Feeding: Once a day (evening), I feed the fish and shrimp a combo of frozen Hikari mysis and spirulina brine shrimp. I love when they know it's time to feed and all gather around together up front in the water column. They're very photogenic when hungry - literally all my fish pics are of hungry fish. For corals, twice a week I feed Reef Roids (~1/4 teaspoon), half target fed with pumps off for 15-20 minutes and then half broadcast fed with pumps on.
Dosing: Twice a day (morning & evening), I manually dose ATI Essentials Pro 2-part. Additionally, once a day in the evening I dose/feed Brightwell Aquatics' Coral Amino (2 drops), and Reef Nutrition's Phyto Feast and Oyster Feast (2 drops each).
Cleaning: Every 1-3 days, I will: (1) use a scraper to remove film algae from the display glass and acrylic backdrop; (2) blow debris off rocks and corals with a turkey baster; (3) blow up & stir the sand bed; (4) clean the skimmer cup; and (5) change filter floss. Every ~6 months I do a deep clean on the equipment (return pump, protein skimmer system & pump, gyre pump, temp probes etc) in addition to cleaning out the sump chambers.
Testing: Once a week I test for Alkalinity, Phosphate, and Salinity. Typically, I'm within the ranges of 8.0-8.5 (Alkalinity), 0.04-0.08 (Phosphates), and 1.025-1.026 (Salinity). Since ATI Essentials Pro provides appropriate levels of all major and trace elements within its 2-part system, dosed in equal parts, I haven't felt the need to routinely test the other major parameters. Though I should get an ICP test, which is something I've never done.
Water Changes: Once a week I perform a 5-gallon water change (~15%) with Red Sea Coral Pro and RODI filtered water. For a long time I was using filtered natural seawater shipped in from the backside of Catalina Island (CA) that a LFS carries, until just recently it started bothering me that phosphate levels of their water would test at 0.07.
I'd like to honor those who could not be here to celebrate with us today. I think it's important that I share this list for everyone to understand that it's not always honkey dory in TOTM-ville. I'll come clean with insight below, but for now, a moment of silence...
I was a kid in the late 80's, and my first experience with saltwater aquariums was when my older brother worked at a local fish store for his first job. He setup a tank at our house, which fascinated me. And then it annoyed me how long it took him to stock the tank after setting up - seemed like an eternity. The highly anticipated day finally arrived when he brought home a couple fish, and a lionfish. Wow, this is the best hobby ever! That excitement was brief because the next morning I bore witness to the aftermath evidence of a bloody battle. There were no survivors, just raw carnage. Aquarium keeping was the worst hobby in the world.
Just after high school I became scuba certified. I still thought aquarium keeping as a hobby was the dumbest idea ever, but now I was exposed firsthand to the epic beauty of underwater life. It's interesting looking back upon my pre-reef keeping era, in hindsight, and realizing how I tend to spend lots of precious airtime on just a small section of the reef. I'll stick my facemask in close and be content gazing at just a little nano nook of reef for longer than the rest of the dive group would prefer. The bigger fish in the sea are nice, but the colorful corals and little creatures you see when getting in close have always fascinated me most.
And as fate would have it, I stumbled upon a local fish store with my wife and two year old daughter a few years ago. At the entrance of the store stood a 6-gallon JBJ all-in-one tank setup with a clownfish pair, cleaner shrimp, and stocked to the brim with soft corals. OH MY, WHAT DO WE HAVE HERE?!?! Did tank technology really advance this much since my brother's janky 80's death cube? Was it really possible for me to sustain a nano nook of reef in our home!?!? My wife later went back to the LFS and bought an identical used 6-gallon cube, which she gifted to me as the best Father's Day present ever in this history of gift giving. And so it began, my journey into the best hobby in the world.
Inspiration & Goals
My first tank was a wonderful success and very gratifying personal achievement. I was very fortunate that my LFS had a knowledgeable employee with superhuman skills of patience. Bless her heart, she would answer all my beginner questions even when I would go into the store, ask questions for an hour, leave with a free copy of Reef Hobbyist Magazine without buying anything, and then let me back in the store the next day. Eventually I grew out the tank and learned enough to know that I should have done some things differently, like avoiding certain nuisance corals and aquascaping more thoughtfully. So, I Google searched "amazing reef tanks" and stumbled upon @Mr. Microscope's TOTM on Nano-Reef.com's glorious platform. My mind was blown again! And I knew I needed a bigger tank.
As a scuba diver that has an appreciation for art and enjoys dabbling in another affordably challenged hobby, photography, I find vertical reefscapes to be most aesthetically appealing. It's very pleasing to my eyes seeing sun rays beaming down to dramatically accentuate shapes and textures of a steep reef with contrasting highlights and shadows. Pinnacles, pillars, bommie islands, canyons, swim-through's... they're all great. So as a conceptual start for a new tank, I knew I wanted at least a pillar.
Since I knew my ideal sized second tank would be about 30-55 galloons given our spatial living constraints, and given that I felt the need to create a reefscape with more complexity than a single pillar, I began envisioning a two-piece aquascape. Two prominent structures that would be profoundly vertical and composed in a way to invoke a feeling of anticipation and movement like Michelangelo created between the fingertips of God and Adam with the famous fresco “The Creation of Adam” on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And my fish could swim through these two structures like divers floating through two continents at the Silfra continental fissure in Iceland. I wanted to achieve Yin/Yang aquascaping nirvana, so I harnessed my inner Mr. Miyagi and realized I needed a bonsai to balance the pillar. There would be intentional separation between two distinct forms, a bonsai bommie and a pillar, driven toward each other by an undeniable force. And so, my artscape was conceived.
Then I needed to figure out the canvas for which I could most effectively compose my aquatic artscape vision on. A 3:2 aspect ratio made the most sense since I could build up and get just the right amount of negative space. So, I ruled out nano cubes, shallow lagoons, and long aquariums. Innovative Marine’s 40G Nuvo had the most suitable display dimensions. And to get the dramatic light effect I envisioned, I would need to commit to a single concentrated light source to create directional lighting. I went with the single puck Radion LED. Also, the single puck LED concept made sense to me from the standpoint of more reliably predicting the direction and patterns I wanted corals to grow.
I love all types of corals, fish and livestock, so I don't have any preferential feelings toward certain types. Other than the fact that the clownfish is my spirit animal. No joke, all of my memorable dives on the reef have a charismatic clownfish involved. Most notably, a little clownfish I met when clinging to the seafloor of Fiji's Beca Lagoon. I was hyperventilating from the sight of big bull sharks feeding on tuna fish heads, just over my head, when a little clownfish swims up within a foot from my facemask. It pauses long enough for me to forget about the sharks shredding heads, and then suddenly darts at my facemask. It attacked my face. The irony forced a deep underwater chuckle out of me, and I was calm for the rest of the dive. Clownfish will forever be a part of my reef keeping interests.
Disasters & Challenges
The 1st challenge, an Ich outbreak, presented itself at month #7. At that time, I had my clownfish pair from the previous tank, a Yellow Striped Goby, and a Cleaner Shrimp. I picked up a healthy-looking Royal Gramma at a LFS and added without quarantine. Not long after, I started to notice behavioral changes from the Clownfish. They swam differently and brushed against rock and the sand bed like they were trying to scratch an itch. Then the Cleaner Shrimp setup shop with a line of fish that couldn't get enough. All of the fish stopped eating, and then the Yellow Striped Goby and Royal Gramma passed away. Miraculously, the Clownfish started to eat again and made it through. It was emotionally devastating, and it wasn't until a long time later that I considered adding another fish.
The 2nd challenge, a flatworm & nudibranch infestation, presented itself at month #11. I went on a spontaneous buying spree on a day that I was rushed and had no time to acclimate and dip the frags for pests. A couple weeks later, I mysteriously lost a rainbow montipora frag (one of the new frags). Then a trumpet coral (from the last tank) started to lose flesh head by head. Then the acans, then a chalice, then zoas started to close up, then up the pillar to another montipora. I was naive not to consider the issue was pest related and instead thought it was a water parameter issue that needed to be solved. Eventually I took a few pieces to my LFS to see if there was any hope for survival. They pulled out an iPhone camera and zoomed in x10 on a frag and said, "well, I think I found your problem." It was a nudibranch party. I went home and found not only more nudibranchs, but some nasty long flatworms joining the party. I treated the tank with Salifert's Flatworm Exit and additionally dipped all the corals several times in Coral Rx. There were survivors, fortunately, but too many corals perished due to my reckless negligence.
I'm grateful that I didn't give up after these two devastating events, because the journey has since been fun with less challenges. Although I did just have to re-write this write-up after accidentally deleting the draft halfway through, so there's also that.
After ~2.5 years growing this tank out, I've come to realize that I still have a lot to learn and this tank needs more time to reach its full potential. One of my initial visions for this tank was to get the Jack-O-Lantern to encrust over the bonzai branch, and it's now only halfway, so that should give me enough time to add more flow and figure out how to color up many of the corals. Then, I can start thinking about aquascaping my mother-in-law's backyard spool (spa-pool).
Tips For My Beginner Self
Here are my Top 3 tips that I would stress to myself as a beginner. Note that I consider myself an intermediate reef keeper with a lot to learn before I would consider myself advanced, so I'm pretty sure my future self will want to tell my current self a whole new set of Top 3 tips. This reef keeping stuff would be a lot easier if I could just get my hands on a time machine.
- Be Patient: Your motto should be: "Be patient." You must wait longer than you expect to see the consequences of your actions. You just made a change to your setup and I know you're itching to tweak that other setting, but do not do that. Your vulnerable little eco system will not appreciate your hasty ways. Be patient. Corals grow really really really slow. Think like a coral. Take it really really really slow. Be patient.
- Harness Routine: You've lived all your life spontaneously. You cannot fathom settling down into a routine. Well, buddy, you now have kids and a fish tank, so hunker down and get used to routine. If you do not harness routine, your kids and your corals will act all crazy and you will wonder why your kids and your corals are acting all crazy. Kids and corals love routine, so you should learn to love it too.
- Keep Hands Out: You just added a new coral. Looks great, congrats bud. But wait, now you want to stick your hands back into the tank to move it over an inch when you know darn well that you're just going to do it again tomorrow and the next day? Stop that! It's like setting off a hotel fire alarm in the middle of the night - guests have a hard time going back to sleep and they're not going to be in a good mood tomorrow. Actually, it's worse than that analogy. That new coral you just added might melt away. Coral growth and consumption of the elements might pause, and as you continue dosing on the same schedule thinking everything's all sunshine and peachy, you're going to spike your Alk. Then you'll freak out when you realize you spiked your Alk, and you'll probably stick your hands in the tank again because you just can't help yourself. Stop! Keep your hands out.
- Lighting Technology: Here's my pitch to anyone with a can-do attitude and resources to make my dream come true - LED Auto Slider Mount. I really love how a single concentrated light source emphasizes a reef's textures with contrasting highlights and shadows, but a stationary single concentrated light is extremely challenging and limits a reef keeper's ability to successfully fill up a mixed reef tank. I wish someone would sell me an LED Auto Slider Mount, that operates like an electronic camera slider for time lapse photography, except this would move the LED over my tank like the sun attached to hands of a clock. I think this would help my light coverage issues and give me the same highlight/shadows effect. 2 for 1 special!
Thank you very much Chris for featuring my tank this month and building such a resourceful and amazing platform. To my wife and kids: I love you so much and thank you so much for supporting my favorite hobby in the world. And thank you to our friends who take care of this precious little eco system when we are away. The Nano-Reef.com platform and its members have truly been an impactful resource and inspiration for me. @mitten_reef, @billygoat, @Matteo, @debbeach13, and many others are always so encouraging, and make it fun to be active on here. @lizzyann, your artistic approach is amazing & inspirational, and your tank is my favorite. Thank you all!