Starting A Saltwater Aquarium - Part 1 - Where To Start (research)

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Starting a Saltwater System - Part 1 - Where to start your Research

HI everyone,
So having recently setup my Reef tank, I've taken some time to reflect on my experiences, what I learnt, how did I do it etc.

So I thought I'd take some time to share the experience, and maybe impart some 'wisdom' so to speak. In what I hope will be the first of a few little guides for our community, I hope to be able to take you through some of the topics and things that they don't tell you.

A bit of warning - this is not intended to answer every topic, just to guide or prod the reader to further readings. There are many books and internet sites out there that discuss this in detail.

Upon reflection, it's easy to sit back and say "that wasn't nearly as bad as I thought". But in reality it was a struggle, the journey started in January 2011, with the dream of a reef, and thus began my research.

We've all heard the advice "Research, research and then do a little more research", and we've been given the Beginner Guide links etc. Most will have been told to decide what system you want (FO/FOWLR/Reef) and research those setups. But if one hasn't done any research, how do you know what type of system might interest you.

For those interested in SW, it's a common theme, and often a deterring factor is the Research... Why? Well I feel it is because very few will tell you where to start It leaves the hobbyist in a bind, reading beginner guides is easy, but it still doesn't really tell you what you want to know.

So where do you start? That's easy, at the beginning of course

The beginning - The Reefs of the World
Appreciate the Scale of your project
The very first concept any hobbyist needs to get their head around is that of the natural reefs, and develop an appreciation of the scale of the project and the environment we try to replicate.

If we take the Great Barrier Reef (located off the North East Coast of Australia) as our example, the enormity of this natural wonder of the world is mind-boggling. At approximately 2000kms in length (1200 miles) and many kilometres wide, the GBR is simply one of the biggest natural aquatic eco-systems in the world, covering an area estimated to be 344,400 square kilometres, or 133,000 square miles

The whole eco-system is self-sustaining, it endures tropical cyclones/storms, commercial shipping routes and commercial fishing, yet this beautiful eco-system keeps on going.

2000kms of natural wonder - and we want to take some of it and put it in a 1m (3ft) glass box, or even smaller. Keep in mind that most of the specimens we keep in our small boxes are hand-caught off the reefs, and shipped all over the world [yes Finding Nemo is frighteningly representative of the Saltwater trade]

Is the "go as big as you can" concept starting to make sense now?

Whilst I recommend reading about some of the world's reefs, it's not important to know everyone of them, but you must take the time to appreciate the scale of the project.

To completely understand a reef is near on impossible - there is so much that happens out there that science still doesn't have all the answers.

What makes a Reef
Next on the list, is understanding the construction of the reef environment. Our reefs are thousands of years old, they have developed over-time. Predominantly formed by dead-corals building up, and allowing more corals to grow on top, and then they die, and so-on and so-forth.

And here's the next comment "Nothing good happens fast in SW". If it took thousands of years to create it, how can we possibly expect to recreate 'overnight' so to speak

The reef environment is a complex accumulation of a complete life-cycle. It's a dog-eat-dog world on the reef (so to speak).

The reef cleans itself, replenishes itself, feeds itself, and thus is the circle-of-life.

In addition to the foundations, each and every animal on the reef has a purpose. Shrimp, snails, abalone, sea cucumbers all play their part in keeping the reef clean. Some shrimp even have a dual purpose, notably the Skunk cleaner which will also clean other fish of parasites etc.

Certain species of fish feed on inverts like shrimp, others feed on corals, others the algae that grows, and some are carnivores.

So why does this matter to me?
Well enter the concept of Live Rock (more on this later) as a foundation for a Saltwater setup (FOWLR or Reef). The live rock as we call it, not only makes a perfect base to build your Saltwater system around, it has the added advantage of being an extremely good biological filter (there's plenty of topics on the net that explains this, and maybe I'll discuss it more detail later when we get to filtration)

If we are to replicate a natural environment, it makes sense to use what Mother Nature uses...... doesn't it?

Next is the fish and inverts - understanding the role the fish, corals and inverts etc play in the reef helps us to determine what we want in our system.

I'll split the rest by phases, it may be easier to follow.
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The Next Phase of Research - Reef Life

So the next phase in my journey, now that I had a grasp of what a Reef is, and how it all fits together, was to understand how life was sustained on the reef.

Keep in mind, I still hadn't decided what I wanted, other than a reef.

Reef Life - Anemones
So I think we all like and probably want the Nemo in the Anemone setup. I had heard anemones and corals are hard to keep, so I thought I'd start with the hardest, and build my knowledge around that - after all, it's the hardest to keep that can dictate what equipment to buy.

I'd encourage any potential reader to check out anemones, and learn about them first. Many people I've spoken to think that anemones are just another type of coral - wrong! An anemone is actually very interesting, they will move around to find an environment that suits them, both on the reef, and in captivity.

They do have particular requirements for feeding, lighting and flow, so it's important you consider these.

Reef Life - Corals
The building blocks of the reef if you will. The biggest thing that struck me was how many different types of corals there are, not just species, but in form, soft, hard, polyps (terms like SPS and LPS). This is still an area of the reef that spins my head.

But again, learning about corals, what they eat (some are carnivores, some are filter feeders), the light they require, and more importantly, for hard corals, I learnt about other requirements like Calcium, Magnesium, Alkalinity.

The other thing I learnt, was that corals are a food source for many fish.

Reef Life - Fish
Normally the first step for most, is to look at the fish, but I chose to look at the fish last.

Having learnt that corals are a food source for some fish, and that the very nature of the reef is a complete system, understanding the behaviour of fish was important.

This is where the concept of "Reef Safe" comes in. Quite often, fish will be considered not safe for reefs because, in the wild (and in captivity), there is evidence that they eat inverts (shrimp) or corals or both.
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The fun Phase - Deciding On Your Setup

Ok, so if you're still with me, you've probably been waiting for this bit............

How do I decide what setup is best for me?

So before we answer this, let's consider what we know:

- We understand the environment we're trying to replicate
- We understand a little about the different life on the reef, and what they require
- We're starting to get an idea of what we want to keep

The decision on a setup, IMO comes down to the answers to the following:
"How much work do I want to do?"
"How much money do I want to spend (invest)?"
"If I want corals, and a coral eating fish, which is more important?"

Reef Setup
The only thing that separates a Reef setup from a FOWLR is the addition of Corals. (and technically, inverts too)
If you've taken the time to learn about corals, you'll appreciate that they are not as simple as just putting in the tank. They have specific requirements, that can require the addition of supplements, specific food (phytoplanktons etc), and more precision lighting.

Pros: They look absolutely magnificent. The ultimate in fish-keeping. Constantly evolving eco-system. Truly rewarding.
Cons: Cost more to setup and run, require more diligence with water conditions/parameters, specific feeding requirements. Can limit choice of fish and inverts.

If you've decided that corals are not for you, then a FOWLR is the next best way to go. FOWLR setups are probably the most versatile when it comes to stocking.

Pros: Cheaper than a reef setup, can still benefit from coralline algae (the amazing purple stuff), provides a great way to mimic the natural reef, and give hiding places for fish, inverts and the like. Can become a reef easily.
Cons: Not many really, other than no corals.

If I'm perfectly honest, I do not see the point of a fish-only Saltwater setup. Considering what we have learnt about the reefs, and that our specimens are generally hand-caught from the wild.

My opinions aside - If you are going to go with a FO setup, please take the time to at least construct a 'fake' reef. Reef fish generally require hiding places, and channels through rocks etc.


That was my approach to researching my reef setup. Yet still at this stage, I had only decided on a reef setup. There is still more research to come, but I consider it the fun research (choosing equipment, planning etc)

For those that are interested - the above topics probably consumed 6 months of my time, learning, the more I learnt, the more I wanted to learn, as some topics spawned new thoughts, so more reading.

If you are dedicated, you'll find yourself immersed in the reef environment

I hope you've enjoyed the read, sorry for the wall-o-text, but for those interested in starting a Saltwater system, I hope it's helped point you in a direction to start your reading.

Till the next episode....... thanks for reading.

Follow the learning: Starting a Saltwater System - Part 2 - Bringing Nature Home (Researching Equipment)
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Great post!!!
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A great read and tbh a great inside into the amount of research you have done and what it is about reef life that everyone loves so much

I'm now looking at starting a fowlr tank and may add corals once I'm comfortable with the parameters within the tank, thanks for the good read
Gerardo Akssel Tellez
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Awesome post, now I'm more confident in wanting to start a saltwater aquarium
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Is there a list somewhere of fish that DONT eat coral?
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Hard to say about that. One of those things you usually have to look up for specific fish. Sometimes it even depends on the fish itself rather than just the species as a whole, their tank size, how much they are fed, etc. Most of the fish listed under the "reef safe" tag are usually safe to put with your coral give or take an angel or two. Any specific fish you are curious about?
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No I was just reading through as it's something I would really like to do later in my life and you can never start researching to early right
  • #10
Many thanks for this most interesting post leaves me wanting to learn more.
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ryanr - those are some of the best posts I've seen on Saltwater setup. Well done. Very considerate, proactive and informative.
  • #12
I'm just starting a sw and doing research at this point and being new to the community finding this is a life saver well written thank you

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