setting up a marine reef tank

Brad and the Resident Carpenter begin the laborious process of setting up our new marine reef tank

I dunno, he just LOOKED like a Fred.

“Nobody I’ve met,” laughed Brad-the-fishguy, “Ever named their reef tank ‘Fred.'”

The Resident Carpenter just grinned; I think he’s getting used to my anthropomorphizations. I figure that the rate at which Fred is emptying my wallet entitles me to call him whatever the hell I please.

Of course, it’s money well-spent, since it’ll let me do reef diving in the living room in place of the scuba diving I’ll probably never get to do again, thanks to this whole Saving Elmo thing.

Elmo’s bony neighbors hold sway over dangerous outdoor activities like walking down my driveway, which currently can only be done under close supervision (i.e., I carefully inch sideways down to the mailbox while the Resident Carpenter hovers anxiously, waiting to grab me if I slip and fall).

The doc frowned thunderously when I mentioned the resumption of scuba diving. Heaven knows what he’d say about the rest of my bucket list:

  • Indoor skydiving
  • Mountain (well, big rock) climbing
  • Skiing
  • Surfing
  • Hang gliding
  • Mushroom hunting
  • English riding (well, more to the point: Jumping)
  • Kayaking
  • Fishing (or at least sitting in the boat and watching others fish while I swim and read in the sun)
  • Among many other things

I’m determined to do all the wilderness outdoorsy things I’ve avoided for decades.

The whole Saving Elmo thing reminded me that we’ve got a limited time on the planet and I haven’t really experienced the great outdoors in all its buggy, dirt-filled glory. I’ve never really fallen off a mountain or gotten bitten by a scorpion, or eaten bad mushrooms and nearly died, or caught a fishing lure with my eye, been attacked by a grizzly, accidentally put a ski pole through my leg, or thought the gun wasn’t loaded and shot off my big toe.

These are the things the rest of the active world loves to do and, by damn, I’m gonna do them. I’m tired of telling people that I nearly lost my left leg falling down two feet of concrete steps, not even a whole staircase.

The next time I’m in a hospital, it’ll be because my parachute failed at exactly the wrong moment, leaping off the cliff to avoid an angry water buffalo. Or something like that.

Anyway, I’m a “high fall risk” for the next five years, even after I’m walking normally (or as normally as possible). So I’m starting small, with a reef tank I can view from the living room sofa.

coral tank live rock

“Live rock” contains bacteria and other little critters that act as tank filters for the ecosystem

Even that’s a victory of sorts; after I moved back home from the hospital I tried sitting in that sofa and got stuck trying to stand back up. Three hours later I actually made it out, and stayed OUT of that bloody sofa.

On Sunday, I snuggled down into the sofa for the first time in months. Nathan stood by, waiting to help me up…but I didn’t need it. I watched Fred for awhile, then arose from the plushy leather cushions (almost) like normal people, stood up, and went on my merry grannywalker way.

Victory. Of a sort that whets my appetite for more.

placing rock in a marine reef tank

Brad starts “aquascaping,” i.e., placing live rock and sand into the aquarium to provide an obstacle course, shelters, and cleaning stations for the inhabitants

While I’m working on the adventures part, I’ve got Fred, a 90-gallon aquarium made of 10mm Starphire glass. My friend Aviva gifted it to us–filters, cabinet, tank, lights, and a whole bunch of supplies–because she’s moving her family back east. Aviva used it for freshwater fish, but I’ve always wanted a saltwater reef tank.

Turns out saltwater aquaria are a LOT more complicated than my childhood freshwater tanks. “Our first aquarium,” Mom sniffed, “Was a school cafeteria mayonnaise jar, filled with guppies. Those guppies grew like weeds.”

How hard could this be? “We shouldn’t need much equipment,” I’d said to Jeff the Reef Dude from Cuttlefish and Corals, “The tank came with all kinds of filters and CO2 generators and pumps and timers and stuff. Plus a cabinet.”

filling up a marine reef tank

Brad brought about 72 gallons of synthetic seawater to fill up the tank.

He gave me a pitying smile. “Actually,” he said kindly, “Freshwater equipment doesn’t work for marine reef tanks. We can sell you some used stuff, left over from people who have stopped keeping a tank [no doubt after declaring bankruptcy], to save you a little money.”

newly filled marine reef tank

The new seawater stayed cloudy for about 24 hours, until the filter cleaned it out

Turns out that Fred needed lots of pumps and filters and something called a “protein skimmer.” “It siphons off the fish waste to keep the ammonia down in your tank,” explained Brad, Jeff’s assistant, “You’ll empty this once a week, and I’ve got to warn you: Fish poop doesn’t exactly smell good.”

Fred also needed special lights. “We have lights,” I said smugly, pointing to the fluorescents that came with the aquarium.

“Not like these,” Jeff shook his head, “You need good LED lights with controls that let you set which spectra of light turn on at which times. That keeps your fish and corals healthy. Good LEDs can cost more than all the rest of the equipment put together.”

Yes. Yes they can. Ulp.

Jeff got my order together, sent over an estimate for that and the installation, and after I finished screaming in pain, made an appointment for a Saturday installation.

The Sunday before, I motored over to Jeff’s store and–exclusively on the grannywalker, I’ll have you know–I strolled through his tanks and picked out my “livestock,” i.e., the interesting critters that will populate Fred.

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“Understand,” warned Jeff, “That you don’t get these all at once. Stocking your tank will take a year or more.”

He’s telling this to the woman whose motto is “I want it now, and I want it delivered.” Brave man.

“Once your tank is set up with live rock and sand,” he continued, “You’ll season it for a week, then bring us a sample to test. If it’s ok, we’ll sell you a cleaning crew. You’ll let them work for a couple of weeks, then test again. If everything’s ok, you can start introducing the invertebrates, and maybe a fish or two.”

Lemme translate that: Live rock and live sand are actual rock and sand harvested from the sea, cleaned up, and injected with all kinds of bacteria and such. They form the basis of your marine ecosystem, acting to filter out a bunch of…whatever.

The tests tell you whether your synthetic sea water is behaving like…sea water. Specific gravity determines the level of salinity.

A cleaning crew, apparently, is about 50 snails and crabs and shrimp and clams that are installed first to start the filtration processes needed to keep the tank healthy. The shrimp will set up a cleaning station, kinda like a fish car wash, and the crabs will run around biting the snails or something.

The invertebrates, to be honest, are the things I’m really interested in, the non-fish stuff like shrimp and clams and corals and anemones and sea horses.

Scratch seahorses. “They’re too delicate, and an awful lot of the other things in the tank will damage them,” said Brad, who showed up to install the tank.

When you get a kitten, you don’t really worry about it eating the rest of your menagerie (unless you raise mice). With a marine reef tank, predator-prey is a prime concern: Your new pets must be “compatible,” i.e., not prone to biting, stinging, consuming, or otherwise inconveniencing their neighbors.

“That eel you mentioned,” Brad began…

“You mean the gorgeous black and white spotty eel in your store? Yep! That’s top of my list,” I burbled delightedly.

“He’s also top of the food chain,” Brad pointed out, “And he gets to be about five feet long. There’s a reason that he’s sitting in an empty tank; anything that goes in there with him gets eaten.”

Oh. Fooey.

protein skimmer

The protein skimmer eats fish poop, apparently

And there are a host of other incompatibilities. No jellyfish–they need a circular tank. Very few nudibranchs–my favorite sea critters–can live in an aquarium because their diets are very specific and largely unknown. “We’ll get you a nudibranch,” Brad promised, “But it might take awhile to find a compatible one.”

Cuttlefish–my number one choice for this reef tank–are basically intelligent garbage disposals and very poor neighbors. “They’ll decimate a tank in short order,” grimaced Brad, “They make really good pets, but they need their own space.”

“We have an extra aquarium,” Nathan shrugged, “So once we have this one on its feet, we can have a second cuttlefish tank.”

I think I’ve birthed a monster.

Brad and the Resident Carpenter carried in the stand–the RC’s completely overhauled it, with new doors and a catproof canopy top, with a really cool fauxbois painted finish–and set the cleaned tank on top. Brad set to work “aquascaping” the live rock and sand.

The Resident Carpenter started hauling in Brad’s water tanks–72 heavy gallons, and it turned out we needed 15 gallons more. Brad slowly filled the aquarium, which immediately turned milky white. It took a day for the new filters to restore clarity, while Nathan fretted over the aquascape and made adjustments.

“There’s sand piled up in the center of that tunnel,” he warned, reaching for a coat hanger to adjust it, “If I were a fish I’d rather have a smooth, rounded tunnel.”

aquascaping a marine reef aquarium

Nathan the Resident Carpenter adjusts the sand and rocks, preparing for the “cleaning crew” to arrive next week. By then he’ll have finished the new cabinet doors and canopy to hold the lights. (Resident Carpenters definitely come in handy sometimes)

I’m thinking I might sculpt some kind of a face–a mermaid portrait, maybe, in my favorite Bullseye honeymix–intended to be covered with “coralline algae” and such, to blend into the aquascape.

For now, we’re climbing an unexpectedly steep learning curve. Next week we’ll acquire a cleaning crew for our marine tank. In maybe a year we’ll have a real live reef environment.

Be patient, Cynthia.