Deb Susan Hopes This Qualifies as an Art, if not a Craft…

When I first acquired my reef tank, I made jokes about keeping “a box of water with rocks.” For the first three weeks, that’s all it was. A box of water with rocks I balanced atop one another to  form a kind of “reef.”

Tank Christmas Eve 2010

Not very interesting at that stage, though I watched it every evening anyway. 13B Max

Three weeks in, the live rock and live sand (meaning rocks and sand full of beneficial marine bacteria) had “cycled” enough to add a fish.

A fish!

But not a seahorse. Seahorses’ delicate nature and special needs meant six more months must pass before I could add one to the reef.

I needed something hardy, yet peaceful enough to share a tank with a seahorse. To the Internet! Several hours of research later, Emperor Max came home.

In the weeks that followed, while waiting for my lights, and then for my seahorses, I spent many hours reading about the types of corals and fish that live in peace with seahorse-kind. I planned and plotted and changed my mind, until I decided exactly which corals (and how many) I could have and where to place them.

11c nuclear greens 2I designed my reef with all the enthusiasm of a landscape architect laying out a botanical garden. I knew, to the inch, how many corals I could place and where they all would go. This was an art form, after all, and I’d studied and thought and planned it out. I designed a reef! And I was proud.

But all my planning and craft-like precision failed to account for one important point:

Plants can’t disagree with the planter’s diagram. Animals are another story – and corals are not plants. 11d ric mushrooms


More than half the corals I’ve bought didn’t want to live in the part of the reef I assigned them. Fortunately, I bring them home only one or two at a time, so I have freedom to move them around a bit and find a place they appreciate. Most of the time. On two occasions, I’ve had to admit defeat and return the coral to the store (exchanging it for another) because the specimen didn’t like my tank – in one case, because the flow was wrong, and in the other … for reasons I still can’t figure out.

I thought reefkeeping was like a craft – after all, I get to use glue to secure the coral frags to the reef – but as it turns out, it’s more of an art-meets-science. 80% of it has to do with water parameters, chemistry and flow, as well as picking specimens that live well together. But that last 20% or so is really more of an art – finding the place where each coral decides it’s happy, and then not moving someone unpleasant into the neighborhood later on.

12I tank

So there you have my contribution. Part art, part science – and maybe just a little bit of a craft.

After all, I do get to use the glue.

6 Replies to “Deb Susan Hopes This Qualifies as an Art, if not a Craft…”

  1. That’s amazing. I didn’t know so much went into creating a reef, but then why am I surprised? They are delicate ecosystems. How do you know when a coral doesn’t like it’s spot?

    1. Hi Lisa!

      When corals don’t like their location, they won’t open up or extend their polyps to feed. They stay closed down tight, like little fists. Unfortunately, this means they can’t feed (either photosynthetically, for the ones that generate energy that way, or by consuming food particles, for the ones that “eat” more normally) and eventually they will die. When I get one that won’t open, I have to figure out what about the lighting patterns, current, or “neighborhood” is making it “angry” and adjust until the polyps decide to open up.

      The “neighborhood” x-factor is hardest to predict. Many corals can secrete toxins when threatened by something in their environment, and many secrete additional chemicals to “test” for potentially toxic neighbors. So sometimes a coral may seem unhappy in its location when really the problem is a neighboring coral (usually upstream in the current) trying to poison it via chemical warfare.

      I had no idea, when I started, how aggressive corals can be. It’s been a real adjustment to my thinking. The brain says “flower…pretty!” but the biological truth is that many of them are more ruthless than most land animals I know of.

        1. It’s crazy, isn’t it? I knew so little about corals before I started reefkeeping. I knew I liked them, and they were pretty, but I had no idea what crazy little complicated lives they have. It’s been quite a learning experience.

    1. Thanks Kerry 🙂 I love the reef – even if it does take quite a bit of time, it’s my “pet project” in more ways than one. I’m really glad you like it too.

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