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Saltwater Aquarium, Part 1

Hi, all. I’m not blogging today about my wonderful guy, or my books, or my writing, or my house, or my dogs. I know, it’s amazing, but I’ve found a new topic. My very first saltwater aquarium. If this is a topic of interest to you, read on. If not, stay tuned. I’ll post other topics soon!

I’m not going to post any pictures of my own tank yet, as there’s not much to see, although I’m adding pics of the fish I have so far as I go along, here. I do want to blog about this experience, because good advice is really hard to come by. In most of the pet supply stores where I have gone to ask questions, the employees are very busy, and so they’re speaking very fast, and far, far over my head. I tell them I’m a beginner, and they reply with words I’ve never even heard, much less understand. Top that off with the fact that I’ve talked to four of these store based experts so far, and each one has said something entirely different. So I’m feeling my way.

We began on 2/4, when my gorgeous, wonderful life partner, hunk and all around hero-man, brought home a complete saltwater setup, including a 90 gallon tank. For my birthday. Yes, he did. =) He had crushed coral for the bottom, rather than gravel or sand, a 5 gallon jug of pre-mixed saltwater, a bag of salt water mix, to make up the rest, some “base rock*,” a light fixture, a filter pump, a stand to set the whole thing on, and some other little items.

Sidebar #1: *Base rock is just big chunks of rock that used to live in the ocean. It comes in a box. It’s not the same as live rock, but eventually, stuff will grow on and around it. You buy it because it actually helps filter the water in your tank. (This is what they mean when they start telling you about your “biological filter.” I kept thinking I had to go buy one of those!) Base rock is also good because it gives you something to pile your live rock on top of. Live rock is way more expensive, and if you’re going to build a coral reef in your tank, you buy the bleach-white base rock as a foundation. It’s good for your tank and for your fish. But they don’t tell you all that. They just say, “here, you’ll need this,” and hand you a box full of rock. Our box said “Live rock” on it, though it wasn’t really, and it was also labeled “Texas rock.” Live rock, real live rock, is in a salt water tank at the store. It stays in water on the ride home and goes straight from that water to your tank. It has stuff growing on it. Just so you know.

We had a five gallon jug of pre-mixed sea water, and bags of salt to mix up the rest ourselves. The pre-mixed stuff is great, full of healthy bacteria and the like. The mix is also great, and also has lots more in it than just salt. We mixed it according to the label directons and the salinity level ended up just about perfect. It’s important to know you’re going to need to measure that, the salinity level, when you first set up the tank. There are simple little plastic devices to do that with, and they don’t cost much, but if you don’t know you need one, you’ll be in a bind. So get one.

Anyway, we were told later that we should have probably bought about 30 gallons of the pre-mixed water for our 90 gallon tank. So next time, we’ll know, 1/3 to 1/2 of the start-up water should be the premixed stuff. And at 17.99 for every 5 gallons, that’s going to run into a chunk of change.

Anyway, we got the tank set up, the salnity (saltiness) level just right and the filter running, the white rock was positioned in the bottom, and we were looking good. I had an ordinary fluorescent light fixture on top, and a good heater inside. I was ready to go.

So, two days later, eager to get started, I headed back to the fish store to get a water testing kit, and some more rock, live rock this time. I felt I should probably get some rock and coraline algae and plants and stuff growing first, before adding any fish.

The sales girl there told me I was wrong, and had it all backward. She said it’s better to go ahead and get my first few fish right away, because “you need to get something started” (meaning, bacteria and stuff in the water) and “you have to start somewhere,” and “fish are easier than coral.” (I have since learned that one should wait AT LEAST a month before adding fish to a saltwater tank. My gut had told me to buy rock and plants first, and my gut was right.) But I listened to the sales girl, and I bought two clown fish, two bright blue yellow tail damsels, and one striped damsel, who looks like a zebra-fish. This same salesgirl told my my live rock would die unless I bought a more high powered type of lighting unit, so not to buy any rock until I could get the right lighting. Okay.

One of the yellow tail damsels died within two days. His pretty blue turned pure black, his back fin went all porcupine spikey, and that was the end of him. I tested the water over and over, and there was a bit of ammonia in it, and I knew that was what had killed him. I’ve had freshwater fish before, and I know ammonia is deadly to them. So back to the fish store I went, in hopes of buying “Ammo-lock” or some similar chemical to cure the problem.

Spoke to a sales-man this time who was furious that the girl had told me to add fish already. The tank has to “cycle*” first, he said, as if I should know what that meant. And that takes about a month. He wouldn’t let me buy chemicals to fix the ammonia problem. Instead he gave me a soaked rag, taken from one of their healthy tanks, and chock full of healthy bacteria, that should make the tank “cycle faster” and maybe save my remaining fish. The rag had smears of black stuff on it, and looked disgusting, but I believed this guy, so I did what he said and was grateful for the rag, which was free! I also spoke to him about lighting and rock, and wound up buying one new light fixture, with four skinny bulbs in it. I will need another one in time, but this one would be enough to start with, and with it, my live rock would begin to grow. I so I also bought a nice big reddish piece of live rock.

Sidebar #2: *The tank’s cycle is this; first the ammonia level will climb, then as it goes down, the nitrite level goes up, and as that goes down, the nitrate level rises. And then finally it will have readings of zero for all three, and when that happens, the tank has cycled. When this has happened, you do a 25% water change, and then you watch the cycle happen all over again, but to a far lesser degree, and from then on you should change your water at a rate of 10% to 20% every month. One source I read recommended a 5% change every week or every other week, depending on your readings, which seems easier and less stressful to the fish.

Anyway, back to my experience. I added the dirty wet rag thingie, and the new light, and the gorgeous new rock. The remaining fish seemed to do fine (so far.) In fact, they’ve been really wonderfully happy and active. But the next thing that happened was that a rusty brown algae began growing on my rocks, and soon it spread to the crushed coral in the bottom of the tank. (The stuff on the tank bottom, btw, be it gravel, sand, or crushed coral, is called the “substrate.”) At first, I thought this algae might be a good thing, but when I saw how fast it spread, I decided it was not. It wasn’t pretty, and it was growing too fast. I phoned one fish store and the expert there told me that’s normal, not to worry, it’ll go away on its own, and to to go buy a lawn mower blenny, (an algae eating fish) and to do my first partial water change early. (At this point the tank was two weeks old. That first change should be at four weeks or so.)

So we planned another trip to the fish store today, but then we found a great big one we hadn’t seen yet, Fairmount Aquariums in Syracuse. The place looked fabulous online, and we wanted to see all the tanks and fish and coral in person, not just in the photos on the website, so we took a drive up there today. We met Tim, and told him what was happening with the tank, and he asked us one simple question. Do you have those high powered lights on the tank? Yes, we said. And are they turned on? he asked. On during the day and off at night, I told him. He nodded, and said that’s why you have algae.

In hindsight, I should have realized that. I have had a swimming pool, I know that the more sunlight that hits it, the more the algae will grow. Anyway, this fellow, Tim, advised me to yes, do a partial water change now, around 10%. But mostly, turn the lights off. And no, he said, you should not add another fish. It’ll be a miracle if the ones you already have survive. It’s too soon for fish. He did help me pick out some more gorgeous rock for the tank though, and told me what else I had to do.

We came home and removed every piece of rock from the tank. We scrubbed them with a toothbrush to remove all the rusty algae, except for the pale pink bloom that had begun on one piece of rock, which we believe to be coraline algae–and if it is, that is WONDERFUL.

After the scrubbing, we vacuumed the bottom to remove the algae from the crushed coral (substrate) and then we did the 10% water change with water we bought at Fairmount Aquariums. It was a lot to put the four fish through, and I could tell they were quite upset. I’ve already grown very attached to them, especially the two clown fish, who act like puppies, and swim right up to the side every time I go near the tank. They follow my fingers over the glass. They play. They’re cute!

Their water is all cloudy, too, after all that excitement. But it’s clearing right up now. We put the old light back on the tank, and turned off the pretty, powerful ones that made the bad algae grow. I’m not sure I should have any light on it at all right now, but I’ll use this one only minimally, and if the brown stuff comes back, I’ll turn it off and leave it off.

And so now, the big tank is two weeks old, and that’s where we are. We intend to do another 10% water change in two more weeks. Tomorrow, when the water has settled and is crystal clear again, I’ll begin doing daily water testing, now that I know what it is I’m looking for, and how to look for it. The expensive test kit I bought was almost impossible to read. The water samples change color when you add chemicals, and you then have to match it to a color chart. But if you hold the test water against the paper, it’s one shade. Hold it an inch away, it’s a whole different color. Change the angle you’re looking through it, and it’s a different one yet. And nowhere in that kit does it tell you the best way to look at the samples. Tim says you look down through the top. Hmm. I’m going to try that next time.

Anyway, I’ll be charting the levels of all the chemicals. Ammonia, nitrites and nitrates, so I can find the pattern, and understand my tank’s natural cycles, and so that I will know when the time is right to add some more living things, such as snails, starfish, and a blenny to eat any bad algae, some more swimmers, an anemone for my clownfish, and some of the gorgeous plants that will attach to my live rock and spread. I’ll also be testing other things like Ph, iron, and calcium levels, as those are very important to plants and anemones.

I’m learning about all of this as I go. I’ll photograph the tank in a day or two, when things are pretty again, though it really doesn’t look like much yet. Still, when I saw the gorgeous coral reef tanks in that store today, I knew I wanted mine to look like that one day, and it will.

For now, though, it’s a big glass tank, with a lot of water, a handful of fish, and a few rocks in the bottom. One thing all of my experts and sales people and even the books I bought, agree on, is that this is a hobby that takes patience.

This is a really fun new adventure, I have to tell you. I’m enjoying every bit of it. But it would be nice if you didn’t have to hunt so long and hard for a basic piece of wisdom like “don’t run the big lights until after the first month.” I mean, really. I bought books that didn’t mention that tidbit. Sheesh!

Okay, more later. Oh and if you’re into salt water fish or want to be, there’s a great yahoogroup for those new to this hobby where I’ve been getting the best tips anywhere: Salt Water For Beginners The more who join in, the better the group will be, so check that out.

I’ll post updates soon, and photos too, promise.


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