Once again, I began to purchase various Softie and LPS specimens from my local stores as well as few from California.  Looking back on it now, I was probably going a little too quickly at this point because by the end of the year, I was already pretty well packed.  It didn’t look as spectacular as my previous California reeftank because the pieces were much smaller but they did seem to be thriving for a change. More importantly though, I too seemed to be thriving in that I was actually beginning to enjoy myself!  In fact, for the first time since it was fired up, I could envision myself just settling back and whiling away the hours observing the marvels of my slice of undersea nature from the comfort of my easy chair.

Then the ‘SPS’ bug hit.

I am the only person I know of who was introduced to maintaining Acropora in captivity the way I was.  Some time in ‘99, while photographing the tank, I noticed a tiny growth that seemed to be attached to a piece of live rock.  What brought this growth to my attention was the fact that, if you looked close enough, it seemed to have a light blue ring around it.  In time, it grew into a quarter inch ‘frag’ with the beginnings two distinct branches coming from it.  At this point, I knew I had something special here. I just wasn’t sure what.

You have to remember, sources like Reef Central were still a couple years away for me.  I’m not even sure I had a computer at this point.  Also, at least in terms of this area, the keeping of ‘SPS’ corals of any kind was still very rare.  But because of a few books like Delbeek & Sprungs’, ‘The Reef Aquarium I’ and Fossa & Nilsens’ ‘The Modern Coral Reef Aquarium Part I’, there WAS information out there so it wasn’t very long before I had a general idea what I was dealing with.  What I didn’t know, however, was that I was directly on the forefront of the ‘SPS’ explosion that was soon to rock the hobby.  I mean, I SHOULD’VE known, as my current tank was just starting to fill in and look good.

Anyway, it was almost as though the minute I finished reading everything available locally, the colored sticks (mostly colored brown, by the way) began showing up in all the shops. So, buoyed by the success at keeping my own little hitchhiker, meaning, I didn’t have to do anything, it just liked where it was and thrived on its own, no one was happier to see them come along than me.  I bought several and, knowing they were light lovers, stuck them between LR all over the upper part of the tank.  Man, this acro stuff couldn’t be any easier, could it?

Well, after several quick frustrating and deaths (while my hitchhiker continued to thrive), I started to believe that perhaps there was more to keeping SPS than I was willing to admit. In hindsight, one of my main problems was that I was steadfast in trying to make this little transition work with the lighting and equipment I already had.  After all, that stuff was hardly three years old and really expensive!  I’m not buying a whole new set of crap just so some little earthen colored sticks could grow into a bunch of larger earthen colored sticks. Screw the sticks!  I’ll just let the tank thrive along as it was.  I mean, my softies and ‘LPS’ were still doing great, weren’t they?  And even a large Montipora centerpiece I’d acquired from another local hobbyist was growing pretty well.  I was just having that little problem with the acros, that’s all.  Well, so what?  Like everyone says, they’re pretty hard to keep anyway.

And then one day, I had a visit that completely changed my (reefkeeping) life.  It was from (the late) Gregory Schiemer, noted writer, speaker, hobbyist, and who, to my surprise, was also a neighbor of mine! He had heard about my reef (‘told you it was doing well’) from one of the employees at my LFS, got in touch, and soon came over to see it for himself.  One of the first things he noticed was my healthy little hitchhiker acro. So, first, making sure that he understood that I could not POSSIBLY be happier with my tank the way it was, I decided to casually mention my earlier frustrations with regard to keeping store bought Acropora, which I didn’t really care about, and proceeded to pick his brain for over an hour.  For some reason, he interpreted this as a sign that underneath it all, I might have more of an interest than I was letting on and after giving the system an amazingly thorough once over concluded that I was lacking in the amount of light and circulation that corals like Acropora needed in which to thrive.  Since my little hitchhiker was ‘born’ into this environment, it had become much more tolerant, but any success with hard corals from the wild would be marginal at best, until I made some changes.   Well, if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences ever gave out an award for ‘Best Imitation of Someone Who’d Never Heard That Before’, I would’ve won by default.  The shock, the utter dismay turned to realization.  It was all there…before I remembered I wasn’t supposed to care in the first place.

In any event, he congratulated on the success of my current reeftank (which I barely acknowledged) and once he left, I told myself it was either ‘Fish-Or-Put-Down-The Pole’ time.  Actually, I didn’t really put it that way but it seemed more fitting and almost even clever for a website such as this.  Anyway, I was either going to seriously commit to the work it would take to develop an SPS inclusive tank or retreat (which was how I felt now) back into the familiar safety of an LPS/Softie display.  Well, not that I needed it but just seeing photographs of Greg’s colorful acro laden reef at the time were all the motivation I needed. So during the following months I swallowed my pride, coughed up my wallet, and purchased a larger skimmer, a larger calcium reactor, and larger return pumps for more flow.  I also upgraded all 6 lights (I’d added a fixture) to 250s’.  Actually, Greg had recommended all 400s’ but to do that would’ve required a complete dismantling of the hood and suspending the fixtures from the ceiling because of the heat. I was game, but at this point, you-know-who was getting just a little fed up and I didn’t know Greg well enough yet to ask if I could stay at his place.

(Another lesson learned here is that several years later, after Greg’s death unfortunately, I wound up doing exactly what he originally advised:  the 400W’s, the pendants, the works.  Made things even better, not surprisingly.  Thanks, Greg.  RIP)

Eventually though, things really started coming together. Instead of an ‘SPS’ survival rate of about 10%, within a year, my average was pretty close 50%.  And many of those were actually growing as fast as the original hitchhiker that got me into this.  More changes came about, such as a Kalk reactor (DIY), Spiderlight reflectors, and a refugium.  By now, I had also discovered several of the excellent reef bulletin boards from which I could glean up-to-the-minute information and, best of all, personal experiences from all over the world.  All those restarts were beginning to feel like a hundred years ago and I watched, almost as though it was not my doing, as my “LPS and Softie” tank gradually became an ‘SPS’ inclusive, and then continued more and more toward an “SPS” dominant reeftank as the years passed by. (See Monthly Tank Shot Gallery).

But please don’t think there haven’t been mistakes along the way.  And not just the ones I mentioned before: I’m talking about some serious, all-time beauts! For instance, once I had a fairly major “bottom-up” bleaching event and I couldn’t figure out the cause. At the time, conventional ‘wisdom’ amongst many of the reef boards was to keep your alkalinity at very high levels.  Supposedly this resulted in accelerated growth or some such.  So that was what I did: About 11.2 dKH.  Some others kept theirs as high as 14 but given that NSW (Natural Sea Water) rang in at around 7, I was a little apprehensive about going quite that high.

Several years ago when I decided to quit smoking, went on The Patch.   Reasoning that if the application of one patch was good,  then going with three or more patches at the same time would be that much greater!  Well, hindsight being 20/20, I’m here to tell you that matching your resting heartbeat to that of a hummingbird on a treadmill is actually not that good of an idea.  And apparently neither was trying to match my dKH to that of moonshine either.  So in asking around for help, I was advised to simply to simply lower my alk back to, oh, around where NATURE INTENDED it to be and give it some time.  I did this and, sure enough, the bleaching stopped  almost immediately.

So did I learn my lesson about believing every ‘rule of thumb’ that makes its way through the reef boards?  Almost.

I was also caught up in what I call the Great Crystal Sea Migration of ‘02 whereby I jumped on the bandwagon of those singing the praises of Crystal Sea Bioassay salt.  This time the reasoning was that this salt was supposed to help in the prevention of ‘Old Tank Syndrome’ by not adding to the heavy metals that supposedly cause it.  Well, by now, my tank was nearing the 5-year mark and, why yes, I WAS noticing a bit more areas of cyano than I had in the past so what else could it be?  Barely three months after abruptly switching salts, I’d completely lost several acro colonies and had to frag back several more in order to save them.  And I wasn’t the only one; all over the boards, more and more threads began to pop up from both novice and experienced reefkeepers, detailing sudden losses of colonies and clams, some of which they’d maintained for years without any previous trouble.  So what could be the problem?  Certainly not the salt, as too many people have been using Crystal Sea for years without any problems.  In fact, those who were still using it exclusively weren’t having any of these bleaching issues at all and were continuing to maintain both acros and clams just as successfully as they always had. Well, what seems to have happened (and this has never, to my knowledge, been scientifically proven, folks) was that the MIXING of Crystal Seas with several of the other popular salts (in my case, Instant Ocean), probably had something to do with it. This hypothesis also just showed up on the boards one day along with the ‘remedy’ of flooding the tank (performing as many water changes as you could and as quickly as possible) with your original choice of salt until the bleaching stopped.  So in a position of having nothing to lose, I must’ve dumped nearly 700g of new water into the system in less than a month. But, sure enough, the bleaching DID eventually begin to slow and soon come to a halt.  Unfortunately, this time, the episode did take its toll however.  Many colonies were lost and it took nearly two years to fully recover.  But it has absolutely done me a service in keeping me from jumping on any more reefboard bandwagon, no matter who promotes or drives them.

Luckily, not all of my issues have been epic.  Like most of you, I had also been bothered by the mundane, such as Aiptasia and Majanoes (successfully eradicated:  Muelleri Butterfly), Red Bugs (successfully eradicated:  Intereceptor), High PO4 or Phosphates (controlled for the most part, and probably the real root cause of my ‘Old Tank Syndrome’ issues:  Better tank husbandry).

But for the most part, things were going very well. Especially during the latter half of this period where I went through long, blissful stretches with my biggest problem being having to frag livestock to keep things from growing into each other. It was also during this period that both the tank and I began to receive quite a bit of recognition due to its success.  It was awarded Tank-Of-The-Month on three different Bulletin Boards: Reef Central, Reefs.org, and Reef Italia (!) while I was a Featured Member on a fourth site: Reefland.com.

Consequently, I have also given private ‘tours’ of the system to local schools and Boys & Girls Clubs as well as talks to both adult and children’s groups. Oh, and I’ve had a lot of my pictures published too; both in magazines and on the web, sometimes even legally!

But even during those quiet times, I never put my guard down with regard the normal husbandry and tank maintenance. I also continued to read up on new theories, trends, and products just to stay aware of what was going on in the hobby.  Rarely, did I experiment with any them (hey, if it ain’t broke) but I did want to at least be conversant with regards to them.  I even began to attend annual MACNA (Marine Aquarium Conference of North America) events where not only did I get to familiarize myself with new and developing facets of the hobby first hand but also got to meet many of the people I’d been chatting with on the boards for years, as well as some of the authors whose books I’d been reading since the beginning. But attending the lectures held by these speakers was far and away the most interesting part of these events for me.  Sure, the information was valuable enough but it was great to finally see the personalities that came along with it.  It made me feel as though I wasn’t alone in dealing with issues inherent to reefkeeping and, if you caught them at the right moment, many were even willing to admit they had made mistakes themselves…albeit far in the past and even then from listening to the wrong contemporary, who was probably speaking in the next room at the same time.

Ironically, it was during one of these lectures that began a series of events that would bring this ‘blissful’ time to a terrible end.  I had known for quite some time that my systems’ weakest link was my lighting (even Greg knew this several years before).   More specifically, the problem was my lighting hood, which by now, over 10 years old.  It was beginning to rust, sag, and it was also very heavy which precluded my wife from feeding the fish whenever I had to leave home for a while.  I had actually consulted a local company about manufacturing a new hood for me a couple years before but once the estimate came in, there was no way I could justify going any further.  I figured I would just buy another house and have a new hood installed in situ.

So it was at the ‘06 MACNA, I attended a lighting seminar hoping that the speaker, Sanjay Yoshii, would give me some food for thought regarding my alternatives.  Well, it turned out that Sanjay, as well as most contemporary hobbyists, preferred the pendant style of lighting fixture as opposed to the fixed hood for a variety of reasons, from very simple (‘more air to water surface exchange hence better evaporation’) to very complex (‘Yeah, like you’d read that part anyway’). What I liked most was the aspect of flexibility; that I could increase and decrease lighting levels by simply raising and lowering the fixtures.  But I was also a fan of the convenience; that they tended to run less hot, that they came in just about every configuration, and by now, every price range one could ever think of.

I DID have a few concerns though, such as who I would employ back in Greenwich to undertake such a task and do it correctly…not so much the installation itself but dismantling and removal of the old hood and THEN installing the new one correctly.  Being one of those ‘time is of the essence’ situations, the service people in this town aren’t exactly known for sticking to their word.  I had a plumber flake out on me at the last minute once, the day he was supposed to help install in a new sump, in order to go to Jersey and bring his mother a certain local cake she liked.  True story.

But overall, I was pretty fired up.  So after the lecture, I charged back out onto the tradeshow floor and visited just about every lighting vendor attending.  I also grabbed up as many brouchers as I could carry and, once back home, spent several days going over them with as fine of a toothed comb as I could.  My decision: Sfiligois, distributed at that time by Aquarium Obsessed in Ontario Canada.   The main reason was that, through their ACLS electronic ballasts, the entire lighting system was not just programmable but also dimmable! It could also simulate cloudy days and be programmed to mimic the exact day/night lighting conditions of your area based on latitude/longitude info.  Or, better yet, if you knew exactly where your particular corals came from (and who doesn’t), the system could be programmed to simulate the lighting conditions back home as well: A very helpful feature I think, especially for those poor reefkeepers who may live in Alaska and would otherwise force their corals to spend a part of the year with only a couple hours of daylight.  Anyway, another feature I liked was that the fixture somehow managed to keep itself cool without the use of built in fans.  I’m still not sure how they do that but if you’re interested enough to want to find out, you’re welcomed to contact their current distributor.  In North America, that would be Aquatics Elite at: www.aquaticselite.com

So, after several phone conversations, it was decided that 3 of their 400W Infinity Twin Pendants would fit the bill, given the dimensions of my tank, depth in particular.  This would amount to 2400 watts of light, a bit more than I had before but no actinic supplementation as these pendants do not come with them, even as an option. I would also need 6 of the ACLS ballasts to drive these pendants, each bulb requiring its own ballast.  Of course, this was all a bit more than I planned to spend on a lighting system (or my next car) but I convinced myself that I’d be saving money in the long run or at the very least, saving the Earth or something so I ordered them.  I was told they would take 6-8 weeks to arrive because they had to come from Germany.  Three months later they still hadn’t arrived and I was, in a word, pissed.  Plenty of excuses were offered but to me, all signs pointed to an incredible lack of communication between the distributer (Canada), the manufacturer (Germany), and the customer (USA).  In any event, I was well into researching other lighting options when I was told my lights had finally arrived in Canada and would be in my hands as soon as they cleared customs.  Weeks went by.  Nothing.

The excuses now turned to finger pointing; the company said they’d shipped them, customs said they had cleared them, but the entity responsible for shipping them into America, Sfiligoi, said they knew nothing about them.  By the way, in order to get THIS much information, I had to do most of the tracking myself.  So, as you might imagine, things were getting pretty contentious between AO and me, given the expense and time already wasted on this project.  And just when I was in the midst of my most creative threatening, the delivery company contacted me with the news that they ‘found’ them.  Apparently, they had been somehow mislabeled. But now armed with a tracking number, I was positively assured that the lights would be here in no time.  They weren’t.   I guess with this particular shipping company, regulations dictate that one’s package MUST pass through every single border town between the US and Canada before it’s allowed to enter the States permanently.  Therefore, the damn lights (which is how I referred to them by now) didn’t arrive until Feb.  They had been ordered the previous September.  And of course, one fixture had been damaged during shipping; cosmetically only thank goodness, but damaged nonetheless.   To be fair, not only did AO end up allowing me to keep the unit while they shipped me a replacement, but they also gave me the six bulbs I needed for free.

Much to my delight, the switching of the hood to the pendants went just about flawlessly.  As stated previously, I was very concerned about this but given the fact that we wound up with several months to prepare, and we used guys who were slightly less attached to their moms, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.  And once swapped over, I was pleased to say that the new system worked perfectly out of the box.  As for bulbs, I ended up using 1 400W 10K Aqualine-Bushe SE Metal Halide and 1 400W 14K AquaConnect SE Metal Halide in each of the three Twin pendants.

Programming the ballasts was no small task (‘Is it just me or do you also find that the people most companies use to ‘translate’ their instructions, are pretty much illiterate in BOTH languages?’).  Anyway, once I finally got them figured them out, a great deal of the torment I went through just to get them here, immediately began to fade.  Utilizing just a few of the great features available to me, I set the lights to power up and down gradually, with ‘sunrise’ taking about an hour and a half and ‘sunset’ taking two hours.  Also, because of the increased wattage, I engaged the ballasts’ ‘New Bulb’ setting, which would initially fire up the bulbs to just 70% of their full power and then automatically increase them 2% daily until they reached their maximum output.  Pretty fancy, huh?  So once all the work was done, I again settled back to relax and simply enjoy the tank.  And for the first couple weeks, I really did just marvel at the new lighting system, continually asking myself what took me so long.

In the beginning, the lights were very blue.  Of course, I attributed this to the fact that they weren’t burned in yet and were still being ramped up by the ballasts.  And as time went on, they did seem to ‘whiten’ up a bit but maintained enough blue that I didn’t miss my actinics nearly as much as I thought I would. One thing they certainly were, however, was bright.  They were really bright.  I mean, I thought my old system was bright, but an accidental glance into these babies would, at the very least, result in several seconds of flash blindness and the type of cursing you only thought you were keeping to yourself.

Another advocational hazard I was just going to have to get used to, I mused to myself once my ability to distinguish colors came back.  As long as the corals were enjoying it.

And they WERE enjoying it.

Or so I thought.