It began in early spring (‘07). During one of my usual morning tank once-overs, I noticed a fair amount of bleaching on my Pink Birdsnest (Seriatopora). This wasn’t too unusual given that I’d always had issues with the internal branches of this piece due to, I presumed, either lack of flow, lack of light, or reaction to the decomposition of Cerinth snails which seemed to love crawling deep within the tangled recesses of this coral, getting trapped, and then dying. And though this episode seemed a little different in that the bleaching was more localized amidst some of the EXterior branches, I didn’t think it was too big of a deal and made a mental note to simply frag off the dead parts a little later. Then I noticed some die-off on another piece; this time an acro at the very top of my rockwork. Not much, just a bit. But this one was more of a mystery because I couldn’t ever recall having a problem with this piece and it had been there quite awhile. Still though, I figured if those were my biggest two issues today, I couldn’t really complain. So I fed the fish and left and promised myself I’d address them later on.
Of course, the day got away from me and I didn’t visit the tank again until that evening. Upon seeing the two affected corals, I remembered I was supposed to frag them but now it was a bit late and the bleaching hadn’t spread. Ah, I’ll just do it tomorrow, I thought. And again, I just fed the fish and left.
By ‘tomorrow’ there was a problem. While the bleaching of the Birdsnest had only spread a little, the bleaching on the acro had just about doubled. And even the bleaching itself seemed unusual; the dead skeleton was as white as if it was soaked in Clorox then dried on a clothesline. Brilliant white. Not a SHRED of flesh remained. Quickly, I removed both pieces and just tossed the acro away. Even now, I recall the smell of the coral when I took it out of the tank; very much stronger than the ‘normal’ ‘SPS’ aroma, almost biting, in fact. Some of the birdsnest was still viable so I fragged that one substantially and placed it back on the bottom.
Everything else looked…okay…I guess. I’m sure many of you know the feeling: The ‘Yeah, everything-kinda-sorta-looks-all-right-but-I’m-not-gonna-look-too-long-‘cause-I-know-there’s-a-problem-and-I-don’t-wanna-deal-with-it-right-now’ kind of feeling? For instance, if I really wanted to be a stickler, I’d swear one of my Montiporas was maybe a shade or two lighter than normal. And the water in general looks a bit cloudy…just a little bit. But, I was probably getting nervous over nothing. A couple days and everything should be fine.
I remember reading some article entitled “Famous Last Words”. One of my favorites was those of a Civil War general, who, upon being warned to keep his head down in the face of battle was said to have remarked, “What are you talking about, soldier? Why, they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn at this dist…”. I think if someone ever writes an article entitled “Reef Keepers Famous Last Words”, …’a couple days and everything should be fine’ should rank right below “It’s just a weekend trip out of town, what could go wrong?” I can’t even recall the exact order of events since, from here, everything began to happen very quickly. But looking back on it now, this is probably a good thing, as I can now spare us both a lot of the painful details and try to get through it as fast as I can.
A couple days later confirmed what I already knew. The monti wasn’t just lightening, it was bleaching. It was dying. And ‘suddenly’, it seemed that the problem was spreading all over. I would come down to notice that the tips (and sometimes entire branches) of acros that had been fine the day before, were either lightening, bleaching, or completely gone, sometimes the bits of tattered flesh waving obscenely in the flow. There was also an odd smell about the tank and the cloudiness of the water seemed to continue despite stepped up water and carbon changes. Needless to say, I was fragging furiously and much more aggressively now, sometimes chopping a piece nearly in half to make sure I would stay well ahead of the necrosis. At this point, I thought that perhaps I could still save the majority of the corals though I’d have to give up on general asthetics for quite a while. Rarely, have I been more wrong, except for the asthetics part. In less than a week, I was just tossing infected colonies away by the pail full, resigned now to the probability that I was staring into the face of my first full-blown crash. I toyed with the thought of perhaps taking some of my more prized pieces to the tanks of other reefkeepers in the area for safekeeping, but the infection was so virulent now, I feared the only result of that was the probable crashing of their tank also. So, instead, I just chopped and threw away, chopped and threw away.
By the way, in a completely unrelated event, yet forever conjoined in making this truly one of my worst weeks ever, I was also undergoing my first total computer hard drive crash at exactly the same time. This, I believe, is how some people can hit the lottery twice and yet the world remains in balance.
Anyway, not that there was any discernable evidence to help in proving what was causing all of these tank problems, but I was beginning to think that it was an increase caused by my lighting change. Not in terms of increased wattage, remember that had actually gone down, but in terms of what is referred to PAR or PPFD. There are much better places to go for a scientific explanation of these terms (I’ve got one coming up in a minute), but as one layman to another, let’s suffice it to say that amount of radiation falling upon my livestock had apparently gone up tremendously over the past month and so, even despite my dialing down the lights, I was essentially sunburning my corals to death. Now, if you would like to hear the terms explained by someone who is NOT an idiot, I shall direct you to Sanjay Joshi’s excellent lighting guide on the Manhattan Reefs website. But promise you’ll come back, okay? Okay, bye.
Now again, I have absolutely no scientific evidence that this was the cause of my problem but given that the lights were essentially the only component on the tank that changed recently, I’m gonna have to stick with it. Now, where was I? Oh yeah, throwing out coral by the bucketful?
After awhile, it became too debilitating to even do that. It had now reached a point where I was watching helplessly as colonies I’d had for years would bleach out completely; sometimes in less than 48 hours. Huge, beautiful colonies. So I began to just leave them there, where they died, not as monuments or reminders of a time that demonstrated how patience and hard work always paid off. I was simply tired and had given up. And in a final declaration, the tank actually began to stink in its victory and the water soon resembled nonfat milk. I wouldn’t even put my hands in it without gloves. My skimmer, of course, was working overtime and was pulling out skimmate the color of mustard. This product also came with a foamy head so thick, the collection cup had to be emptied when only holding half capacity of liquid. After a while, I even shut that down. Obviously, I had long since given up on trying to save anything. And were it not for the fish (who seemed to be fine through out all this, by the way), I probably wouldn’t have even gone downstairs to look at the tank at all.
Believe ot or not, it only took about two weeks to wipe out the tank. Of the 75+ SPS and LPS colonies, only 5 remained: One acan, one blasto, and, oddly, all three Cyphastrea. Ten years work and you could hold what was left just in two hands.
From here, the course of events becomes a little more blurry. Once the devastation was complete, I do recall just leaving things alone for a while. We still continued our normal maintenance, for the fish’s sake, but nothing more. This was under the premise that I would spend some time thinking about what I was going to do. But the truth was, not only did I have no idea of what I was going to do, I really wasn’t giving it any thought at all. Perhaps it was shock or denial, thinking that if I just did nothing, everything would magically come back! More than likely though, it was the avoidance of looking ahead to the tremendous amount of work ahead of me if indeed I wanted to continue.
Eventually, I did begin the work of removing the rest of the dead coral, leaving just enough live rock to give the fish a sense of comfort. I still didn’t know what I was going to do yet but as the realization of what happened began to hit me, along with the accompanying grief and depression, I certainly began to lean toward stepping away from the hobby. I’d all but completely stopped posting on the reef-sites or even reading them for that matter. I also stopped photographing everything except the monthly full tank shots, and even stopped making any attempt to keep this site up to date, although quite honestly, the sheer time management of the thing was causing me to regularly fall behind anyway. Of course, all of this was due to the embarrassment I felt in having failed so dramatically; I mean, I certainly no longer felt I was in a position to impart advice to anyone. And pictures of what? Fish-In-The-‘Hood? At this point, I decided to simply remain in my current state of self-pity. All that was missing was the organ and Phantom Of The Opera mask.
By early summer, a couple months after the height of the crash, my daughter’s school vacation rolled around. Usually, this was a good thing because of my annual drive to Los Angeles (I drive alone virtually everywhere I go in the USA while the ladies fly ahead). And while L.A. is where my wife likes to go hang out and visit friends this time of year, I consider MY vacation getting to travel through so many beautiful and interesting parts of the country while on my way there. Ironically, I also use these trips as a welcome little respite from reef keeping. Oh, I still think about it, normally, and will go through everything from bouts of separation anxiety regarding my own tank, to the anticipatory thrill of touring all the wholesalers and reef shops the west coast has to offer. But most of the drive is pure sightseeing for me. So, employing that same rationale, I figured I would make this trip the absolute greatest ever since now I could travel, take my little respite, and not have to worry about the tank at all! Yes, I knew I had to take some time to decide what I was going to do, but from the moment I rolled out of CT, I vowed that I was going to forget everything else related to the tank and just concentrate on the other things. The better things. After all, I rationalized, there was certainly more to life than trying to maintain an ungrateful box of saltwater. And wasn’t I already pleasantly surprised at how many more hours the day seemed to have when I wasn’t spending them siphoning out this and carefully testing that, only to have it all stab you in the back like some golddigger from a 1940’s era black and white crime drama? Well, fine. If that’s the way the tank wants to be, let’s just see how it feels after a whole sweet summer of getting absolutely NO attention from me for a change. Take THAT, tank! Who’s laughing NOW??? Ah-hahahahaaaaaa.
[By the way, if you get nothing else out of this diatribe, perhaps it can give you an idea of just how insane some of the people driving right behind you can be. No really. Think about that for a second. Now, think about it again the next time you don’t feel like wearing your seatbelt.]
Suffice it to say that this vow of mine lasted for maybe a mile and a half of the entire trip. I thought about it so much that I honestly can’t recall a single sight I came across during the drive this time. Therefore, as much as I wish I could tell you that my decision to rebuild was caused by some great cathartic experience along the way; you know, the power of yada, the grandeur of yada, …the mountains, the prairies, the oceans white with yada, but the truth was, by the time I’d reached L.A., my mind was all but made up to once again, step away. That was, until I overheard a part of a conversation between my daughter, then 9, and an a friend of hers, who, upon just finding out that the tank was having problems, innocently asked what I was going to do now. Fully expecting her to have my back and explain how the incident would not only result in giving me much more time to pursue my other interests but also would grant us much more time to spend together, instead must’ve shrugged as I heard her reply, “I don’t know. Quit, I guess.”
Needless to say, I was stunned. Not just because from there, the discussion excitedly went to some TV commercial they saw for a product that makes cupcakes as big as your head (although I must admit, that kind of hurt as well), but it was the first time I had ever heard her surmise that quitting was a viable option in the face of adversity…and that I, her own father, was now a role model for those who would choose to accept that option! Well, before the moment was lost forever, I jumped up, rushed into the room, and quickly interjected that I never said I was going to quit the hobby and then went on to remind her that NOBODY in this family ever quits anything unless it’s too expensive, too fatty, or the noise it makes gets on Mommy’s nerves! This, in effect, was also the end of that silly cupcake thingee too. And why Dad doesn’t have a ‘65 Mustang. I certainly got my point across though. Yeah, it was mostly to myself because by then they had gone on to another commercial. But still…
This was not to say that I still wasn’t in a great deal of pain over what had happened. In fact, I continued being quite the recluse because of it. For instance, the entire time I remained in Los Angeles, I didn’t visit a single vendor, check up on a single reef keeping associate, or attend a single event. I DID finally visit the Reef Central website though: To get information on where to find some large pieces of live rock. I figured if I was really going to do this again, I was going to do it right. Or at least, a little differently. For instance, in recalling some of the issues I had with the current, or should I say, former reeftank, I remembered how many of the corals had grown so tightly packed that, to avoid any dead spots, I’d have to constantly either change or add to the water flow. I understood that I’d have to do this anyway as it was just in keeping up with the normal rate of the maturation process. But I knew I could help myself a little by not affixing so many frags to the rockwork in the first place. Another mistake I didn’t plan to remake regarding the structure was to hide my six bottom intake stands (otherwise known as the bane of the tank’s existence. More on them later.) so thoroughly under rockwork, that I could no longer clean the screens. The fact that it took tearing down the entire thing to even see most of them again, as I hadn’t for over a decade, resulted in them being, let’s just say, a tad grungy and thereby, less efficient.
As I slowly began to emerge from my cloud of self-pity, I told myself that I had to continue to think of the crash as a learning tool and not just the gut wrenching disaster I first proclaimed it to be. I started to think about what I wanted the entire new structure to look like by, once again, perusing websites and gleaning (okay, ripping off) ideas of what I thought would work for me. Thinking objectively for a change, another realization I came to make was that I had waaaay too much live rock in the ‘old’ tank. Even the trends in aquascaping itself had changed during its run to a much more lean and minimalistic look as opposed to the massive rock wall designs that were so prevalent during the previous decade. Made sense really; better distribution of water flow, less dead spots, and more growing room for the corals as well as swimming room for the fish. Certainly it had to be easier in terms of maintenance. So, with this in mind, I called Ray, my service technician/tank sitter back in CT, and had him measure the distances between the intakes I had referenced earlier. It was the first time all summer I had called him regarding the system and it was to ensure I didn’t order rocks so large that they wouldn’t fit around them. It was the first time also that he heard I’d decided to rebuild and I could hear the excitement in his voice. At least, I thought it was excitement. It was the opposite of whatever my daughter’s voice was when I told her we were NOT going to put in a new game room after all. And once I had those measurements, I finally placed the order for the first of my new live rock. The crash had happened some four months ago. The rebuild had officially begun.