I’d been home about 5 minutes and I could see that another wonderful year was shaping up.  I mean, I’d expected it to be a little worse than when I left but not quite as bad as this.  Visions of my outbreak many years ago came rushing back to me and I vowed that if I had to tear the tank down again, I was done.  Surely by now, I thought, someone must’ve invented some kind of cure, some kind of remedy.  Drano through a modified fire extinguisher?  I’m game.  But just like before, the majority of the feedback agreed that by far the best method of removal was by manual extraction.  The choice was clear:  Either get to work or prepare to set up that Game Room/Dance Studio my wife and daughter began to fight about.  Ahh, you can’t beat family.  I checked, it’s still illegal.

So I got to work, removing as many bubbles as I could for about two hours, every other day.   THIS time however, I would only remove the few individual rocks that could be taken out easily.  The others, I just had to work on in the tank. There was no design to my schedule, it was just all the time I could realistically spare for this kind of chore. And on days I couldn’t do it, Ray would spend his time doing it.  Fortunately, his arms are quite a bit longer than mine so he could get the tweezers into a lot of places from which I could only watch the Valonia taunt me.  Occasionally, we would disturb one of the old Emerald Crabs, which were an inch or two away from eating size by now, as it rested under a cushion of the pests they were brought in to eat.  It was during these times I felt like a Warner Brothers cartoon character.  All that was missing was my tweezing up little sticks of dynamite from time to time and the arrival of my Valonia Eradicator Missle Kit from Acme.

Most days, it didn’t seem like I made a dent but I refused to get discouraged this time. My tools of choice were tweezers for removal and scissor blades for scraping so you can imagine how slow the process was.  By the way, in the debate of whether to ‘pop’ the bubbles or not during the removal, I come down on the side of not caring.  I always found it odd that proponents of ‘not popping’ had no trouble also recommending Emerald Crabs and the like, which I assume would have to ‘pop’ the bubbles in order to eat it.  So I’m a believer of getting them out any way you can.  I just wish there was a faster way.

But it was during one of these Valonia removal sessions that led me to the answer of my other issues.  While removing one of my rocks to work on the algae, I became aware of several tiny calcareous tubes growing on the bottom.  I became aware of them mainly due to a great many breaking off and sticking into my ungloved fingers.  Further observance revealed that not only were these tubes growing everywhere throughout the rockwork, but also throughout some of the acros themselves. These were what those odd branches were!  They were tubes that had literally been overgrown by the corals themselves in their fight for room and survival.  Immediately, I went online with a description and macro shot of the tubes and finally got the answer I’d been seeking: Vermetid Snails.  Pests.

Oh good, more pests.

But now that I knew what they were, gathering information on them was easy; apparently they are in the snail family but sessile as their tubes substitute for an actual shell.  They feed by sending a sticky webbing from these tubes and drawing whatever they can capture back to their mouths.  Three other things surprised me though:  One, was how many hobbyists have had to deal with these things, two was that there seem to be no reefsafe biological predator for them and three, that they were by and large, harmless.  Let’s address number three first, hmmkay? Vermetid snails are anything but harmless, at least not when infesting a ‘SPS’ dominant reeftank.  These tubes not only wind themselves into and between the branches of many corals, but I am positive that those feeding webs irritate the coral’s polyps and probably aid in stunting the piece’s overall growth as well.  Now, in regards to predators, it seems like that job will have to go to the hobbyist.  While I have heard apocryphal stories of toby pufferfish, juvenile Harlequin Tuskfish, Pipefish, and even some species of Zebra Hermits   nipping at them from time to time, once again the best method of eradication is manual.  This time, it’s by sealing the tubes shut with epoxy or gel?which is fine if you’re dealing with a few in a smaller tank.  As with Aiptasia however, my problem is that I was dealing with thousands of them, many unreachable, in a very large tank.  A tank once again, which, in spite of some of the threads I came across, I was determined not to take down.  So as with the Valonia, my MO with these things was the same; destroy and mangle when I couldn’t remove the rock, remove without prejudice when I could.  The other thing I was determined not to do again right now was the purchase of any more frags?which was maybe yet another sign of growing up.

I attended MACNA in Atlanta that year but except for touring the Aquarium, especially observing the Whale Shark exhibit, I can’t say I recall too much about it.  I DID purchase a new skimmer however as my current one had gotten so finicky that any slight change such as dialing it down to compensate for feeding or working in the tank would result in either flooding or drought that would take several days to fix.  I did quite a bit of reading about needlewheel skimmers and, among other things, their tendencies to be more stable so I ordered one (and a recommended flowmeter), installed it, and have never been happier, skimmerwise of course, in case the wife is reading.

Apparently however the reefing gods weren’t quite through with me yet because right after the skimmer swap, one off my LFS’ notified me that they were finally expecting the Muelleri Butterfly I’d asked for?over a year ago.  So what did I do:  The mature thing by stating I already had a nice and healthy Copperband  that was more than pulling its weight by keeping the tank free of Aiptasia for several months now?  Of course not.  I dutifully said, “I’ll take it” and rushed it home where it resides in my back tank with my Candy Bass to this day.

Wait a second? ”back tank? Candy Ba? ”What’s all THIS now?

Look guys, I’m trying to keep this thing within some semblance of order, here. You can’t seriously expect me to throw two completely different timelines at you simultaneously, can you?  At my age?  But don’t worry, we’ll get to this other tank, I promise. Just give me some time and get off my lawn.

Anyway, with the small indiscretion regarding the Muelleri, the Crosshatch incident really hammered home the fact that I needed to simply leave things alone for awhile, no corals, no fish, not even anything new in terms of equipment.  Everything was working well now, so my job was just to wait and remove as much of the Valonia and as many of the Vermetid snails as I could.  And believe it or not, this is the way it went until the spring of ‘09.  Then, the most subtle of changes began to occur.

I began to see some growth, some encrustation, and even some decent polyp extension on the corals?just about all of the corals, and seemingly all at once.  Testing the parameters revealed no differences in my numbers but it was as if someone flicked the ‘NOW we’re cool’ switch and things began to look healthier.  Oh, I still had my pest issues but I continued to work on my eradication methods and husbandry, almost robotically, and even though most times it seemed like I was just spinning my wheels.  Spring break came and went without incident this year except that one of the calls announced the return of a long lost ‘friend’ to the tank:  Coralline Algae.  I’d begun to see little dots of it here and there along the walls but by the time I returned, it had completely coated the back panel entirely.

Now, I’m not a fan of coralline algae but only in terms of aesthetics. Generally, I took it as a sign the tank was getting even healthier but when it covers the back glass like that I think it blends in with the rockwork too much and dulls out the corals.  This was especially annoying to me since I’d only been seeing anything close to vibrant corals for a short time.  So I went up and, with a blade made for cleaning glass tanks, carefully scraped down the coralline until the back was black again.  This was another chore now added to the list but, heck, I could give up another hour every couple weeks.  It’s only spring.  And, after all, what good is retirement to begin with, if not working till you cry.

By the time the big summer break rolled around, it was met with the usual nervous excitement, only this year because I didn’t want to leave the tank.  The driving plan however was going to take me through some of Colorado’s most scenic areas as well as Monterey, CA (one of my favorite places on the planet), so any internal struggles were short ones.  Although I’d spent some time learning this lesson all over again, I figured as long as I was having my regular maintenance continued, keeping my parameters stable, and most importantly, adding nothing new, things should remain in decent shape?which I am proud to report, is exactly what happened.  So by the time I reached Los Angeles, I too was in pretty good shape.  No new problems from CT.  This meant I could show my face to the reefing community once again (I know this is silly but the ‘shame’ of a problematic reeftank, really affects me in this way. Any professional advice would be appreciated, especially if it’s free).  Unfortunately this year, my time would be short so one of the few places I visited was Amazing Aquariums’s and Reefs in Orange, CA.  Run by a longtime friend, Ali Atapour, it is one of my favorite places to go to

A: See how it’s really done and
B:Get some good solid advice.  Occasionally, in spite of the geographical distances and the fact that he does NOT ship, I even been known to make a purchase or two from AAaR, his stuff is so spectacular.  The hassle of getting it home is well worth it.

But this time I needed advice so when Ali asked about the condition of the tank I mentioned how things were finally beginning to turn around except for my chronic algae and Vermetid problems.  Now, I can’t say specifically which problem we were discussing (told you about this ‘age’ thing) but he mentioned that I might was to pick up a bunch of ‘Mexican Red Legged Hermits’.  Not Scarletts, but the authentic red legs, which he said I would know because they are often the cheapest hermits offered for sale.  He then proceeded to show me around to see that he had them in just about every tank in his store.  I’d never considered Hermit Crabs as part of my clean up crews before because of the potential for damage but he said that the ‘real’ red legs, stayed small and with the exception of taking out my Cerith snails, they were pretty harmless.  So I thanked him and began another odyssey.  This was because, as a retailer, Ali got his wholesale direct.  And since, again, he doesn’t ship (and, to me, nor will a wholesaler), I was left on my own to find someone who did carry the ‘real’ hermits and would ship them to me.  Sound easy?  If you thought yes, perhaps you’d like to go back and read this section again.  It was not easy, even asking around in SoCal which, last I looked, had a general proximity to Mexico and it’s waters, where I presume these hermit would come from.  But still, no luck there.

The trip home usually takes 10-12 days because I always stop in New Orleans to visit in-laws and go fishing.  Okay, mainly to go fishing.  But in my defense, whenever I stop in North Carolina to visit my mother, that’s mainly to go fishing too. So now that we’ve cleared that up, I resumed the search immediately after I arrived home.  Now, because in my experience, I’ve found little in this hobby that makes an iota’s worth of sense, I fully expected to be inundated with Mexican Red Legs up here.  Why?  Because I’m in Connecticut, thousands of miles from where they collect them, that’s all.  But this time, I have to admit I was wrong.  They were as difficult to find around here as they were in California?which, by the way, a couple people mentioned that since I just got back from there, I probably should’ve looked in California?being right next door to Mexico and all.  Anyway, as the weeks went by, I returned to the groove of manually extracting the bubbles and scraping away the amazing amount of corraline that had returned to coat the back panel.

The corals had grown noticeably; a few so much now that the old familiar problem of pruning was starting to rear its head. This time, I promised myself, I’d never look upon it as a chore again.  Over the last couple years I have learned what a real chore is.  This damned bubble algae and Vermetid infestation, now keeping those in check was a chore.  Then almost on cue, I get an email from Ali letting me know that Blue Zoo Aquatics http://www.bluezooaquatics.com not only had some real Mexican Red Legs in stock but was currently running a sale on them.  Blue Zoo’s base of operation? California.  This actually came as a surprise to me as I fully expected to locate them in Sweden.  Why?   Because it’s just that kind of hobby.

So I ordered around 150 and, upon arrival, quickly acclimated them and dumped them into the tank.  I couldn’t hang around to watch for immediate results however because once again, it was time for MACNA.  This year, it was in Atlantic City, less than a day trip for me.  Not only were the talks of much more interest to me but the product displays were spectacular.  It was almost a shame I didn’t need anything!  But what really was noticeable was just how many livestock vendors showed up.  Man, if you were into coral, this was your year.  Could I resist?  No.  But, again in my defense, I only purchased 4 pieces and all but one of those were of the LPS variety and therefore for my back tank.

“Again with the back tank!  What back tank?”  I understand.  But we’re really getting close now so bear with me.  I wouldn’t leave you hanging.  Well, not much longer anyway.

The fourth piece was a tiny chalice frag that I acclimated well before putting it in the main tank so I would’ve really been shocked had that screwed up anything and it didn’t.

A few weeks later, darned if I didn’t notice both the Valonia AND the Vermetid populations begin to ‘crash’ (if I may dare use that word).  Regarding the Valonia, I could tell because not only did the manually removed bubbles finally seemed to stay removed, but in a few places I never could reach, the bubbles in those affected areas began to get more and more pale as well as fewer and farther in between.  Concerning the Vermeteds, again, there just didn’t seem to be as many tubes either in or outside of the corals.  Perhaps this had been going on for a longer period as, like I mentioned, I’d begun to see better polyp extension amongst the corals for at least a couple months now.  But now, this was all becoming obvious.  I could even pick up a few rocks without danger of shredding my ungloved fingers now.  SOMETHING was at work here.

Now, before I start a run on Mexican Red Legged Hermit Crabs, I would like to unequivocally state here I have no idea if they were the cause or any part of the cause of this turnaround.  To this date, I have never seen any of them in the process of attacking or devouring either the algae or the snails but then again, I have never stayed up long enough to see what happens after the lights go out.  So maybe it’s all coincidence, maybe they were the ‘magic pill’ in my case, or maybe?and I think I’m going to go with this one, maybe they were a small part of a multi-faceted plan of eradication that had been going on faithfully for well over a year.  This plan included frequent water changes, a careful feeding regimen, aggressive skimming,  sticking to a detritus removal regimen aka keeping the tank clean, and of course, continual manual extraction.  The goal in most of this was to keep nutrients as low as possible; to simply starve ‘em out in the long run.  But if this is what worked, the key phrase is ‘the long run’.  This will take patience and you will not see results immediately.  If I had a small tank, I absolutely would’ve torn it down and started over with all clean (and possibly cooked) stuff.  I was not afforded that option.  I also have no life either so I had the time to be diligent.  If there is a real ‘magic pill” in all this, it seems to be that.

No, wise guy, diligence.

By the start of Nov. ‘09, there was scarcely a bubble anywhere in the tank.  And regarding the Vermetids, the few that are left don’t seem to be bothering the corals any longer.   At last you’d think maybe I could sit down and just watch as things begin to grow in, wouldn’t you?  Of course not.  One morning I came down to see one of my Borbonius Anthias ($$$) pretty well sawn in half and being munched upon by, guess who, my male Crosshatch.  This fellow had been getting more and more aggressive lately, particularly regarding its food.  In fact, a couple weeks earlier, during breakfast, it literally cleared the waterline to get first dibs, causing me to jerk back the cup in surprise, splash myself and the lights (thank goodness for the glass shielding) and caused the fish to land high and dry upon one of the tank braces, flopping around in some spilled food until I could nudge it back into the tank.  People, this is no way to start a morning. And now to watch him devour a fish that had been so healthy the previous night, it was exhibiting spawning behavior?well, this is an even worse way to start a morning.  Now, because I didn’t see him kill it, I took no immediate action, but for awhile it had been my intention to bump up my Anthias populations a little bit due to normal mortality over the years and now I was understandably hesitant.  This didn’t go on long however when less than a week later, I discovered exactly half a Flame Hawk lying amongst the branches of one of its favorite perching across.  That, as they say, was all she wrote.

It goes without saying that removing the Crosshatch could not have been easier: A piece of silversides, a net and 15 seconds.  For another one, he might’ve even driven himself to the store.  With the credit, I got myself a few new Bartletts and then, online, several female Bimaculatus Anthias, plus a whole new Flame Hawk.  And finally, after a daily struggle of over 2 _ years, I bring you up to date, having once again achieved a healthy, peaceful, and above all, a stable reeftank.  I almost feel like one of the club again.  Granted, there’s still a ways to go before all the corals grow out and I’m sure I’m in store for at least one more adventure.  But now that you’re back on for the ride, I hope you won’t be shy with your help, suggestions, and advice.  As you see, first hand is always better and I hope some of my first hand experiences have been a help you, if in any way, at least BEFORE you’ve made the mistake.