I know that patience is a virtue. Unfortunately, it's not one of mine. As it happens, reef keeping has proven to be the most effective tool I've found for helping me develop the patience I lack naturally. I have to admit, though, even after three and a half years of practice, my impatience can still get the better of me.

My most recent lesson in the value of patience has been a four-month long battle with a nuisance red turf alga. (I would like to give you the name of it, but honestly, I haven't been able to get a positive species identification yet.) I've fought all the other algae wars…Valonia, Bryopsis and cyanobacteria, just to name a few. I've done countless hours of siphoning, scrubbing and worrying myself sick that these organisms would take over and ruin my tank. In the end, it always turned out that with just a little diligence and a little time and patience, I was able to win the battle with the alga.

This photograph was taken with a flash which increases
the contrast and makes the algae easier to see. Photo by Sandra Shoup.

When I first discovered the red turf growing in my refugium, I didn't give it a second thought. After all, I grow as many types of algae in my refugium as I can, Valonia and Bryopsis included. A couple of months later, when I noticed the red turf growing in the main tank, I was proud of myself for not overreacting. I thought perhaps I just needed a few more grazers in the tank, so I added a couple of urchins. As the alga continued to spread, I used the same techniques I had during my Bryopsis crisis, including diligent manual removal and larger, more frequent, water changes. Twice a week I siphoned as much algae as I could and scrubbed the affected rocks with a toothbrush. My thought was that if I just waited it out, it would run its course and die off as the Bryopsis had. When the algal coverage on the rock reached thirty percent, however, my patience suddenly ran out. I just knew that I had to do something about this situation RIGHT NOW! The fact that the red algae was not doing any harm to any of my animals made no difference; it was unsightly, growing much too fast, and I had simply had enough!

The red algae even grew in between my green star polyps, zoanthids and xenids. Photo by Sandra Shoup.

I spent an entire day tearing apart my reef, scrubbing, siphoning and soaking algae covered rocks in RO/DI water. It was a sweaty, back-aching, hand-gouging job and, in the end, a complete failure. The alga grew back on the freshwater-soaked rocks in less than a week. I watched in dismay as the algal coverage reached fifty percent with no signs of slowing. I began wondering if I was going to have to tear the whole tank down and start over. None of the grazers I had would touch this algae and even my LFS could not find an animal that would eat it. Fortunately, help arrived just in the nick of time. A member of Reef Central (my hero!) directed me to a critter commonly known as the "Mexican turbo snail," saying it would eat the red turf algae. My local fish store was able to get the snails and the day after I returned home from MACNA XIV, I added a dozen to my 220-gallon tank.

I highlighted the algae in this photo in bright red to make it easier to see how widespread my problem was. This picture was taken September 24th, 2002.
Photo by Sandra Shoup.

The snails went right to work, but the amount of algae in the tank at the time seemed inexhaustible. After a couple of days, I decided that one dozen snails weren't nearly enough, even with continued manual removal on my part. After all, before I left for MACNA I had siphoned enough red algae out of the tank in an hour to make a ball the size of a softball (and that was AFTER I squeezed all the water out of it). So, I added another dozen snails. A week later I could see certain areas of the tank starting to look better, but I was still concerned that the snails would never be able to eat the algae fast enough to get ahead of it. After all, how much algae can one little snail eat in a day? (Don't answer that Dr. Shimek…I know now!) So, determined to take further action (patience be damned!), I acquired a good-sized Orange-spot rabbitfish.

Microscopic photo of the red algae.
Photo courtesy of Michael Janes.

The Orange-spot rabbitfish would indeed eat the algae. However, in the week it took for the rabbitfish to acclimate to his new home and come out of hiding, the snails had the algae on the run (if I had only waited!). The algae started disappearing as if by magic. As I watched the dwindling numbers of red cotton balls, my elation turned into concern for the continued health and well-being of both the snails and rabbitfish. I pulled a dozen of the snails out of the tank and took them back to the LFS, hoping to leave enough food for the rabbitfish and remaining snails. A few days later, as the algae continued to disappear, I removed more snails, leaving only four in the tank. By this time however, there was little of the red algae remaining, and what did remain was not growing nearly as rapidly as it had been. With hardly any algae available and still too shy to come out and eat when I fed the tank, the rabbit fish began eating zoanthid polyps. In less than a week, he wiped out most of my zoanthids and starting eating the small bright green sponges that dot my rockwork. Now I faced the dilemma of getting a large and extremely skittish rabbitfish out of my tank without dissembling the entire reef structure. Thankfully, fortune smiled on me and I was able to trap him behind a rock, prod him into the net, and remove him with minimum disruption to the tank. (Of course, I'm sure the fish did not appreciate his little adventure in the least.)

The good news is the red alga is under control. Four turbo snails remain in the tank to take care of any tufts that reappear. My local fish store took the rabbitfish back, and he showed no ill effects from his little adventure. The bad news is that while I've made significant improvement in patience over the last several years thanks to reef keeping, situations such as these still arise and I realize there is still much work to do. If I had simply allowed the snails a little time to do their job, I could have saved myself the expense of purchasing a fish I didn't need, the irritation of watching my zoanthids disappear, the stress of having to catch a large fish in a fully stocked 220-gallon reef tank, and the hassle of driving forty-five miles to the local fish store to return the fish. Oh well, Rome wasn't built in a day.

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Patience by Sandra Shoup -