I am always amazed by the number of new
aquarists I see on the message board looking for "the
secret to having a successful system." I've been in the
reef-keeping hobby for almost five years and I consider myself
to be reasonably successful. However, while I was at the Marine
Aquarium Conference of North America last September in Louisville,
I was reminded once again that there is no one "secret
to success." Even the term "success" depends
to a large extent on the yardstick by which the aquarist is
using to measure it.
I met and talked at length with many aquarists
at the conference. One of the guys I met was typical of what
I call a "water quality aquarist." His idea of success
is maintaining the pristine water quality found over a natural
reef crest (at least in terms of what can actually be accurately
measured or even measured at all!). Any measurable amount
of anything in his water except hydrogen and oxygen is unacceptable.
As such, he uses heavy skimming, UV sterilization, ozone injection
and constant water testing. (Interestingly, though, he spent
very little time talking about the animals living in his system).
When he asked me about my tank, I sheepishly admitted that
I tolerated a small amount of nitrate, encouraged the growth
of microorganisms by use of a deep sand bed, and didn't even
own half the test kits that he did. I'm sure that in his opinion,
my tank is anything but successful.
Another group of aquarists measure their
success by the color and phenomenal growth rates of their
stony corals. I think of these folks as the "lighting
aquarists." They know the color temperature and output
of every bulb on the market. They are experts on reflectors
and spectrum distribution and use this knowledge to maximize
the growth rates and colors of their corals. I talked to one
of these folks and was forced to admit that I would prefer
it if my Montipora and Acropora wouldn't grow
quite so fast, as it was difficult to provide them sufficient
space. I asked if he could give me recommendations on slow-growth
corals. (Funny, but he suddenly remembered an urgent matter
requiring his immediate attention and had to excuse himself).
So, if I measured the success of my tank in terms of coral
growth rates, I would have to give myself an average rating.
Then, there are those I think of as the
"life history aquarists," whose measure of success
is mimicking the animals' natural life processes in the aquarium;
in other words: reproduction
preferably sexual reproduction.
These are the aquarists who install "moon lights"
and use computer controllers to simulate annual cycles by
day length and temperature. I know from personal experience
that having a coral spawn in the aquarium is an exciting and
fascinating experience. That is, until after the big event
when I'm left with an emergency fifty percent water change
on a 220 gallon tank. Speaking to one of the life history
aquarists, I had to admit that although I had purchased a
"moon light" and my tank controller could be programmed
to simulate an annual lighting and temperature cycle, I had
decided against it. This decision was reached after my clams
spawned for the second time in two years, followed two days
later by the spawning of an E. quadricolor anemone
the size of a dinner plate. As much as I realize that sexual
reproduction of these animals in captivity is crucial to the
continued success of our hobby, the blessed event occurring
in my 220 gallon closed system is just too much stress for
this reef keeper. My corals grow and reproduce asexually,
but alas, I'm not breaking any new ground on the sexual reproduction
of reef animals in captivity. Again, if sexual reproduction
is the measure of success, my tank falls short.
Next we come to the pioneers of reef keeping,
a group I call the "difficult-to-keep-species aquarists."
They are determined to master such species as Goniopora.
These folks, just like the "life history aquarists,"
are crucial to the hobby. It wasn't too long ago that Acropora
couldn't be kept alive in an aquarium. I have no doubt that
one day, Goniopora will thrive in an aquarium the same
way Acropora do now. But, for my money, I stick to
coral species that are content to live comfortably in the
environment I can provide right now. If I have more than one
failure with a species of coral, I just don't buy any more.
So, as a pioneer, I guess I fail.
Finally, there are the "techno-aquarists."
These are the inventors of the hobby. A successful system,
in their opinion, is one that practically runs itself. They
are always looking for, or creating, new gadgets to run their
aquariums. (The people in this group can get so focused on
the gadgets that they don't notice subtle behavioral changes
in their animals that could signal trouble.) While I do use
a computer controller to run my lights and pumps, and an automatic
top-off to replace evaporation, I haven't really gotten into
all the devices available to simplify my aquarium maintenance.
While I do enjoy tinkering with my equipment occasionally,
I'm not likely to be the inventor of the next generation surge
device or a better, do-it-yourself skimmer. So, as contributions
to the ease of aquarium maintenance go, I fail again.
So, here I am... a relative failure at
water quality, coral growth, sexual reproduction, difficult-to-keep
species and aquarium technology. You would think I would be
forced to change my opinion of my own success. But, fortunately,
I have my own yardstick. I am a "maximum diversity and
knowledge aquarist." I measure my success by the number
of different species of critters living in my tank and how
much I know about them. My theories of reef keeping are: "Fill
as many niches as possible, thereby creating as stable a system
as possible" and "The more I know about the animals
I keep, the better my chances of keeping them healthy."
My animals grow and reproduce (even without my encouragement)
and I'm continually finding new critters in my tank and refugium.
Success, therefore, is a matter of opinion.
As long as your animals are healthy and you derive enjoyment
from your efforts, you have obtained a certain level of success.
The only group I consider utter failures are those who refuse
to spend the time and energy to educate themselves on the
animals they are keeping. Their ignorance costs the lives
of reef species and contributes to the degradation of the
natural ecosystems. Fortunately, many of these folks leave
the hobby either from frustration or the financial burden
of replacing dead animals. As an aquarist, the more education
you have, the easier it is for you to select the yardstick
with which you will measure your success; and, in the end,
the more successful you will be.