John Coppolino's (copps) Reef Aquarium
Introduction and Acknowledgements:
an honor! What more can I say in response to being featured
as "Tank of the Month" in Reefkeeping Magazine
and Reef Central, among some of the most beautiful reef
aquariums in the world? Having started in this hobby long
before the boom of the World Wide Web, I unfortunately learned
many things "the hard way" through misguided firsthand
experience. Fortunately, today there is Reefkeeping Magazine
and the Reef Central community and forums, which contain
everything and more any reefkeeper would ever need to know.
Without these resources, this aquarium would not be what
it is today.
Being a resident of northern Virginia,
I would also like to extend thanks to the Washington, D.C.
Area Marine Aquarist Society (WAMAS). Local clubs are a
great way to meet other people who share a passion for this
wonderful hobby. Thanks to Mom for escorting me to the local
fish stores years ago when I was too young to drive, and
thanks to Dad for shelling out the extra money when birthday
funds just wouldn't cut it! Thanks to my good buddy and
local reef artisan, Robie Sayan, for taking many of the
photos you see here. We all know how tough it is to capture
the beauty of our reefs in a photo, but Robie does it like
nobody else. Most of all, thanks to my wonderful wife Virginia,
who has to deal with my sometimes (or always) overboard
addiction to the reef aquarium lifestyle
I mean hobby.
Background and Future:
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, I grew up on a small lake
in the woods of northern New Jersey. Our house was one of
about twenty or so that were located on a small island,
so my upbringing was centered on water, from fishing and
water skiing in the summer to ice hockey in the winter.
Though growing up on the lake sparked my innate passion
for underwater life, I quickly became consumed by the spectacular
array of species brought in from around the world to our
local aquarium shops. After what seemed like forever in
the freshwater hobby, I was finally able to convince my
parents to allow me to "go salt" about 15 years
ago when I was in middle school. My interests deepened with
that original 55-gallon tank, and my mother began dropping
me off at the local fish stores while she did her shopping.
I obtained permission to get a job and began to "work"
at one of these stores, yet to me the job was merely fun
I got paid for having. I seldom saved paychecks, though,
and my arsenal grew to three 55-gallon tanks and one "telephone
booth," as my mother called it; a six-foot long, 180-gallon
tank paid for by bagging thousands of fish at the store.
College came, and while many buddies were parting with high
school sweethearts, I began parting with my sweethearts
of the underwater kind.
Two years after leaving college I was
married, and we settled into a one-bedroom apartment in
northern Virginia. Knowing we would soon be looking for
a new house, I decided to set up a 10-gallon "nanoreef"
in, of all places, the kitchen! It was complete with a concealed
refugium in the cabinet, tridacnid clams and SPS corals.
I was a victim of its success, and it was evident that I'd
soon need to upgrade, without having to bring in the old
"telephone booth" aquarium that was waiting in
my father's garage. Last year we finally purchased our first
house, in a pre-construction phase that would not be ready
until late 2004/early 2005. With that in mind, I decided
to upgrade to a new tank, limiting myself to a tank only
three feet in length, as it would soon have to be moved.
I decided on the current 65-gallon that is featured here.
I have always been a proponent of keeping a natural-looking,
clean reef, and for that reason designed a small 20-gallon
tank that would house coral fragments which otherwise would
have hindered the beauty of the main display. A few months
after this, I added the 54-gallon bowfront corner tank,
which is seen in the apartment photo, to separate most of
the soft and LPS corals from my SPS display.
With the foundation being laid on the
new house as I write this, soon all of this aquarium's inhabitants
will move to the new house and be placed into the 180-gallon
purchased during my high school years. This cannot come
too soon, as you can see that this tank, too, has many inhabitants
that will benefit from tripling their real estate. This
will not be their final destination, however, as I have
already designed a custom room into the new house for my
dream tank which will be on the order of 500 gallons. The
"search function" will be my friend at Reef Central
as that future tank becomes a reality within the next couple
The Tank, Stand and Hood:
decided on an AGA reef-ready 65-gallon (36"x 18"x
24"), although in retrospect I would have liked a tank
at least 24" wide. As I designed the system with a
20-gallon frag tank built in, I realized that I was going
to have to make the stands and hoods myself if everything
was to fit together perfectly while looking slick enough
to have in our living and dining space. After years of hunched-over
enjoyment peering into friend's tanks I've always preferred
aquariums that sat higher than they would on most production
stands. The frag tank would sit lower for convenience and
simplicity. I originally planned on making the stand 36"
high, but after designing how everything would fit, 40"
became a necessity. It took longer than expected, but after
about eight weekends in my father's basement the project
was complete and I was more than happy with the results.
aquascaping is all too often the most overlooked aspect
of this hobby. People concentrate on things such as lighting,
calcium, and which salt to use, while forgetting that this
hobby is an art form with Mother Nature as our Picasso.
Happily, this is one problem in the hobby that doesn't require
a lot of money to fix. I've always tried to make my small
glass box look much larger than it really is, which was
less of a challenge on the 65-gallon than it was in the
10-gallon nanoreef. It's amazing the amount of time and
work we put into achieving something that Mother Nature
does so effortlessly. I always start my tanks with the largest
live rock pieces I can find. No matter how you stack a pile
of apples it's still just a pile of apples, but with some
large and irregular pieces of live rock, rotating even one
piece only a few degrees will change the entire landscape.
I did the best I could to create depth in the 18" width
of this aquarium, but I look forward to the 24" the
180 offers, and around double that dimension in the upcoming
~500 gallon tank. I covered the bottom with a small amount
of Southdown sand, and completed the eventual reef structure
with just over 100 pounds of mixed Pacific live rock. I
built the rocks up with a valley in the center, although
that gap is being filled exponentially faster each day by
the reef-building SPS corals that dominate the upper parts
of the reef. The sand layer is now completely covered by
Ricordea and Tridacna clams.
Circulation and Plumbing:
65-gallon display tank is a standard AGA reef-ready setup,
with one overflow drilled to handle one 1" bulkhead
and one ¾" bulkhead. I decided to use both of
these as drains to maximize the amount of circulation through
the sump. I used a Stockman type drainpipe to keep things
quiet inside the overflow. The 1" drain goes straight
to the sump, while the ¾" goes to a small refugium
of about seven gallons before draining into the sump. The
20-gallon "high" frag tank also drains into the
sump through a 1" bulkhead drilled into the back of
Calcium: 380-420 mg/l
Alkalinity: 8-10 dKH
Specific Gravity: 1.025-1.026
pH: 7.7 - 8.1
The circulation for the entire system
is provided by two Gen-X MAK4 external pumps that each generate
1200 gph at 0' head. To keep things simple, I decided to
use just one return pump from the sump to provide a return
for both the display and the frag tank, while providing
more flow to the display via a closed loop. Alternating
flow is important at such high volumes, especially in a
smaller than average SPS system. I decided to utilize two
well-known devices that accomplish this goal: the Switching
Current Water Director (SCWD) and the Sea-Swirl. The first
MAK4 is fed from the 20-gallon sump and 'tees' off to the
frag tank and the display. The display side discharges to
a ¾" Sea-Swirl in the center of the tank. The
frag tank side goes through a SCWD that alternates through
each side of the 20-gallon. Ball valves are located throughout
the plumbing so that I can regulate how much flow each outlet
receives. The remaining MAK4 feeds from a 1" intake
drilled into the back of the 65-gallon and goes through
a second SCWD that 'tees' off to either side of the 65-gallon
The constant switching of both the SCWD
and the Sea-Swirl operating independently of one another
provides very chaotic water movement, never allowing any
stagnant areas in the tank for long. Many reefkeepers who
have seen my system comment on its high amount of flow,
and I've also noticed that many of my SPS corals grow thicker
branches than normal as a result of the increased flow in
comparison to other systems. While this may sound a bit
complicated, the general theme is lots of flow provided
in the most chaotic way possible.
Filtration and Maintenance:
filtration consists of just over 100 pounds of mixed Pacific
live rock, along with a shallow bed of Southdown sand. A
small seven gallon refugium that contains various species
of macroalgae is plumbed into the system, and it's lit 24
hours a day by three 15 watt NO fluorescent lights.
Mechanical filtration is accomplished
on two fronts. The first is a EuroReef ES5-3 protein skimmer
that does an incredible job. This is by far the most problem-free
skimmer I've ever dealt with. I plugged it in right out
of the box and the only tinkering required was raising or
lowering the riser pipe according to how much skimming is
desired. In addition to the protein skimmer, I use a 100
micron filter sock on the 1" drain from the display
tank that helps pull out detritus before it has a chance
to break down into more noxious compounds.
I am a big proponent of using carbon
as a means of chemical filtration. I run one cup of Marineland
Black Diamond carbon in a small power filter in the sump
that is changed about once every two weeks. While its benefits
are arguable, nobody can deny the clarity it gives to the
water, making the water so clear it appears as if the fish
are suspended in air. With such a high bioload I do have
some nuisance algae growth, but I decided to just deal with
that instead risking the using of any phosphate-removing
media. As the pictures can attest, I've had no problems
with coloration of the corals.
Maintenance of the system is minimal.
I do 15-gallon water changes every two weeks, and change
the micron filter sock as needed which usually works out
to about twice a week. The collection cup of the skimmer
is emptied and cleaned a couple of times a week also. I
try to keep the glass as spotless as possible and free of
algae, as this really adds to the aesthetic look of the
aquarium by focusing the eyes on the reef as opposed to
the glass tank.
system has been my first experience with double-ended metal
halide bulbs, and I've been very impressed. The pendants
concentrate and direct more of the light into the aquarium
than do most single-ended reflectors. On top of that, their
compact size allowed me to fit two of these in the tank's
36" x 18" footprint along with three actinic VHO
bulbs, resulting in a total of almost 800 watts on the display.
I originally intended to use four VHO bulbs, but space would
not allow this configuration within the hood.
for 65-gallon display tank:
for 20-gallon frag tank:
We all know that one of the toughest
and most hotly-debated decisions is bulb choice. My general
lighting views have always been to "bake" the
tank with intense 10K light while adding more actinic light
than the average reefkeeper uses, to give the tank an appearance
of what I consider to be on the blue side of white. The
powerful 10K double-ended metal halide bulb provides impressive
growth while the strong actinic supplementation brings out
the colorful pigments similar to that seen when using 20K
bulbs. In addition to this, I have always enjoyed the electrifying
glow provided when just the actinic lights are on in the
morning and at night. I use the same lighting system with
a 20K un-supplemented bulb on the corner system, and while
I like the color, the intensity of the bulb is noticeably
less than the10K bulb.
10:30am - 11:30pm (13 hours)
12pm - 10pm (10 hours)
9:30pm - 10:30am (13 hours)
11pm - 9am (10 hours)
I run the lighting on the 20-gallon frag
tank overnight opposite that of the display tank. This has
numerous benefits, including stabilization of pH fluctuations
and, more importantly, the ability to run this small system
without a chiller despite having over 1000 watts of light
over about 100 gallons total system volume. Two 4"
computer fans mounted in the back of the canopy keep the
tank temperature below 81 degrees. Additionally, this focuses
the attention on the display tank during the day, as I do
not have the luxury of hiding this behind the scenes in
our small apartment.
such a high number of reef building corals in this small
volume of water, the first method I use for replenishing
calcium and alkalinity is a My Reef Creations CR-2
dual chamber calcium reactor filled with ARM media. As the
corals and clams grew the calcium and alkalinity demand
was increasing exponentially, and as I turned up the reactor,
the pH of the entire system was dropping continuously as
expected. In order to help the calcium reactor to keep these
levels up, I hooked my auto topoff system to a custom Nilsen
reactor built by Geofloors. This device has the additional
benefit of raising the overall pH of the system by adding
saturated kalkwasser with a pH around 12. Despite using
the Nilsen reactor, the pH of the system runs on the low
side, but I've seen no ill effects so I don't worry about
it too much. The auto topoff reservoir is just about five
gallons, so that if the float switch ever malfunctions,
the sump can handle the extra water put into the system
and the resulting drop in salinity would be minor. In addition
to these two devices, I occasionally dose the two-part additive
B-Ionic in order to boost low levels in the short term without
having to tweak the calcium reactor settings.
in this system centers on my Red Sea regal angel that is
about as spoiled as a fish can be. I am lucky enough that
all the fish in this aquarium eat Spectrum pellet foods,
including the anthias and regal angel. I feed as often as
possible, which works out to just two or three times a day
during the week and around five times a day on weekends.
I offer all foods in a turkey baster, concentrating on keeping
the regal angel fat while letting the others get what the
regal misses. I developed this method after finding that
although the regal angel fed well, it was a much slower
eater than the other inhabitants, including the group of
cardinals that are relentless in their pursuit of food.
I feed Spectrum pellets about half the
time, after soaking them in tank water for at least 10 minutes
to soften them up. The remainder of the feedings are reserved
for a variety of frozen foods. I have come to love some
of the gel-based cubed foods, as they deliver more of the
food to the fish and less to the aquarium. Many frozen preparations
that are not bound by this gel simply disintegrate with
so much flow in the tank, never to be seen or eaten by the
fish. I use many of these gel bound preparations, including
those made with sponges for angels, and those made with
lots of vegetable matter. I also use good old mysis shrimp
and plankton. The regal angel gets noticeably excited when
I feed it squid, so I always make it a point to do so once
in a while. On top of all these I throw in most anything
I can find that's new or different, because variety can
never be a bad thing.
Long ago I stopped feeding phytoplankton
and anything geared towards feeding the corals, and have
noticed no difference in coral health. While those foods
may be beneficial, they are unnecessary. Exporting from
the aquarium what you put in is a balancing act, and adding
unnecessary foods only makes it more difficult.
beauty of saltwater fishes is what originally brought me
into the saltwater hobby, and while I have long since moved
on to reef tanks, my love for these stunning creations of
nature endures. After being in the hobby for so long, most
of my fish can be considered not so common, yet not so expensive.
Regal Angelfish (Pygoplites diacanthus) - This
fish is truly my pride and joy, and is the centerpiece
fish of this system. Every time these fish would come
in directly from the Red Sea to the local retailer/wholesaler
I would attempt to feed them, with most showing little
or no interest in prepared foods. This notable specimen
fed like no other I'd seen, and was a beauty among beauties
in the group he was shipped with. I had already prepared
this system by moving all of my zoanthids to a separate
tank. While each individual angelfish has its own tendencies,
regal angels are particularly known for their love of
zoanthids. Sure enough, within hours of adding this
beauty to the tank he had hunted down every remaining
zoanthid, yet to this day continues to leave everything
else in the tank alone. I've had him now for over six
months and, knock on wood, he's staying plump and happy,
eating straight from a turkey baster like the spoiled
baby that he is. With this said, this species should
without a doubt be left to only those aquarists who
can satisfy its needs.
Yellow-lined cardinalfish (7) (Apogon cyanosoma)
- Cardinalfish are perhaps the most overlooked family
of fish in this hobby. They are small enough that we
are able to witness their natural behaviors and social
structure in our diminutive glass boxes. These guys
attack food like little tuna and really add life to
the tank. Mine have grown up together and now have an
interesting hierarchy of dominance, and breed on a regular
basis. When I have the room in the new house it will
be interesting to make some attempts at raising the
Peppermint hogfish (Bodianus sp.) - This fish
was originally very rare in the trade and thus very
expensive. I purchased Mickey, as he is known, last
year as the first fish in the tank and got him for a
price I couldn't pass up. He is constantly on the prowl
for food, and is one of those fish that appears very
intelligent as he scans the rockwork for potential prey.
Aside from attacking other wrasses in his tank, he's
generally been peaceful.
Bartlett's anthias (pair) (Pseudanthias bartlettorum)
- In my eyes no fish is more indicative of a living
coral reef than anthias. I chose Bartlett's because
they adapt well to captivity, stay small, and are gorgeous!
There's really no reason to choose a species that does
not adapt well when there are so many beautiful species
that settle into captivity quite nicely. I look forward
to adding to the number of females when the 180-gallon
system goes up.
Bristletooth tomini tang (Ctenochaetus tominiensis)
- It's nice to find a beautiful tang that you don't
often see for a price that won't have you sleeping on
the couch for a month! On top of that he's a bristletooth
tang and is constantly "kissing" the live
rock keeping it free of algae. Basically, he's a kole
tang with a fire lit behind him!
Yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens) - A reefkeeper
could have tens of thousands of dollars of livestock
in a reef tank, yet most non-reefkeepers would still
notice the yellow tang before anything else. I don't
care how common they are, they have always been one
of the most striking fish in the hobby and continue
to keep my interest.
Flame hawk (Neocirrhitus armatus) - My wife's
favorite fish and a perennial favorite in the hobby.
These guys have arguably the most character of any fish
in the trade, with their eyes always moving around with
the constant thought, "Can I eat that?"
White tiger goby (Priolepis nocturna) - This
striking and very rare goby is, without a doubt, the
most secretive fish I have ever known. I added him to
the tank and thought he was dead after not seeing him
for weeks, until I found him hiding in the rockwork
perched upside down. He is occasionally seen as a "white
flash" for a split second when feeding, but that's
about it. Usually, with a flashlight I can find him
now, as I know his usual perches. It's a good thing
I took photos of him when he was first purchased, for
now it's nearly impossible. His body and fins are a
bright white that reminds me of that seen on clownfish.
Corals and Clams:
The aquarium is
dominated quite obviously by SPS corals at the upper portions
of the reef, while the sandbed is dedicated to my Ricordea
and clam collection. I have two LPS plate corals that also
occupy the sandbed, and one non-photosynthetic Diodogorgia
sp. gorgonian occupying the shaded real estate directly
under the Sea-Swirl.
Most of the SPS corals currently in the tank were started
as fragments over the past couple of years, and the enjoyment
of witnessing them grow is truly special and gratifying.
Additionally, I have some wild and some aquacultured colonies.
The excitement of bringing home a unique coral that could
turn most any color is worth the risk of possibly losing
the sometimes delicate colonies.
I have 11 Tridacna clams in the system consisting
of all five of the major ornamental species, namely five
T. maxima, three T. crocea, one T. squamosa,
one T. derasa, and finally one T. gigas. All
of these clams will soon need the space of the 180, and
the T. gigas will hopefully live to see the 500-gallon
where it will have all the real estate it needs for a long
I am also a Ricordea fanatic and am always amazed
by the almost complete representation of the rainbow that
these mushrooms show in their near-perfect circular "pillows"
dotted throughout their discs. They are a perfect compliment
to SPS corals, in my opinion, and I was very happy to see
that my regal angel showed them no interest.
Feel free to comment
or ask questions about my tank in the Tank of the Month
on Reef Central.