From Reefs Magazine

by Rich Ross and Chris Jury

The Editors Note: In Skeptical Reefkeeping IX, Rich Ross is joined by our old friend Chris Jury as they try to come to terms with the “impossible” yet confirmed PO4 readings in Rich’s gorgeous reef. The analysis is thorough, thought- provoking, grounded in science and suggestive of a far more complex picture regarding PO4 and its role in our aquariums.

There are many standard parameters in the reefkeeping world that aquarists strive to match in their home reefs – water quality, light spectrum and intensity, and water flow, just to name a few. Rarely do we stop to think where these standard parameters come from, and even more rarely do we consider calling into question the utility of these parameters. This can lead to aquarists ‘chasing numbers’; tweaking water parameters to hit a standard goal. Often times, people think that hitting a magic number will inherently result in a better, healthier tank. In the past few years, dealing with phosphate in saltwater aquariums has become one of the most talked about ‘must control at all costs’ parameter, and in this installment of Skeptical Reefkeeping, we will look at some evidence which calls into question the reliability of testing, the generally accepted target phosphate concentration, and general control of phosphate in reef aquariums.

Rich’s 150 gallon display, on a 300 gallon system, is running a phosphate level of 1.24 ppm, a level at 24.8 times higher than the often recommended .05 ppm. Photo by Richard Ross.

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From Reefs Magazine
Richard Ross and Kevin Erickson

There are many terms in the marine aquarium hobby that are used in multiple ways by different people, which can cause a great deal of confusion. This is especially true as it pertains to the origins and sustainability of animals – it is possible to purchase an animal thinking you know its background, lineage, where it comes from and how it was raised/collected, only to find out that you and the person you bought it from have a different understanding of what certain terms actually mean.

Normally, as discussed in Skeptical Reefkeeping III, we would advise people to be aware of the different ways various people and businesses use or misuse terms, and to ask clarifying questions before you risk animals lives or your hard earned money. However, during the February 2012 MASNA Live panel discussion regarding, “Tank Bred vs Captive Raised” (Erickson, 2012), it became clear that there exist a suite of terms concerning the background and origin of marine aquarium organisms that are ambiguous. Even worse, there has yet to be any real effort to try to standardize these terms. If this situation is allowed to continue, the confusion and misuse, whether intentional or not, will continue, and skeptical reefkeepers will continue to shake their heads and say ‘I wish someone would do something about this.’ So, what follows is our attempt to take action.

Designer clownfish are nearly all captive bred and as such are good for beginning hobbyists because wild reefs are not impacted by the learning curve. Photo by Sanjay Joshi.

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by Richard Ross and Matt Wandell

View from the campsite on Enemat.

View from the campsite on Enemat.

When we booked our flights to Kwajalein, we really didn’t know much about the atoll except that it was part of the Marshall Islands, that the underwater life was supposed to be spectacular, and that the US had done nuclear testing in the area and still continues to use some of the islands for military purposes. Initially, Rich wasn’t even going to go on the trip – John Coppalino and DJ Linehan (owner of Tropical Fish Emporium and sole permit holder for Marine Ornamental export from Kwaj) had worked it out to go with Matt Wandell and Luiz Rocha and meet Connor, a local Marshallese fish collector for a week of diving. Near the last minute, Luiz had to go to the Red Sea for work (poor guy), so a spot opened up for Rich. As we started packing, John had to back out, and we found ourselves getting onto a plane without much information about where we were going, where we were going to stay and just how the diving was going to be accomplished.

We did know we were not going to be staying on Kwajalein Island itself because it is a military base; if you aren’t military you don’t get to stay there. Instead, we would stay on Ebeye, where all the local Marshallese live. We also knew that at some point we were going to take a sailboat to camp and dive around some of the outer islands. And that was all we knew. It was actually liberating to jump into such an adventure with no real foundation about anything at all, ready to take what the trip had to offer. As it turns out, the trip was filled with endemic fish, the ups and downs of trying to get stuff done on a small pacific island, terrible and fantastic culinary experiences, exposure to a unique local culture directly resulting from US military practices…. and fantastic underwater life.

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From Reefs Magazine

By Richard Ross

Ethical discussion about almost every area of reefkeeping has been a part of the hobby for as long as the hobby has existed – What size tank do I need to meet my animals’ needs? Are some animals better left in the ocean? Do I really need a separate tank to treat a sick fish? Can we justify the resources we use for our aquariums?The discussion of ethics in our hobby is both comprehensive and esoteric, having the potential to evoke extreme emotion as people argue for what they feel is some sort of moral high ground. Lately, some parts of the ethical discussion have heated up due to anti-aquarium groups working to curtail or even shut down wild collection for the hobby. As always, some of the anti-hobby positions are valid, andshould make us examine and change our husbandry practices, while others are based on emotional, poorly constructed arguments. But, ethics are not as simple as people who want you to support their position often make them out to be. We need to be prepared to counter such ethical misstatements, both in others and ourselves. This starts with understanding and refining our own ethical stances s, since the better we will be able to understand and communicate our positions to others, the better the hobby can move forward.

There is lots and lots of life on wild reefs. Is it ethical to collect it and ship it halfway around to put in peoples living rooms? Perhaps the answer depends on how much suffering is caused to the creatures in the process. (Photo by Richard Ross.)

There is lots and lots of life on wild reefs. Is it ethical to collect it and ship it halfway around the world to put in peoples living rooms? Perhaps the answer depends on how much suffering is caused to the creatures in the process. (Photo by Richard Ross.)

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The Internet makes information instantly available for Reefkeepers all around the world, but that information can be clouded in inaccurate fog, anecdote, baseless opinion and unsubstantiated arguments from authority. To keep the inaccurate fog at a minimum in an effort to save money and save animals lives, you need to be able to get the information you want as well as share information that others want by communicating well with people and enticing others to communicate well in return. Since communication is one of the keystones of Skeptical Methodology and critical to success in reefkeeping, in this installment of Skeptical Reefkeeping Lives and Money, we will look at strategies for getting and sharing useful information about our boxes of live animals.

A brief reminder to set the scene

Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it can be defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence or presented with weak supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Being a skeptical reefkeeper requires that you investigate why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. As a Skeptical Reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking: not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself while developing your saltwater thumb in the face of sometimes overwhelming conflicting advice. Communication as a Skeptical Reefkeeper is critical, because it is through communication that we refine our saltwater thumbs.

image from

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From ReefsMagazine

Collecting, Getting Stuff Home and New Discoveries

Link to Part 1

This video from the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition give you a good idea why the Verde Island Passage has been called ‘the center of the center of marine biodiversity’.

Researchers from the California Academy of Sciences have been visiting the Verde Island Passage area off the coast of Batangas Province on Luzon Island, Philippines for almost 20 years. Research by scientists during this period has suggested that this area may be the “center of the center” of marine biodiversity, and perhaps home to more documented species than any other marine habitat on Earth; there can be more species of soft corals at just one dive site than in all of the Caribbean.

Funded by a generous gift from Margaret and Will Hearst, the 2011 expedition was not only the most comprehensive scientific survey effort ever conducted in the Philippines, but also the largest expedition in the history of the California Academy of Sciences.  Over eighty scientists from the Academy, the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, the Philippines National Museum,  and the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources came with a mission to survey and document various aspects of the various ecosystems in the area.  A further team of Academy educators attended with a mission to share the expedition’s findings with local community and conservation groups as the Expedition was happening. As part of the expedition’s shallow water team based at the renowned Club Ocellaris, Bart Shepherd, Matt Wandell and I focused upon the underwater sites that served as the inspiration for the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences 212,000 gallon Philippine Coral Reef exhibit.

In part one of this series, we covered getting the the Philippines, the realities of being on an expedition and our lucky observation of hard coral spawning. In part two we’ll look at how we collected octopus and corals, how we shipped those animals back home, and more.

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Planning, Science and Surreality

From Reefs Magazine

by Richard Ross

Researchers from the California Academy of Sciences have been visiting an area called the Verde Island Passage off the coast of Batangas Province on Luzon Island, Philippines for almost 20 years. Research by scientists during that period suggested that this area is the “center of the center” of marine biodiversity, and perhaps home to more documented species than any other marine habitat on Earth; there can be more species of soft corals at just one dive site in this area than in all of the Caribbean. Thus it was only natural that when the Steinhart’s 212,000 gallon reef tank was designed, the Academy decided to represent the reefs of Luzon. Ever since, Steinhart biologists have traveled to this area in small groups with the objective of acquiring first hand knowledge of the environments they hope to recreate in San Francisco.

The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition, however, was a trip of a completely different magnitude: the largest expedition in the Academy’s history covering both land and sea. Consisting of a Shallow Water team, Deep Water team and a Terrestrial/Fresh Water team, the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity expedition, funded by by a generous gift from Margaret and Will Hearst, was the most comprehensive scientific survey effort ever conducted in the Philippines. Joining the expedition were over eighty scientists from the Academy, the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, the Philippines National Museum and the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, as well as a team of Academy educators whose mission was to share the expedition’s findings with local community and conservation groups as the Expedition was happening.

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This video by Bart Shepherd show some of the reefscapes we encountered on the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition

As part of the Shallow Water team Bart Shepherd, Matt Wandell and I surveyed and further documented the underwater sites that served as the inspiration for the Steinhart’s Philippine Coral Reef exhibit. We also responsibly collected coral, cephalopods and other invertebrates for captive propagation, research and display at our Golden Gate Park facility. As the only public aquarium permitted to collect stony corals in the Philippines, we were to obtain these unique species for study, captive culture research, distribution to other institutions as well for display at the aquarium.


On previous trips to the Philippines, Steinhart biologists had been given special permission to collect and export small numbers of small coral fragments, most of them collected as ‘found frags’. The 2011 Expedition would continue this tradition, albeit with some modifications. In order to reduce stress on the organisms, we planned to adopt Ken Nedimyer’s work with the Coral Restoration Foundation ( to create a system for holding our coral fragments offshore until transport. We mocked up the system using materials that we could travel easily with, or that we could find in the field – silicone airline tubing, zip ties, dive weights and empty plastic water bottles as floats (after all, you can sadly find empty plastic water bottles on just about any beach in the world). The mock up went into our big reef tank for testing and was immediately dubbed ‘the coral clothesline’ by the aquariums docents.

The 'Coral Clothesline', inspired by the Coral Restoration Foundation, in action about 50 meters offshore

In addition to our clothesline supplies, we packed everything else we could think that we might possibly need. Some highlights: six large, low style plastic tanks that could be weighted and sunk offshore for holding larger fish and other inverts, as well as smaller plastic tanks that could be hung from the Clothesline to hold small fish and other inverts. A backpack kit for harvesting jelly gonads (as removing the gonads doesn’t impact the jellies long term and the gonads ship better than adult jellies). Fiberglass window screen to make lids for impromptu holding containers, as well as the rubber bands to hold those lids on. Dozens of tubes of super glue and rolls of duct tape. LCD microscope just in case we needed to look at something close up. Sharpies for note taking. Scissors for cutting everything. Needle nose pliers for coral fragmenting. Plastic rulers for scale in photographs. Deli cups for transport, collection and shipping or animals. All this stuff and more went into one fish shipping box and filled every empty space in our luggage.

After flying all night to Manila, all this gear, along with some very tired biologists, hit the ground running at 5am, finding our checked items, finding our ride and driving 3 hours to Club Ocellaris, a world renowned SCUBA resort, which would be the base of operations for the shallow water team.

Science was everywhere

Rich Mooi and Bob Bob Van Syoc stand surrounded by the science that took over Club Ocellaris

When we arrived at Club Ocellaris, we found it had already been completely taken over by the Expedition. Science was everywhere. Across the resort, any flat space had already become some sort of makeshift lab, with equipment and apparatus piled all over the place.  Every electrical outlet had a computer, camera, light or batteries charging. Containers of every conceivable kind from plastic bags, to lidded jars, to 5 gallon buckets waited everywhere to be filled with hunks of science. While all of that was exciting, we really wanted to get in the water. Within an hour of arriving our Diving Safety Officer, Elliott Jessup, got us suited up and on a boat for our first dive of the trip –  we saw sea snake, corals and fish galore. After our afternoon dive, we assembled our offshore holding about 50 meters offshore so we would be ready for whatever collecting we would do the next day. When we were done, we were treated to the most spectacular sunset I have seen in a long time. Not a bad way to start off the expedition.

Sunset our first night a Club Ocellaris

The overall dive plan for the Steinhart Biologists was to dive and collect for 6 days, then drive the animals we had obtained back to Manila for ship out on our ‘dry day’ (to give our bodies a chance to off gas Nitrogen in our tissues from diving), drive right back to Club Ocellaris for another 6 days of diving and collecting, then back to Manila for packing and shipping then fly home the next day. The daily schedule of activities would be a grueling marathon, but we couldn’t wait to get started.

Life in the expedition

Every morning, we woke at around 6 am for coffee and Skype video calls to home and work where it was 2 pm the previous day. Breakfast (ummm, mango shakes) and our dive briefing started at 7 am. With up to five dive boats going out each day, coming to agreement on where we would be diving was no small act of coordination. After breakfast we would collect and test our NITROX tanks for the day, get our cameras and collecting gear ready, and assemble & check our dive gear and load it onto the boats. Then we would suit up and zoom out to a good place to get under the wanter.

On each dive, we not only collected animals, but also completed multiple steps designed to track each specimen – every coral fragment was photographed and assigned a number that provided information on when it was collected, from what dive site and depth it was harvested, as well as the name of the biologist who collected it. Each coral got at tag attached to it so we would, in theory, be able to ID it later. The tagging was a learning experience and morphed over time, so much so, that next year we will most likely use heat stamped numbered zip ties as tracking id’s, but attach those zip ties to the coral with 20 gauge coated wire the tips of which are sealed with a rubberized plastic dip because the wire will be easier to manipulate and create less waste than other methods we tried.

A red Juncella sp, tagged and ready to be placed on the Coral Clothsline

A red Juncella sp, tagged and ready to be placed on the Coral Clothsline. This coral is now on display in the Steinhart's Philippine Coral Reef Exhibit

After the second dive, we would head back to land and offload our animals.  From the dock, we would change our scuba equipment for snorkels, and then swim our new specimens to the off shore holding facility, often making multiple trips. Then we would eat ravenously, then turn around and repeat the same process for the afternoon dives.

We would finally climb out of the water at 6pm for dinner… unless we were doing a night dive.   On night dive days, dinner and dry-off  was often as late as 10 pm.

Matt Wandell swimming a plastic tank filled with collected animals out to our offshore holding site

After dinner, there was more sciencing to be done.  The spreadsheet detailing what we had collected needed to be brought up to date, the Coral ID software needed to be consulted to identify each SPS coral to species.  Paperwork for permits for export, and shipment/arrival details needed to be initiated and updated. When that was done, we were often drafted to help the researchers on other teams process specimens they had collected, take pictures, be all around helpful, and tend to whatever animals we were keeping onshore. Sometimes we even had a moment to geek out with Philippine scientists, or have a drink of the local rum (which I still think also contained Formalin). We were lucky if we fell into bed by 11:30.

Even when bad weather kept us from diving, instead of relaxing, we were still science geeky. This is a time lapse shot of lightning and Matt Wandell writing CAS (California Academy of Sciences) in the air with a dive light

The second night

Our first night dive was something special. The moon was full and the dive site wascalled Dead Palm. We hit the water just after the sun set to swim over stands of Acropora of all different kinds and Turbinaria colonies as large as a car. It was an SPS lover’s dream dive. About halfway through the dive the particulate in the water started to gradually become noticeably thicker, and virtually at the same time the three of us looked at each other and yelled SPAWN through our regulators.

Many corals reproduce in coordinated mass orgies where they release millions of gametes into the water. None of us had ever seen a coral spawn in the wild, and it really is as cool as it looks in the documentaries.  We traced the spawn to a huge thicket of Acropora nobilis, and watched in amazement as each egg/sperm bundle emerged from the branches and floated towards the surface where fertilization takes place. Within a few days the fertilized eggs change into a coral planula, coral larvae, which swim around (yes, swim!), until they find a suitable place to settle and develop into a mature coral.

Coral spawning is one of the new frontiers in captive coral reproduction, because collecting spawn instead of coral fragments can yield many more corals in captivity in an incredibly sustainable collection method. A group of public aquarists and coral scientists formed SECORE (SExual COral REproduction – and they have been holding workshops in the Caribbean for the last several years to perfect spawning, fertilization and settling procedures. Building on the success of the Caribbean workshops the Steinhart Aquarium hopes to hold a SECORE workshop in the Philippines in the next few years. The most important part of such a workshop is of course timing it with the coral spawn. There is not much information on the timing of Philippine coral spawns, and none of the previous trips to the area had ever come across one, so actually observing coral spawning in the Philippines is a good and necessary start to bringing SECORE to the area.

We, along with some of the other California Academy of Sciences researchers and a Philippine television crew, returned to Dead Palm the next night where the coral spawn was in full swing yet again.  We were able to find a colony of Acropora willisae when it was beginning to release gametes and set up around the coral to both collect some of the spawn and to document the event. I’ll never forget filming Matt collecting gametes in a plastic bag  while the television crew was filming me film him. We were able to collect several hundred sperm and egg bundles, and though completely unprepared for the labor intensive process of fertilization and settlement, were gave it a go.


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via Vimeo

My video of the coral spawn and the gamete collection

A surreal night

After years of having the privilege of diving around the world practicing no impact diving, after collecting for the trade practicing and teaching having as little impact as possible, and after planning to take ‘found frags’ when possible, watching a scientific survey on the move takes a bit of getting used to.  The researchers were collecting everything – worms,  urchins, fish, nudibranchs – and just about every dive on the Expedition yielded at least one animal that seemed to be undescribed by science. The animals were being collected and preserved for scientific description, genetic analysis and as a way to be comprehensive in the survey, and being in the midst of a full on scientific survey lead to the Steinhart biologists to try to take advantage of the situation, and alter our plan regarding what we would try to bring back to San Francisco for our living collection.

On the third evening of our diving, Dr. Healy Hamilton showed us some ghost pipefish, Solenostomus cyanopterus, and some pygmy seahorses, Hippocampus bargibanti, that had been collected that day. These animals were going to be sacrificed for their genetic material. I know some people have a visceral reaction to that idea, but as Dr. Gerald Allen once said during a MACNA talk “It’s a necessary part of science”. Of course when we saw the ghost pipefish, a species that we had always wanted to work with but hadn’t because of their dismal record of surviving collection and shipping through the trade, we immediately suggested that we try to keep them alive and that we try to ship them home and put them on display – if they didn’t make it, we would still have their genetic material available for science. Though we weren’t prepared for holding these kinds of animals, Bart, Matt and I had been trained in the ultimate McGyver proving ground – the reefkeeping hobby. We got to work setting up buckets aerated by scuba tanks, faux gargonian hitching posts for the seahorses made from zip ties, and prepared ourselves to do water changes as often as needed by slogging 5 gallon buckets up and down 2 flights of stairs.

Of course, the third night of diving was also the night we collected coral spawn, so while we were preparing to try to keep these amazing fish alive, we were also preparing to attempt to keep the coral spawn healthy and fertilized which included ‘stirring’ the gametes every hour or two. This led to the most surreal night of the trip. We had coral out on the clothesline, ghost pipefish in the offshore holding tanks, trays of coral eggs and sperm, and a bucket with two pygmy seahorses next to our beds. Throughout the night we kept waking up and tending to these animals –  a strange, wonderful and exhausting time.

In the end, we were successful keeping the ghost pipefish alive, and getting them home to the aquarium in Golden Gate Park. Sometime in the night we noticed that the pygmy seahorses were no longer living, and we preserved them. The coral spawn failed to thrive, and it seems that we were simply too unprepared and understaffed to have succeeded in that labor intensive realm. We learned a lot and helped move science forward. Of course, we plan that for next year’s trip, we will be much more prepared for new surprises and opportunities.

In the next installment – coral collecting, octopus wrangling, shipping & packing for the trip home, and 300-500 new species discovered.

Special thanks to Bart Shepherd, Matt Wandell and Elizabeth Palomeque



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From Reefs Magazine

by Allison Petty

Photos by Christopher Paparo, Video by Richard Ross

The Holy Grail

As a professional aquarist, my career has presented me with the opportunity to work with a variety of remarkable marine life. Working with animals from sharks to mammals, and electric eels to reptiles has been very rewarding, but none compare to the experience of working with cephalopods. At Atlantis Marine World, I care for our two cephalopod exhibits, the giant pacific octopus and cuttlefish. They are two of the most popular exhibits at the aquarium. Their unique, almost alien-like appearance, combined with their ability to change color and shape in an instant, keeps visitors mesmerized in front of the exhibits all day. Sadly, the specimens kept in these two exhibits are not with us for long. All cephalopods have a very short life span, some lasting less than a year. They hatch, grow quickly, and die shortly after reproduction. Fortunately though, this short life means they reach sexual maturity in a reasonable amount of time, making captive breeding of many cephalopod species possible. Typically, we keep Sepia officinalis or Sepia pharaonis, and I have been fortunate enough to raise both species. Recently, however, a twist of fate has afforded me the opportunity of a lifetime.

This journey started almost a year ago when a marine life wholesaler in California called to tell us that he had some Metasepia pfefferi (flamboyant cuttlefish) coming in and asked if we were interested. Since it is considered the holy grail of cephalopods and probably the coolest animal on the planet, what could we say?

The M. pfefferi was being sent next day via FedEx, which meant there was little time to prepare. Swinging into high gear we quickly set up a home for it, which ended up being a 24-gallon Via-Aqua tank with a shallow bed of live sand. The cuttlefish arrived the very next day. We acclimated it to its new home, and I immediately fell in love. Since I have never taken care of a flamboyant cuttlefish before, I contacted Richard Ross, the “cephalopod guru”, to ask for any useful information. He told me that it is common for flamboyant cuttlefish to mate before being collected. He explained that they prefer to lay their eggs under ledges and he recommended adding coconut shell halves in the tank, just in case by some miracle we received a gravid female. It seemed like a long shot that this cuttlefish could have reached sexual maturity and mated already, as it was only 2.5 inches in length.

After giving the cuttlefish some time to settle in, we offered it a live shore shrimp (Palaemonetes pugio), which it immediately stalked and devoured. The flamboyant is like no other cuttlefish I’ve encountered before. Most cuttlefish are masters of camouflage, having the ability to blend in quite well with their surroundings by changing the texture as well as the color of their skin quickly. Flamboyant cuttlefish share this ability to blend, but can also take their appearance to the other extreme with their stunning coloration. When they feel threatened they show a remarkable rippling display of colors down their body from bright yellows and whites, to bold purples and reds, making them stand out vibrantly. This show of colors is also a way to broadcast to potential predators that it is poisonous. It is said to be as lethal as a blue-ringed octopus, making the flamboyant cuttlefish the most toxic of the cuttlefish species. Another odd behavior of the flamboyant is that unlike other cuttlefish that are usually shy and spook easily, flamboyant cuttlefish are courageous. They will stand their ground instead of jetting off into the background of their tank. These behaviors make them very intriguing and guaranteed to hypnotize anyone. Needless to say, none of us got much work done for the rest of the day.

As the flamboyant was settling in and getting comfortable in its home, I added it into my routine of daily feedings and water changes. Being that Atlantis Marine World is located on a tidal river, it is very convenient to get endless amounts of shore shrimp and killifish. These shrimp and killifish are enriched with Cyclops and salt-water mysis before they are fed out. Using live food helped maintain good water quality since any uneaten food would be alive and not foul the water. However, being that it was a new system and cycling, I did a 15% water change, 3 times a week in order to keep the ammonia, nitrates and nitrites as close to zero as possible. I kept the salinity around 33 ppt, the pH between 7.8 and 8.0 and the temperature close to 73 degrees Fahrenheit. This combination seems to keep the flamboyant happy and healthy.

After about 3 weeks of giving this flamboyant a lot of special attention the unthinkable happened: she laid eggs! The morning of July 4th was a memorable one to say the least. On my morning rounds, I stopped to say good morning to her and to my surprise there were about 20 perfect white eggs in one of the coconut halves. Ecstatic beyond belief, I needed to find someone to share my excitement and that someone happened to be Senior Aquarist, Chris Paparo. He told me not to get too worked up because he thought there was a high chance that they were infertile. However, I had a strong feeling otherwise and was excited to watch them develop.

With the exception of marine mammals and a few other taxa (damsels, cardinals, crustaceans, etc.), maternal instincts are lacking in the marine world. Most marine organisms release egg and sperm into the water, and hope for the best. The flamboyant cuttlefish is one of those exceptions. Most of the day she spent tending to the eggs, keeping them clear of detritus and other fouling agents, and guarding them from possible predation. Even though she was alone in the tank and there was no predation threat, she would still “pace” back and forth in front of the shells using her tentacles and two leg-like appendages that looked as if they were molded from the bottom of her mantle. Instead of swimming, flamboyant cuttlefish spend most of their time literally walking around on the substrate. This benthic behavior is due to their smaller than normal cuttlebone. All cuttlefish have a cuttlebone, which is made up of calcium carbonate. It is divided into chambers and depending on the buoyancy that a cuttlefish needs, it can either empty or fill these chambers with gas. Since the flamboyant cuttlefish has a small cuttlebone, they have a harder time with their buoyancy and cannot swim for long periods of time without sinking.

On August 10th, approximately a month after the first egg was laid the unimaginable happened and possibly the most important day of my career had come. While giving out her first feed of the day, I noticed the most beautiful, tiny baby cuttlefish hanging out on the wall of her tank. Not believing my eyes, standing there in shock and awe, fellow Aquarist Todd Gardner rounded the corner and asked what I was looking at. As I showed him the 1 cm long carbon copy of the adult flamboyant we stared in silence together, then celebrated for about 5 minutes before starting to think about setting up a tank for Junior.

Here at Atlantis Marine World, we believe in keeping things simple. So for Junior’s tank we used a 10-gallon tank with a hang on the back Aqua Clear mini filter and some live aragonite as substrate. After the new system was running and ready for its first occupant, I carefully scooped up the tiny baby in a deli cup and gently transferred it into its new home. Now for the hard part, what to feed this little guy? After doing some research, I found that newly hatched mysid shrimp were needed to feed Junior. I located a company in Florida, Marinco Bioassay Laboratory, which cultures mysids. After making a call, I ordered the smallest possible mysids they could ship me, which were 7 days old, and hoped it would be suitable. To my relief they were and it didn’t take long for Junior to track them down and consume them. Keeping the water parameters of the tank as close as possible to its mothers was easy enough; it was keeping the right amount of food in the tank that was more difficult. Too few mysids made catching one more difficult, but too many would stress Junior.

Over the next two months ten babies hatched. Unfortunately, two of these hatched prematurely. The two preemies had buoyancy issues and one still had a yolk sac. Needless to say, they did not survive. Keeping all eight hatchlings in the same tank worked at first, but started to become an issue when it came to feeding. Since there was a 2-month difference from the oldest to the youngest, the oldest seemed to be over powering the little ones and eating a majority of the food. At 2 months, the oldest was big enough to eat something more substantial than mysids, so I searched through the shore shrimp tank to find the smallest shore shrimp possible. At about a quarter of an inch long, I broke off the rostrum of the grass shrimp and dropped it in the tank in front of the oldest baby. To my delight he ate it right up. The feeding process started to get tedious and time consuming. It was a real challenge to make sure that all of the babies were getting enough food, so more tanks needed to be set up.

The 10-gallon set up was working just fine, so I set up two more 10-gallon tanks and another 24-gallon Via-Aqua. I size sorted the babies and split them between the four tanks. This seemed to work out well, especially when it came to feeding. Being able to see how much they were eating and weaning them from mysids to grass shrimp was easier and less stressful. Although feedings were simpler, I increased my maintenance workload by three-fold. I was still water changing their mothers’ tank 3 times a week, and now having to do the same for the four baby tanks was repetitive yet necessary to keep up with the proper parameters for these guys to grow and be healthy.

All the work I’ve been putting in with these guys was challenging and monotonous at times but it was beyond worth it. When the oldest babies reached ages of about 4-5 months, they were big enough to be displayed. Getting the “o.k.” to redo the existing cuttlefish exhibit, I replaced all the substrate and décor and revamped the overflow so the smaller cuttlefish would not get stuck to it. Once finished, I moved 6 flamboyant cuttlefish to the 500 gallon half circle exhibit. They got along for the most part. Surprisingly it was the smallest one that caused some trouble. He would get up in the others’ faces, follow them around, and threaten them. Basically it was like he had Napoleon complex and was trying to prove himself. This lasted for about 2 weeks before they all settled down, made peace with each other and made excellent display animals.

Meanwhile, back behind the scenes, their mother was still going strong. She continued to lay hundreds of eggs and took great care of them. There were no more fertile eggs by this point, but she still acted as if there were by guarding and cleaning them. She continued to eat very well until mid-January. Her eye sight started to go and she was missing her food. Like all Cephalopods when it is their time to go it is very sad to watch as they slowly perish. By my calculations she was at least 14 months old, and knowing cephalopods are short lived, I figured she had lived a long, fruitful, and what I hope was a happy life. January 27th was a sad day for me as my first and yet very successful Flamboyant cuttlefish had passed. With all that I have learned from her, I hope I get the chance to repeat this process. All I can do now is wait and see if her legacy will live on with the hope that the courtship I am seeing with the new generation will be equally bountiful.

UPDATE: As of this writing, Allison’s hopes for the second generation have been realized as evidenced by the photos and video below. Several captive bred specimens have now been reared and sent to other aquariums for further study. Congratulations on yet another stunning achievement!

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From Reefs Magazine

In the previous installments we talked about skeptical methodology and how it can be used to sort through the overwhelming amount of reefkeeping information that is now at the virtual fingertips of reef hobbyists. We also discussed how skeptical thinking has impacted the idea of sustainable reefkeeping, scientific terminology, magic products and more. In this installment we’ll take a look how to decide which expert to listen to and the most important tool in the skeptical reefkeepers toolbox.

A brief reminder to set the scene

Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it’s defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Being a skeptical reefkeeper requires that you investigate why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. As a skeptical reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking: not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself while developing your saltwater thumb in the face of sometimes overwhelming conflicting advice.


In any endeavor, it is always great to be able to consult with someone who has more experience than you do. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and avoiding avoidable mistakes can save you time and money, as well as lives of animals. However, there are ‘experts’ everywhere you turn, and it can be difficult to know who’s expert advice is worth listening to and who is just spouting opinion or perpetuating something they heard somewhere under the guise of being an expert. More »

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In the previous installments we talked about skeptical methodology and how it can be used to sort through the overwhelming amount of reefkeeping information and products available. We also discussed how skeptical thinking has impacted the idea of sustainable reefkeeping. In this installment we’ll take a look at some of the terminology that is used in reefkeeping and see if the terms make sense or are misleading (potentially, accidentally, or purposefully).
A brief reminder to set the scene

Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it’s defined as a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment. A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Being a skeptical reefkeeper requires that you investigate why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. As a skeptical reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking: not just because you heard someone else say it. The goal of this series of articles is not to provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself in the face of sometimes overwhelming conflicting advice.

Words words words

This is a photo of and elephant seal and has nothing to do with this article.

Our hobby is constantly evolving, and the terms we use to communicate ideas to one another change and morph over time and these changes can lead to confusion. For instance, the term refugium initially referred to an area of a system that small animals could use as a refuge from predation, but now refugium also refers to an area of the system used to grow algae for nutrient export or simply a small tank plumbed into a larger system. The ideas can overlap, but they don’t necessarily, so when someone asks for information on setting up a ‘fuge, it becomes important to know what the term means to them in order to help them with information relevant to their needs. More »

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In the previous two installments of Skeptical Reefkeeping, we talked about how applying skeptical thinking to reefkeeping can help you make decisions about what methodology to follow or which products to use. In this installment, we’ll spend less time exploring the skeptical method, and instead examine how skeptical reefkeeping has impacted, and continues to impact one particular aspect of our hobby: making our hobby more environmentally sustainable.

A brief reminder
Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it’s defined as “a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment.” A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt. Being a skeptical reefkeeper requires that you investigate why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. As a skeptical reefkeeper, you decide what is best for you, your animals, and your wallet based upon critical thinking.
That sounds like work! Just tell me what to do!

Sorry, I can’t just tell you what to do. I wish I could, but there is that whole Biblical quote “Tell someone what to do and their fish and corals die, get them to understand the bigger complex picture and their fish and corals live”. This hobby is not simple and there are as many opinions about how to keep our glass boxes thriving as there are people with glass boxes. The goal of this series of articles is not to necessarily provide you with reef recipes or to tell you which ideas are flat out wrong or which products really do what they say they do or which claims or which expert to believe – the goal is to help you make those kinds of determinations for yourself in the face of conflicting advice.

The drama of ‘juicing’ fish

The early 80’s was a time of glam rock, hardy elegance corals, and DIY sumps filled with hair curlers for bio media. Back then, rocks covered with hair algae were lovely, panther groupers were the hot fish, and aiptasia were considered fabu. Hardly anyone stopped to think about where animals for our reef tanks were coming from…we were all too busy just trying to keep them alive for more than a month. Fish would come into the LFS; some would make it, and some would slowly waste away despite eating well. Most of us figured we were making some husbandry mistake that resulted in the death of the fish. However, some began to apply skeptical methodology to the problem and hypothesized that the issue might have something to do with the way the fish were being handled somewhere along the way to the LFS.

Cyanide fishing kills fish and corals – which hardly seems to justify the lower prices the practice can create.

It turned out that they were right. Investigation revealed that cyanide, often called ‘juice’ was used to ‘knock out’ fish to make them easier to collect. Sounds good right? Easier to collect means cheaper, cooler animals, and everyone wants cheaper animals. However, the monkey wrench here is that cyanide is a poison that doesn’t necessarily kill the fish outright. Often, the fish seems to recover from the initial shock. It can make it all the way through the chain of custody from the collector to the exporter to the importer to the LFS to the hobbyist tank before it begins to go down hill. We now know that the cyanide can damage the fish’s ability to adsorb food; it can eat like a pig, but get little of the nutrition it needs to live. Eventually, the animal can starve to death. More »
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…or this?

In the last installment we talked about the role anecdotal evidence and logical misunderstandings play in how we make decisions about reefkeeping. In this installment, we’ll look at how and why manufacturers make claims about their products, why you might want to be skeptical about them, as well as some practical advice for determining the validity of those claims.It seems you can’t turn around in the reefkeeping world without bumping into another new product that you must have to keep your reef healthy. The claims are usually the same, always some version of one of these:-This product will unlock your reefs potential.
-Cure any and all disease in a reef environment.
-This will change the way you keep your reef.
-You’ll see colors and animal health that you have never before experienced.

The ads are very clear in a roundabout way; Without THIS product your reef sucks.

Honestly, sometimes a new product does work. A lot of them don’t.
Even widely used products occasionally don’t do what they claim but in spite of this, somehow they’ve caught on.

I’m going to tell you the one thing you can learn to do for your reef that will improve it’s condition, and your sanity, from day one: Skeptical Thinking.

What is Skeptical Thinking, Rich?

I’m glad you asked. First, it’s not being a grump. For some people the idea of being a “skeptic” has a negative connotation, but do Shaggy and Scooby Do seem like grumps? They’re skeptics. Think about their show. At the end there never is a monster or a ghost, it’s always, as Tim Minchin would say, “the dude who runs the water slide.” More »

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 From Reefs Magazine

 ”Are you sure that that thing is true, or did someone just tell it to you?” – They Might Be Giants

Is this the tank of your dreams? A healthy dose of skepticism might help you get there. Photo by Sanjay Joshi

Reefkeeping is as much an art as it is a science. There is so much that we don’t understand about what actually goes on inside our boxes of water that we must rely on cultivating a ‘saltwater thumb’ for success over time. Building that saltwater thumb, however, can be a daunting task. There are a million opinions on every aspect of reef keeping, and the modern reefkeeper can access those opinions thru websites, online forums, or those big heavy things on the shelves at home (Books? I think that’s what they’re called). Essentially, you can find support for every aspect of the hobby regardless of how ‘fringe’ it may be – the question is, how do you sift through all those opinions to make decisions about what to do with your reef tank? My answer – be a skeptic. In the next few issues of Reefs Magazine, we’ll look at critical and skeptical thinking, how they relate to reefkeeping, and how they can help you wade through the flood of good and bad information available to the modern reefkeeper.

Be a Skeptic

The idea of being a skeptic seems to have a negative connotation, as if somehow being skeptical means saying no for the sake of saying no. That’s not quite right. Skepticism is a method, not a position. Officially, it’s defined as “a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment.” A skeptic is not closed minded to new ideas, but is cautious of ideas that are presented without much, or any, supporting evidence. In our hobby there are tons of ideas presented without much supporting evidence. Being a skeptical reefer essentially boils down to taking advice/products/new ideas with a bucket of salt, and following up to get a handle on why, how and if the suggested ideas actually work. This boils down to the one adage about reefkeeping that almost every experienced reefer agrees with, namely, be patient. Taking your time in your decision making is just as important as taking your time stocking your reef because, as they say, “nothing good happens quickly in a reef tank”. So, when that shiny new idea about reefkeeping shows up, with many people being very excited – slow down and think. More »

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It’s every reefkeepers worst nightmare: opening the front door to the house and smelling the pungent smell of the shore that the Yucatecans call ‘lodo’. While pleasant near the ocean, that smell in your house means something has probably gone wrong with your reef. As you rush through the house to the tank you hope you won’t find the milky mess of death that your nose is telling you you will find. Sometimes you are lucky, and the smell is a container of frozen shrimp or macro algae that you left on top of the tank to fester easy-bake-oven-style under your metal halide lamps. Sometimes it is worse – much worse. Last December, I came home to that smell, and it wasn’t light baked shrimp or algae; it was the much worse.

BEF (Before Epic Fail)

First a little backgroundI have a 150 gallon show tank in my living room, mixed reef, but primarily SPS. I love it, and it contains several personally collected pieces. It was a featured aquarium in Advanced Aquarist in 2004. In late 2005 I took it down for a month while we had some work done on the house giving me the opportunity to make it into a in-wall tank with a mini fish room (really just storage) behind it.

The 200 gallons of sumps/coral farms are under the house in a 40 inch crawl space, that, while annoying to move around in, keeps the noise, mess and humidity out of the house. Also, because the crawlspace is cool in the summer, my need for a chiller is very much lessened. The crawl space also gives me room to store all my reef ‘junk’ and allows me to keep 150 gallons of mixed saltwater on hand at all times, which always seemed like a good idea to me.

The rigged out uber-redundant crawl space

In 2006 I got nailed by monti eating nudies, which meant pulling all the giant monties and either dipping them or throwing them away. In 2007 I got the brunt of the AEFW plague when dealing with the wee beasts meant pulling all your corals and dipping them or throwing them away (now its easy to live with them). All this rigmarole meant that I was constantly wishing the tank was 6 months more along so that it could make another appearance as a featured aquarium in Advanced Aquarist. Last November, I started talking about how the tank was finally maturing, how I was removing smaller colonies to get rid of that fruit stand look that tanks go through when stocked with frags and mini colonies. A video Jake Adams took of my tank was posted on youtube. I started fragging to shape the colonies and to stop them from growing together. Then, December came and along with it, the Epic Fail.

A little more background

I love basic automation and redundancy. I don’t run a controller because I don’t like the idea of a single point of failure. There are 4 circuits going to my reef system with lights and pumps and heaters distributed over the different circuits. There are Penn Plax air pumps that come on in a power outage for oxygen and circulation. There is one Vortech with a battery backup. There is a modded maxi jet on a UPS. DI water collects in a 10 gallon reservoir to limit the amount available for possible overdosing, and then is pumped into the Kalk reactor by a pump triggered by a float switch (not valve), and the float switch has a second float switch just above it in case the first float switch fails. The effluent from the Kalk reactor gravity feeds into the sump. The skimmer’s external collection bucket has a float switch on it that controls the skimmer so if the skimmer goes nuts it can only pump out 5 gallons from the tank before shutting off. I also have a pump in that external collection bucket so I don’t have to lug around nasty water – I flip a switch and away it goes.

All in all, I feel my system is pretty sound and able to handle almost anything that isn’t a major disaster or power failure (and yes I have a generator and a power inverter). We get minor power outages sometimes (as I write this, there was one last week) and thus far everything works just fine. Usually the only way I know there was an outage is by the blinking clocks – the tank just chugs along.

It has been important that my system takes care of itself for the most part because my wife’s major hobby is exotic vacations, which means we can be away from the tank for 3 weeks or more at a time. I used to fret about being away for so long, even though I had done pretty much everything I could to automate daily tasks, and had a posse of reefing friends checking in to make sure all was well. I still fretted until my wife gave me the best piece of reekeeping advice ever – ‘assume that you are going to come home to coral soup’. So, every time I leave the tank I make sure my corals are backed up in other people’s tanks, I say good bye to everything, and I go enjoy my vacation and don’t think about the tank. I believe that this advice had the effect of prepping me for coming home to coral soup at any time, and when I finally did, I was able to function and try to control the damage.

Every reefers nightmare

The horror, the horror

I got home Saturday evening, and smelled the smell of the sea. I rushed to my reef but couldn’t see very far into the tank. Some of the fish I could see were being blown around but not moving on their own. Going through my head were lists of dead animals…the double headed Scoli I got at Midwest Frag Fest…the S. wilsoni I got at MACNA…the Picasso Clowns…the Radiant wrasse…colonies that were finally ‘big’. For a minute I stood there frozen in grief. I put all that aside when I saw my pH monitor – 10.5. I knew regardless of what had caused the crash, if I was going to save anything I needed to get that pH down immediately.

I took 150 gallons of water out of the system, put 150 gallons of new water right in, and started filling the container with RO so I could mix more saltwater. That 150 gallon container I keep filled with mixed saltwater had been helpful before, but at that moment it was critical. Sadly, the pH barely moved. I remembered that vinegar would bring down pH. I had a little vinegar in the house, and it brought the pH down, but not enough, so I rushed out to the store to by more. I believe all in all I added a full gallon of vinegar to the system before the pH dropped to 8.6, and some of the fish looked less dying than they had before. I then added new carbon, a nu clear canister filter with a pleated micron cartridge and diatomaceous earth (DE) and ozone. I finally went to bed fully expecting everything to be dead in the morning, and decided to take no rash action, removing nothing from the tank for at least few days to give everything the best possible chance of recovery.

1 day AEF (after Epic Fail)

I woke up, and still couldn’t tell what was going on in the tank because it was still cloudy, but a little less stinky. All that vinegar was probably causing a massive bacterial bloom. Once another 150 gallons of water was ready I did another water change, changed the carbon, rinsed the pleated cartridge and put in fresh DE, posted my tale of woe on a couple forums, and tried to ignore the tank for the rest of the day.

2 days AEF

The next day the tank had cleared enough that I got a decent look at what was going on inside. The ‘true undata’ seemed to look ok, but all the other SPS were white – it was like looking at a show tank from 1982. Some of the fish that I would have sworn were dead were actually alive. Most of the LPS were still sucked tight to their skeletons, so I had no idea what was going to survive.

3 days AEF

The water cleared enough after another 150 gallon water change to take some photos that didn’t look like a tank of milk. More of the fish seemed to be gone and I was braced for a gradual die off of everything else.

4 days AEF

The water clarity was almost back to normal, and it looked like most of the fish made it. One clown, 3 chromis, a hybrid PBT and a mandarin had died, but the Picassos, the radiant wrasse, the flame wrasse, the swales basslet, the remaining pair of mandarins, a home-made banggai cardinal, the cleaner shrimp and the harlequin shrimp pair all were alive and seemed fine. I even fed them and they all ate. I had no idea what to think about the corals.

7 days AEF

As it turned out, every acro was dead as were most montis, poccis, the duncans and I was prepped to lose all the chalices as well. Hanging on were the undata, the double headed scoly, the dendro, some acans, and cespitularia (it had actually grown in the days AEF). I grabbed a 5 gallon bucket and filled it with acro skeletons, but left everything that didn’t have algae growing on it in the tank. My wife pointed out that the tank didn’t really look that bad as tanks go, and that it indeed could have been worse.

24 days AEF

About two weeks later I did a water test and everything came out normal, so I bought a yellow tang to help with any sneaking algae problems. About a week after that I added some ‘canary’ acro frags and they did well. Some of the corals I thought were goners, but that I didn’t remove, came back – most notably the S. wilsoni. Some of the chalices were down to 1 mouth but hanging on.

7 months AEF

The reefing community was nothing but supportive and two months AEF I started adding corals en masse. I got two great boxes of mini colonies from, and tons of frags from local friends. Never was I happier that the attitude of my local reefing community is one of giving your corals away. After 7 months, the tank was a healthy fruit stand again, and about a year later I have to prune colonies back so they don’t fight and I am starting to think about removing corals just to make room.

So, what happened?

Even redundancy in design won't prevent human error

It was all my fault.

I did several stupid things at the same time. First and foremost, I worked on the tank when I was in a hurry (even though I know better). Instead of going to see Mitch Carl speak at Bay Area Reefers, I was going to a production of ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ with my wife and daughter. We were running late, and just before we left, I added fresh Kalk powder to the Kalk reactor, then I raised the float switch on the auto top off to bring the salinity down a little, and, because I was in a hurry, I left the pump that drains the skimmers external collection bucket on. Then, I left for 7 hours. So, 2 cups of brand spanking new Kalk powder were washed into the tank by the auto top off, and, as if that isn’t enough, any Kalk powder that would have been left was pumped into the tank because once the skimmer started going crazy there was nothing to stop it because the drain pump was on. Had I not been in a hurry, I would have thought those three stupid actions through and not done them. All of this was preventable, and a Sanjay Joshi truism is proven again – “the person running the system is the system’s single biggest point of failure”.

My family was particularly helpful on the discovery of this disaster. Essentially, they asked if they could help, were politely told no, and then got out of the way. I am so lucky to have Libby and Kalin both understand what ‘focus’ means, and to know the best thing to do when someone is focused is to leave them alone so they can get stuff done.

What changes have I made to the system?

Since the Epic Fail, I turn off the auto top off when I add Kalk to the reactor. After the powder is mixed, I turn it back on and make sure that the system doesn’t need too much top off at that time. I also have added a ‘turn past’ timer to the skimmers external collection chamber’s drain pump. When the container is full, I turn a knob that turns on the drain pump, but turns it off again in a few minutes. Of course, I know that neither of these changes are foolproof and in no way will protect my system from me doing dumb things in the future.

If proper and swift action is taken, recovery from disaster is possible

What did I learn?

Despite my overriding the precautions I put in place, my forethought served me well. I had most of what I needed to deal with the disaster on hand – mixed salt water, DI resin, salt mix, carbon, a big canister with a clean pleated cartridge and vinegar. Without those things, this disaster would have been much worse. I can’t imagine how I would have felt coming home to coral soup but not being able to do anything about it because the LFS were all closed.

I learned that fish and animals are way more resilient than we might think. I had corals I was sure were dead recover completely, but if I had tossed them, they would be gone.

Hopefully, I finally really leaned the three main rules to avoiding disaster:

1) If you are in a hurry, don’t do anything to your system.
2) If you are about to leave the house, don’t do anything to your system.
3) If you are distracted, don’t do anything to your system.

In conclusion

I hope this tale of utterly preventable disaster helps you avoid a future reef keeping disaster yourself. I thought a long time about writing this article before I actually put fingers to keys because the majority of articles on reef keeping are about success. Everyone loves pretty pictures of thriving corals and fish, but more importantly, people don’t like to dwell on failures. Failures make people feel bad. Failures make people look bad. People especially don’t like to advertise their failures. But, I think the failures are just as, if not more, instructive than the successes, and think we need more discussion of the dumb things we do so we end up doing less of them. If we own our failures, it seems everything is better for everyone.

I look forward to showing of pictures of my thriving tank in about six months when it is lush and full, unless of course, I pull another epic fail.

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Richard Ross is a longtime hobbyist, author and authority on the captive care and breeding of cephalopods. He is a moderator on, former president of the Bay Area Reefers club and an aquarist at the California Academy of Sciences Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco. Recently, Reefs Magazine editors Randy Donowitz and Dominick Cirigliano had the opportunity to sit down with Rich to chat about a remarkable range of things aquatic and otherwise.

If you’d like to listen to the unedited version of this rollicking conversation (we recommend it ) we have made it available in convenient MP3 format by simply clicking on the provided link.

Reefs Magazine would like to thank Rob Bray from House of Fins for use of his office and Dr. Beth Harris for her technical assistance with the audio post production.

RM: How did you get into the hobby?

RR: I got into the hobby because as a kid in Chicago, my dad had tanks. He had in our basement–I think it was two 50 gallon or two 60 gallon. They were huge for the time, like in the ‘70s I guess. One was African Cichlids and one was goldfish.

RM: So did you used to help him with them or did you ignore him?

RR: I think I used to ignore him and think I was all hip with the fish. And then when I was a little older we moved – we lived in South Africa for three years. We just had goldfish then, probably about thirty gallons. Then we moved back to the states. When I was around twelve, thirteen, fourteen, I guess, I started keeping my own tanks. And that very quickly turned into 20-25 tanks in the bedroom–brackish water at that point. At that time saltwater was impossible, it was hard, it was terrible! I was also doing reptiles at this time. In ’82, I started working at a fish store and learned more about saltwater at the time.

RM: This was in Chicago?

RR: This was in LA. and it was, you know, when bio-balls first appeared. It was when a tank covered in hair algae seemed totally cool ‘cause everything was alive.

RM: I remember the stories that Terry Seigel tells about the first reef tanks when they first got live rock, and aiptasia started growing and they were like WOOSH!

RR: Something alive! {laughs} And you know, we’d make these spray bars plumbed right from the bottom of the tank. No overflow tube, it was just like the bottom of the tank plumbed. Protein skimmers made with a piece of PVC with an airstone shoved down in it and it would just drain into the chamber. And they did work. They produced … goo. … which is the goal I guess. Typically for me, once we really started understanding things, I kind of got out of it. I went to college.

RM: Where did you go to college?

RR: UC Davis.

RM: UC Davis. I bet you rode a bike?

RR: I did, I rode a bike. And a skateboard. Mostly skateboards because parking a bike at Davis could be a real hassle. I was actually transshipping reptiles through my dorm room. Bad idea. There was a store that couldn’t get anything in Davis, so I used the people I knew in LA to transship stuff. I was bringing, like, mangrove snakes – they’re rear fanged – through so I’d have like 30 reptiles in the dorm. What was I doing? I was probably a real jackass.

RM: I bet this was very popular with the ladies.

RR: Totally. They love an escaped snake. Then I came home after college and got back into it [the saltwater hobby] about five or six years after that. I had moved to San Francisco and lived there probably about four years until it occurred to me, I should do a tank. I’d been thinking about it for a long time. Then I found out that everything had changed and spent a furious year unlearning bad things. I didn’t even know about, you know, high intensity lamps at that point. Still fluorescents and PCs.

RM: So then it seems you started on the usual trajectory of contemporary reef tank setups.

RR: Yes! Mushrooms and soft corals, and just right to hard corals as soon as I understood about lighting. I think that my wife got me Charles’ book, the first one. [The Reef Aquarium Vol. 1] And it was like, oooh, and I remember going through it and I went, let’s treat this like a textbook and highlighted it. We had a little 50 gallon aqua-system, you know with the sump built in kinda thing in the back and it slowly took over an entire wall of the living room with auto top-offs being built and all jinkied together. Terrible, horrible, ugly, disgusting, sad, I couldn’t believe she let me do it. And then when we moved out I ended up officially marrying her because she’d let me do stuff. Well, you’ve seen the pictures of the cephalopod room.

RM: We’ll get to cephalopods in a minute. I want to go back… you lived as a kid in South Africa? How did that happen, and what was that like?

RR: My dad was offered a job there. And… took it. That was kind of interesting because we were actually there for the Soweto riots. We could see smoke from them because we lived in Johannesberg but we didn’t know the riots were going on because, you know, totally state run media and everything so we had no idea until we got a call from my grandma asking if we were okay. I was six – six through ten, something like that. That was pretty cool! Good experience, great reptile park.

RM: Did that feed into your desire to smuggle reptiles?

RR: Ahh, I can’t believe I did that. And I had a parrot at the same time, a blue front Amazon and I remember one of the mangrove snakes escaped and someone came and found me and said you gotta go to your room and the snake was trying to eat the bird and it was just … what the hell was I doing?

RM: What did you study in college?

RR: I ended up studying philosophy.

RM: Philosophy! I in fact was a philosophy major as well. Who was your favorite philosopher?

RR: Spinoza. Loved the Spinoza. He’s internally consistent. Wrong, well maybe wrong but how are we supposed to know? Davis has a real good philosophy program, but it’s very small so they let you do the graduate classes. So I was doing that with Spinoza. Totally out of my league. It was great.

RM: So what was the title of your major paper?

RR: Metaphorical Love. Spinoza and Metaphorical Love. And it turned out metaphorical was actually the wrong word. It was terrible.

There was another class, one of the big classes with this guy Julian, I forget his name but he was a big Set theorist. He believed that Sets were actual things. So, it was like a 300 person class about logical fusions and we spent two days on this and he finally says that a logical fusion is a bicycle, the same bicycle through time. If you replace all the parts over time is it the same bicycle or it now a different bicycle? He said now with the logical fusion of parts we just logically say it’s the one thing. And I was sitting next to a grad student and I went, “excuse me! Isn’t that kind of a trivial distinction?” And she went, “Oh boy.” And she leaned away from me. I never got anything higher than a C in his class again. He hated me. And then, rightfully so because I kinda called him a jackass. So I got out of symbolic logic pretty quickly. But I went into college to be a marine biologist and couldn’t deal with the way the science program was worked. There was no counselor to come and help and so it appeared to me that I would be doing two to three years of make work in the lab and I had no interest in doing that. And the philosophy people were like, we’re very cool and we hate the psychology students and come with us we’ll bag on them!

It was great. I make fun of it because, you know, what do you do with a philosophy degree? But it really taught me to think and to write. I think the first paper I ever turned in was one page and got turned back and it said, “23 spelling mistakes in 24 lines. You should fix this.” And I was like, oh, okay. There was no guilt, or you’re bad, it was just, you shouldn’t do this again. And you have a chance to fix it now.

RM: Have you given any thought as to how that sort of mind training might influence your approach to the hobby?

RR: There are two things. I look at it critically so I can follow A to B to C to D to F, to wherever it goes to in a progression that’s fast and makes sense. You can kind of scope something out and understand it easily, and it’s like – this makes sense, this doesn’t make sense. Also my approach to anecdotal evidence and things like that – people saying “I changed my light bulb and cured my ich” – is that post hoc or proper hoc? I wanted to be the practical philosopher and I think that’s in the hobby a lot ‘cause it allows me to Macguyver things. I hate to use the phase. But you can use superglue for everything. It’s not just for frags, it’s for a billion uses if you just … think about them. So, I think that’s pretty fun.

RM: Okay let’s just jump around a little. Your career prior to your current one, how did that come about, how did you get into that and really what was that all about?

RR: I learned how to juggle when I was a kid. And then by the time I was sixteen I kind of submerged myself in the juggling culture. I just fell into it. I was doing shows already when I was sixteen and then I went off to college … and was doing shows through college. And I finished college and was like I don’t need a job, I can juggle. I was doing street shows and clubs and whatever gigs I could. I was often performing and became part of a dual act called American Dream Comedy Team. One of those guys, Scottie Meltzer, his partner moved away and so he folded me right in and it was like insta career.

We changed our name to Monkey Wrench, and then it became Comedy Industries. I stepped into a full blown career. The juggling is an excuse to be on stage and make funny things happen. We were doing TV, we were opening for The Smothers Brothers, and all kinds of stuff. And we started doing more corporate stuff. We did some trade shows where we talked about their products in our show and it turned out we were good at that integration and then so we became corporate whores. And that’s what we mostly did. We’d be writing, we’d be performing a show, memorizing next week’s show, writing the script after that and doing the initial meetings to touch base with the next show after that.


RM: So it’s sort of marketing for the company by lampooning them in front of an audience?

RR: Yeah, well we’d ask for their white papers and take their messages and turn it into English and then fold it into comedy bits. Sometimes we’d write custom things, but we sort of had a set of things where we could plug their information in. And you know, the hardest part was getting the conversation with them, getting them all not to pee on the script. So that got hard after a while. And then we had a kid, and my wife and I were making about the same amount of money, but she had insurance and therefore I become the stay-at-home Dad.

RM: What does she do?

RR: She’s a financial planner. It’s been a good couple of weeks [laughter]

RM: So you gave up the other thing?

RR: I gave up the other thing. I didn’t mind, I didn’t miss the traveling. I did that for ten years, it was a lot of travel. I guess that’s probably when I really sank into the hobby a whole lot because I had a bunch of time at home.

RM: Is that when the obsession with cephalopods started?

RR: It started about a year after that.

RM: At what point did you take the leap into trying to breed cephalopods?

RR: As soon as I could. The first group I had I wanted to breed, I had three. That’s when I built all those dividers and transparent doors and dark doors and let them see each other so they wouldn’t kill each other. But I didn’t have any real success in breeding them until I was able to get to raise a group up together.

RM: So you were never able to successfully introduce two?

RR: Yeah, I got some matings, but you know when they’re adults and they come in and they’re all stressed and you’re trying to introduce them together and trying to figure out how to keep them at the same time and what size tank do they need and things like that …

RM: Did you start with octopus or cuttlefish?

RR: Cuttlefish. Traditionally, I’ve been more interested in cuttlefish although that seems to be changing now. I need a new species of cuttlefish. If I could get, six flamboyants, I’d be all excited.

RM: You have had some major breakthroughs in the octopus realm recently though.

RR: Yeah … that’s pretty cool. It started with one Wunderpus – Its scientific name is Wunderpus photogenicus - being able to keep it ten months and get it to burrow. And you know, and it’s interesting now, thinking about how philosophy relates ‘cause there was a lot of ethical stuff going on about the Wunderpus on the cephalopod site, TONMO. I was at a wholesaler when it came in and it was healthy and small and I had an empty tank. And it was just serendipity that I happened to have everything available.

RM: So once you revealed on TONMO this sort of serendipitous circumstance, was there support?

RR: There was a rash of shit and support. I got both. There’s a couple people on there who are very anti. Everything to be left in the ocean kind of stuff, and it’s not that simple. From some researchers I got some grief, but I was very stable and said, you know, I understand and I disagree on this and I’m going to do the best I can and there were some people who said, well, if anyone can do it, if anyone should do it, it should be you. Which was very gratifying. You know, which I immediately of course dismissed because I know who I am, I know that I’m just a fraud. But I think everyone knows they’re a fraud.

RM: But in your fraudulent way, you’ve actually made a major breakthrough, right?

RR: I think it’s worked out, I’m doing good.

RM: So talk about your new breakthrough.

RR: The new one is Octopus chierchiae, which is just a little octopus, about golf ball size, the size of a blue ring,. They were last studied in ’86, that was the only paper on them. They’re a large egg species and the main problem with them is just getting them. They’re just hard to get, they never show up. I know Roy Caldwell at Berkeley actually sent people to collect them and they got completely skunked, they came back with nothing. We were able to get a female and a male. I’ve been looking for them for three years. They’ve been kind of the grail of aquarium octopuses because they’re large egged and the female will lay multiple clutches and not die. And I think we’re on our third clutch of eggs on the one female. They’re small and they’re easy to keep. They’re a good pet. I mean, they’re not super active but they’re there and you can see ‘em.

RM: Are they the only species that lay multiple clutches of eggs and survive?

RR: There’s a bunch actually. There’s an actual word for it, but it’s escaping me right now. Um… not sure, mercatorus might do it too. I’d have to double check that. I might be making stuff up. The larger egg ones are going to be more likely to do it. So we had the first batch and I think the ones we have from the first batch are over 100 days old, which is great. We’ve discovered a bunch of stuff already, like the female will continue to eat through brooding which the paper from ’86 says that they won’t. And just doing it, and documenting it has been pretty cool. I’d like to get them to the hobby, sell them, people want them, but we’re not ready yet.

RM: What do they eat?

RR: They eat amphipods when they’re little. I collect amphipods, culture them. And shore shrimp, I just buy a bunch of bait shrimp and freeze it. They eat almost anything. They’re easy octopus. So, easy and small. So you could always just plumb a small tank into your system and then when it’s done you could un-plumb it. You know they only live a year or however long they live.

RM: Alright, I know your car service is on it’s way, maybe just quickly, how did you end up at the Steinhart where you are now?

RR: That’s a crazy story. My kid’s five now, so it gives me a little bit more freedom. I started sort of volunteering and that was going well and there’s always the idea that oh, well, maybe that’ll be a job, but, you know, they’re pretty clear up front that volunteering doesn’t lead to anything and I understand that.

And then a biologist actually retired and Matt Wandell said, “Hey do you have a degree? Because you should apply for this because it’s opening up,” and there was a whole lot of discussion about well I have a degree in uh… philosophy. But that’s something. And then there was a lot of wrestling about do I want a job even. For me, coming at it from the hobbyist side, this is like my pretend career. When they started the move they needed real help, so I became what is called an as-needed biologist. And so it was like, okay, just work your ass off. So I’ve been working with them and they know me and they like me and I guess I’m competent and I get along with everyone and they found a little pot of money. I was on vacation in the summer for three weeks which I was worried about because it was right in the middle of the move and I thought, oh, they’ll probably let me go because of this and then I get an email that says, hey, as soon as you come back can you go full time and probably permanent. So then we got home and it was insane – we had to put my daughter in private school to make it work.

RM: What did your wife think about that?

RR: We had a lot of discussions about it. When the idea first came around, she was really supportive of it. She said, “You’ve been at home for five years with a kid. You should be around people.” We were in like a co-op preschool and I just wanted to kill everyone. It was just a nightmare, I just hated it. The point of the co-op was to teach me how to not kill other parents. I think that’s what it was.

And now the job is great, everyone there is great and it’s just real exciting to be part of it.

RM: Well thanks so much Rich , that must be you car service beating on the door. We don’t want you to miss your plane. 

RR: Thank You it was fun.

[Editor’s note: Rich did make it to the airport on time only to be delayed at JFK for 6 hours. So it goes……]

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