Rich Ross

Not my circus. Not my monkeys.

2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition – Part 1

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



Rearing the Flamboyant Cuttlefish – Not by Rich Ross

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!

Skeptical Reefkeeping part 4 –What does that even mean?

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.

Skeptical Reefkeeping Part 3: Sustainable? Responsible? Really?

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.

Skeptical Reefkeeping Part 2 – Magic in a Bottle

…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.And my personal favorite:-YOU’LL NEVER HAVE TO DO REGULAR MAINTENANCE ON YOUR TANK AGAIN!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.”