If you’ve been in the aquarium game long enough, you’ll encounter some sort of problem with your system...It’s not just a possibility- it’s a near certainty! Yeah, that’s right. Even the best hobbyists with the absolute best aquariums will screw something up. It goes with the territory. It happens to beginners, grizzled vets, and even us so-called “pros.”
And guess what? You’re gonna make it through this just fine. That is, if you take the time to learn from your mistake. And you’ll learn from your mistake by asking pointed questions.
I had a former coral customer PM me the other day about (of all things….”Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back IN!!!”) his reef aquarium yesterday, and he had one of those “situations” that crops up every so often. His Acropora coral colonies were slowly dying off, losing color at the tips and working down the skeleton towards the base. It was happening to every Acro in the tank; generally started happening over the last few months.
So of course, we went through the usual questions: How are the basic water parameters (alkalinity, calcium, nitrite, nitrate, ammonia, pH, etc.). What kind of lighting do you have, how is it configured, what is the photoperiod? Then we looked into his husbandry habits…ya' know, water changes, quarantine, feeding, dosing- stuff like that. We talked about the possibilities of any disease or pest being introduced lately. Nope. None of these initial probing questions revealed anything that really stood out.
We then talked about the system…design, components, electrical, water pre-treatment, etc.
Everything seemed to check out. Symptoms we’ve seen before, but no “aha!” moment of revelation.
Time to go deeper…
We discussed feeding, additives he used, salt mix, two part dosing additives…anything that was added to the tank which could potentially be creating or exacerbating the problem. Nothing really seemed amiss. He used popular products from highly regarded brands. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t rule out the possibility of something undesirable- like a contaminant, heavy metal, or some otherwise toxic substance- being released, created, or added to the tank unbeknownst to the reefer. A bad ingredient in a batch of salt mix or two-part alkalinity/calcium supplement? Possible. He was dosing some stuff, but did stop recently…a clue? Perhaps. Source water? Nah, he had a properly functioning, well-maintained RO/DI unit with newer membranes...However, nothing really stood out, but we figured that there was a possibility of something there. Besides, without a real analysis of the water, we’d simply be guessing.
Marine hobbyists have at their disposal yet another powerful tool to assist in “reef diagnostics”- the Triton ICP- OES Professional Water Analysis. It’s a 30+ parameter water chemistry analysis that goes deeper than anything we’ve had before. It seemed to me to be a logical step in attempting to crack this mystery. I recommended it. The client was eager to try it. Oh, I know what you’re thinking: “Fellman is being the consulate salesman, preying on the hapless frustrated reefer by recommending an expensive, $49.00 USD water test.” I can hear the groans.
You know what? I can understand the sentiment if: A) I sold the test to begin with (my former company, Unique Corals, does- full disclosure), and B) I were recommending that the guy “add a little of this or that” product to correct the situation (even though we didn’t identify just what the “situation” is…). THAT is kind of the old-school, seat-of-the-pants “recommendation” that used to give vendors a bad name.
What I recommended to this reefer, who had invested five figures in his system, was to spend the money in an attempt to further narrow down a possible cause to his tank-threatening issue. Using all tools at our disposal is important in solving mysteries. Why attempt to find a problem by conjecture or hypothetical conclusions? The Triton test may not provide an answer to the issue that is threatening my customer’s system, but it may provide some clues. With very low limits of detection, it may be possible to find something that is amiss with the water chemistry. Something that is threatening his reef.
We don’t have the test results yet, so I don’t know yet what- if anything-might be amiss with his water. Furthermore, unless there is something glaringly obvious (like excess heavy metals or other trace elements in concentrations that are known to be detrimental to corals) revealed by the test, we may still have more questions than answers.
Frustrating, huh? You expected a happy, “Fellman-saved-the-day” ending here with a neat, “ CSI-type” conclusion? Well, it might happen…but the point of this tale was not to create false hope. Really. The point is to illustrate that, when solving some of the anomalous problems we encounter as fish geeks, we need to leverage every tool at our disposal. The test was just one of the latest tools that can can be used.
Then, we need to go beyond the obvious.
We need to ask ourselves pointed questions about things that may have transpired with our reef to lead to the problem in question. Was someone else caring for the tank for some period of time? Did the housekeeper spill something into the tank? Sabotage? Did your irate ex-girlfriend decide to throw your Bulgari Diagono Chronograph watch into the sump when you weren’t looking? (okay, men can be vindictive, too, ladies…just using a quick male-centric example here…)
The most important thing we can do when problems strike our aquariums is to not panic. Avoid the obvious instinct to run around like the proverbial “chicken with its head cut off” (that’s a gross one by, the way, if you really think about it. Do chickens really do that? City boy wants to know…makes me glad to be vegan…) and make radical, sweeping changes and “adjustments” to our systems or procedures before the actual problem is identified. Jumping to conclusions and making rapid, seat-of-the-pants “corrections” to undefined “problems” in our aquariums probably causes as many problems as it solves.
So my best advice in this type of situation? Stay calm. Don’t jump to quick conclusions and take random “corrective measures” without being very certain about what you’re dealing with. Creating rapid changes- even positive ones- to an already stressed aquatic population is never a good thing.
Like everything else in aquarium keeping, nothing good happens quickly, even in a “Emergency- type” situation. You just can’t expect that in most cases. A problem such as the one my former customer is experiencing arose over a few months, so a two day “fix” is not likely. Rather, we will probably find that the issue was caused over a period of time- continuously…This at least has given me a hypothetical track to run on in an attempt to find an answer. Could I be barking up the wrong tree? Perhaps…but you play the obvious hunch and analyze clues until you exhaust them. And at some point, if we can't figure it out, I'll have to hand this off to a colleague who's more current/better versed on coral issues than I. That's another thing- don't let ego stop you from getting the correct help! Reach out...
The beauty of the internet age is that we have near-instant access to our “tribe” of fellow reefers 24/7/365, many who may have experienced some of the same things that you are…and may be in a position to offer some clues…Even then, be careful. use the information at your disposal to help zero in on your problem, but don’t rush to action just because “____________” in Pennsylvania had the same symptoms in his reef and it turned out the cause was his phosphate removing media, or whatever. Don’t take the easy road. Don't be lazy. Don't accept and act upon the first reasonable-sounding theory you hear. There are few “plug and play” solutions to aquarium problems. Really.
With that in mind, I wish you success in solving the mysteries that will inevitably arise as you move forward in this hobby. Just relax, be smart about the whole thing, and use every resource at your disposal while attempting to diagnose the problem. In the end, the way you approach the problem, and the solution that you eventually come up with, will benefit you and your animals - and maybe, just maybe- fellow aquarists- for many years to come.
Best of luck.
Stay calm. Stay focused.
And stay wet.