Well, sharpen your perseverance and patience, get ready to read a whole lot, prepare for some missteps along the way, and open up that wallet. Welcome to the world of saltwater aquariums.
No doubt about it, there is simply no comparison between a freshwater setup and a successful saltwater display. Nothing against the freshwater tank; it's fabulous and definitely the way to go for most enthusiasts, but the saltwater environment provides a home to a far more interesting array of creatures. The reason being is that the saline habitat is more complex, and therein lies both the wonder and the bane of the saltwater fan.
If the freshwater aquarium offers its own array of difficulties in maintenance and keeping healthy stock, the saltwater tank can be even more cantankerous. It can be downright tough to develop a saltwater environment and keep it on an even keel. For most succesful saltwater aquaculturists the journey was fraught with disappointments and expense before they finally achieved a balanced, healthy status-quo. That journey can take anywhere from a few months to several years, and set you back many hundreds, if not over a thousand, bucks.
Yet the end product can be magnificent. And it is well worth the effort for the aquarium fan who is sincere about putting in the time, energy and money to make it happen. Here are some of the factors that must go into the mix:
An axiom for all aquarists is, "the bigger the better," insofar as tanks are concerned. This certainly is true of the saltwater environment. Most marine organisms will thrive better in a larger tank. A 20-gallon tank would probably be the minimum size you would want to consider; a 55-gallon tank would be decidedly better. Since saltwater fish generally require more room than do freshwater species, a small tank would only provide space for a couple of fish.
Large tanks are, of course, quite heavy... so some consideration must be given to where the tank will be placed. A filled 55-gallon tank can weigh close to 800 pounds, so on top of the entertainment center is probably not where you will want to place it. A stand made specifically for large tanks is probably your best bet, otherwise make certain that the desk or table you place it on will hold it securely.
Many marine tank creatures require far more light than do most freshwater denizens, so get a tank equipped with heavy-duty lighting capacity. If you are going to only place fish in your tank, then you can probably get away with a normal output (NO) lighting device, but for anemones and other invertebrates a higher capacity fixture will be necessary.
The recommended substrate for beginner tanks is crushed coral or dolomite, preferably in sizes of two mm or larger.
Other interesting and good decorative and functional items for the tank include dead coral, and so-called "live rock," which not only provide places for fish to hide but can also assist in keeping the chemical balance of the marine ecosystem.
Type and amount of substrate may be considerably affected by the type of filtration system utilized. Filters are a subject worthy of their own separate article, and the would-be saltwater aquarium keeper needs to be aware of which types of filters will work best for the kind of aquarium and inhabitants desired.
The filtering system will assist greatly in the initial development and maintenance of water chemical composition -- the most important aspect of the saltwater tank.
Obviously, a marine environment is salty. But not just any old salt will do, and it's not just salty.
The saltwater aquarist must keep at least four essential chemical components of the tank water in mind.
Salinity may vary a bit, as it does in the real oceans of the world, but it cannot vary drastically. Try to keep the salinity in your tank around 1.022 (specific gravity). A "hydrometer" will measure salinity for you. The salinity of the water in your tank will tend to rise as water evaporates. Replace with fresh water. Only if you want to raise the salinity level should you add salt water. Of course, when adding salt water, it should be thoroughly mixed before adding to the tank. Several commercial salts are available which contain the necessary chemicals for a marine tank. DO NOT use common salt.
The tank's pH balance is next on the list of critical water conditions. Keep this around 8.2 for best results. Again, do not allow great fluctuations.
Nitrates should be kept at less than five parts per million (ppm); and much lower if you are planning on keeping invertebrates.
Water temperatures will vary depending upon the collection of species in your tank, but most marine creatures available for home aquariums will do best in 75-80 degree (F) water.
Calcium is another component that must be considered. Levels of 400-450 ppm are recommended.
Alkalinity should be maintained around 2.4-3.5 meq/l (milliequivalents per liter), helping to buffer the acidity buildup in the tank.
All of these chemical components may be measured by instruments that the serious saltwater enthusiast needs to have on hand. It may all sound complicated, yet just a bit of practice will serve to bring the marine aquarist up to speed. And, as it turns out, the process of maintaining the chemical balance of a tank can become one of the enjoyable challenges of this hobby, and certainly helps us better understand the amazing interconnectivity of all environments.
Once the tank, substrate, filter and proper chemical balance in the water have been acquired and stabilized, then and only then should you add the fish.
Of course, you should have had some idea of what type of fish and other type of marine denizens you eventually want to set up long before this point. But now the real fun begins as you carefully research and decide how to populate your new marine tank.
A few species that the beginner could consider are hawkfish, damsels, basslets, certain clownfish (preferably captive-bred), blennies, gobies, cardinalfish, banded lizardfish, among others. The beginner should probably avoid angels, butterflies, tangs (surgeonfish), pipefish, filefish and seahorses. Any type of larger fish species or carnivorous type might well be put on the "later" list as well, until you have a bit more experience with the smaller guys. Also keep in mind that certain species simply don't get along with others (or even themselves on occasion). A little research will inform you as to how many fish, and which types will work together.
There are actually a few invertebrate species that the saltwater starter might consider. Certain shrimps, such as the cleaner, candycane, blood and coral-banded, are fairly hardy, though some of these are a bit expensive. Crabs, such as the anemone, hermit and arrow, might also fit right in to your scenario. Starfish and urchins are another possibility.
Inverts for the inexperienced to avoid include all anemones, clams, scallops, nudibranchs, octopi (inappropriate for anyone to keep), and live coral.
Eventually, these more exotic creatures may be within reach, along with that 100-gallon tank with all of the state-of-the-art accessories. But for now, the learning curve is all ahead. Take your time, plot your course, and have lots of fun as the incredible marine world begins to come alive under your guidance. The saltwater aquarium: it's a hobby like no other.
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