Feature Aquarium: Bryn Roberts' 360-gallon reef aquarium
My name is Bryn and I'm an alcoholic … oops … sorry wrong AA article! In all seriousness my true addiction is to this hugely rewarding, massively frustrating and at times, all-consuming hobby of ours. Sometimes, when its 3 a.m., I've accidentally set my reactor CO2 rate too high, my media has melted causing my skimmer to overflow, which I've forgotten is linked to the main drain, meaning my tank is slowly going down the sewers, prompting my kalkstirrer to pour limewater into my sump at a rate of knots, and now my skimmer is fizzing up to such an extent that my garage floor now looks like an Ibiza foam party, the low water alarm is belting out, the wife is up and going nuts, I wonder … is it really worth it? Then a week later when the tank finally clears and the bruises the Mrs. gave me for making such a mess are starting to fade, I stand back, drink in the view and realize yes, actually it is!
I've been keeping fish on and off since I was 9 years old. I graduated to the salty world around a decade ago. Since then I've had three tanks. The first was an extremely poor and ill-conceived 190l fish only system complete with internal filter, air stone skimmer and tufa rock. I committed cardinal sins in fish choice/compatibility, buying on impulse based on the advice of the kid in the fish shop who assured me on many occasions that all of the fish they stocked were community friendly. Funnily enough my wolf eel, miniatus grouper and lunar wrasse didn't share the same conviction!
For the second tank I decided to step back and do my homework. I joined several online forums and was astounded at the true works of art people were producing. Then I saw an SPS tank being featured as tank of the month and I knew then I'd found what I wanted to achieve. This was it. I could see this guy's equipment list. All I had to do was copy him and I was home free! Simple. I then spent the next 4 years making every mistake possible in the reefkeeping world! Every algae, pest, parasite and bacterium known to man took their turns to make my life a misery. Somehow though, I eventually managed to achieve the beautiful SPS reef I had dreamed of.
At that point I decided that the best thing to do was tear it all down and start again!
The current tank is nearing 2 years old now and has been a comparable dream to maintain. It hasn't been stress-free by any means but overall I am very happy with the result. The display is situated in our kitchen and stands on a box steel frame which I DIY-cladded with white acrylic panels. The tank overflows and runs underneath our bathroom to the sump and filtration system located in my garage (notice the deliberate use of the word "my" here).
- Dimensions: 66"L x 42"W x 30"H
- Volume: Approx. 300 UK gallons (360 US gallons)
- Euro braced, opti-white front and side viewing panels
- 60"L x 18"W x 24"H split into 4 sections, each with its own drain
- 400l plastic sump
- Deltec SC2560 protein skimmer
- TMC commercial UV filter.
- 6x in-line DI pod phosphate filter
- DIY floss filter
My nutrient export methodology is very simple. I have tried many approaches in the past: ULNS, vodka dosing, lanthanum chloride etc. However, I have found that for my tank, if I drop the nutrients too low I lose the vibrant colours. Many people have found the opposite but for my tank low nutrients are not the top priority.
I don't dose anything, no blue bottles or carbon source of any kind. I have a DSB that has existed in my sump since the birth of my second tank and cheato that I grow on top of it. I also run a DIY phosphate reactor that consists of 6 slim in-line de-ionisation pods, the first of which is filled with carbon and the five that follow with GFO. The reason I use the slim canisters is that I've yet to find GFO media that doesn't clump and channel so by extending the horizontal run I stand a better chance of making the most of it. I run a reasonably slow flow through this, I've never measured it but I'd guess it's about 10 - 20 litres an hour.
My experience with lighting has taught me that as long as you acclimatise your SPS slowly, most of them just can't get enough. As mentioned above nutrients aren't my top priority, lighting however definitely is. I'm no expert on the scientific side of the hobby. However, it seems logical to me that for animals that draw most of their sustenance from photosynthesis this has to be the key.
I run 2 x 400w metal halide lamps in Lumenarc reflectors powered by electronic ballasts. My bulb of choice is Radium 20,000K. I've tried many others but once I ignited the Radiums I knew I'd probably never change brand again. I supplement this with 8 x 54 w T5 with a mix of different bulbs that I change when the mood suits me. I love the flexibility T5 gives you to tweak and change the appearance of the tank. My current blend is all ATI with 2x aquablue special, 2x purple plus, 2x true actinic and 2x blue plus.
The halides come on at 12:00 and go off at 22:00. The purple and actinic t5's come on at 14:00 and go off at 22:30 while the aquablue and blue plus bulbs come on at 18:00 and go off at 21:30. I really enjoy the different hues and colours that the lights bring out at different times of the day. A further twist on the lighting is that I have two large skylights directly above the tank so in the summer especially (on the odd occasion we get a summer in the UK) the lighting effects can be spectacular.
- Schuran Jetstream 1 calcium reactor.
- Deltec kalkstirrer.
- Marine Colour dosing pump.
For calcium I run a reactor with ARM media combined with all top off water running through a Kalkstirrer. Until recently this was sufficient for my needs however the rate at which some of my corals are now growing means I have to add a little bicarbonate of soda daily through a dosing pump. Magnesium and Calcium are occasionally corrected manually using Randy Holmes Farley's recipes although this is probably only a few times a year.
I have to admit this is one area of the hobby I have always loathed. I find the process of testing tedious and this is probably my biggest downfall. Like many I tend to base my corrective actions on the look of my tank. Certain corals I find a giveaway of something being out of step. For instance I have a particular acro that will stop producing its purple growth tips if the phosphate levels go beyond what many of the other corals can tolerate. I use this coral to tell me when I need to change my GFO rather than a test result. The only test I do with any reasonable regularity is KH, the rest I only test on occasion but for those I do test for here are the ranges I usually find.
- SG: 1.026 - 1.027
- Calcium: 380 - 500
- KH: 7 - 9
- Magnesium: 1300 - 1500
With my filtration system being located in the garage, and the climate here cold for most of the year, keeping the temperature up rather than down is my issue. I have 2 x 300 watt heaters in the display tank and a further two in the sump. My sump is well insulated but the garage tank isn't at all, so for this reason I shut it down around November then get it back on-line around April. As it isn't heated it acts to keep my main tank at a reasonable temperature in the summer months. If we are lucky enough to ever hit some warm weather I have a large DIY twin pipe "bong" chiller that I can connect up but I've not needed to in the last couple of years.
Temperature: Winter 22C (71.6F) - 24C (75.2F), Summer 24C (75.2F) - 27C (80.6F).
Now were talking! Fish to me are what brought me into the hobby and to this day they are what keeps me in it. I'll never forget the first time I saw a Royal Gramma in a terrible local garden centre aquarium and was blown away by the contrast in colours. To this day it remains one of my favourite fish however over the years my tastes have changed and developed as I have started to yearn the more unusual animals.
I've always loved angels and butterflies. To my mind they are the ultimate reef fish. I always envisioned filling a reef tank with them. However, from my initial investigations it appeared the accepted wisdom was that they were massive reef no-no's. Then I came across John Coppolino's tank on a reef forum and it gave me the permission I had been craving to just go for it!
I think many people approach fish choice based on the corals they keep. My approach is the opposite. I select the corals with an eye on the fish I have or plan to keep in the near future. The term reef-safe is one we hear applied to fish all of the time but we never hear corals described in terms of the fish that won't eat them. I think it's a common misconception that fish are either "reef safe" or not. In my experience there are few fish that are totally incompatible with any corals at all,; It's just a case of finding the right blend.
For my own personal taste in fish it helps hugely that I've always preferred SPS as I've yet to keep an angel that has caused any real damage to them. My LPS choice is certainly limited and I can't keep much in the way of Zoa's or fleshy corals such as open brains but this is a trade-off I'm happy to accept.
In this tank my aim has always been to keep a member of each of the main Angel genus along with some other favourites.
- Regal Angel - Pygoplites diacanthus
- Emperor Angel - Pomacanthus imperator
- Pair of Watanebe Angels - Genicanthus watanabei
- Goldflake Angel - Apolemichthys xanthopunctatus
- Spectacle Angel - Chaetodontoplus conspicillatus
- Flame Angel - Centropyge loriculus
- True Queen Angel - Holacanthus ciliaris
- 5 x Royal Gramma - Gramma loreto
- Tinkers Butterfly - Chaetodon tinkeri
- Mitratus Butterfly- Chaetodon mitratus
- Achiles Tang - Acanthurus Achilles
- Approx 10 x Green Chromis - Chromis viridis
- Midas Blenny - Ecsenius midas
- Red Headed Jawfish - Opistognathus spp.
- Watchman Goby - Cryptocentrus pavoninoides
- Coral sea percula clownfish - Amphiprion percula
I love my fish so I feed heavy. I have two auto-feeders containing pellets, both come on 3 times a day. The first holds 1mm NLS pellets; all of my fish love these. The second holds a 50/50 mix of medium size Ocean Nutrition Formula 1 and 2. I also keep a jumbo tub of unbranded marine flake near the tank and they get a large pinch of this probably 3 or 4 times a day. I feed D&D reef paste, RS Mysis, lobster eggs, cyclopeze and red plankton but there is no real schedule. It's just as I feel like it.
One of the things I love about this hobby is the phenomenal range of inverts that are now available to us. We have shrimps that clean fish, shrimps that live in anemone's, shrimps that live in a burrow with fish, shrimps that ride on the back of sea cucumbers, shrimps that prey only on starfish and that's just shrimps! I keep a reasonable range of inverts but this is something I'm keen on expanding in the future. When we have friends or family over the fish that get the initial attention but it's the crabs, snails and urchins that really hold their interest. The added bonus of these animals is the services they perform in keeping our aquariums clean and controlling pests. If there's a biological solution to a problem I'll always pick that over chemical.
- 2 x tuxedo urchins.
- 4 x pincushion urchins in various colours.
- 3 x cleaner shrimps.
- Boxing shrimp.
- 2 x pistol shrimps.
- Unknown number of crabs, there are crabs in virtually every acro.
- Various different snails.
As the photos demonstrate, the aquarium is heavily dominated by SPS corals. My personal favourites are Montipora species. I just love the solid colours and interesting structures they form, that and the fact that they are easy to keep! I also keep some LPS, mostly Euphyllia, as mentioned previously those that my fish don't like the taste of. I'm not going to attempt to name all the species as frankly I haven't a clue.
Plans for the future
Unsurprisingly my plans surround fish. I'm happy with the corals I have now so I don't see myself adding many more. If anything I can see myself removing some. To me reefs with large colonies look so much more natural. Ralph Prehn's is probably the best example of this point. Fish-wise I feel I'm nearly where I want to be. However, deep down I know I'll never be fully satisfied and that can only mean one thing: a bigger tank!
I love the Roaps subgenus of butterflies. They are hardy and the ones I have kept haven't proved any danger to my corals. I have two but I plan on adding at least a couple more, I'm also keen on broadening my butterfly horizons and attempting some of the more risky choices such as C. paucifasciatus. There is also one angel that has eluded my attempts to obtain it although I'm not going to mention which one so I don't jinx my chances!
First and foremost I'd like to publicly thank my family for tolerating my piscine insanity! I'd also like to extend gratitude to Steve at Burscough Aquatics for providing the majority of my corals and the team at Abyss Aquatics for sourcing my fish. A big thanks also to Leonard Ho for inviting me to share my aquarium with the magazine.