A Reef in the Living Room

Learning to maintain a reef system in your own home can lead to enhanced enjoyment and fascinating insights during underwater excursions.

Last year my wife and I acquired a 150-gallon saltwater aquarium, and it has changed our lives in significant and unexpected ways. We spend hours every day watching the fish, corals and other invertebrates wander around and interact in our miniature reef system. We never imagined that a tank would teach us more about our ocean world than 20 years of active diving ever did.

After setting up our tank, mistakes and all, I observed on our next ocean dive activity I had never noticed before. It was as if I had taken LSD and was in a kaleidoscopic dream about a place I had never visited before (instead of on my umpteen-hundredth dive). I noticed important grasses, algae, coral competition and the insanely loud clicks of mantis shrimps everywhere.

It was disorienting, in a good way. My wife and I have been active in the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and the Coral Restoration Foundation for much of our diving lives, so we thought we knew it all. We didn't.

Through the trials and tribulations of creating a healthy ecosystem in our marine aquarium, we were forced to get something like mini-Ph.D.s in marine biology. I found myself reading every book I could and poring over arcane scientific studies in an attempt to beat the normal aquarist's learning curve and mistakes. Unfortunately, no amount of studying prevented me from making mistakes along the way, and even flooding my floor twice, but now we have a beautiful, life-sustaining mini-reef system that enables us to observe and learn more about our ocean world than ever before.

You may have heard that creating and maintaining a marine aquarium can be a lot of work, and I won't kid you, it is — at least in the beginning. But with a little patience and perseverance you can have a small slice of low-maintenance ocean inside your house to enjoy during all those hours you aren't getting wet in the sea.

Here is some good general advice I wish I had known when I was starting out.
  • You'll need a tank, tank stand, lighting, filter/pump, means of circulation, temperature-control systems and more. You can buy it piecemeal or all at once
  • There are multiple aquarium systems, and each is touted by its believers with near-religious fervor.
  • Expect it to take weeks from the time you first get your tank running until you can put fish in it.
  • Buy a few books on marine aquarium creation and operations
  • You'll need a way to put fresh saltwater into the tank on a regular basis (e.g., buying, making, or gathering).
  • You'll also need a way to put nonchlorinated distilled or reverse-osmosis filtered water into the tank on a regular basis (many aquarists have reverse-osmosis filters or distilled water-makers).
  • You can have soft or hard corals, but it is not easy to have both in the same tank.
  • Research which fish and corals will tolerate each other.
  • You'll need to learn to spot the signs of disease, especially "ich" (Ichthyophthirius multifiliis) and other common fish diseases.
  • There are lots of great marine aquarium resources online. I am partial to Reef Central.

Enjoy creating your own slice of underwater heaven!
Share Your Story
Do you have tips, advice, travel strategies, dive techniques, lessons learned or other words of wisdom to share with your fellow divers? Alert Diver wants your story! Email it to M2M@dan.org, or mail it to "Member to Member," c/o Alert Diver, 6 W. Colony Place, Durham, NC 27705.

© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2017