Enjoy A Saltwater Seascape In Your Home
Having a shark swimming in your living room might make you the envy of the neighborhood, but that mysterious creature from the deep is a poor choice if you want to survive a plunge into the fascinating hobby of marine aquariums. Fortunately there are plenty of other exciting, easier-to-manage and colorful species available to inhabit your amateur saltwater world. If you're really daring, you can give them a reef complete with waving anemones, vibrant corals and curious crustaceans.
Know this: Marine aquariums take work. They're more expensive to set up and harder to maintain because there's a smaller margin of error if the water chemistry is off. (Translation: It's easier to kill your purchases.) But the primary reason you don't want sharks is size. Nearly every available species grows too large, 4 feet or more, to turn around in even the very largest typical home aquarium.
Sharks are inappropriate for most hobbyist aquariums. People who want to see a shark up close and personal should visit a public aquarium. Instead, buy freshwater fish sold as "sharks" that are actually carps or catfish, or better yet, build a breathtaking marine showcase without them.
First, decide your aquarium's focus: Fish only, which cost a few hundred dollars to establish, or a reef ecosystem with live corals, anemones and other invertebrates that can run $2,000 or more. The biggest mistake most beginners make is failing to do some reading and make a plan for the tank and its inhabitants. Research compatibility, food requirements and space issues. Take advantage of the numerous books, magazines, aquarium clubs and Web sites.
For a typical home aquarium, a tank of about 30 to 75 gallons is the usual choice. It's always best to buy the largest system you can accommodate. Basic setups cost about $15 per gallon (not including fish and other livestock). More upscale systems, with automated controls, fancy cabinetry, etc., can cost more than twice as much.
Marine fish generally are more expensive, $35 to $50 each, although some cost as little as $10. Some good bets for the beginner: damsels, clownfish, dwarf angels and royal grammas. Some species you see in pet shops, such as butterfly varieties, shouldn't be there to begin with because their food isn't easily available. Learn how to select healthy specimens. Ideally, choose fish from a good local shop rather than chance mail order or the Internet.
Careful choice of a dealer, either locally or Internet-based, can mean the difference between success and failure for the vast majority of aquarium hobbyists just starting out.
Don't rush the process as adding too many fish too quickly for enough bacteria to grow to break down waste. Start with a few, and wait two to four weeks to add newcomers.
You could get saltwater from the ocean, but many experts warn of possible pollution and microscopic problems. Most hobbyists buy sea salt formulations to mix with tap water. About 20 percent of the water should be changed regularly; twice a month is optimum.
You also need: an aquarium hood and light; a submersible heater; a thermometer; a filter system; a system to move water for aeration; a hydrometer to test salt levels; test kits for ammonia and nitrites; a new plastic bucket for mixing saltwater; and enough substrate, crushed coral, sand, limestone gravel, crushed shells or a combination, to make a 2- to 3-inch bed.
For a reef version, add "live rock", dead coral skeletons or limestone from fossil coral reefs that's harvested with encrusting plants and animals. The general recommendation is 50 pounds for a reef in a 30-gallon aquarium. Add live plants and such creatures as corals, anemones, crabs, snails, clams and segmented worms.
Once it's established, industry figures suggest it will cost about $300 annually for food, supplies, etc., to maintain a saltwater seascape providing hours of pleasure.