Re:new setup Qs

Pete Giwojna

Dear Karen:

It’s good to hear that you enjoyed my ancient step-by-step book, Karen — it was a good read and a fine guidebook in its day. But as you know it came out way back in 1990 and has been out of print for a long time. Nowadays, I always warn hobbyists against acquiring a copy of my old Step-By-Step Book about Seahorses. That book is now very badly outdated. It was written well before the advent of captive-bred-and-raised seahorses and therefore applies only to wild seahorses. At the time they commissioned it, TFH was looking for a book about seahorses for rank beginners who may never even have kept an aquarium before, so it is geared very much for novices. And since dwarf seahorses (Hippocampus zosterae) were the most popular seahorses back then, and the easiest ones to feed, it is useful primarily to dwarf seahorse keepers.

In short, it has nothing to offer the 21st century seahorse keeper, Karen. For starters, you’ll need to disregard much of what was written in my old step-by-step book regarding wild seahorses since it no longer applies to the hardy, easy-to feed, highly domesticated seahorses that are now available and which are very well adapted to life in captivity. Seahorse keeping is a whole new ball game these days and I would be happy to help get you up to speed regarding the care and keeping of captive-bred-and-raised seahorses. I’ll do my best to answer your questions one by one below:

1) I am thinking of purchasing the Solana 34-gallon all-in-one setup (20x20x20) and equipping it with Current USA SunDial HQI Pendant 1x150W 10K HQI / 2x32W Dual SunPaq Actinics lighting. Any thoughts on this tank, particularly about whether/how I would need to modify the pump to ensure the right water flow for the SHs?

I have no personal experience with the Current Solana 34-gallon reef system, Karen, but I can tell you that reef keepers really like this particular aquarium system. Reefers tell me that it is the nicest looking and best equipped of the all-in-one cube tanks. It has some very nice features such as a hidden filtration system with efficient biological, chemical, and mechanical filtration, a built-in freshwater top off system, and the lighting system with independent controls for dawn/dusk applications. And it has a very classy look due to the frameless cube design with beveled glass edges.

But, as with all such reef systems, it is designed to meet the needs of live corals rather than the needs of seahorses. This means that it provides high intensity lighting, brisk water movement and strong currents, and warmer water temperatures, all of which are ideal for live corals. Seahorses, on the other hand, prefer low to moderate light levels, moderate water flow (some areas with brisk water flow along with some slack water areas they can hold in without having to fight the current), and moderate water temperatures of 72°F-75°F. As a result, you would need to make substantial modifications to the Solana 34-gallon aquarium systems in order to make it more suitable for seahorses, Karen.

To begin with, you would need to adjust the water flow and circulation in the aquarium so that it doesn’t overpower the limited screen ability of the seahorses. I am not certain how powerful the water pump may be in the current Solana 34-gallon reef system, but for the sake of the seahorses, the filters should only turn over the entire volume of the aquarium around five times per hour. For other cube tanks, this often requires replacing the water pump and installing a spray bar return system to further attenuate the water flow. You would also want to consider replacing the high intensity lighting system and perhaps installing an aquarium chiller so that you can stabilize the water temperature in the optimum range for the seahorses.

For these reasons, Karen, I am thinking that the "Red Sea Max 130D Plug & Play Coral Reef System 34 Gallon Aquarium" maybe better suited for your needs. It is also loaded with wonderful features that make it a very adaptable aquarium system. For one thing, it includes an excellent lighting system that will work well for seahorses, complete with two Power Compact lamps (one regular and one actinic), as well as moonlights, with a 24-hour programmable timer for turning both the main lights and moonlights on and off, built right into the Hood Control Panel. Outstanding! That will make it easy to provide your seahorses with a simulated dusk and dawn, which is always a bonus for a seahorse tank.

The moon lights are a sort of night light designed especially for fish tanks. Seahorses in particular often appreciate the moon lighting and respond positively to it. Mating in some seahorses with pelagic fry is synchronized to coincide with the highest tides (hence moon phases), so the moon lights may even help stimulate breeding as they are said to do with some types of corals.

The Red Sea Max 130D Plug & Play Coral Reef System 34 Gallon Aquarium shown above measures 24"L x 20"W x 23.8"H, giving it the extra height that is so important for a seahorse tank. One other feature of this new aquarium system that I especially like is the Power Center or Main Control Panel. It keeps all of the cords for the various pieces of equipment organized and out of the way, and provides separate switches for controlling each of the main components in the filtration system: two separate switches for the aquarium pumps (one switch for each circulation pump), one switch for the protein skimmer, one switch for the lights, and one switch for the heater. That’s very important because it allows you to operate one of the circulation pumps (i.e., have its switch turned on) and not the other circulation pump (leave its switch off), controlling the amount of water flow and circulation in the aquarium.

That’s crucial because the only thing I don’t like about this particular set up is that with both of the circulation pumps on, the filtration system will turn over the entire volume of the aquarium 10 times every hour. That’s great for live corals, but would create powerful water currents that can overpower the limited swimming ability of seahorses. The ideal amount of circulation for a seahorse tank is a filter that turns over the entire volume of the aquarium approximately 5 times per hour, which is exactly what the Red Sea Max 130D Plug & Play Coral Reef System 34 Gallon Aquarium would produce if you leave one of the circulation pumps turned on and one of the pumps turned off. That makes it easy to provide your seahorses with just the right amount of water movement and circulation when using this innovative plug-and-play aquarium system.

Another nice feature of this aquarium system is that it includes three cooling fans in the hood to help prevent overheating. With one of the circulation pumps turned off, the aquarium system will generate even less heat, making it that much easier to keep the aquarium cool.

Best of all, the Red Sea Max 130D Plug & Play Coral Reef System 34 Gallon Aquarium is available with a classy stand designed specifically for this particular tank as well as a Max Starter Kit, which includes 15 lbs Coral Pro Salt, Hydrometer, Nitro Bac bio starter, and an upgraded Marine Lab master test kit with Alkalinity Pro test, Calcium Pro test lab, Magensium test lab, Coral Buff, Calcium & Magnesium Supplements. This makes it even easier for a newcomer to get this aquarium system set up and running properly, since he or she can purchase the Red Sea Max 130D Plug & Play Coral Reef System 34 Gallon Aquarium along with the aquarium stand and Max Starter Kit, and wrap up his aquarium shopping with a single purchase.

All things considered, the Red Sea Max 130D Plug & Play Coral Reef System 34 Gallon Aquarium provides another good option for seahorse keepers to consider. The complete system, including stand and Max Starter Kit is available online at the following website:

in short, the Red Sea Max 130D Plug & Play Coral Reef System 34 Gallon Aquarium has all the features that you want in order to keep seahorse-safe live corals and gorgonia and is a much better choice for the seahorse keeper than the Current Solana 34-gallon all-in-one reef system, which requires substantial modifications to make it suitable for seahorses.

2) I would stock the tank with live sand and live rock. Am thinking of 40 lbs black aragonite live sand and 30-35 pounds live rock. How does this sound? Would some other type of black sand be more suitable?

Yes, that sounds just fine, Karen! Black aragonite live sand is perfectly acceptable and is the substrate I prefer for aesthetic purposes.

3) Am choosing the lighting so that I can keep gorgonians, some other corals, and various caulerpas for hitching posts. Any other considerations I need to think of regarding lighting for the SHs?

Yes, indeed — you may want to rethink the metal halides and high-intensity lighting system for a seahorse tank, for the reasons Doug has already pointed out in his reply. This is what I normally advise hobbyists regarding lighting, Karen:

Lighting the Seahorse Tank

When it comes to lighting, seahorses do not have any special requirements other than the fact that most species prefer low to moderate light levels rather than excessively bright light. They have a corrugated retina especially rich in rods, which gives them excellent visual acuity under twilight conditions and low light levels in general. Some species are even believed to be nocturnal (e.g., Hippocampus comes and H. ingens) and have no trouble seeing and feeding at night. Seahorses will do just fine under ambient room light with no aquarium light fixture whatsoever, although hobbyists prefer to keep their tanks illuminated for aesthetic purposes and so they can view them better.

But this does not mean that seahorses shun bright light (far from it), just that they appreciate shady retreats as well as brightly illuminated areas. However, it’s generally best to avoid high-intensity lights such as metal halides for a seahorse tank. In addition to providing high-intensity lighting, the metal halides also tend to generate a lot of heat, and heat stress can be very detrimental to seahorses. In addition, seahorses don’t like excessively bright light and they may go into hiding, seeking shaded areas amidst the rockwork, if the lighting is too intense for their comfort level. And the seahorses won’t look their best and brightest under metal halides because they will produce excess melanin (black pigment) in order to protect themselves against the harmful ultraviolet radiation they associate with intense light, and darken as a result. For instance, Jorge Gomezjurado reports "…I have exposed yellow seahorses to strong metal halide and they have turned black in few hours." So it would be a shame to display brightly colored seahorses under metal halide lighting in a small, close system aquarium.

All things considered, an ordinary incandescent bulb or standard fluorescent tube is normally quite adequate for a seahorse tank. Between the two, I would strongly favor a fluorescent light fixture because they give off less heat (overheating and heat stress can become problems for seahorses during summertime heat waves) and because the fluorescents are more economical to operate. Easier on the old electric bill.

Personally, I like to provide my seahorses with a natural day/night period that includes twilight periods at "sunrise" and "sunset." To accomplish this, I like the power compact (PC) light fixtures that include two tubes — one actinic and one daylight fluorescent — with dual ballasts so that each ballast can be placed on a separate automatic timer. I like to have the bluish actinic come on before the daylight tubes and stay on after the daylights go off, thereby providing a simulated dusk and dawn (Giwojna, unpublished text). This is important for seahorses since they conduct most of their courting and breeding in the early morning hours under twilight conditions. It’s a neat effect and fish and invertebrates can then anticipate "lights out" rather than being plunged into total darkness at night or suddenly thrust into bright light in the morning. I also adjust the timers to lengthen or shorten the daylight periods in accordance with the changing seasons. I find that maintaining a natural cycle this way aids reproduction (Giwojna, unpublished text).

In short, I find PC lighting to be a good compromise for a seahorse system. Power compacts provide plenty of light for macroalgae or the seahorse-safe soft corals in a modified reef system without being too bright or generating too much heat, and the dual ballast system allows for a natural day/night rhythm that changes with the seasons. The resulting dusk and dawn facilitate courtship and help the seahorses maintain a natural reproductive cycle (Giwojna, unpublished text).

Although they are very costly, the new Solaris LED Illumination Systems are another good option for a seahorse reef. The Solaris LEDs can provide the spectrum of light and intensity needed by light-loving corals without the same concerns regarding overheating that make metal halides undesirable, and that’s a huge plus for the seahorse keeper. Aside from generating less heat, they also provide very considerable energy savings and the longevity of the LED is also superior to metal halide lamps. Best of all, the flexibility and adjustability of the Solaris LED Illumination System allows you to independently set the lights to duplicate sunrise, daylight, cloud cover, sunset, and even the lunar cycle. They certainly are very expensive, but they have some wonderful advantages over the conventional metal halide lighting, particularly for seahorses. However, because of the cost factor, I prefer PC lighting for a seahorse tank with live corals myself.

Of course, for seahorse keepers who do not have live corals in their corrals, standard fluorescent bulbs or tubes are more than adequate. For all intents and purposes, you really can’t go wrong no matter what lighting system you chose as long as you avoid overheating and provide both shaded areas where your seahorses can escape from light altogether and well-lit areas where they can bathe in the light as they please.

As long as you won’t be keeping live corals with your seahorses, an ordinary fluorescent bulb is perfectly adequate for lighting your seahorse tank. Simple fluorescent lights are more than adequate for a seahorse-only aquarium or SHOWLR tank. For such a setup, I would recommend the Aqualife T5 fluorescent aquarium light fixture by Coralife. The light fixtures are available in 20", 30" and 36" lengths to accommodate various aquariums. One 18 W 10K T5 fluorescent lamp should do the job nicely, or you could also get a T5 light fixture that accommodates two bulbs and add an actinic bulb as well. But a single T5 fluorescent lamp should certainly suffice for a fish-only tank.

4) Other than the usual CUC, I would like to get just a couple of tankmates: a bicolor blenny (one of my favorite fish of all time), a mandarin dragonet, and an arrow crab. I see that the first two are listed as compatible with SHs, but what about the arrow crab? And is the system large enough to have the two extra fish and crab, or should I just do a SHOWLR tank for this small of a setup?

Okay, a bicolor blenny will make a great companion for large seahorses such as Mustangs and Sunbursts (Hippocampus erectus). So that’s a big thumbs-up, Karen, but a Mandarin Dragonet is not a good candidate for a tank of 34 gallons, for the reasons Doug has already mentioned.

Like you, I absolutely love the psychedelic coloration and peaceful nature of Mandarin dragonets! There’s no disputing that they are gorgeous little fishes and make ideal tankmates for seahorses in the right type of setup. They are docile, slow-moving, passive fish that are beautifully marked and very deliberate feeders. And they are quite hardy fish providing they can be fed properly. They have a heavy slime coat that seems to make them quite resistant to protozoan parasites such as Cryptocaryon irritans.

But, as you know, in order to do well, mandarins need a large, well-established aquarium loaded with live rock or live rock rubble that’s teeming with copepods and amphipods. Mandrins must have continuous opportunities to graze on suitable live foods or they generally slowly waste away and starve to death. In the right system, they can thrive, and will often learn to take small pieces of frozen Mysis, but they do best in well-established reef systems or aquariums with at least 1 pound of live rock or LR rubble per gallon, a mature sand bed, and a refugium that can continually replenish the pod population in the tank. Those are typically the conditions that are necessary to assure they have adequate suitable live prey. I would say that a 50-gallon aquarium with a large footprint is the minimum size for keeping a Mandarin Dragonet happy, but a 100 gallon or bigger aquarium system would be even better.

Arrow crabs are iffy, Karen, but small specimens will sometimes work out well in the right seahorse setup. Arrow crabs are another good example of the type specimens for which you might find conflicting advice with regard to their suitability as suitable tankmates for seahorses. I would characterize arrow crabs (Stenorhynchus seticornis) as opportunistic omnivores. I have kept them in a number of my aquaria over the years, including a few seahorse tanks, without any problems. They never bothered my Hippocampus erectus at all, but they can be hard on sessile invertebrates in general and I certainly wouldn’t trust them with dwarf seahorses. Nor would I trust them with a small goby.

I kept a couple of large arrow crabs in my Monster Bin with a 14-inch African lionfish (Pterois volitans) and a couple of overgrown ribbon eels, and the arrow crabs proved to be fairly proficient at capturing the live minnows I fed to the lionfish, particularly after the minnows had been weakened by the saltwater. If the opportunity presents itself, they are quite capable of capturing small bottom-dwelling fishes like certain gobies.

Arrow crabs will happily devour any bristleworms they can catch but they won’t eradicate them from your aquarium. Too many of the bristleworms always remain inaccessible to them within the rockwork and sand for that, but a small to medium-sized arrow crab or two can help control the bristleworm population. A fairly effective way to reduce their numbers is to regularly trap large bristleworms after lights out along with keeping a young arrow crab to thin out smaller worms (providing there are no sessile invertebrates in the tank the crabs could harm).

In my experience, small to medium-sized arrow crabs are safe with large seahorses and can be used to help limit the number of bristleworms in your tank. But if you want to try this, you don’t want to pick out the biggest, baddest, bruiser of an arrow crab to do the job! Go with a smaller specimen, keep a close eye on it, and be prepared to replace it with a smaller individual after it molts once or twice. They grow fast and can nearly double in size after each molt.

Remember there are always exceptions to every rule, and large crustaceans are never completely trustworthy. Even the most harmless and seemingly inoffensive crabs can cause trouble under certain circumstances. For example, not long ago I heard from a hobbyist that had been keeping a decorator crab in his seahorse tank. All went well at first and there were no problems of any kind for months until, for no apparent reason, the crab suddenly began to quite deliberately amputate portions of the seahorses’ tails. It was not attacking the seahorses as prey or attempting to eat its mutilated victims, it was merely methodically harvesting portions of their anatomy with which to adorn itself! It was simply doing what all decorator crabs do — snipping off and gathering bits and pieces of its immediate environment to attach to itself as a form of natural camouflage.

That’s just another example of why you can never entirely trust even the most apparently innocuous and benign crustaceans with seahorses. Many times they do great at first when they are small and new to the aquarium, but become more aggressive once they have molted once or twice and grown in size (and attitude) accordingly. It just goes to show, with crabs you can never be sure how things are going to work out…

Yes, Karen, a 34-gallon aquarium is large enough to safely accommodate a few small seahorse-safe tankmates along with the ponies. But if you are new to seahorses, then you may be better off concentrating on just the ponies at first. Once you gain a little first-hand experience with the seahorses and are confident in your ability to feed them properly and maintain optimum conditions, then you might consider adding one or two small fishes, after they have been quarantined to make sure that they are healthy.

5) What type/number/pairing (mated vs. not) would you recommend for this setup?

The recommended stocking density for Mustangs and Sunbursts (Hippocampus erectus) is one pair per 10 gallons of water, so a 34-gallon aquarium can safely support three pairs or six adults individuals of this species when it is fully stocked, Karen. But of course it is always beneficial to keep an aquarium under stocked in order to provide a comfortable margin for error when you are first starting out with seahorses and learning the ropes.

6) I currently am planning on getting the tank set up and cycled, and then the corals added and maintained for a few weeks, before adding the seahorses. Does this sound reasonable? Should I wait longer before I had the SHs?

Yes, that sounds like a very sensible plan. Make sure the new aquarium has cycled completely and that the biological filtration is well-established, and you can then introduce the cleanup crew, some hand-picked seahorse-safe corals, and your macroalgae. Once the corals have been introduced and have had a chance to establish themselves, the aquarium will have had a chance to mature and stabilize, and it should be quite safe to add the seahorses.

7) Anything else I should be thinking about at this point?

Yes, Karen, there are a great many other things to keep in mind when selecting and setting up a suitable seahorse tank. All of the factors that should be weighed in your considerations are too numerous to discuss in one post on this forum, but you can fill in any gaps in your knowledge in that regard very nicely simply by taking advantage of the Ocean Rider training program for new seahorse keepers.

Please allow me to introduce myself, Karen. My name is Pete Giwojna and I provide tech-support for Ocean Rider ( Part of my duties in that regard include providing a quick training course for new Ocean Rider customers and first-time buyers to get them up to speed on the aquarium care and requirements of seahorses.

The purpose of this training is twofold: (1) to assure that the hobbyist has a suitable aquarium, completely cycled and with the biofiltration fully established, ready and waiting when his seahorses arrive, and (2) to assure that the hobbyist has a good understanding of the aquarium care and requirements of Ocean Rider seahorses by the time he or she has completed the training and been certified. All of which will help to ensure that things go smoothly and that the home aquarist’s first experience with Ocean Rider seahorses is rewarding and enjoyable.

This basic training is very informal and completely free of charge, Karen. Ocean Rider provides the free training as a service to their customers and any other hobbyists who are interested in learning more about the care and keeping of seahorses. It’s a crash course on seahorse keeping consisting of 10 separate lessons covering the following subjects, and is conducted entirely via e-mail. There is no homework or examinations or anything of that nature — just a lot of good, solid information on seahorses for you to read through and absorb as best you can, at your own speed. The training course consists of a total of over 180 pages of text with more than 100 full life and color illustrations, broken down into 10 lessons covering the following subjects:

Lesson 1: Selecting a Suitable Aquarium & Optimizing It for Seahorses.
Tank dimensions and specifications (why height is important);
Tank location and aquarium stressors;
Setting up a SHOWLR tank to create ideal conditions for seahorses;
filtration options
protein skimmers
UV sterilizers
titanium grounding probe
water circulation
Test kits for monitoring water quality;
Aquascaping the seahorse tank;
artificial hitching posts
Basic aquarium setups for seahorses;
undergravel filters
sponge filters

Lesson 2: Cycling a New Aquarium & Installing the Cleanup Crew.
The nitrogen cycle;
nitrification and denitrification
Step-by-step instructions for cycling a new marine aquarium;
Seahorse-safe sanitation engineers and aquarium janitors;
microhermit crabs
cleaner shrimp
Starter seahorses (hardy, highly domesticated, high-health ponies)

Lesson 3: Reading Assignments (books, articles, and columns devoted to seahorses).

Lesson 4: Water Chemistry, Aquarium Maintenance, & Maintaining Optimum Water Quality.
Basic water quality parameters (acceptable range and optimum levels);
specific gravity
dissolved oxygen
Advanced water chemistry for reef keepers;
Performing partial water changes to maintain good water quality;
Aquarium maintenance schedule;

Lesson 5: Feeding Seahorses.
Frozen Mysis serves as their staple, everyday diet;
brands of frozen Mysis
thawing and preparing frozen Mysis
enriching with Vibrance
Recommended feeding regimen;
how to tell if your seahorse is getting enough to eat
Feeding tips for seahorses;
preparing and serving the frozen Mysis
feeding new arrivals
secretive feeders
morning feedings
setting up a feeding station
training the seahorses to use a feeding tray
artificial feeding stations
natural feeding stations
purchasing a ready-made feeding station
elevating the feeding station
fasting seahorses
target feeding
Mysis relicta from Piscine Energetics
Broadcast feeding or scatter feeding — just say no!

Lesson 6: Compatible Tankmates for Seahorses.
Safe and unsafe companions — no guarantees;
Tropical tankmates;
fish to avoid
seahorse-safe fish
seahorse-safe invertebrates
Feeding seahorses in a community tank;
Seahorse-proofing a reef tank
safe corals
unsafe corals
lighting the seahorse reef
managing water circulation for a seahorse reef

Lesson 7: Courtship & Breeding.
Courtship displays in Hippocampus (fully illustrated)
tilting and reciprocal quivering
pouch displays (pumping and ballooning)
copulatory rise and the egg transfer
Pair formation
Morning greetings
Male brooding — a true pregnancy
Giving birth — dawn deliveries

Lesson 8: Raising the Young.
Seahorse fry
Determining ease of rearing
Setting up a basic nursery for benthic babies
Advanced nursery tank options for pelagic fry
the shaded nursery
kriesel and pseudokreisel nurseries
the divided nursery
in-tank nurseries (illustrated)
the greenwater "starter" nursery
hyposalinity for pelagic fry
Delivery day
Culling the fry (if necessary)
Feeding the fry
hatching and enriching brine shrimp (Artemia)
decapsulated brine shrimp eggs
culturing rotifers and copepods
Fry feeding schedule

Lesson 9: Disease Prevention and Control.
Captive bred vs. wild-caught seahorses
Importance of High-Health seahorses
Seahorse anatomy illustrations
external anatomy
internal anatomy
Screening seahorses from your LFS
Quarantine tank
Quarantine protocol for pet-shop ponies and wild seahorses
Beta glucan boosts immunity to disease
Early detection of health problems
aquarium stressors
disease symptoms in seahorses
What to do at the first sign of a health problem
The seahorse-keepers medicine chest
first aid kit for seahorses
must-have medications to keep on hand
properties of the main medications
Life expectancy
Hepatic lipidosis (prevalence of fatty liver disease)
Seahorse disease book

Lesson 10: Mustangs and Sunbursts (Hippocampus erectus) & Acclimating New Arrivals.
Nature of Mustangs and Sunbursts
multi-generational approach to rearing
hybrid vigor
genetic diversity
selective breeding
Hippocampus erectus species summary
scientific name and common names
meristic counts and morphometric measurements (illustrated)
climate and distribution
color and pattern
breeding habits
breeding season
gestation period
brood size
pelagic/benthic fry
onset of sexual maturity
ease of rearing
natural habitats and natural history
preferred parameters and aquarium requirements
suggested stocking density
successful rearing protocols
feeding the fry
nursery tank designs
rearing and grow out tanks
diet and nutrition
color variations
temperature requirements
wide ranging species with different races
recommended reading
Acclimating new arrivals (step-by-step instructions)
Keeping and culturing red feeder shrimp (Halocaridina rubra)

if you are interested, Karen, I will be providing you with detailed information on these subjects and answering any questions you may have about the material I present.

If you would like to check out the lessons, just send me a brief note saying so off list ([email protected]) that includes your first and last name, and I will get you started on the training program immediately.

Best wishes with all your fishes, Karen!

Pete Giwojna

Post edited by: Pete Giwojna, at: 2009/10/23 04:36

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