Re:New Tank Set-up

#3517
Pete Giwojna
Guest

Dear Tammy:

Excellent! An 85-gallon aquarium that’s 30 inches tall and is equipped with a wet/dry trickle filter and a protein skimmer is the basis for an outstanding seahorse setup! Live rock combined with the skimmer and wet/dry trickle filter is all the filtration you will need.

You’ll also need a lighting system of some short. This can be as simple as ordinary daylight fluorescent tubes are even ambient room light as far as the seahorses go, but if you want to keep them with some handpicked soft corals, that I would recommend power compact lighting for the aquarium. It will provide plenty of light for macroalgae or soft corals without being too bright for the seahorses or causing a problem with overheating.

For the substrate, I find that a fine-grained oolitic live sand, preferably black, helps control nitrates and looks great, as discussed below.

A thin layer of live sand is the ideal substrate for a seahorse tank. It is bioactive, aesthetically pleasing, and is a fine-grained sand well suited for the various snails that form an essential part of the cleanup crew for a seahorse tank. I find the dark color of an oolitic black sand substrate shows off my seahorses and macroalgae to great effect and enhances the appearance of tank in general. (As long as it’s fine enough I’ve never had any problems with seahorses "snicking" up sand in the aquarium. They will do so on occasion when feeding off the bottom, but never have any difficulty at all expelling it again as long as it’s fine grained.)

The depth of a shallow sand bed like this is a crucial factor. Too deep, and you risk anaerobic dead spots where deadly hydrogen sulfide gas can form. Too shallow, and there will be less surface area to support beneficial nitrifying bacteria and Nassarius snails and other beneficial burrowers may feel vulnerable and exposed. A bed of live sand between 1/2 to know more than 1-inch deep is just right for the main tank.

The types of live sand I prefer are either the Arag-Alive Indo-Pacific Black Sand by CaribSea or else the CaribSea Tropical Isle Tahitian Moon Black Sand. You can obtain them online from Premium Aquatics and a number of other sources, and either of them should work great for your dwarf seahorse setup.

When it comes to the aquarium décor, Tammy, a tank like yours will have plenty of room for a very nice selection of seahorse-safe corals. Unless you’re an experienced reefkeeper, it’s best to stick with soft corals that don’t require too much light or a great deal of water movement in order to thrive. Just to get an idea of what is available along those lines, check out the soft corals offered by live aquaria.com and read up on their requirements. Most any of the soft corals that they rate as on demanding and suitable for beginners, and don’t require intense lighting or strong currents, should make good candidates for your seahorse setup. Leather corals, colt corals, mushroom corals and polyps in general are usually good possibilities. If you have a good LFS in your area that caters to reef keepers, that would be the ideal place to shop for some handpicked soft corals. That way, you can pick out the specimens that are the most colorful and nicest looking, and you can make sure that they are healthy before you make a purchase. Mushroom corals are available in most every color of the rainbow nowadays, so suit yourself and try the prettiest ones you can find.

Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when selecting compatible corals for your seahorse setup, Tammy:

Setting Up a Reef Tank for Seahorses.

Seahorses typically thrive in the right type of reef system, which provides them with pristine water quality, plenty of roam to roam, and a colorful, natural setting that makes them feel right at home. The multicolored background will keep them looking their best and brightest, and nothing makes a more breathtaking exhibit than brilliant yellow and orange seahorses lazily gliding amidst the lovely corals, polyps and gorgonia in a well-established minireef, much like the butterflies adorning a beautiful flower garden.

But the hobbyist who wants to keep seahorses in a reef system must be willing to make some concessions to accommodate their special needs. For example, the reef keeper must be willing to limit himself to corals and invertebrates that meet the following criteria:

Avoid any stinging animals with powerful nematocysts. This means fire corals, anemones, and any corals with polyps that feel sticky to the touch must be excluded. When a seahorse brushes up against them or attempts to perch on them, the nematocysts or stinging cells of these animals can penetrate the seahorse’s skin and damage its integument. Needless to say, this causes pain and discomfort and can leave the seahorse vulnerable to secondary bacterial and fungal infections, which may take hold at the site of injury. Beware of large polyped stony (LPS) corals in particular. These include genera such as Catalaphyllia, Cynarina, Euphyllia and Trachyphyllia that have large fleshy polyps which often have tentacles equipped with powerful stinging cells..

2) The corals must be able to thrive with moderate light levels and relatively low to moderate water movement or current. Corals that require overly strong water currents are unsuitable for tanks with seahorses because the seahorses are feeble swimmers and often cannot cope with powerful currents unless there are slack water areas the can retreat to when needed.

3) The corals must be able to withstand being used as hitching posts by the seahorses from time to time; that is, they cannot be so delicate that having a seahorse’s grasping tail anchored around them could cause them any harm. For instance, soft corals may retract their polyps when a seahorse perches on them. This can be harmful to their health if it becomes a chronic problem, because the corals rely on their polyps to absorb light and convert it to energy via photosynthesis. Be sure to watch any soft corals and make sure they are not closed up for extended periods. Normally, they adjust to the seahorses’ presence and unwelcome attention after a while, and remain contracted only briefly after each contact. After repeated exposures to grasping tails, each such incident elicits a weaker response, so they tend to extend their polyps sooner and sooner after being disturbed.

4) Avoid Tridacna clams and similar bivalve mollusks. Sooner or later a seahorse will perch on them with its tail between the valves and the clam’s powerful adductor muscle will clamp down on it like a vise. At best this will be a very stressful experience for the unfortunate seahorse; it can be the devil’s own business trying to persuade the stubborn mollusk to release its struggling victim! At worst, it can result in serious injury or permanent damage to the seahorses tail.

5) Beware of unwanted hitchhikers that may have come in on your live rock unbeknownst to you and which can harm seahorses, such as fireworms, mantis shrimp, or Aptasia rock anemones. When setting up a reef system for seahorses, it’s a wise precaution to pre-treat your live rock with a hypersaline drip and/or a dose of fenbendazole to eliminate such pests beforehand because they can be very difficult to remove or eradicate once they make themselves at home in your aquarium.

6) Small powerheads can be used to create and direct water currents wherever needed — just be sure to screen off the intake for the sake of your seahorses. Seahorses tolerate moderate currents very well providing there are sheltered spots and slack water areas they can retreat to when desired.

Seahorse-Safe Corals

Soft corals have very little stinging ability and generally make good choices for a modified mini reef that will include seahorses (Delbeek, Oct. 2001). This includes most mushroom anemones (corallimorpharians). However, as Charles Delbeek cautions, "One notable exception is the elephant ear mushroom anemone (Amplexidiscus fenestrafer). This animal is an active feeder on small fish and will envelope them whole with its mantle then slowly digest them by extruding its digestive filaments into the space created. No small fish are safe with these animals in the tank (Delbeek, Oct. 2001).".

Hippocampus also does very well with zooanthids and colonial polyps in general. But the hobbyist must be sure to observe a couple of precautions when handling the zoanthids and placing them in your aquarium.

First and foremost, many of the commonly available Zooanthus (button polyps) and Palythoa (sea mats) species contain a very toxic substance in their mucous coat known as palytoxin, which is one of the most poisonous marine toxins ever discovered (Fatherree, 2004). Palytoxin can affect the heart, muscles, and nerves, resulting in paralysis or possibly even death, and many hobbyists have reported numbness, nausea and/or hallucinations after merely touching these corals (Fatherree, 2004). When you handle zoanthids and palythoans, you cannot help picking up some of their protective slime on your fingers, and so much as rubbing your eye, picking your nose, or a small cut on your finger can be enough to land you in the hospital. When handling Zooanthus are Palythoa species, it’s very important to wear disposable latex gloves, avoid touching your mouth or eyes, and carefully dispose of the gloves immediately afterwards (Fatherree, 2004).

Secondly, zoanthids and other soft corals such as mushrooms may wage border battles if you place them in close proximity to each other (and the zoanthids almost always lose out to the mushrooms in these skirmishes). So be sure to allow adequate space between the colonies. Some rapidly growing Zooanthus colonies can be aggressive to soft and stony corals alike as they rapidly spread over the rockwork, but in general they are quite peaceful, and you can always slow down their rate of growth by reducing the nutrient loading in the aquarium.

Other low light corals that should be suitable for a seahorse reef include genera such as Cynarina, Scolymia and Trachyphyllia, as well as non-photosynthetic gorgonians such as Subergorgia and Didogorgia, and perhaps wire corals such as Cirripathes spp. (Delbeek, Nov. 2001).. However, supplemental feedings of zooplankton may be required to maintain these corals in good health.

The hard or stony corals fall into two categories depending on the size of their polyps. The small polyped stony (SPS) corals have tiny polyps that extend out of minute openings in the stony skeleton, and generally have weak stings that should not pose a threat to seahorses. Depending on conditions in the tank, SPS corals such as Acropora, Montipora, Pocillipora, Porities, Seriatopora and Stylophora can be tried freely at your discretion (Delbeek, Oct. 2001).

The large polyped stony (LPS) corals, however, must be regarded with a little more caution. These include genera such as Catalaphyllia, Cynarina, Euphyllia and Trachyphyllia that have large fleshy polyps which often have tentacles equipped with powerful stinging cells. The Euphyllia and Catalaphyllia have the most powerful nematocysts among the LPS corals, and can deliver stings that are stronger than most anemones (Delbeek, Oct. 2001). It’s generally best to avoid LPS corals in a seahorse setup.

Some of the soft corals and stony corals that generally do well with seahorses in a modified reef tank are listed below. (By no means is this intended to be a comprehensive list, but rather just a few examples of suitable corals to serve as general guidelines when stocking a reef tank that will house seahorses):

Finger Leather Coral (Lobophyton sp.)
Flower Tree Coral – Red / Orange, (Scleronephthya spp.)
aka: Scleronephthya Strawberry Coral, or Pink or Orange Cauliflower Coral
Christmas Tree Coral (Sphaerella spp.)
aka: the Medusa Coral, Snake Locks Coral, or French Tickler
Cauliflower Colt Coral (Cladiella sp.)
aka: Colt Coral, Soft Finger Leather Coral, Seaman’s Hands or Blushing Coral.
Toadstool Mushroom Leather Coral (Sarcophyton sp.)
aka: Sarcophyton Coral, Mushroom, Leather, or Trough Corals.
Bullseye Mushroom Coral (Rhodactis inchoata)
aka: Tonga Blue Mushroom
Clove Polyps (Clavularia sp.)
Stick Polyp (Parazoanthus swiftii)
Green Daisy Polyps (Clavularia sp.), Indonesia
Orange & Green Colony Button Polyps (Zooanthus sp.), Fiji
Pulsing Corals (Xenia spp.)
Red Ricordea (Ricordea sp.), Indonesia, occasionally Solomon Islands
Lavender Hairy Mushroom (Actinodiscus sp.), Tonga
Pimpled Mushroom (Discosoma sp.), Indonesia
Purple Gorgonians

Just make sure your new aquarium is completely cycled and well-established before you begin adding any corals, Tammy.

The best thing you can do to make sure your water changes go smoothly and don’t stress the seahorses is to use aged saltwater that you have mixed well in advance and preadjusted to the same temperature, pH, and specific gravity as the main tank. As discussed below, smaller, more frequent water changes are generally preferable and less stressful for the aquarium inhabitants.

If the tap water or well water in your town is of dubious quality, and you don’t mind lugging containers of water home from the pet store, then purchasing pre-mixed saltwater from your local fish store is often a good option. Many seahorse keepers purchase reverse osmosis/deinonized water (RO/DI) for their water changes. Most well-stocked pet shops that handle marine fish sell RO/DI water as a service for their customers for between 25 and 50 cents a gallon. For example, WalMart sell RO/DI water by the gallon for around 60 cents.

Natural seawater is another good option for a seahorse setup. Like RO/DI water, natural seawater can often be purchased at fish stores for around $1.00 a gallon, depending on where you live. It sounds expensive, but when you consider the alternative — paying for artificial salt mix and RO/DI water and mixing your own saltwater — then natural seawater is not a bad bargain at all. It has unsurpassed water quality and seahorses thrive in it.

Personally, I really like the convenience of mixing up a relatively large quantity of saltwater in a plastic garbage can, rather than mixing it by the bucket full on a weekly basis. A 30-40 gallon capacity plastic garbage can allows me to mix up enough saltwater for a whole month’s worth of weekly water changes at one time. Which assures that the freshly mixed saltwater will be well aged and thoroughly aerated, and that any chlorine or residual ammonia will have at plenty of time to have dissipated before it’s used. And it also allows you to preadjust the saltwater to match the exact conditions in your aquarium very accurately. It’s always a good idea to keep some premixed saltwater on hand in case of an emergency, when a quick water change becomes necessary. Here are some more suggestions for mixing your own saltwater and making regular partial water changes in your seahorse setup, Tammy:

Water Changing Tips

If you find that performing a major water change seems to cause your seahorses distress, try adjusting your water changing schedule so that you are performing smaller water changes more frequently rather than larger water changes less often. For instance, if you have been performing 20%-25% water changes monthly, switch to administering 5% water changes every week instead. You’ll find the smaller water changes are much less stressful on the aquarium inhabitants.

Be sure to observe all of the usual water changing precautions as well. For example, it’s an excellent idea to use Reverse Osmosis (RO) or Deionized (DI) or RO/DI water for your changes because it’s much more pure than tap water. However, water purified by such methods is very soft and must be buffered before it’s used so it won’t drop the pH in your aquarium when it’s added.

When mixing saltwater for your marine aquarium, it’s important to fill your container with all the water you will need BEFORE adding the salt mix. In other words, if you are mixing up 5 gallons of new saltwater, fill the mixing containing with 5 gallons of water and then add the salt. If you do it the other way around — dump the salt mix in the container and then start filling it with water, the water can become saturated with salt to the point that the calcium precipitates out. This calcium precipitation will turn the water milky and can also lower the pH to dangerous levels.

Water changes can also sometimes be a problem because of the supersaturation of gases in tap water. Tap water distribution systems are maintained under pressure at all times, both to insure adequate flow and to prevent polluted water from outside the pipes from entering in at leaks. Any additional gas introduced into these pipes (from a leaky manifold, for example) will be dissolved at these higher partial pressures, and will often be supersaturated when it emerges from the tap. Also, gases are more soluble in cold water than warm, so when gas-saturated cold water emerges from the tap and warms up in an aquarium, or is warmed up and preadjusted to aquarium temps prior to making a water change, the water can become supersaturated. This must be avoided at all costs because gas supersaturation is one of the contributing factors that can cause Gas Bubble Disease in seahorses and other fish. To prevent this, tap water should be allowed to sit for several days beforehand or gentle aeration can be used to remove gas supersaturation before a water change (just make sure your airstones are not be submerged greater than 18 inches while you’re aerating your freshly mixed water).

There are a few accessories you should keep on hand to make water changing easier: one or more large capacity plastic garbage cans or Rubbermaid vats for mixing up new saltwater; a small powerhead for stirring and circulating the water while it mixes; a submersible heater to adjust the temperature of the newly mixed water; a large diameter siphon hose; a couple of new plastic buckets that hold 3-5 gallons.

First use a clean plastic bucket to fill up the garbage can with 10, 20 or 30 gallons of water or however much you want to mix up at one time. Add the proper amount of artificial salt mix for that much water, and toss your small, cheap powerhead into the garbage can to stir it up. While it’s mixing, put the submersible heater in to adjust the water temp, and add dechlorinator or detox if using tap water (if using reverse osmosis deionized water, or another softened source, be sure to add a pH buffer to the new water). Let the new batch of water mix, aerate, and stabilize for 24-48 hours before you perform the water change and check to make sure the temperature and pH of the new water matches your aquarium. Some artificial salt mixes produce residual amounts of ammonia when newly mixed; aerating the freshly mixed saltwater for 24-48 hours will dissipate and remaining traces of chlorine or ammonia.

If you follow the steps outlined above when mixing up new saltwater prior to performing a water change, the water cannot become saturated with salts, the calcium will not precipitate out, the newly mixed saltwater will be crystal clear and the water exchange should go smoothly.

Best of luck getting your new seahorse setup up and running, Tammy!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna


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