Pete Giwojna

Dear fishlover:

If you want to start out with a low budget set up for keeping a single pair of Mustangs, perhaps the most basic aquarium system I could suggest would be to obtain a 20 gallon Extra-High All-Glass Aquarium (20"L x 10"W x 24"H), equip it with a simple, standard, off-the-shelf glass cover and an off-the-shelf strip reflector with a florescent bulb, and then fit it with a full set of undergravel filters that completely cover the bottom of the aquarium, as described below.

The filtration system for the tank could thus be as basic as a set of well-maintained undergravels (preferably the new reerse flow designs)that covers the bottom of the tank completely. I know undergravel filters are considered old-fashioned technology nowadays, but they are inexpensive, utterly reliable and foolproof (no moving parts), easy to install, require no modification whatsoever, and work extremely well for seahorses within their limitations. An inexpensive diaphragm air pump will operate the filter and provide all the aeration you need, or you can upgrade to powerheads for greater efficiency and extra water movement.

For the substrate with your undergravel filters, use a coarse bed of good calcareous aquarium gravel such as dolomite, aragonite, or crushed oyster shell 2-3 inches deep, since the buffering ability of such substrates will help maintain good pH.

It is a good idea to supplement the undergravels with an inexpensive hang-on-back filter or canister to provide better circulation and accommodate chemical filtration media. This is a very simple, inexpensive aquarium that’s extremely easy and economical to set up and operate, yet it can be very successful if used within its limitations. For instance, undergravel filters are notorious nitrate factories and the hobbyist must take measures to compensate for this fact. This simple system relies totally on water changes to control nitrates. There is no live rock or live sand bed to provide denitrification, no algal filter or denitrator in a sump, and no protein skimmer to remove organics before they enter the nitrogen cycle. This limits the carrying capacity of the tank and makes an accelerated maintenance schedule and more frequent water changes an absolute necessity. For this reason, reverse flow undergravels often work best with seahorses; they help prevent detritus from accumulating in the gravel bed.

I recommend weekly water changes of a least 25% for such a system. Use a gravel washer to clean a different portion of the gravel bed (no more than 25%) each week and keep the tank under stocked. If you are diligent about aquarium maintenance, perform water changes religiously, and limit yourself to fewer seahorses that you feed carefully, you will find that a simple system featuring undergravel filters can be very successful. But if you are negligent with regard to maintenance, skimp on water changes, or tend to overcrowd or overfeed your tanks, this system will be very unforgiving.

If you already have an external hang-on-the-back filter, you could probably get all of the other items discussed above for this very basic seahorse system for a total of around $125-$150.

Of course, if you don’t have them already, you will also need some saltwater test kits to cycle your tank, monitor conditions in your aquarium, and keep track of the water quality. The basic test kits you’ll need to keep track of the aquarium parameters are ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, plus a hydrometer to check specific gravity and an aquarium thermometer (if you don’t have one already). You’ll need to get separate test kits for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, and I recommend fasTest or Salifert kits for saltwater, which are fairly economical. I also like the SeaTest hydrometers–convenient, easy to read, and reliable. Here’s a list of what you’ll need for starters:

fasTest Ammonia test kit for saltwater (by Aquarium Systems);
fasTest Nitrite test kit for saltwater (by Aquarium Systems);
fasTest Nitrate test kit for saltwater (by Aquarium Systems);
fasTesT pH test kit for saltwater (by Aquarium Systems);
or the Salifert Nitrogen Cycle Package of test kits (Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, & pH)
Click here: Salifert Test Kits:
Safe or Prime declorinators by Sea Chem for detoxifying tap water;
SeaTest Hydrometer (by Aquarium Systems) for checking salinity;
Aquarium thermometer.
20-gallon package of Instant Ocean artificial salt mix
Calcareous Aquarium Gravel suitable for marine aquarium
Package of Frozen Mysis to feed the seahorses (e.g., Piscine Energetics, Hikari and Gamma are all good brands to choose from)
Natural or Artificial Hitching Posts

The price for these items varies considerably from source to source, so I suggest you print out a list like this and then price it at different local fish stores in your area as well as different online outlets to give you a better idea of what these accessories will cost.

And then, of course, there is the cost of the Mustangs themselves, which you may be able to get via the First Time Buyer’s Special.

All things considered, seahorse keeping and the marine aquarium hobby in general are fairly expensive ventures, especially when you are just starting out and don’t already have been necessary equipment and accessories. There aren’t that many shortcuts you can take to keep costs down without also decreasing your chances for success.

For example, the basic 20-gallon Extra-High aquarium setup we have been discussing can work well if you’re willing to limit yourself to one pair of seahorses, practice diligent aquarium maintenance, and are able to maintain optimum water quality. But if you’re new to seahorse keeping and have never maintained the marine aquarium before, you would increase your chances of success considerably by starting out with a larger, more stable aquarium in the 30 to 50 gallon range and equipping it with a good protein skimmer, which would provide you with a better margin for error and be more forgiving of any mistakes you may make while you are learning the ropes. And you might be better off by starting out with an indestructible snowflake Moray eel or an inexpensive, tough-as-nails Humu triggerfish as your first fish, and then graduate to seahorses after you’ve gained some viable experience with saltwater aquariums.

If you’re operating on a shoestring budget, fishlover, it may be a good idea for you to stick with freshwater fishes until you can afford to devote more of your resources to the aquarium hobby.

But if you have your heart set on starting out with seahorses with such a tight budget, then you might consider setting up a small aquarium for Pixies for dwarf seahorses (Hippocampus zosterae) rather than keeping the much larger Mustangs. A very basic setup for a handful of dwarf seahorses could be set up at a fraction of the costs of the aquarium systems you would need for Mustangs (Hippocampus erectus).

Depending on the size of my herd of dwarf seahorses, I like anything from a standard 2-1/2 gallon to a 10-gallon tank (all glass construction, of course — no stainless steel), equipped with a glass top and an ordinary strip reflector. In your case, fishlover, a 2-5 glass aquarium with a simple cover and a basic strip reflector is all you need.

For filtration, I keep things really simple, using only foolproof air-operated sponge filters for my dwarf seahorses. Avoid sponge filters with weighted bottoms or other metal components, however, since they will rust when exposed to saltwater. Sooner or later this will cause problems in a marine aquarium (sooner in the small setups that are most suitable for H. zosterae). Select a sponge filter that has no metal parts and is safe for use in saltwater. The proper units will have suction cups to anchor them in place rather than a weighted bottom.

The sponge filters I find that work well are the Oxygen Plus Bio-Filters (models 2, 3, 4, or 5) or the Tetra Brilliant foam filters. They have no metal components, making them completely safe for use in saltwater, and just one of these foam filters will do the job on a tank of 5 gallons or less. They do not have a weighted bottom but are equipped with suction cups instead. Two of the smaller models can be used on larger tanks like yours, Alex, but one of the larger models, like the one at the link below, would be sufficient for your 12-gallon aquarium:

Click here: Foam Aquarium Filters: Oxygen Plus Bio-Filter 2

Avoid the Oxygen Plus Bio-filter 6, 11, and the Multi sponge, which all have a weighted bottom (metal), that rusts when exposed to saltwater. If you want more filtration, you’re better off going with two of the smaller suction cup sponge filters rather than any of the models with weighted bottoms. For instance, for a 12 -gallon tank, I’d suggest using two well-established foam filters, one at either end of the tank for the biofiltration, just as you are planning, Alex.

All you need to operate sponge or foam filters is an inexpensive, diaphragm-operated air pump (whatever is available at a reasonable price from your LFS will do just fine), a length of airline tubing to connect the air pump to the foam filter(s), and a set of air valves (gang valves) to regulate the air flow to the filters. That’s all — nothing to it! The inexpensive Apollo 5 air pumps work great for sponge filters, but whatever air pump you have on hand should certainly do the job.

Cleaning the foam filters is a snap. Simply immerse them in a bucket of saltwater and gently squeeze out the sponge until it’s clean and releases no more sediment or debris. Run a bottlebrush through the inside of the tube, wipe off the outside of the tube, and you’re done. The filter is ready to go back in the aquarium with no impairment at all of the biofiltration. Takes only a couple minutes.

I do small weekly water changes on my dwarf tanks of 10%-15%, rather than the monthly or bimonthly water changes I perform on large setups, but the volume of the water exchanged is so small — just a gallon or so at most — that they are a breeze. Heck, if I mix up a 5-gallon bucket of new artificial salt mix in advance, that provides enough clean, aged saltwater for a month’s worth of water changes on my dwarf tank. When I siphon out the water for the weekly exchange, I use the opportunity to vacuum the substrate and tidy up the tank a bit. Once it settles, I use the water I siphoned out to clean the sponge filters. The whole process, water change and all, takes all of 10 minutes.

But that 10 minutes of weekly maintenance returns wonderful rewards in terms of water quality. With such a small volume of water, the conditions can deteriorate quickly in a dwarf tank, and this modicum of weekly maintenance keeps things running smooth and trouble free.

Dwarf seahorses feel right at home in a well-planted aquarium that simulates their natural seagrass habitat well. For example, a lush bed of assorted Caulerpa dominates the rear third of my current dwarf tank, completely concealing the filters. The Caulerpa consists of various long-bladed and plumed or feathery varieties such as Caulerpa sertularioides, Caulerpa mexicana, Caulerpa ashmedii, Caulerpa serrulata and Caulerpa prolifera. The center of the tank is aquascaped with more macros — mostly red and gold species of Gracilaria (Hawaiian Ogo), plus a seahorse tree centerpiece and yet more Caulerpa. Other decorative macros are arranged in the foreground of the aquarium where the light is brightest: a cluster of Merman’s Shaving Brushes (Penicillus capitatus) and a stand of Halimeda sea cactus, interspersed with Udotea palmate fans. The result is a colorful macroalgae garden with a very nice contrast of colors (reds, yellows, greens, and brown) and interesting shapes. A tank heavily planted with macros such as these is a lovely sight and mimics the dwarf seahorse’s natural seagrass habitat very well.

As an added benefit, the macroalgae act as an excellent form of natural filtration, supplementing the sponge filters, and reducing the available levels of phosphates and nitrites/nitrates. When we prune and trim back the fast-growing Caulerpa regularly and remove the clippings, we’re actually exporting phosphates, nitrates and other nutrients from the tank, thereby helping to maintain good water quality.

In short, my current dwarf seahorse setup is basically a 5-gallon tank equipped with two air-operated sponge filters for biological and mechanical filtration, plus lush beds of macroalgae for natural filtration, simulating the pigmy ponies’ seagrass habitat. This is a very simple, inexpensive, low-maintenance aquarium that’s extremely easy to set up, yet it’s also quite attractive and a very fun display.

Of course, you still need the same accessories for a simple dwarf seahorse tank as you would for a larger aquarium setup for Mustangs. This includes the same test kits, hydrometer, artificial salt mix, thermometer, etc., we discussed previously with regard to Mustangs.

However, if you decide you want to give Pixies or dwarf seahorses a try, fishlover, there are a couple of things you need to understand about these miniature marvels. First of all, they need to be fed with copious amounts of newly-hatched brine shrimp (Artemia nauplii) on a daily basis. So if you are not proficient at hatching out brine shrimp or consider that to be too much of a hassle, then dwarf seahorses are not for you!

The second thing is that dwarf seahorses or Pixies don’t ship well during the hottest part of the year so they will be unavailable until the weather begins to cool off in September. That shouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience since you would need to cycle a new aquarium before you would be ready to receive your seahorses anyway, and the cycling process takes anywhere from 3-6 weeks to establish the biofiltration. So by the time you had your new dwarf seahorse setup up and running with a fully operational biofilter, the weather should have cooled off and you would be able to obtain your Pixies.

If you contact me off list at the following e-mail address, fishlover, I would be happy to send you a lot of additional information about dwarf seahorses to help you make up your mind whether or not you really want to try them: [email protected]

Best wishes with all of your fishes!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna

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