Re:Scared Newbie!!!

Pete Giwojna

Dear Leroy:

I would be very happy to help you get started off on the right foot with the seahorse tanks you are planning at home and in the classroom at Kingsbury Elementary School, sir!

The 54-gallon aquarium you have in mind for your seahorse tank at home is an excellent choice, Leroy. At 24 inches tall, it has the superior height that is so important to help protect the seahorses against depth-related problems such as Gas Bubble Syndrome, and it has sufficient water volume to offer excellent stability and a very comfortable margin for error.

However, you are quite correct — a tank of that size is entirely too large for the dwarf seahorses (Hippocampus zosterae). If you have never dwarf seahorses before, it’s hard to imagine how tiny they actually are. These pint-size pigmy ponies are no larger than your thumbnail when they are fully grown, and half of that is a wispy tail. The dwarfs are so small that you could have hundreds of them in your 54-gallon aquarium and it would still look barren and empty. Plus the dwarfs require daily feedings of newly hatched brine shrimp, and it would be very difficult to maintain an adequate feeding density of the baby brine shrimp in a 54-gallon aquarium.

Rather than dwarf seahorses, your 54 gallon aquarium is better suited for the greater seahorses, sir. If these are your first seahorses, then I would recommend starting out with hardy, highly domesticated seahorses that are extremely well adapted for aquarium conditions, such as Mustangs (Hippocampus erectus). They are remarkably hardy ponies due to the phenomena of hybrid vigor and are much easier to feed than the dwarf seahorses, since they eat frozen Mysis as their staple, everyday diet. Mustangs are excellent starter horses for the first-time seahorse keeper, Leroy.

The suggested stocking density for Mustangs (H. erectus) is one pair per 10 gallons of aquarium water, so your 54-gallon aquarium could safely house up to five pairs or 10 individual adult Mustangs (H. erectus) when it is fully stocked, although you must remember that it’s always better to keep your aquarium under stocked while you are learning the ropes and gained first-hand experience as a seahorse keeper, sir. But with live rock to provide stability, biological filtration, and denitrification to keep the nitrates nice and low, supplemented by a hang-on-the-back protein skimmer and a hang-on-the-back external filter, you could eventually build up your herd to five pairs or 10 individuals in such an aquarium system.

The undergravel filters you are considering as an alternative can also be very successful for a seahorse tank, but because of the accumulation of nitrates in an aquarium where undergravel filters are the primary means of biological filtration, it would be better to limit yourself to 3-4 pairs of seahorses when the aquarium was fully stocked. With undergravel filters, it’s important not to overstock and to maintain a diligent schedule of aquarium maintenance to stay on top of the nitrates and maintain optimum water.

Yes, sir, giving the live rock a hypersaline bath is an excellent way to drive out mobile pests that are undesirable in a seahorse tank such as bristleworms, mantis shrimp, and rock craps. Treating the live rock with a hypersaline dip is excellent technique for ridding it of unwanted hitchhikers. This method doesn’t kill the critters outright but merely drives them out of the rockwork so you can selectively cull through them. Another advantage of this method is that leaves all the desirable life on the rocks intact and unharmed.

To use this technique, simply place your newly arrived live rock in an inert container filled with saltwater at a specific gravity of at least 1.045 to 1.050 for several minutes before you introduce it to the aquarium. These saltier the water, the shorter the length of time you need to soak the live rock and the more effective it will be in driving out unwanted hitchhikers. Invertebrates cannot tolerate rapid changes in salinity, so all the mobile inverts in the rock will immediately abandon there hidey-holes and bale out of the rock like rats deserting a sinking ship. After several minutes in this extra-salty bath, the evacuation will be complete, and you can remove the now pest-free live rock and sort your catch. Cull the invertebrates left behind in dipping container, discarding the pests you don’t want while retrieving any of the refugees you might like to add to your system. Several minutes in the hypersalinity is usually enough to drive out all the active invertebrates such as mantis shrimp (Stomatopods), crabs, and assorted worms of every description, yet this brief period of immersion will not harm encrusting organisms or sessile life.

However, the hypersaline treatment will not eradicate the sessile or attached invertebrates such as Aiptasia rock anemones or hydroids, which are cnidarians with stinging nematocysts that can be harmful to seahorses when they proliferate in an aquarium. If you are concerned about unwanted hitchhikers being accidentally introduced to the aquarium along with the live rock, which is certainly a valid concern, Leroy, then you should either confine the live rock to an aquarium sump or refugium rather than placing it in your main tank, or use pest-free dry rock instead. The live rock will still provide all of the benefits of stability, biological filtration, and denitrification to control the nitrates in the sump or refugium, and that will effectively keep any unwanted pests out of the main tank.

Or, if your seahorse tank will not have a sump or refugium and you are concerned about the potential pests that all too often come along with live rock, then a better alternative for you would be to start out with pest-free dry rock instead, as explained below, sir.

The best way to obtain live rock is from an aquarium store in your area that caters to reef keepers. They will have pre-cured live rock available and you can handpick interesting rock formations that are heavily infested with pinkish-purple coralline algae for your aquarium. That will also save you the cost of having the live rock shipped to you, which can be considerable because of the weight of the rocks.

Pest-Free Dry Rock

Another good option, which is the safest and easiest procedure for most home hobbyists (especially those new to the hobby), is to start out with "dead" foundation rock instead of live rock. This dead or dry foundation rock is considerably cheaper than live rock and is, of course, completely free of undesirable pests and unwanted hitchhikers. But it will quickly enough become alive once it’s placed in the aquarium as it’s overgrown by algae and inhabited by copepods, amphipods and myriad microfauna. And over time the porous dead/foundation rock will become inhabited by a thriving population of nitrifying bacteria, giving it biofiltration ability. Eventually the oxygen-deprived interior of the "dead" rock will be populated by aerobic denitrifying bacteria, which convert nitrate to nitrogen gas, thereby helping to keep the nitrate levels in the aquarium under control.

By this point, the foundation rock will be very much alive and can provide all the benefits of live rock with none of the risks. The inert foundation rock looks completely natural when surrounded by living, growing macroalgae, especially when it becomes encrusted by microalgae or coralline algae, as the case may be.

The drawback to this approach is that it takes considerably longer for a new marine aquarium to cycle from scratch using dry rock than it does with live rock, and you must "seed" the tank with beneficial nitrifying bacteria from another clean source in order to start the cycling process. But the advantage of using dead foundation rock is the cheaper cost and, above all, the fact that it completely eliminates unwanted hitchhikers such as Aiptasia rock anemones, bristleworms, mantis shrimp, hydroids, and rock crabs. If they are patient, many home hobbyists feel the advantages outweigh the drawbacks.

One good source for such dry foundation rock is Macro Rocks, which offers dead, dried ocean rock in a number of interesting formations and a wide variety of types (Florida, Fiji, Tonga, etc.). They offer many beautiful, unique and intricate formations of dried ocean rock that would be an asset to any seahorse setup. Best of all, you can even purchase the Macro Rocks precycled and carrying a full complement of beneficial nitrifying bacteria, which allows you to cycle a new aquarium using the Macro Rocks as fast as an aquarium with live rock.

Macro Rocks are available online at the following website:

As I mentioned earlier, Leroy, since you are debating whether to go with live rock or to stick with reliable undergravel filters in your home aquarium and classroom tanks, both methods can be used very successfully with seahorses within your limitations, so my advice would be to stick with whichever method is most comfortable for you. Here is some additional information explaining how best to proceed if you want to rely on full proof undergravel filters as your primary means of biological filtration, sir:

Back to the Basics: A Simple Setup for Seahorses.

The seahorse systems we’ve discussed thus far may not be for everyone. If you’ve never kept an aquarium with live rock (LR) or live sand (LS) before, you may be uncomfortable with the idea of setting up and maintaining a SHOWLR tank, which relies on LR and LS as the primary means of biofiltration. Or your hobby budget may not permit expensive items such as a protein skimmer or wet/dry trickle filter, let alone a multi-chambered sump/refugium or loads of live rock.

If so, don’t despair! Seahorses can certainly be kept very successfully in far simpler setups, as long as you are aware of the limitations of such systems. For example, the filtration system can be as basic as a set of well-maintained reverse-flow undergravels 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. 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 reverse-flow 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 biweekly water exchanges of about 15% or weekly water changes of a least 25% at the very least 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.

Some aquarists will simplify their setups even further by using air-operated sponge filters instead of undergravel filters. That’s another option that can work well within its limitations, which are much the same as tanks with UG filters.

The air stream draws water through the porous sponge, which allows the filter to provide mechanical filtration as well as biological filtration. In time, a large population of beneficial nitrifying bacteria will develop in the sponge filter as the aquarium cycles, making it an efficient biofilter.

If you opt for sponge filters, be sure to avoid the sponge filters with weighted bottoms or other metal components since they will rust when exposed to saltwater. Sooner or later this will cause problems in a marine aquarium. 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. Be sure to select a sponge filter that is rated for the right size aquarium, or that can handle an aquarium even larger than yours, to be on the safe side Large aquaria may require more than one sponge filter to do the job.

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.

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 or any comparable air pump will 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. (I use the saltwater I siphoned out of my aquarium when performing a water change for this, and clean my sponge filters whenever I change water.) 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 like to keep a few extra sponge filters running in my sump or a refugium at all times. That way, I’ve got instant, fully established, portable biofilters I can use wherever needed — a hospital ward or quarantine tank, a nursery tank or rearing tank, a brand new setup, or anytime the biofiltration needs a boost in another tank for any reason. Very versatile! You’ll never realize how valuable an instant biofilter can be until you really need one.

Note: you can always use live rock in conjunction with undergravel filters or sponge filters, so you can still take advantage of the benefits of live rock if you prefer to use UG’s or sponge filters, if you prefer.

With regard to the lighting system, an ordinary fluorescent aquarium fixture is perfectly adequate for a seahorse tank. It will provide sufficient lighting for macroalgae and is all the seahorses require.

Since this will be your first venture into seahorse keeping, Leroy, I have one more important suggestion that will help to assure that that your initial efforts with seahorses are successful. I would like to invite you to participate in Ocean Rider’s new training program for seahorse keepers. This basic training is very informal and completely free of charge. 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:

Aquarium care and requirements of seahorses;
Selecting a suitable aquarium for seahorses;
size (tank height and water volume)
aquarium test kits
Optimizing your aquarium for seahorses;
water movement and circulation
hitching posts (real and artificial)
Cycling a new marine aquarium;
The cleanup crew (aquarium janitors & sanitation engineers);
Water Chemistry
optimal parameters
water quality & water changes
aquarium maintenance schedule
Feeding seahorses;
Compatible tank mates for seahorses;
Courtship and breeding;
Rearing the young;
Disease prevention and control;
Acclimating Ocean Rider seahorses.

If you are interested, sir, I will be providing you with detailed information on these subjects and answering any questions you may have about the material I present. I will also be recommending seahorse-related articles for you to read and absorb online. In short, the trading course will teach you everything you need to know in order to keep your first seahorses happy and healthy, and arm you with the information you need in order to tackle your first ponies with confidence.

If you would like to give it a try, Leroy, just contact me off list ([email protected]) with a quick e-mail that includes your full name (first and last), which we need for our records, and I will get you started with the training course right away.

Best wishes with all your fishes, sir!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna, Ocean Rider Tech Support

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