Preparing for a Saltwater Aquarium: Parental supervision should be considered with younger hobbyists when preparing for a saltwater aquarium because the combination of salt water and electricity can lead to some shocking experiences! One of the first steps in setting up any new marine aquarium is to collect reliable seawater. If you live near the ocean~ you can collect natural seawater. When you collect seawater from a shoreline or off a bridge (as opposed to collecting offshore by boat) ~ collect at high tide and be sure to filter and age the water before using. Filter the water by running it through dacron floss and/or coffee filter paper, or a comparable finely meshed material.
Age the water in the dark in a covered container for two weeks without aeration. Aging helps to kill many of the algae and microorganisms present in natural seawater. You can also make seawater by using one of the many brands of artificial sea salts on the market. When mixing artificial salts, use a 5 gallon bucket of warm tap water to help dissolve the salts more readily. Pour the dissolved salts into your empty aquarium and add the rest of your tap water to bring the level within 4 inches of the top of the aquarium. The use of natural or artificial seawater is an area of debate with aquarists.
Artificial seawater is easier to mix than natural seawater is to collect, and it is no longer as expensive as it used to be. Also, reliable brands of sea salts eliminate most of the unknowns, especially disease organisms and parasites, which are present in natural seawater. In addition, it does not have to be filtered or aged before use. The bottom medium for saltwater should be some type of carbonate that prevents a dangerously low pH by maintaining the water in close association with calcium carbonate. Low pH (an acidic condition) is caused by oxidation, carbon dioxide production by the fish and other marine animals, and by bacterial action. I prefer crushed shell for aquariums with jawfish (they construct burrows in the shell) and calcified algae and crushed coral (available commercially) for other aquariums. Dolomite can also be used, but is not as desirable a carbonate.
If you collect your bottom media yourself, you will need to purify it. The same is true if you collect your own habitat (conch shells or Florida oolite rocks). Bottom media purchased in pet stores need not be purified, only rinsed before use. The same techniques are used for purification of both bottom media and habitat. You want to kill all organisms on the collected material, so when you add it to your aquarium it is "sterile." All media should be gathered below the low tide line to avoid contamination. The shell can be screened to size at the beach. Use a mesh or net with a size between 1/4 and 1/2 inch. Shell smaller than 1/4 inches is undesirable because it can plug up the undergravel filter leaving pockets barren of the much needed nitrifying bacteria.
Eliminate shells over I inch, except for accents. Remember,when using large shells f or accent, such as conchs or helmets, be sure they are cut to allow a good flow of water through them. If the water does not circulate completely through these shells, gases can build up and be released into the aquarium and cause mortalities. With a bottom media of crushed coral and calcified algae, the size should be smaller. A 3-inch bed of 1/3-inch diameter bottom media will provide twice the total surface for bacterial attachment than would the same depth of 1/4-inch gravel in the same aquarium. To purify the bottom media, using a 2-gallon plastic bucket (never use metal when working with materials for any saltwater aquarium), add about six handfuls of crushed shell to the bucket, flush with fresh water and agitate until the water flows clear. After rinsing each batch, recombine the shell in a plastic 5-gallon bucket for further purification with bleach. (For those of you who have trouble finding 5-gallon plastic buckets, try your local bakery, doughnut shop, or fast-food restaurant. They bring pie and doughnut fillings, pickles, etc., in these buckets and usually discard them when empty.) Fill the 5-gallon bucket 3/4 full of shell and cover with fresh water to which two cups of bleach have been added. Two days later remove the water and flush the shell again in the smaller plastic bucket and spread the shell in a thin layer on a sheet of plastic to dry. Let dry for 4 to 6 days.
Your nose becomes your best test mechanism to see if the shell is clean. Take random handfuls and smell. There should be no hint of chlorine or "fishiness." When the shell smells clean, store it in plastic bags until needed. When you put the shell into the aquarium, it should be wet again with a quick freshwater rinse to eliminate any "clouding" of the water. (Adding the wet shell eliminates any problems of "floaters" with the smaller and lighter weight shells that sometimes do not settle to the bottom of the tank when they are dry.)
When cleaning rock, follow the same procedure. Be sure to soak the rock overnight in freshwater to kill worms and other invertebrate that use the rock as habitat. The next day, remove all worms and other invertebrates with tweezers. Let the rock air dry. Before any rock can be placed in a marine tank, every piece of barnacle, sponge, algae, sand coral, and other organic matter must be removed. Use an ice pick to chip away any remaining organisms. After cleaning thoroughly, bleach the rock as you did the shell, using the same proportions of water and bleach. Dry and test by smelling. If you have missed any of the organic matter, it should appear darker than the natural color of the rock.
Re clean and bleach, if necessary. When choosing habitat rocks, remember to collect only those that are free of iron and other metal contaminates, and those that provide different- sized holes for hiding. In Florida, oolite rock is fine. If you cannot or do not care to collect rocks, you will find a good array of safe decorative rocks in any pet or aquarium shop. Corals are protected by both state and federal laws and must be purchased, not collected in the United States. Check with local or state officials before collecting. Some areas are protected for everyone's future enjoyment.