Witness the final days of Paul Hughes’ magnificent reef tank on our recent reader visit.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
Display tanks in stores are the mannequins of high-street boutiques. They should inspire, elicit a desire to copy, and show the customer what can potentially be achieved. They’re also a reflection on a retailer’s competence. After all, would you take advice from a store that ran dishevelled tanks with dying corals and ill-looking livestock?
Advanced Aquarium Consultancy in Essex owns the textbook example of a display tank done right. Its reputation preceded it, warranting several aquarists to contact me and advise that I should get over and see for myself. When I first visited the store some months back, under the auspices of a shoptour, each and every testimony I’d heard was validated. This is a shop display that hits hard enough to wind you when you see it, leaving you with nothing to say but ‘wow’.
In a curious twist, the tank has become a victim of its own success. If aquascapes can be King for a day, then so this tank is peaking right now. As the store has grown and the business has boomed, the premises it calls home are now expanding, meaning that a bigger, newer — dare I say better — display is in the awnings. Within weeks of this magazine hitting press, the tank will be no more. Its prime coral choices will be clipped and fragged, the fish transferred and a whole miniature reef seeded afresh in a new home. Having witnessed the ‘dry’ layout of the new tank, I feel safe in saying it’ll be wonderful.
Its owner, Paul Hughes, is a man with a name rightly associated with quality reefing. After long stints in the industry, including spells of coral farming, he has turned his hand to installations and consultancy, with a long list of successful reef builds under his belt.
I was so impressed after my shoptour that I was soon booking up for a return visit. Here’s a little of what we saw and discussed that day…
Your tank is ostensibly called a display tank, but to what extent is it a self-indulgence? Looking at it, and the pride you have in it, I sense that this set-up is more personal than corporate.
Absolutely! It’s more than just a shop brochure, although of course it does aid the shop in terms of sales. As I practically spend every day of the year at AAC HQ, there’s no longer any time for a personal home aquarium — so why not have a good one here instead? I may be working in an aquatic profession, but I think that it’s essential for customers to feel my genuine enthusiasm for the subject too.
How long has it been up and running for now?
Approximately three years, but it was started from my extensive collection of LPS corals and SPS mother colonies from a previous home coral farm and display tank.
From a hardware perspective, how has the tank evolved? What has stayed, what has gone, and has anything in particular impressed you?
The aquarium’s principal system equipment and engineering has pretty much remained the same throughout my career, since the advent of the Berlin system ideals. The tank’s fundamental ingredients are a protein skimmer, calcium reactor, kalkwasser reactor, phosphate control, high levels of circulation, lots of living rock and strong lighting.
Although nothing has been sacked equipment wise on the current system, what has impressed me during the tank’s development, has been the evolution of the high-powered AI LEDs which have been changed several times to more improved models. The Deltec protein skimming has been uprated too.
Would you class yourself as more of a fish person, or more of a coral person?
Without a doubt, anyone who knows me well understands that I see fish mainly as a pain in the backside in a reef system, apart from those that perform useful jobs, such as wrasse, dragonets and pipefish and the odd grazing tang.
In recent times a customer trend towards fish-only systems has rekindled an old interest in butterfly fish and other possible combinations in a reef aquarium too. I'm meeting more and more aquarists that risk introducing one of their wish-list 'reef-safe' angels or butterflies, or alternatively try to shape their coral garden around those species that won't view everything as a potential meal.
But corals will always be my first fascination, and my specialist subject. I'm focussing more of my spare reading time on studying coral pests, diseases and viruses — there’s so much more to learn than just the chemistry, and nutrient cycles to grow a coral.
It stands to reason a lot of people will be inspired by the looks of this tank. Who inspires you?
Recently on the international scene (and from a design perspective), Youngil Moon from Korea for his Real Reef Rock displays.
Closer to home, reefing gods such as Reef bloke of Ultimate Reef fame and other greats such as David Saxby, Terry Evans and Martin Lakin.
For me, one of the most inspirational aquariums ever was a classic tiny 60cm/2ft SPS reef tank by Julian Sprung, which had a mangrove tree growing out of the top of it! Check it out — I think it was in volume 1 or 2 'The Modern Reef Aquarium' in a thing called a book (Feature eds note: The Modern Reef Aquarium range of books, by Fossa and Nilsen are available from the publisher Birgit Schmettkamp Verlag, and may be the best marine books in existence.)
Did you plan livestock before you started, and did you stick to it? Or was the selection a gradual process?
I never make too many hard and fast rules, or rush things. Any selection of livestock has to constantly evolve in a decent reef aquarium in my opinion.
The phenomenal success of one species in a mixed reef may prove to be detrimental to others, especially as you learn more of the coral’s own personal requirements including growth patterns, lighting and hydrodynamic requirements, and aggression. This may mean forfeiting one species to save another.
What I do have, like many experienced gardeners with their planting schemes, is the ability to visualise the final outcome and how it should turn out. But it's never written
I understand that some of the coral in here comes from frags of colonies that have never been imported since. How did that all come about?
It is true, some of the corals in the display can trace their ancestor’s roots back 15 to 20 years or more. The initial frags and colonies were passed on to me by like-minded stony coral pioneers, including David Saxby and Martin Lakin.
Is there any livestock you regret adding? I heard something about a cantankerous crab that’s been causing you problems…
Well, 'Robert the robbing crab' certainly wasn't added deliberately I can assure you. He recently consumed a £150 Papaya clove polyp, pinching a ‘flower’ from it every night. Other species at times that have brought great annoyance include adult wrasse that have terrorised any new additions to the tank, causing all sorts of dramas.
You use a mixture of LED and T5 lighting — what’s your thinking behind that? Is LED on its own not up to the job yet?
Ooooh that’s a juicy one. Are LEDs up to the job ? By themselves? Yes, they are. The fact is, a photon of light is a photon of light whatever the source. It's how's it's delivered, spread and the number of units used that's very often the issue for sole use of LED lighting.
I could harp on about metal halide lighting and T5 tubes supplementing one another in recent history, for years and years — and why did we do this? I'd say to level out the point sources of light and reduce shadowing. It's either that, or you need to really cover the surface well with LEDs to provide a very even cast, just as you would with metal halide and T5 use. Let’s also remember that many folks doubted the efficiency of T5s as the sole source of light, when they first came out.
I'm particularly interested in the new E5 T5 high powered LEDs that have just entered the market. These are LEDs but are well diffused and will even outshine those PAR monster LEDs from America. I'm sure that E5s will bring further debate to the reefkeeping community and I will certainly experiment on finding the best solution for the system I can create around its needs; no trends, just what works best. Lighting can always be improved, it's tough trying to replicate sunlight and the way it works.
What degree of remote control do you have over the system? What software do you use for things like lighting?
I use the AI platform for the Hydra 52 LEDs, and Apex is fitted for temperature control and monitoring , but very little else. I am more of an 'analogue' man and prefer cranky timer switches for their simplicity and reliability.
Tell us something you do that would make other reefkeepers frown.
You should see me with the food! But it's only PO4 media that’s needed to put the additional phosphates from my heavy feeding right.
Which brands do you trust the most?
Eheim, Tunze, Deltec, Schego, AquaIlluminations, Sera. D-D H2O Ocean, Red Sea.
What would you say has been the best innovation in marine keeping?
The black gold — RowaPhos! Before this, there was nothing like it, and now there are a hundred and one imitations. Some of them are getting close, but Rowa is Rowa and it has helped me grow the huge numbers of coral frags that adorn many reef aquariums around the UK .
You have lots of small pumps running on this system. What’s the benefit of many small pumps over a couple of bigger beasts?
I prefer the idea of micro flow patterns and plenty of surface water movement to disperse the light rays coming from the LEDs, so that I don't get hotspots. I have a couple of big beasts
too, for laminar flow.
I know the set-up is ‘migrating’ to a new home next door, so how long has the tank got left in it? How much of the livestock are you hoping to reclaim?
By the time this article gets published it’s pretty fair to say that I will start chopping it about. The best way to get the new garden growing properly is with 'new shoots' rather than 'trees', as the frags will find their new flow patterns and light. I hope to be able to reclaim pretty much
all of it, but there will also be plenty of frags available for customers, so it has its plus points.
It is getting tired and overgrown and would need a good coppicing to rejuvenate some growth, even if there wasn't a new tank on the horizon.
Meet the aquarist
Name: Paul Hughes.
Profession: LFS owner for my sins.
Time in the hobby: Earliest fishkeeping memories from six years old.
Most tanks kept at any time: Loads — can’t remember but it borders on ridiculous when I think back to my tropical days.
Favourite fish: Too many to mention, but one group that I love includes the following species Anampses lennardi, Anampses meleagrides, Anampses femininus. They always float my boat.
Favourite corals: Cyphastrea sp. and the chalice coral groups.
Purple tang, Zebrasoma xanthurum
Yellow tang, Zebrasoma flavescens
Convict tang, Acanthurus triostegus
Scopas tang, Zebrasoma scopas
Goldrim tang, Acanthurus japonicas
Golden anthias, Pseudanthias aurulentus
Randall’s anthias, Pseudanthias randalli
Yellow-back anthias, Pseudanthias evansi
Purple queen anthias, Mirolabrichthys tuka
Yellow tail tamarin, Anampses meleagrides
Spotted mandarin, Synchiropus picturatus
Silver belly wrasse, Halichoeres trispilus
Hoeven’s wrasse, Halichoeres melanurus
Dusky wrasse, Halichoeres marginatus
Ghost cardinal, Apogon leptacanthus
Common clownfish, Amphiprion ocellaris
Acropora, including A. gomezi, humilis, florida, nana, carduus, horrida and hyacinthus.
Dimensions: 205 x 65 x 80cm/82 x 26 x 32in.
Lighting: A mixture of five AI Hydra 52 LEDs, plus two 39W T5 D-D Razor Lights. System cranks up through a dawn period, and closes in a dusk period, giving 12–13 hours of lighting daily. Evenings involve the use of UV, violet and royal blue light settings to encourage coral fluorescing.
Temperature control: Two 500W titanium heaters keep things warm, while dual fans are on standby for the event of overheating.
Filtration: The tank utilises much of the Berlin method, with heavy reliance on good circulation and live rock to convert pollutants — roughly 140kg of live rock is used in Paul’s set up. Circulation comes from a mixture of eight Tunze stream pumps, combined with a Tunze wave box. Phosphates are controlled with a sump-based PO4 reactor, while occasional carbon use and floating Polyfilters help to extract anything else undesirable. Limited mechanical filtration occurs at the point of exit on the PO4 reactor, where a filter sock is attached.
Maintenance regime: Five daily fish feeds, using a mix of frozen (Mysis, red plankton, brine shrimp) and dry foods. Corals receive a mixture of Polyp Lab Reef Roids and Boost, Goniopower from Two Little Fishes, and Red Sea’s Reef Energy. Inside the tank, the glass is wiped down daily, while a 25% water change occurs fortnightly. RowaPhos is changed every six weeks; Kalkwasser roughly every three-to-four weeks.