A magical reef tank


Dreams can become reality if you invest in the right equipment. Nathan Hill drools over the magical reef tank of D-D's Stuart Bertram. And you can see more of it on the video at the end of the feature.

I’m not usually a jealous man, but when my editor sends me out to look at certain tanks I can’t help but covet them.

My excursion to see the home project of Stuart Bertram, co-director of D-D The Aquarium Solution, filled me with a desire for a leviathan of my own — only to know that I’ll never fulfil it.

Those aware of the people behind D-D will already be aware of the jewel that is the tank of managing director David Saxby. Although not on the same, gargantuan scale as David’s, this is nevertheless a tank that makes knees go weak.

Both photographer Neil Hepworth and myself were stunned into silence when shown the aquarium room. Stuart has good reason to be proud. Inside the 2,200 l/484 gal reef set-up are some of the most developed corals I’ve yet witnessed, a cloud of fish nigh on impossible to count and a gigantic clam that doesn’t look out of place in these surroundings.

Special achievement

Amazingly, almost everything in the tank has been grown from tiny frags which Stuart cultivates himself. To see the size of the small-polyp-stony corals within, and to know that they all emerged from tiny shards, leaves any observer with a sense that something very special has been achieved.

In fact, as Stuart himself notes, the only problem is that the tank has now reached the stage where corals have grown so successfully that they are in danger of shadowing themselves out and starving their own, lower polyps of life-bringing light. We were shown some areas — hard to spot if not consciously looking — where this has started to happen.

It’s unusual to find a reefkeeper who complains about delicate corals growing to the point of nuisance, but this is what has happened with pulsing Xenia which is periodically harvested to stop it behaving like a weed.

The Xenia is even taking over one of the sump tanks, where Stuart rears his home frags in the water supplied by the reef above and bathed in the light of a single, 400W Giesemann metal halide. All corals down here are growing fast, literally with no home to go to, as all space is accounted for in the tank proper. Stuart trades these inverts with local retailers for fish.

The life forms in this tank have taken hold incredibly fast, given that the project only started in February 2009. Initially, Stuart had installed a different tank, but there was domestic conflict involving the degree to which this aquarium encroached on living space.

He sought to resolve the issue with a larger, equally customised tank in its own dedicated room. This was originally a garage and subsequently converted to match the feel of the tank.

The 2.2 x 1.5 x 0.72m/7.2 x 4.9 x 2.4’ custom built Deltec aquarium would have posed a problem to most home aquarists, and even here it was tricky getting it through the garage door. The fit was so tight that, using a pump-truck, the pallet had to be cut away from beneath for the tank to be set down.

Once in place, feet within the frame could be adjusted for balance and equipment installed. For a tank of this size, glass bracer bars are too brittle, so instead of transparent beams running across the top, taught metal cables run from side to side and lengthwise.

Despite these cables, pipework and live rock was installed, and 350kg of live rock supplied by Calico was glued into place around the piping — creating a rockwork frame on back and sides, as well as an elevated area that sits centrally. Looking at the pipework now, it is hard to discern where pipes end and corals begin.

Because of the size of tank and close proximity to the wall, Stuart had to build his own access door in the rear of the garage. In the event, this wasn’t large enough to remove his existing, temporary tanks whole, so he tried to break them up. After several unsuccessful attempts he resorted to using cheese wire to slice through the silicone of these old tanks, removing them piece by piece.

Water was being added in mid-March. Although the tank is only 2,200 l/484 gal, the attached sumps and a separate water change chamber boosts overall volume to around 3,000 l/660 gal – that’s three tons of water!

Filtration is surprisingly basic. Stuart believes in good quality live rock and a big protein skimmer, and has both. A huge Deltec SC3070S resides in the sump, a model normally suited to a 5,000 l/1100 gal system. It is enhanced by fluidised beds of Nutri-fix media and the combination maintains water quality.

Other gadgets include a huge calcium reactor, and more fluidised systems brimming with Rowaphos. Water flow is taken care of by a network of piping now completely grown over with encrusting algae, as well as opportunistic star polyps that adore the flow provided.

Darting headlong

Circulation is provided by numerous 17,000 lph Abyzz pumps, each digitally controlled, and some working in tandem or opposition to each other to create surges. When the pumps fire up the change in movement is noticeable, with fish being flung sideways and darting headlong into the powerful flows. The large tangs, in particular, clearly enjoy flitting through these currents.

Water changes are simple enough. Stuart simply closes off a 600 l/132 gal tub from the rest of the system, drains away the water, and allows it to refill with the RO supply that usually accounts for evaporation via a float valve.

Once the tub is filled, he only has to add the salt — a bucketful to be precise — and once it has had adequate time to mix he can reintroduce the tub to the rest of the system, gradually filling it with the cleaner supply.

Normally, Stuart runs a vodka-fuelled nitrate-reducing filter on the sump that houses the coral frags, but this was out of action on my visit, although the peristaltic pumps attached were still doing their thing.

The tank may as well have its own miniature sun, such is the intensity of lighting, and there are 16 x 54w and 16 x 39w T5 fluorescents within two matrix systems, as well as another three 400w Giesemann metal halides. The latter provide a compliment of white light and, running lengthwise across the middle of the tank, they are each staggered to come on for a three-hour period, crossing over at hourly intervals — moving a path of light over the aquarium.

The viewer’s perception of colours in the tank changes the more you look at it. The room has no natural light sources and the eye seems to create its own white balance, dulling some of the colours in a way you fail to notice until you leave the room for a while and re-enter.

I was most impressed by the care taken to aesthetically blend the tank into the room. The front fascia has been surrounded, professionally, to look more akin to a plasma TV screen rather than an aquarium. That’s not to say it has buttons and lights, but it is smart, and creates the uncanny illusion that you could be watching a live, high-definition documentary filmed on some distant reef. It really does transport you there.

How about maintenance?

Stuart likes to perform a monthly water change of some 600 l/132 gal at a time. This may sound a lot, but only accounts for one-fifth of the whole volume of the system. The nitrate filters do a grand job of keeping readings low and in keeping glass and substrate tip-top Stuart dedicates no more that two hours each week to maintenance.

He has no need for fiddly dosage with endless bottles of coral additives. The only supplementary chemical added to the tank is the occasional dose of iodine. Other elements are taken care of in the D-D salt mixture.

How much would your dream cost?
A tank of this majesty doesn’t come cheap. When considered as a whole, including custom built Deltec aquarium and frame, pumps, lighting, and filtration then the price begins to creep into the region of £25,000 to £35,000. It’s certainly not a light-hearted commitment.

Stuart has lost track of the value of his fish, mainly as some have been traded, swapped and simply reared on from much smaller sizes. However, given the huge groups of anthias — no less than five species reside here — and the selection of striking tangs, angels, wrasse and chromis, it’s safe to assume that his outlay on fishes is more than I’ll manage for some time.

By comparison, the inverts have cost Stuart near to nothing, as he raised all the small polyp stony corals himself from frags. This magnificent reef would have cost a paltry sum to fill, although it required patience to make it what it is.

What’s in Stuart’s tank?

Soft corals:
Clavularia — clove polyps, green and brown species.
Pachyclavularia — green star polyps
Anthelia — waving hand coral
Xenia — pulse coral
Briareum — corky sea fingers
Unknown sea whip — courtesy of David Saxby’s tank
Various zoanthids — range of colours
Yellow polyps

Hard corals SPS:
Pocillopora damicornis — pink
Stylophora pistillata — bright pink
Seriatopora hystrix — pink with blue polyps
Seriatopora caliendrum — blue birds nest
Acropora species — in multiple colours and sizes
Acropora millepora — multiple colours and sizes
Acropora granulosa — bottle brush acropora, large central coral
Montipora digitata — in red and green
Montipora capricornis — red
Montipora species — red, brown, green, purple
Porites nigrescens — green
Porites — general
Pavona — cactus coral
Fungia — disc coral
Galaxea astreata — galaxy coral
Oxypora — chalice coral
Turbinaria reniformis — scroll coral

Hard corals LPS:
Blastomussa — two or three different species
Lobophyllia — orange and green species
Caulastrea — trumpet coral, green/blue
Favia species — moon coral various colours
Platygyra species — brain coral
Goniastrea palauencis — unusual honeycomb coral
Trachyphyllia geoffroyi — red open brain coral
Catalaphyllia jardinei — elegance coral
Euphyllia parancora — branching hammer coral
Duncanopsammia axifuga — Duncan coral
Acan — couple of species

Bubble tip anemone
Large Derasa clam

Four Yellow tangs
One Purple tang
One Powder blue
One Yellow eye tang
Two Blue chromis
20 Green chromis
Ten female Squamipinnis anthias (four males)
12 female Diamondhead anthias (two males)
Three female Lori’s anthias
Three female Tuka anthias
Ten Resplendent goldie anthias
One Fathead anthias
One Copperband
One Sixline wrasse
One Iridis wrasse
Pair of Cleaner wrasse
Pair of Sebae clownfish
One multibar angel
One Bellus angel
One Bicolour blenny
One Spotted mandarin
One Foxface rabbitfish

At least a couple of Mantis shrimps that are sometimes heard clicking away…

You can see a short video of Stuart's aquarium below:


Why not take out a subscription to Practical Fishkeeping magazine? See our latest subscription offer.