Category: Marine Aquaria

The Reef Aquarium

The Reef Aquarium

This review is about the CAS library books The Reef Aquarium, Volume I and Volume II by J. Charles Delbeek and Julian Sprung.

Delbeek and Sprung have in recent years become known as the North American authorities on keeping reef aquaria in the home. They both have monthly columns in major aquarium magazines: Delbeek in Aquarium Fish Magazine; and Sprung in Fresh Water and Marine Aquarium. So although both of these authors have written many smaller books or articles on reef aquarium management, the two volumes of The Reef Aquarium are clearly intended to be the definitive works on the subject.

The authors come from different backgrounds and they would seem to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses nicely. Delbeek is a trained scientist with a Masters of Science in zoology from the University of Toronto (he studied marine sticklebacks in New Brunswick for his thesis). Although a Toronto native, he currently works as a public aquarist in the live display section of the Waikiki Aquarium in Hawaii. On the other hand, Sprung is simply a fanatical aquarist who let his hobby become his livelihood. He holds no academic qualifications past his bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida, but he offers extensive experience as a home aquarist to complement Delbeek’s academic and professional experience.

The Reef Aquarium

books are expensive, costing $189 per volume in local stores, and $131 per volume by the cheapest mail order I could find. They are therefore, in my opinion, the kind of books that the CAS library should have, as they are too expensive for the interested, but not independently wealthy, member to purchase while deciding whether or not to build a reef aquarium.

However, an argument can certainly be made that if you can’t afford the books, then you can’t afford the tank either. A reef aquarium is one of the most expensive types of home aquarium, with even a modestly sized system of 200 or so liters representing an investment of a few thousand dollars. And after reading the books I am definitely of the opinion that an initial first investment in the books would be money very well spent before attempting your own reef aquarium. You’ll want them around as a handy reference throughout the entire set-up of the tank, and they also would be most useful whenever a new purchase is contemplated.

The first volume covers reef aquarium construction and management, algae in the reef aquarium, live rock, and the care and identification of stony corals and giant clams. The second volume covers the care and identification of soft corals, gorgonians, and various anemones; and also includes a discussion on the various pests, helpers, and otherwise-labeled creatures that may be introduced to the aquarium with your specimens.

The books discuss many different approaches to keeping reef invertebrates in the home aquarium. The approach they favor is however the “Berlin aquarium”, a technique which relies on copious quantities of “live rock” as a biological filter. Live rocks are porous calcareous rocks (usually coral skeletons) that are encrusted with benthic invertebrates, algae, and bacteria. A bed of calcareous “live sand” is also supplied to provide a population of detritus-eating invertebrates. Chemical filtration is provided by a large protein skimmer and carbon filtration. Intense (usually metal halide and blue fluorescent) lighting is also provided and strong currents are maintained in the tank. Regular tank maintenance includes the addition of calcium and minor element supplements. The tank’s population of non-photosynthetic organisms is kept low, and feedings are light. Most of the tank’s “mobile” inhabitants are algae eating fishes, snails, and crabs.

Despite the discussion on reef aquarium techniques, the books are (perhaps surprisingly) not “gadget” orientated. Discussions on lighting systems and protein skimmers (and others of that ilk) are included to be sure, but brand names are almost never mentioned and few photographs of hardware are shown. Diagrams of hardware are mostly simple schematics: unhelpful when it comes to choosing among brands of equipment. It is the animals and plants of the reef aquarium that are the focus here…perhaps a more appropriate title for the books would have been “Organisms in the Reef Aquarium“.

This emphasis on marine life is both the books’ biggest strength and their greatest weakness. If you want to identify your critter, then these are the books for you. The wealth of information regarding an incredible variety of invertebrates is astounding…enough to make you wonder how anyone could have accumulated that much experience in raising reef animals. But comparatively little time is spent discussing fish…except in regards to each fishes’ propensity to make a nuisance of itself by eating your prized corals.

However, the emphasis on animal life leaves the prospective reef keeper with many specific questions about hardware unanswered. The authors may have (perhaps wisely) decided that such information would quickly date a book because of the rapid rate of technological changes. However, a few more hardware photographs and recommendations would be helpful. As it is, the reader must check out the Internet and the authors’ aforementioned monthly columns to find out which protein skimmer gives good results for which sized tank.

If I can find a serious flaw with these books it is that the not enough time is spent discussing possible cost saving measures in the reef aquarium hobby, because the high price is the main reason that most aquarists give for not setting one up.

A handyman could produce most of the required pieces of expensive equipment, such as a metal halide lighting systems and protein skimmers, from commercial parts far less expensively than comparable pet-store units, and a section on doing so would be most welcome. Hints for the do-it-yourselfer do exist on the Internet, however. For example, Delbeek’s own personal web site ( has detailed plans for building your own protein skimmer.

And then there is the very expensive live rock, which, at $17/kg to $22/kg locally, represents a large financial investment while setting up a reef aquarium. A modest 200-liter tank would require $850 of live rock at the usual stocking rate. But the books’ discussion on growing artificial live rock is, at best, cursory. This is, in my opinion, a great oversight, not only because the purchase of live rock has the greatest financial cost, but also because the collection of wild live rock has an environmental cost as well. The collection of wild live rock has now effectively been banned in the United States, and most of the supply now comes from the Indo-Pacific, where environmental regulations are not always effective. Uncontrolled live rock collection can easily become environmentally damaging. If the reef aquarium hobby can be expected to grow beyond its current niche status, there must be a practical, benign, and inexpensive way to get the required live rock. Discussions on growing your own live rock have rarely appeared in print, but they can be found on the Internet, most notably at

It would be nice if a book could present all aspects of the modern reef-keeping hobby, complete for the prospective reef keeper. The Reef Aquarium volumes come closer to this than any other work on the market, despite their lack of emphasis on hardware, and as such, must be recommended reading for all prospective reef keepers. Combined with regular reading of the “latest developments” in Delbeek’s or Sprung’s monthly columns, and some judicious use of the Internet’s cost saving hints, the arm-chair aquarist can become well-instructed in setting up a reef aquarium before ever attempting to do so.


Delbeek, W. C. and Sprung, J. 1994 The Reef Aquarium Volume I, Ricordea Publishing

Delbeek, W. C. and Sprung, J. 1997 The Reef Aquarium Volume II, Ricordea Publishing ?