What’s Wrong with This (Reef Tank) Picture?

A more reasonably stocked reef aquarium, unlike those portrayed in some advertisements (we've all seen them...)

A more reasonably stocked reef aquarium, unlike those portrayed in some advertisements (we’ve all seen them…)

Right now, I’m gazing at a magazine ad featuring the image of a reef tank, and the one word that comes to mind is “magnificent.” I’m sure you’ve seen one like it before, but allow me to describe it to you.

In this one tank, I can see all manner of soft and stony corals; sea apples; Tridacna clams; mushroom and zoanthid polyps; non-photosynthetic and photosynthetic gorgonians; giant feather duster worms; sponges; and various macroalgae—all packed together in a glorious riot of color.

And the fish! Captured in this image alone are schools (that’s right, schools!) of anthias, blue-green chromis, regal tangs, yellow tangs, and ocellaris clownfish. If you scan the image carefully enough, you might just spot royal and magenta dottybacks, a few royal grammas, various dwarf angelfishes, and maybe even Waldo peeking out from little niches.

So, what could be wrong with such a magnificent image? Sounds like the sort of tank we’d all be proud to possess, right? Well, not so much. In addition to “magnificent,” this (clearly doctored) ad image, while definitely eye-catching, brings another word to mind: “misleading.” What’s more, I worry that these types of images might just inspire hobby newcomers to take the wrong approach right off the starting block.

Here’s why:

Compatibility chaos

Let’s start with the corals. Cramming so many different coral varieties into such a tight space is sure to result in perpetual warfare, with specimens stinging, poisoning, digesting, overgrowing, or otherwise taking the fight to their cnidarian neighbors. Instead of a mélange of beautiful, healthy, fully expanded invertebrates, what you’ll actually see is a disappointing mix of contracted, injured, and dying/dead specimens, perhaps with a few of the more potent specimens holding sway.

As far as the fish are concerned, the idea of keeping schools of several different species in a modest-sized aquarium is simply preposterous. Also, I would never dream of combining some of the species they show as tankmates in the ad image. For instance, there’s no way those dottybacks would coexist peacefully with one another or put up with the royal grammas (or just about any of the other smaller fish, for that matter). There’d be no end of squabbling with this mix!

Biomass madness

If, by some miracle, the compatibility issues in such a system don’t cause mass casualties, the excessive bioload and its subsequent degradation of water quality certainly will. No amount of water changes, protein skimming, and chemical filtration could keep pace with the absurd bioload shown in these types of images.

Divergent care requirements

How does one provide proper lighting and water movement for a system that has low-light, gentle-current mushroom polyps situated inches away from a colony of high-light, high-current Acropora among other oddball pairings? The answer: you can’t.

What’s more, mixing filter-feeding inverts, such as non-photosynthetic gorgonians and sea apples, with photosynthetic clams and corals leads to all sorts of feeding/water-quality issues that would be challenging at best to contend with.

Don’t expect truth in advertising!

The takeaway from all this, especially for beginners, is that a reef tank built for long-term success looks nothing like the ones we often see in advertisements. In fact, falling far short of the bioload and livestock mix reflected in those images is actually a good thing!


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Oh man I am so happy someone touched up on this subject. There is most certainly a lot of misconceptions….

  2. Paul Baldassano says

    My tank is often criticized for not having enough corals because of (clearly photo shopped) images like that. If you SCUBA dive you will know that corals are not that colorful or as what Jeff said, so many diverse species so close together. I like the look of my rocks in between the corals. You see SPS corals tightly packed together in the South Pacific but they are all the same type or compatible species that don’t sting each other. Then you see open patches of rock or sand, then more corals. I think a tank is more interesting if you can see some of the aquascape in between the corals. Just my opinion of course.

  3. Tim Birthisel says

    Hey takes some big rocks to point up the photoshoppers but glad you did. Nice work Dr K

  4. Matt Bowers (Muttley000) says

    Nice write up Jeff, I think you are spot on with false expectations driving many out of the hobby. Kind of like my wife wondering why it takes weeks for me to build something that took 30 minutes on TV!

    • "Caribbean Chris" Aldrich says

      I have lost count of the times I’ve had to have that same conversation with friends and family, Matt…

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Thanks Matt! My wife has given up on me successfully building anything. I can start any project. It’s the finishing part that always gives me grief. He he!

  5. Dee From Brooklyn says

    I see people crash perfectly good tanks trying to copy those ad pics all the time and it’s heart breaking. Be happy with what works for you people. These ads are science fiction. Great topic

  6. Yup !!!

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