Reef Aquarium Farming News
Online Newsletter for Reef Aquarium Propagation Research


GARF What it's REALLY like

~ A behind the scenes view from the English intern!

It was nearly two years ago now that I decided I needed a change of career, so what to do? I needed something that I had a genuine interest in, had the potential to be successful at, and that I could feel good about myself doing. To cut a long (and slightly dull) story short, I like many of you found myself engrossed in the pages of the worlds first on-line coral farming school, and I was spellbound. Within a couple of weeks I had enrolled myself on a BSc course in aquaculture and fishery management at Sparsholt College, Hampshire, in England. With the aim of combining a study of more traditional aquaculture and management techniques with a passion for corals, a high goal to set myself my would-be tutor noted at my interview, but certainly not impossible. Those three words were all the encouragement I needed.

After my first year of study I was presented with a long summer break, the only obligation of which was to complete a three week internship at the organization of my choosing (a student lifestyle really does have some great perks!). I really couldn't believe my luck when I spoke to LeRoy on the phone and he agreed to let me study and work at GARF, of all the places in the world it was my first choice and dream placement. My immediate response was to ask if I could extend the placement to six weeks instead of three, and to ask if I could arrive on the next available fight, in three days time! (In England we have a proverb telling us to make hay whilst the sun is shining!).

So what did I expect? If it were legions of overly-enthusiastic students fussing over endless water quality test kits in the kind of "super-lab" found only in James Bond movies and comics, I would have been very surprised! I had expected to be an insignificant cog in a huge machine, but to my surprise I was met at the airport personally by Sally-Jo herself (with her niece Samantha), despite the time nearly approaching 1am, within 10 minutes LeRoy had woken himself especially to help find me a really nice hotel room for the first couple of nights. I was very soon to learn that this special brand of personal care and attention is one of GARF's hallmarks, and one of the many reasons for their outstanding success story.



I was probably also expecting there to be secrets. Despite all the information on the web-site, there had to be something they were doing at GARF that no one else had access to, or knowledge of, otherwise why were they so successful where so many others are not? Again it was made obvious to me very early on that this isn't the case, everything required to start and run a successful coral farm is printed on the web site, and nothing is held back. So what is it that makes GARF so special? The answer is simply, the people and their attitude.

The GRUNGEtm really does work, and is worth its weight in gold
to anyone aiming to propagate corals.

The research center was smaller than I had expected, and obviously wasn't funded by some eccentric millionaire or endless government resources, GARF is a self-sustaining research project and any income is spent wisely, on the corals. Everything that may be recycled or re-used is. Most of the equipment is inexpensive and relatively simple, making it simple to both maintain and repair should an emergency occur. Coming from England this was a surprise, I knew that protein skimmers and plenums were the filtration techniques employed, but still half expected to find a trickle filter hidden away somewhere! This wasn't the case, plenums filled with good quality GRUNGE seemed to take care of almost all the filtration requirements, and the protein skimmers seemed as important for aeration as for water quality. To emphasize this point, we were able to switch off the protein skimmers on certain tanks when they looked "too clean", allowing nutrients levels to build up again to productive levels!



I remember Leroy telling me we were going to start a new tank one Friday afternoon, I wondered how long it would be before we would actually be putting corals in it. How long does GARF leave a tank before they stock it? In answer to this, we filled the new tank with water, added a "goodly" two-inches of GRUNGE and left this to settle overnight (without a protein skimmer), by the next morning the water had cleared and we stocked with 106 coral plugs (I was so stunned I actually counted them!) The GRUNGEtm really does work, and is worth its weight in gold to anyone aiming to propagate corals.

The lighting was equally simple and easy to replicate, we were able to achieve stunning growth rates under fluorescent tubes such as Tritons, Blue Moons and Actinic 03's,whilst avoiding all the problems associated with metal halides, (such as algal blooms and overheating). One of our most asked questions on the help line was just how strong a light is needed to grow corals successfully, especially for SPS species. One point that is worth remembering is that when propagating corals we are simply trying to exploit a purely natural process. In nature, small pieces of a colony are often broken loose either by wave action or some other fairly common natural occurrence. When these small fragments become detached they seek to adapt to the new environment that they find themselves in. It's exactly this new found adaptability to a new environment is what we are trying to exploit. If we imagine what happens in the ocean, it is easy to realize that most of the frags broken from a mother colony would find themselves in deeper water with lower levels of lighting. Remembering this, it appears that fragmented corals may be much more suited to a step down in light intensity than a step up. Rarely when we purchase a new specimen do we have the luxury of knowing exactly what light it is used to, (even if we know what bulbs were used, the age of each bulb, position within the tank etc. vary drastically); so the cautious approach would appear to be to provide a less hostile environment. From my experiences at GARF I noticed how much easier it is to damage a coral moving by moving it closer to a light than away from one.

So to the water, what were the secrets there?
Water quality was always the least of our worries;
we used Instant Ocean (an Aquarium systems product)
along with the supplements recommended.

So to the water, what were the secrets there? Water quality was always the least of our worries; we used Instant Ocean (an Aquarium systems product) along with the supplements recommended. Apart from using the supplements at much higher doses than directed to on the packaging, we were able to rely on the quality of our water. Aquarium System's products really are consistent enough to base your livelihood on!

So where are the secrets? Leroy and Sally-Jo have a real love and passion for what they do. They care, and demonstrate their care for the corals through strictly kept maintenance of each tank, and personal attention to each and every specimen. What many people may disregard as "off-cuts" and therefor too small to ever survive or develop are nurtured at GARF and tended in a slightly unique fashion dependant upon individual requirements. Believe me it's really beautiful to see, and even better to be a part of. No coral or fragment is too small or too unwell on arrival, all receive the care that they need, and GARF continues to prosper.



I remember Sally-Jo excitedly showing me a Xenia that had just arrived from the wild, the specimen was on a piece of live rock, and was less than half the size of a pinhead. Now I had been at GARF for about five weeks by then, and was used to being regularly stunned by what might happen next, but surely this specimen was too small, even to recover in Sally Jo's tank (a mystical place where Everything seems to flourish!). I knew that these corals could be cut down to the individual polyp and still be expected to recover, but I couldn't even see a single polyp.

Sure enough, after a couple of weeks of being tenderly moved and re-positioned (on a daily basis!) Sally-Jo had fattened-up her newest baby, and he/she was looking strong and healthy. By now she or LeRoy will have now doubt taken scissors to her and have several frags in different tanks (I really would be shocked if Leroy hasn't begged a piece for his Xenia-bed filter yet!!)

From working on the advice line at GARF for two months, almost all of our calls came back to the same burning question, just how do we get our tanks at home to look as good as the ones at GARF. The first step would be to follow the instructions on the web site concerning the lighting, water quality, GRUNGE and JANITORS, the rest is harder to explain, it's about attitude. If there is one huge demand that the reef tank puts on its keeper, it demands honesty, the kind of deep inner honesty that we don't really like to question of ourselves. If we really are that honest, how many of us really do devote as much time or resources to our tanks as they require? I am sure that 90% of people reading this will think that the last comment doesn't really apply to them. Having worked on the advice line I'm equally sure that it does apply to 90% of us, (and when I'm feeling especially honest I will admit that I am one of them!). Do we add make up water every morning? Are we strictly regular with all the supplements? Do we change the light bulbs every six months, or try to convince our conscience that every nine months will be fine? It's a natural human tendency to put off small jobs until later on, or until we have the time for them, especially if the job at hand doesn't appear urgent. After all, we all have lives to lead, jobs to go to, and loved ones to care for, and we all have more demands on our time than time to actually deal with them! But if we neglect water changes, or replacement of JANITORS or lights until we see a problem it's usually too late.

All these maintenance jobs require doing before they become a problem, and even if no one else notices our lack of regularity, even if we can convince ourselves that we aren't "skimping" on supplies, the tank will notice, as will inhabitants. Even if they don't show it immediately, they will eventually! So how do we combat this? I would suggest that all we can do is to make our reefs as much a part of our daily lives as possible. Whatever your daily routine, try to make your tank a part of it. Personally I am an Englishman, and am therefor good for absolutely nothing until I have had my first cup of tea of the day, (ask LeRoy or Sally-Jo, I can be REALLY grouchy in the mornings!). So I got into a habit of checking my make-up water at the same time, otherwise I'm not sure when I'd do it! Habits like this are easy to make, whilst bad or sloppy habits are equally tricky to break!

One essential trick I learnt during my time at GARF, was to be able to check each tank at a glance, whilst dealing with something completely different! The trick is simply to remember to glance every time you pass each tank, there's no need to stop what you're doing, or spend half an hour examining your tank ten times a day, that's just not practical, but if you can notice it.


Often on these little glances we would notice little things (such as branch that had become dislodged, or maybe a specimen that looked in need of a change in location), but would not have the time to stop and deal with it immediately. The important thing to do is to notice, and make a mental note to fix the problem whenever we next got a chance. It was amazing how many near misses we avoided by noticing them and allowing ourselves the opportunity to deal with them before they became critical.

One thing that became more and more apparent was that the tanks that weren't at eye-line height, or were more hidden received less care, despite the very best of intentions, simply because they were harder to notice. Maybe a simple solution to this is to keep our reefs in prominent positions, forcing ourselves to notice them, whilst cooking dinner, preparing for the day, or whatever else we have to do during our day.

The last big area I'd like to address is again one that I feel applies to most of the people I spoke to on the phones, and that I was lucky enough to meet at the conference, confidence. When I first arrived at GARF, I had read most of their web pages and waxed lyrically in essays for college on the procedures used in coral propagation. But I'd never really tried it! So I arrived assuming I knew nothing, and excusing the pun tried to clear my mind so as to absorb information like a sponge. I remember that first day so well, being totally overwhelmed by the tour Sally-Jo gave me. About halfway through the tour we had found ourselves stopped in front of the tanks used to hold the hermits before sale. We also used this high density of hermits to clean any rocks or plugs that we might find with algae on. We were looking at one of the Gorgonians, and I asked whether it really was as soft and fleshy as it looked. "Well pick it up and find out" was Sally-Jo's immediate response. Now I had been trained to teach SCUBA before studying corals, and we always told people never to touch any corals as they were so delicate that damage would lead to disease and ultimately death for the entire colony. Consequently I was horrified at the damage I might do by needlessly plucking a coral from the water! So Sally-Jo did it for me, and insisted that I touch it, feel it and try to gain some understanding of its relative strengths as well as its weaknesses. That must have worked, as I soon had my hands in all the tanks and was rapidly gaining in hands-on experience and consequently confidence.

Eight weeks later, (after a second extension to my internment!!) I was lucky to be sharing this valuable experience with the guests at GARF's 1999 coral farming conference. So many of the guests appeared to be experiencing touching new corals for the first time, and some looked even more intimidated by the prospect than I had been. In my opinion the only way to gain confidence is through experience, and the more experience you have the more confidence you have. So the point is? As soon as you finish reading this, go to your tank and get your hands wet. If you've done the things above, then take confidence in applying GARF's techniques to propagate your own corals (what you experience tonight you'll have in confidence tomorrow! And if you haven't done all the maintenance above, well what are you sitting here reading this for? Go do it!

In all honesty as Sally-Jo keeps telling us we should never stop asking questions, equally so we should never be content just to read about the answers. Many of the questions we ask we could answer ourselves, if we just take the time and confidence to tackle them. I remember asking LeRoy if Gorgonians would be likely to branch or morph differently if grown on their side. Many teachers would have just told me the answer; "yes"; LeRoy handed me a specimen and suggested a place in his 350gallon tank where I might try it! I learnt so much more by doing this than I ever could have learnt through listening or reading. I guess that in this day and age it is easy for all of us to believe that we can learn all we ever need to know through either a TV or monitor, but real learning comes from experiencing.

As children we learned through the same techniques as most animals do, through having fun. After all this is a hobby for most of us! I think this attitude is important when we attempt to learn about our corals, it leads to experimentation. It aids creativity, and most importantly it allows us to enjoy our tanks, and appreciate our corals. If our time with our tanks is seen as luxury time, instead of as a series of chores done to avoid crashing the tank, we are likely to learn a lot more, simply by being there and watching.

This hobby, and especially this end of the hobby, is still very much in a pioneering age. So much about these lovely creatures their care and propagation is not yet known, and many of the answers we seek have never been fully scientifically investigated. We all seek these answers, but how many of us really do as much as we can to help find the solutions? Before I studied I thought that science, (and especially research) only really happened in laboratories, a strange misconception really! Now I'm starting to realize that it's happening all around, all the time, and the answers are all staring us in the face. Whether we like it or not we are all conducting research projects in our tanks right now, if we just watch for the results and share what we learn the answers will come to us a lot quicker. And as LeRoy always says, "The only way to start, is just by starting!"

My time at GARF was a completely unique time in my life. And I have many people to thank for it. Firstly and most obviously LeRoy and Sally-Jo, they welcomed me warmly and eagerly taught me about every angle of their organization and research, and made it fun for me as well. The rest of the GARF staff, Eddie, Sharon, Sam and Lionel, (aided by some great volunteers), they really are a great bunch and work incredibly hard to make GARF what it is. And YOU, the people I met on the phone, I spent many happy hours talking to you all, and trying to help with your dilemmas and orders, I really did meet some great, fun people!



Thanks to all of you, I left for Idaho with nothing but a dream, and was able to return home with a direction!



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