RSS Unsung pioneers in the reef aquarium Hobby

MASA Admin

8 May 2007
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After attending last year’s MACNA in Denver and a couple of the recent Reefapaloozas, I have come to the realization that the majority of the people now in the hobby have been in the hobby for less than ten years. As a result I’m fairly certain that the majority of these hobbyists do not know some of the names and the contributions that a lot of the early people in the hobby made so that we now have the success that we do. Some of these individuals have gotten out of the hobby, while others have passed away.

In those days much of what we did was trial and error, so in addition to their time and effort many spent significant sums of money in order to eventually achieve success. While everyone is aware of the contributions that Julian, Charles and Sanjay made and continue to make, many of the contributions that these individuals made have now for the most part faded from view. Since there is no old-timers committee to place these individuals in the “Reef Keeper’s Hall of Fame”, I hope to at least acknowledge these individuals and what they added to the hobby. I’m sure that I will forget someone, and I apologize for this oversight, but I have met so many great individuals in the hobby that it is hard for me to remember everyone.

Picture of what a typical Dutch mini reef style tank looked like in 1988

The individuals I’m listing are not in any particular order or how important their contributions were, it is more or less when I remembered them. The first of these is forgotten hobbyists is George Smit, he of Dutch Mini-Reef fame. In the mid-1980s, in a series of articles in the now defunct FAMA magazine George brought to light an entirely new methodology for keeping saltwater tanks. Trickle filters, bright lights, live rock, a then unheard of component of a tank, and Caulerpa within the tank, were a completely new concept in keeping saltwater fish.

These components combined with pictures of lush looking tanks not only full of Caulerpa, but also live soft corals drew many of us into this new way of doing things. Considering the stark tanks full of bleached corals and large fish, these tanks were a revelation. Not only did he explain this methodology in great detail, but he also coined the phrase “mini-reef” and back then to all of us we really did believe that we did indeed have a mini-reef in our homes.

A couple of years later Alf Nielsen in a similar fashion brought the Berlin system to light in two series of articles in AFM magazine as well as a series of books. The tanks Alf showed differed markedly from the Dutch method in that there was no Caulerpa present, but rather the tanks were full of the then unkeepable stony corals. Alf introduced the concepts of heavy protein skimming and kalkwasser, which were the next step in our learning about what was necessary to keep corals successfully. Alf even came all the way from Norway to educate us on how this system worked, making him one of the long distance leaders for coming to MACNA.

Alf Nielsen’s original book

While these two individuals brought the European concepts of reef keeping here, John Burleson discovered the concept of Actinic lighting. John was an early reef keeper who worked in a print shop where the use of Actinic fluorescent lighting was common. John saw that the use of this type of lighting might have some utility with corals so he successfully experimented with these and other fluorescent lamps until he came up with a lighting system that not only promoted healthy corals, but also was visually appealing. To this day, John had one of the nicest soft coral tanks that I have ever seen. Nothing crazy or exotic, just big healthy beautiful colorful soft corals allowed to grow to their full potential.

In a similar fashion, Wayne Blackburn introduced a user friendly metal halide lamp and fixture to the reefing community. Wayne came up with using the Iwasaki 6500K metal halide lamp in a fixture that Wayne established. Even up until a few years ago this lamp was a favorite of Sanjay’s due to its high output. Up until Wayne introduced these lamps the majority of metal halides available were less than 6500K, as a result most tanks had a sickly yellow cast to them. The introduction of these lamps were one of the turning points in our ability to keep stony corals due to how much useable light they produced compared to what else was out there then.

Bruce Carlson

While these pioneers were simple hobbyists trying to make the hobby better, Bruce Carlson was long-established in public aquariums. Bruce not only stressed the need for stronger water movement in our tanks and devised the famous Carlson surge device, but he was also crucial for giving the hobby credibility with the public aquaria and academic centers. Bruce was and always has been a strong advocate for the hobby, even when many in the public aquarium sector were downplaying our success. As a result of Bruce’s work success in any of these sectors flowed between them rather than just being unidirectional. Lastly while at the Waikiki Aquarium Bruce showed exactly how successful a stony coral tank could be, with his tank being the envy of many hobbyists for many years.

While we now take for granted the availability of a wide range of corals, this was not always the case. Up until the early 1990’s getting Acropora or Montipora or any of the stony corals was a relatively infrequent occurrence. Lech (sorry I do not know his last name), from Aquatic Depot changed all this when through his contacts he began to successfully import large quantities of sps corals. I still remember flying out to LA to go to his wholesale facility and we would actually be there as the boxes from Fiji were opened and it was like Christmas for all of us. For several years he was the only importer bringing sps corals for us hard core reefers and for this we owe him a debt of gratitude.

One of the individuals who accompanied me on the trips to get the sps corals was Steve Tyree. While I’m sure all of you are aware that he is responsible for the most part for the naming of corals, especially in terms of their lineage he was also a pioneer in another important aspect of the hobby. He was the first to start using 20K Radium metal halides on his tanks. While this may not sound like a big deal, in fact it changed things dramatically. Up until that point most of the sps we were keeping were beige or brown and if we were lucky showed a little coloration at their growth tips.

Steve’s introduction of these lamps suddenly made a lot of these corals more colorful. Obviously not all brown corals became more colorful, but if we were lucky enough to get colorful sps we now for the first time could keep them colorful. Keeping colorful corals that were much more brightly colored than their soft counterparts caused a shift in the hobby as finally people were willing to do what was necessary that wasn’t the case when we were just keeping brown sticks.

The first and one of the most infamous of the named small polyp stony corals

The fragging of corals is now something we pretty much take for granted. However in the early days of the hobby fragging corals was for the most part a hit or miss prospect. Few hobbyists dared to do it lest they cause the demise of their entire colony. Leroy Headlee and his wife Sally Jo began fragging corals and selling them long before anyone else even imagined it could be a business. The Headlees frequently drove from Idaho to LA to get colonies that would be their mother colonies for fragmentation. They worked out the details on how to frag everything from ricordea to sps corals to virtually any soft coral they came across. They were so good at it that they even tried to help others set up inland propagation facilities. Now virtually every coral can be fragged, without the work of Leroy and Sallee Jo and their sharing about what they did we probably would not be as successful as we are.

Before Steve showed how to market colorful sps corals, Albert Thiel showed how to market the hobby and actually that there was money in the hobby. Albert wrote numerous books and articles explaining the equipment necessary to be successful, but he also took the net step and actually began manufacturing some of the equipment. This may not seem like a big deal, but up until then most of us made our own equipment. It was common practice to build protein skimmers, overflow boxes, sumps etc., as there were no companies building the equipment we needed. Albert’s marketing acumen showed that there was money to be made in the hobby, so as a result countless companies began making what we needed. As a result reef keeping went from cult status to being the main methodology for keeping saltwater animals.

While attending MACNA last year I was amazed when I saw that there were over 1200 people attending the banquet and that there were over 120 vendors present. When Bob James of the Marine Aquarium Society of Toronto set up the first MACNA there were not even 120 people in attendance. There was no internet, no cell phones, no social media, there was no easy way for the people in the hobby to communicate with one another readily and share their ideas and their successes and failures. Bob knew that the only way the hobby was going to succeed was if there was a forum where all of this knowledge could be shared. For this reason, Bob is an unsung hero for the success the hobby now has.

In similar fashion Dennis Gallagher of IMAC established a regular conference in Chicago. It was much like MACNA except Dennis focused more having the manufacturers show their new products to the hobby. As result, the manufacturers got to show the new things that they had to an audience that could readily tell them what they thought. In the early years a lot of prototypes of equipment was presented before it went into production so some of us were lucky enough to get to test it and tell the builders the tweaks that would need to be done to make it work.

Tony Vargas with Gregory Schiemer

One of the people who helped the hobby by giving helpful and unbiased reviews of the equipment was Greg Schiemer. Greg was an accountant by trade and he took this precise analytical view of the equipment he was testing. During this time a lot of snake oil and useless equipment was being marketed to the hobby, we were fortunate to have Greg as a conscience to tell us what equipment actually worked. And the proof was in the pudding with Greg in that he had one of the first really successful sps tanks and one could see the equipment he believed in on this tank.

In the early days of the internet some individuals tried to establish their credentials simply by constantly being online. During this time Richard Harker tried to be the guardian angel of the hobby by refuting some of the claims made by individuals on these forums. While Richard could be acerbic in his comments, he always tried to use science and the success he had achieved over the years to show the flaws in these arguments. As a result of Richard trying to look out for the unwary, trying to establish ones reputation without supporting evidence became more difficult.

Before there was Randy Holmes-Farley to answer our reef chemistry questions, there was Tom Frakes. Tom was not only instrumental in the development of Instant Ocean Sea salt and Reef Crystals, but he was also intimately involved in some of the initial breeding efforts of clownfish. As a result he knew more about the water where many of us kept our fish and corals than anyone. Fortunately for many of us he not only knew all about seawater, but he was also willing during the early years to answer our questions as we manipulated it with substances like kalkwasser and to what their effects would be on it. Tom was also the publisher of SeaScope, which at the time was the main source for new information about the hobby.

Scott Michael presenting in Greenwich CT

While many of the reef keeping pioneers helped to make us successful coral keepers, Scott Michael was a pioneer in showing us how to keep many of the small fish that make a reef tank complete. Scott spent countless hours diving on the reefs around the world taking photos of the many small fish that inhabit a reef. While he loves nondescript brown and gray fish, in his books and articles he introduced us to not only fairy and flasher wrasses, but also the numerous gobies, blennies and other interesting fish that now are regularly collected and kept successfully due to his meticulous detail for proper husbandry of these fish. Without his insight into how to properly acclimate and keep these fish I am confident that our success with them would not be as great.

While my list of unsung pioneers in the hobby is not complete, it would not even be close if I did not include the name of Terry Siegel. Terry was the founder of The Marine Aquarist magazine, the first US based magazine devoted to the saltwater side of the hobby. And he also published Aquarium Frontiers, the magazine that at the start of the reef keeping part of the hobby discussed many of the techniques and methodologies that we now take for granted.


Dennis Gallagher

Leroy Headlee

Greg Schiemer

Peter Wilkens

Bill Addison​

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