The bullet proof reef featured in this article is now almost five years old, and it still produces dozens of soft corals and Xenia each week.
Leroy Headlee



LeRoy has asked me to write about the success of my third office reef. This tank was set up on Feb. 14, 1999 and has it graced my office with beauty from day one. Going off the topic just a bit, we are proud to announce that we have site map. If you wanted to follow this third setup of mine you can see it being set up from day one. We showed how we placed the rock and the equipment we used. I have added updates as time passed and animals develop new needs. This tank was a gift from LeRoy. I had run out of room to stuff any more animals in my already packed reefs.

I started out with a plenum, loads of GARF Grunge, all man made rock, two power heads, two 40 watt Blue Moon bulbs, a hand full of janitors, one timer and a heater. After the dust had settled that very next week, I added some of the hardier soft corals and mushrooms. As always LeRoy warned me to wait just a little longer, but I could not wait to decorate it and put my new ideas to work. To me a reef tank is not only enjoyable, it is rewarding to work with animals that give back so much. I also consider it a piece of art.

GEOTHERMAL AQUACULTURE RESEARCH FOUNDATION Once you have developed your own little piece of art you need to learn how to maintain this little heaven on Earth and you must grow with its needs. I have decided that I am going to keep this tank a soft coral, mushroom, Xenia, clam and leather coral tank. These animals out grow the sps corals and I had so desperately needed room for them to grow. I think it was after about the first two weeks we added a Triton bulb to the lighting scheme and left the lights on for 12 hours a day. I like to keep tank temp at 78 degrees, salinity at 1.023, calcium at 500, pH 8.2, and the alkalinity at 4.2.

The one thing that I give my tanks the most of is love; no animal that enters the doors of GARF is neglected or mishandled. Some of the topics I will share in this article will address the maintenance program, the placement of animals, propagation. Garf has thoroughly documented this reef so we can put a stop to the comments that one can not sustain animals under 40 watt lighting using the simple methods that we share in the bullet proof reef system. Look closely at all the shared pictures to follow.

GEOTHERMAL AQUACULTURE RESEARCH FOUNDATION These animals are thriving, I have already begun propagating these guys, and this tank is absolutely trouble free. This is not the first bulletproof reef system at GARF we have over 30 bulletproof systems at GARF. All of the tanks in my office were set up with this method, however as my desire to care for more challenging corals became a reality, I added different lights, more power heads etc. The oldest tank is 4 and 1/2 years old (I look at this as one of my biggest accomplishments and never take it for granted) the middle one is 3 and 1/2 years old and the youngest of course is the one I am featuring today.

One issue I want to address is that in no way do I risk the health of any of my animals at the cost of saving money. We share the success of our systems because it works not because it is cheaper. We learn new things each day and find that our way is not the only way, but it works. We feel that each tank carries its own challenges, and no matter how closely you try and duplicate the ecosystem no two tanks in the World are alike.

Tons of research went into the first reef and I was so confused and so scared before I started that I did not know whom to believe. I hope that by GARF sharing the step by step success we will give you the courage to just simply start. One thing that I think I have brought to this hobby is that coral placement and choosing tank mates is vitally important. One must also remember the wild reef is our teacher and she is packed with bio-diversity second only to the rain forest.

My favorite size tank to work with is the 55-gallon. Long ago LeRoy tired to talk me into a bigger tank. He would tell me how much more I could fit in them. I remain committed to the 55-gallon size. It is so easy to work with this size system, and to meet the needs of the animals that reside in these tanks. Since I was already sold on the 55-gallon size that is of course what this featured tank is. I decided that this was going to be my soft coral tank. As my oldest tank has matured it has taken on the sps coral forest look, it is incredibly breath taking, but I miss the beauty of a soft coral tank.

GEOTHERMAL AQUACULTURE RESEARCH FOUNDATION I believe making these decisions before you go on the journey of caring for a reef tank is very important. For one has to make certain they have the time to care for the animals. One has to be certain they have the money to maintain it.

It is important to realize that this is a commitment to live animals. Corals can not reside in a little glass box left alone by themselves. They need our help to face the day, make it through the week, and plan for the years to come.
Another important point to make is that the animals continually grow and as they grow the need more room, supplements lighting and water movement. The fight for space in a little glass box is certainly a reality and one that continues to be my biggest challenge in my 4 1/2-year-old reef. I pay close attention to my animals. I watch for polyp extension, retracted polyps, and stinging tentacles. If an animal does not seem happy where I placed him or her I move them into less or more current or less or more lighting. I pay close attention to the next door neighbor who may not like this placement on the reef.

LeRoy has taught me that the best solution to pollution is dilution. Meaning that as far as I am concerned healthy water changes are a must. Corals, fish and other little creatures on the reef will live without noticeable problems for a while without a water change. I can guarantee that sooner or later problems will occur without a water change. One simply should not take this risk.

GEOTHERMAL AQUACULTURE RESEARCH FOUNDATIONIf you look closely at all the pictures of my new one and one half year-old tank you will not find any algae. It has been an amazing accomplishment. I would have some diatom dusting but nothing the Reef Janitors and a good water change could not bring back into balance. I know this article will spark the debates that any topic on reef keeping brings forth.

To me it is important to keep an open mind. Do your research; ask to see pictures of the person's tank before taking them for their word. Much of what I have achieved I was told was impossible. I must stress the only reason why I take the time to share all my tanks with the rest of the hobby is because I care. I want to give people as much information as I possibly can so that captive reef keeping becomes the savior of the reef not the destroyer.

I share monthly sometimes-weekly pictures of all of my systems for a picture is worth a thousand words. What the site gives you is documented proof that the bulletproof reef system is honestly living up to its name. It is Bulletproof, it works, and not just for weeks, or months, it is now going on years. You can see over the years how each of my systems have developed. You can track coral placement and upgrades that I continually make to meet the needs of all the animals that reside within my care. LeRoy and friends laugh at my passion for these reefs, I have taken over 23,000 pictures since last Septmeber and just yesterday LeRoy said to me that just might have been the best picture of the reef you have taken to date:) It is important to document your reef, remember what works and what doesn't. Most importantly don't make to many changes at once and if you make any changes do it S L O W L Y.

In my little office I now have over 300 different types of coral and GARF has way over 400 different types of coral growing in the over 40 separate systems. Each day brings forth new questions, I am still seeking answers to some of my first asked. This is what makes this field so exciting, the horizon is vast, the challenges plenty, and no one has all the answers for many of the questions have yet to be asked. My reefs give me reason to wake up, reason to take on a new day, and reason to share.


I hope that by sharing the success of GARF's reefs we will take some of the mystery of reef keeping away and bring forth a new light. We have shown time and time again that to have a healthy, thriving reef system one does not have to take wild rock from the ocean, nor does your tank have to go through months of cycling. As with anything in this hobby it is your choice to make.

It is important to note that I set all of my three systems up the same way. We are now in the process of setting up six more so we can keep testing and sharing the results achieved. I start with a 55-gallon tank, no sump. I use an ECO Sand Plenum custom made for us by Richard Brown, owner of Corals and Clams. I use Instant Ocean salt keeping my salinity at 1.023 - 1.025.

I place a thick layer of a mixture of CaribSea Seaflor special grade reef sand and CaribSea Seaflor Aruba shells on the plenum. I then add a layer of GARF Grunge on the top of the substrate. I start the system by placing two Maxi Jet 1200 power heads on the uplift tubes that come with the Plenum. By using the Eco-Sand plenum as an undergravel filter for several months we allow the substrate to become completely populated with every type of filter organism. We slowly remove the power heads one at a time later.

The plenum becomes a Nitrate removing filter after we cap the short pipes that were used as uplift tubes. I wait about a day for all the dust to settle from the GARF grunge and begin to landscape my reef with our very own AragocreteTM rock.

I put the Reef Tables and Reef Caves on the bottom so only a few places on the substrate are covered with rock. I then place arches and ledges to finish it off. I like about 1 and 1/2 lbs. of rock per gallon of tank water. I then place two actinic 40-watt bulbs and a reflector right on top of the tank and wait. I think if we asked the question; what is the hardest thing to do when taking on the challenge of reef keeping? The answer that comes to my mind is waiting. I use the blue light because I have found that coralline likes the blue light and since I am beginning with all man made rock I do my best to encourage the grunge to seed the rock as rapidly as possible.

The next items that I place in the tank of course are my trusty Reef JanitorsTM. These guys are like the lawn mowers and window washers of the reef. They keep the diatoms down, clean my glass, turn over the sand and help me maintain a balance in my little glass boxes. Within the first week I begin to add the hardy corals to the tank. I use only propagated corals so the stress is limited and the animals do just fine. Within the second week I add an Actinic White 40 watt bulb to the light mixture and it's smooth sailing from there. I add the heater to the tank when I first add the corals. I keep the temperature of the tank at 78 degrees.

I begin to add SeaChem supplements the very first week of set up. (You will find a listing of products and amounts I use in the Bullet Proof Reef System revisited, found at the end of this article. I place hardy fish in the tank after the tank is about three weeks old and have learned over the years that the meaner and cheaper the fish the better they do for me.
GEOTHERMAL AQUACULTURE RESEARCH FOUNDATIONAt about 4 to 6 months, I start to press LeRoy for a skimmer. I wait this long for I do not want to skim out all the life in the live sand. However once you begin feeding the tank, have fish using the reef as a toilet, and propagation has begun you need to consider placing a skimmer on the tank. It is at this time that I start pushing LeRoy to build me a sump to place inside the stand to hide the skimmer. I really like the sump to place my makeup water in and supplements that I add twice each week.

As coralline begins to grow, I add one more Actinic White Bulb to the mixture of lighting. The tank in this article now has three forty-watt bulbs. LeRoy has found wonderful, inexpensive electronic ballast that lights three 40-watt bulbs very brightly. We use these three bulbs on many of our new coral propagation units.

I pay very close attention to the care and well being of my animals. I have found that many of the soft corals, Xenia, leathers, mushrooms, clams, Zoanthids, green stars and others will do great with this type of lighting. My newest bulletproof reef was set up Feb. 14, 1999. I replace the lights at six month - LeRoy uses them another year in the lab.

I clean the skimmer regularly, do my water changes, add the supplements, check the animals each day, and test the water every couple of months to make certain all parameters are right.

GEOTHERMAL AQUACULTURE RESEARCH FOUNDATION I have already decided that I am not going to upgrade this system to a sps coral tank. I am sticking with all the equipment listed. However, as the tank filled with corals I added two more power heads to add more water movement. It is important to watch the water movement because in this system corals grow a great deal and tend to block movement of water to other animals.

I have propagated several of the colonies from this tank already and I am certain it won't be long before LeRoy thinks of an excuse to set me up another reef. I do learn more from each experience. However, I must again remind myself if it's not broke don't fix it. Meaning I use the same principles with each new system and it simply works.

With my other two tanks, once the first one was a year old I was getting a burning desire to keep some of the small polyp stony corals; they are indeed the most colorful and delicate animals to add to a mature reef system. I try and tell people to wait 9 months to a year before adding sps corals. I suppose if one is using live rock or rock from an already set up system one could speed up the time line.

I find that the longer I wait and the more stable my tank is the better it is for these animals. The longer one waits the less stress and loss there will be. For growing colorful sps corals I swear by the VHO bulbs.

If you haven't already seen pictures of my oldest reef, which is at the 4 and 1/2 year old stage, please take a moment to do so. It has over 200 different types of coral in it, and it has over 100 of the most brightly colored and healthy sps corals I have seen. I upgrade my lighting slowly when first starting. I add two VHO's at a time until I have six over a 55-gallon system. I use three - Actinic o3 110 watt bulbs and three 50-50 110 watt bulbs, placing one blue one white, from front to back. I schedule the lighting upgrades so I only change two a month depending on the animals again. You do not want to shock them or bleach anything in the tank. I then change my lights religiously every six months to make certain the color spectrum of the bulb has not switched.

I have had the UV sterilizer on my oldest tank over three years now. I have not seen anything bad happen and at the same time I am certain that when I pass a coral to some hobbyist it is in the best possible health. I also add more power heads in my oldest one I now have six placed in different places to make certain water movement is reaching all areas of the tank. My biggest challenge with this oldest tank is making certain all animals are happy, so propagation is a big thing each week.


Until next time
Sally Jo Headlee