DISCOVER
Expanding Your World
Underwater Oasis

PHOTO
A yellow-eye tang swims by some coral in Steve Lopez's saltwater tank. Lopez's Taylorsville home is among 18 in a Saturday tour of residential marine aquariums. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune)

BY GREG LAVINE

THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE


    Fish are traditionally the main attraction in aquariums, but Steve Lopez lavishes his attention on the gill-less inhabitants of his tank.
    A scene-stealing rainbow of coral species, with names as colorful as they are, takes up most of the saltwater tank: Toad Stool Leather, Green Fuzzy Mushroom, Fiji Pom Poms, Brain Coral.
    "I don't want to overload the tank with fish," said the Taylorsville aquarium hobbyist as he gazed at his 72-gallon tank with seven fish. "I like the fish too, but secondary to the coral."
    Lopez admits he may not know the official scientific names for each coral variety, but the monikers are how he refers to his collection.
    "To me, it's like my underwater garden," he said.
    The Lopez home and 17 other aquarium-equipped residences throughout the Salt Lake Valley will open their doors to the public during the Reef Tour on Saturday. The Wasatch Marine Aquarium Society runs the annual event.
    Visitors who drop in on the Lopezes cannot help but notice the tank as they step through the front door. Purple, green, brown, white and other colors are scattered throughout the aquarium.
    Hard and soft varieties are included in his 20-species coral collection. Some resemble trees, bushes and mushrooms. A circulation system makes them sway as if caught in an underwater breeze.
    Freshwater fish were the tank's first inhabitants when Lopez began more than two years ago. He soon dove into the world of saltwater. At first, it was a frustrating transition.
    As a spectator on a past reef tour, he received advice and encouragement from club members. This helped him keep after his saltwater goals. Lopez said he now hopes to help other people take up the hobby.
    The Wasatch Marine Aquarium Society is a support network for its 80 individuals and families, said group president Adam Blundell. Each year, a few members leave the club as they need less help maintaining their saltwater systems.
    Much of the coral from Lopez's collection comes from tank-grown material, although most of the coral came from the ocean at some point in the chain.
    Pointing to little baskets attached to the side of his aquarium, Lopez continues the cycle. Clippings from various coral species are grown for trade or credit with aquarium dealers.
    Saltwater hobbyists gradually have learned that a complete ecosystem is needed to support either saltwater fish or coral, Blundell explained.
    Lopez said his fish have jobs, as do the algae that grow in the tank. One fish, a slim, sleek, blue cleaner wrasse, eats parasites off the other fish.
    To mimic ocean life, lights are run 14 hours each day between simulated dawns and dusks.
    "Living rock" from the ocean, which house bacteria and other tiny lifeforms, are brought into the tank as scaffolding for coral to grow.
    "There's even stuff in there that I don't know about doing good stuff," Lopez said of hitchhikers on his sea rocks. "Or bad."
    Blundell considers this more than a hobby. He sees this as a living-room solution to help save the world's diminishing reef species. Growing coral in captivity could supplement the naturally growing species that human activity in the ocean endangers.
    "Everything's just growing on top of one another," Blundell said as he leaned in for a close look at the Lopez tank. "Beautiful color, just amazing."
    Lopez is marking his second year as a stop on the reef tour. He is excited that the coral life is more lush for this version of the Reef Tour.
    "It's grown from something I thought would be a piece of furniture into a passion," he said.
    glavine@sltrib.com%% A group of 18 homes featuring marine aquariums will be open to the public Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. A $5 donation is requested for each individual or group taking the tour. The donation should be given to the first home visited. Proceeds benefit the Wasatch Marine Aquarium Society.
    A list of participating locations is available on the Web at www.utahreefs.com. Or contact Adam Blundell at 801-809-2326 or via e-mail at adamblundell@hotmail.com. %%Reef Tour 2002
   
   A group of 18 homes featuring marine aquariums will be open to the public Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. A $5 donation is requested for each individual or group taking the tour. The donation should be given to the first home visited. Proceeds benefit the Wasatch Marine Aquarium Society.
    A list of participating locations is available on the Web at www.utahreefs.com. Or contact Adam Blundell at 801-809-2326 or via e-mail at adamblundell@hotmail.com.