Visitors to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s Dalton Discovery Center are able to enjoy a comfortable “ringside seat” to the Center’s 5,000 gallon saltwater patch reef tank, where they can comfortably sit in the softly lit viewing area and watch a juvenile loggerhead turtle swim lazily about. At times she is sleeping in a crevasse in the large rock at the bottom of the tank, but, if it happens to be feeding time, she becomes very active, chasing after the shrimp offered to her attached to a long pole, waved to and fro in the tank, forcing her to swim after each morsel. Eventually, once she’s large enough, Luna will be released to the Gulf and she’ll need to know how to hunt for her meals.
Patch reefs are common in our Gulf waters, and are home to small crustaceans and coral, which in turn provide food and shelter to beautifully-colored reef fishes. These reefs are found in warmer, shallower water, generally at depths of 10 to 20 feet.
Coral is a living animal, and as each coral dies, it leaves behind its hard exoskeleton, which creates a secure attachment point for even more coral to grow from. Eventually the reef may grow tall enough to reach the water’s surface, and then it begins to expand outward.
In the patch reef tank you can find several species of colorful fish, among which are the Coney Grouper, a secretive fish that tends to hide in the rock’s multiple holes and indentations; the aptly named Look Down Fish, which can weigh up to two pounds and whose angled “face” gives the appearance of always looking down its nose at you; Pinfish, a small common fish which has twelve pointy spines arrayed along its back, and is both a bane and a boon to fisherman — it is a notorious bait stealer, but live pinfish are often used as bait for larger game fish.
Among the more beautiful of the patch reef’s inhabitants is the Blue Tang. Adults are a brilliant blue, and will eat both meat and algae. The Blue Tang is actually bright yellow as a juvenile, turning to shimmering blue as it matures. The Cuban Hog Fish, also seen in the tank, is scarlet red top and bottom, with a yellow tail, and may be seen nibbling off parasites on the bodies of the other fish.
On some days you can also spot a temporary inhabitant — one of the Conservancy’s aquarists, in scuba gear, diving into the tank to scrub the walls from the inside, insuring that the water and the enclosure are as pristine as possible — enhancing viewing pleasure, of course, but more importantly, insuring the health of the tank’s residents.
Stop in and see the patch reef tank and all of its denizens — and remember, starting November 1st, the Conservancy will be open 7 days a week from 9:30 AM — 4:30 PM.