Ultimate Buyers Guide to Selecting The Right Dry Live Rock for Your Aquarium Aquascape
The right kind of live rock really does matter! Believe it or not, there are some great benefits to choosing the right kind of live rock for your reef tank. Ryan and Randy go down the list and provide you with the most critical information you NEED to know when shopping for live rock so you can make the most informed decision when building and creating your very own reef-inspired aquascape.
One of the most widely used and certainly the most popular among our customers, Marco Rock is the most affordable rock we sell. It is naturally mined which means no two rocks are the same and is shipped clean, dry, and 100% free of any reef pests or parasites. The porous rock chunks are easy to break up into smaller pieces so you can build your very own NSA - Negative Space Aquascape or it can easily be stacked together right out of the box. The jagged edges will interlock the rocks together making it the perfect solution for a quick, but natural-looking aquascape.
Being Marco Rock is shipped dry without any kind of living bacteria, it will take time to cycle the rock completely. Therefore, we do recommend the use of bacteria additives or cycle enhancing type products along with Marco Rock to help the beneficial bacteria establish a stable population in your reef tank. It is white in color and free of living coralline algae so, in addition to a longer cycle time, the rock will need some extra time to grow a layer of that iconic purple and pink colored Coralline Algae. It won't look perfect on day one but give it the necessary time and TLC and you will have a great-looking, biologically stable reef tank without the price tag of wild-collected live rock!
Marco Reef Saver Rock is your traditional assorted rock shape but you can also get Foundation Rock which is cut with one flat side that allows the rock to lay flat on the bottom of your tank. This flat side creates a stable foundation for you to build your aquascape on. We also have nano rock, rubble rock, and the very unique pedestal shape rock that when used correctly provides the perfect mounting platform for SPS corals and various frags.
Randy's personal favorite, Real Reef is a synthetic, eco-friendly live rock option that is 100% man-made right here in the U.S.A. It is cycled for a minimum of 3 months in salt water before being boxed and shipped which means you can get the benefits of live beneficial bacteria if treated properly before use WITHOUT worry of pests! But that is not all Real Reef has going for it! In fact, it is the natural-looking shapes and colors that make Real Reef such an attractive option for the majority of its users. Unlike Marco Rock, you won't have to wait 3+ months for the rock to look great, it comes completely colored with a natural blend of purple and pink to mimic living coralline algae rock out of the box. Dead or alive, Real Reef Rock always looks awesome.
Real Reef is available in shelf and branch rock shapes as well as your traditional rock shapes. You can get a box of mixed sizes, nano rock for smaller tanks, or even Extra Large XL rocks for much larger aquariums shipped right to your door. Being that it comes damp and is alive with bacteria, you do want to get the rock into your tank without letting it dry out. That means work fast if you're taking the time to build a really intricate aquascape that requires any kind of extensive gluing using super glue and epoxy. On the flip side, the natural shapes stack nicely together and will allow for a very natural-looking and exceptionally colored aquascape without much effort.
Caribsea's LifeRock comes completely dry but is covered with spored bacteria which will spark a cycle in your tank as soon as it gets into saltwater. Not the cheapest, nor the most expensive but it does look awesome being dyed various shades of purple and it is really easy to use. Most hobbyists appreciate the wide variety of shapes making it super quick and easy to create very functional and dynamic aquascapes. In addition to your traditional rock, shelf, and branch options, LifeRock is offered in shapes, arches, caves, and even a DIY coral tree! Using a mix of these options makes it super easy for hobbyists to create an NSA-style or generally interesting and dynamic aquascape without shaping, and adhering required.
LifeRock is man-made and not collected from the wild so it is eco-friendly and made from aragonite-based rocks. Like other synthetic rock choices, it looks great right out of the box because of the natural purple and grey colors. Being it has never been in the ocean and is man-made, there really is zero risk of harmful parasites when using CaribSea LifeRock but it can be somewhat fragile, especially the branch and shelf rock options so be sure to handle it with care and use as instructed.
If you're a fairly new hobbyist, you may have never even heard of wild-collected live rock because it is somewhat a thing of the past. Facts are, there are still a few sources left for true "live rock" which is rock collected directly from the ocean and is teaming with both beneficial and potentially harmful organisms. Live rock was originally the only way to go if you were focused on building a living reef aquarium but as the hobby grew and sources for sustainable wild live rock dwindled, mined rock and synthetic rock alternatives quickly gained popularity.
Most would agree that live rock looks awesome and is most certainly as natural looking as it gets but the biggest benefit of live rock is the incredible biodiversity. Live rock comes already ALIVE and hosts a variety of beneficial bacteria and microbes that help to cycle your aquarium. Not only will your tank cycle faster, but you will also likely get a much more stable biological filter because of the diversity. The flip side to this coin is live rock often brings pesky parasites and pests into your tank too. Things like Aiptasia and Majano anemones, algae, mantis shrimp, bristle worms, feather dusters, marine worms, and a whole slew of others that may or may not be harmful to other tank inhabitants. So it's a trade-off, fast and stable biological filter with the risk of introducing some extremely aggravating pests. If your looking to set up and stock a reef tank with fish in a hurry, live rock is the way.
When it comes to building an aquascape with live rock, you're extremely limited. It is often stored in water at your local fish store or shipped damp and if you let it dry out, you're allowing that beneficial bacteria to die so you have to work fast. You won't be able to glue it out of water for long periods of time or take the time to build intricate structures over and over again. The best approach is stacking the rocks together and using corals, macroalgae, and other marine organisms to create an interesting environment in the tank. Small bits of glue and epoxy can be used to hold them together, but in almost all cases the adhesive will have to cure underwater to get the maximum benefit from your live rock.
It is important to note that all of the rock types mentioned here eventually become "live rock". Some do take longer than others, some are more porous than others and some look better, regardless of how they are made or where they are collected, all rock used in a reef tank will eventually host beneficial bacteria and in time, develop stable biodiversity. Buying man-made rock that has already been cycled for many months from your local fish store or from a friend can provide the same benefits and risks. On the flip side, you still won't see the exact same biodiversity or natural-looking appearance you get with rock that has come out of the ocean, true "live rock".
Some Things To Consider
The first question people always ask about rock is "How much do I need?". 1 pound per gallon is the conservative or budget-minded recommendation. This will typically suffice in the way of providing enough surface area for sufficient biofiltration. For example, if your display tank is 50 gallons, purchase a minimum of 50 lbs of rock. That being said, if you step up to 1.5-2 pounds per gallon, you will be in much better shape in terms of having enough rock to completely create and build that interesting aquascape your envisioning. You can always take some rock out but you cannot create more of it....without buying more of course.
Practice makes perfect is something you want to keep at the front of your mind. Building interesting or natural-looking structures is not always straightforward or easy to do. You're always going to be limited with the shapes and rocks you purchase or have on hand so practicing and taking the time to tinker and build your structures ahead of time is the best way to go. Especially if you're going to be persnickety about the way it looks or have a particular structure in mind. Using some cardboard to layout the shape of your tank will also give you a work surface and help to ensure your building rock structures within the bounds of your tank's walls. Some shapes are easier to use than others too, most notably the branch and shelf rock which both can be tricky to seamlessly blend into an aquascape.
Foundation rock is somewhat new to the hobby, it really has only been around the last 10 years or so and sort of came about with the popularity of naturally mined rock like Marco Rocks. Foundation rock is a traditional chunk of rock that is cut flat on one side creating a very stable surface to lay flat on the bottom of your tank, under the sand. The natural-looking and jagged top-side edges are used to stack, glue, or otherwise attach the remainder of your aquascape. Fill in the sand after the foundation rock and you have now created a very stable and structurally sound aquascape that won't come tumbling down the first time you reach in to grab a fallen frag. Always use foundation rock, even if your using wet live rock or simply stacking your rocks by hand because a few foundation rocks can make all the difference in terms of stability.