Bleached Anemone Rescue

It’s been a while since I wrote my culturing phytoplankton and copepods posts, so I thought I would share with you an experience I hope you never have and I certainly hope never to have again. But in case you are reading this post because you are a reef hobbyist with a bleached anemone, perhaps my experience will help or offer you hope that all is not lost.

Late last Autumn (2015) the handsome Macrodactyla doreensis which had been healthy and thriving in the reef tank for more than two & a half years decided to relocate. Over a couple of days it moved the large (3kg, I kid you not!) live rock it was nestled by and settled in a cave-like alcove of live rock, the only problem was the location was dark, M. doreensis no longer had any direct light source and it began to bleach (or lose it’s colour).

I recognise that anemones are some of the hardest creatures to keep healthy and thriving in a reef tank setting, but there were no obvious signs of stress, no gaping mouth and all tank parameters were normal.

Anemones are known to wander especially when they are placed in a new environment and are looking for that “just so” location to bury their foot into the sand at the base of some live rock. A place which has both adequate lighting to stimulate the zooxanthellae algae they host and water flow to allow them filter feeding opportunities from foods floating in the water column.


Sorry it is slightly out of focus, but this has always been one of my favourite photos


M. doreensis was originally located on the side of my 100 gallon cubed reef tank nearest a west facing window, and was moving effectively east around the back of the central weir. (The reef tank itself is located equally distant from the front and rear windows). Was it stressed from an unknown cause and retreating into the dark to die? Perhaps  an unseen critter was irritating it? Or was it attempting to move towards the morning or low Autumn sun, shining through the window when the tank lights were off? It had been a particularly bright and sunny Autumn and my lights are set  with a programmed 12 hour photoperiod increasing light gradually from 10am, peaking at 2pm for a two hour period, then slowly decreasing until 10pm to the moonlight phase.

Optimistic  it was the latter, I hoped that M. doreensis would continue to move from it’s current highly unsuitable location. Regular feedings of raw clam, mussel and squid  were maintained. The one positive sign  M. doreensis continued to accept the meaty foods but the bleaching continued and the anemone was beginning to shrink in size and showed no signs of moving any further. If it stayed where it was it would surely weaken and die, drastic action was called for if M. doreensis  was to be saved. To make matters worse (if they could be)  the anemone was host to a breeding pair of  Amphriprion ocellaris who weren’t particularly happy with their homes current darkened location.

How do you move an anemone without injury?

Hours were spent trawling the net, looking for expert advice. Examples, such as using a thin blunt item like a credit card, to gently wiggle it under the foot, slowly nudging it away from the glass was not an option as M. doreensis was in a relatively inaccessible spot and the risk of damage to its foot and in all likelihood rapid death was too great. Finally Mark of Mr.Saltwater Tank fame, offered ideas in his video  How To Remove Sea Anemones

Although none of Mark’s solutions referred directly to moving anemones living in a coral substate as he was dealing with an anemone on a rock.  One of Mark’s techniques inspired the drastic solution of directing a suction cupped circulator pump (I used a NewA Newave 2.7 (2700L/h))  directly at the anemone to irritate it enough to hopefully persuade it to move or at the very least dislodge its foot so it could be manually moved whilst insuring no physical damage. After 1.5 hours M. doreensis was not budging, like Mark’s rock dwelling anemone despite the buffeting, it was determined to stay put! I decided to give it another 30minutes and went to make a coffee – caffeine was required even though the adrenaline was pumping!   When I return a few minutes later, I was absolutely horrified, the tank looked like it had been hit by a typhoon. By freakish accident the angle of the circulator had slipped and was now blowing the substrate, detritus and sand into the water column. But M. doreensis had not withdrawn into the remaining substrate, which this species will do as a defence mechanism if  threatened. A good sign or perhaps I was just merely clutching at straws?

First thought, try and remain calm, or at least calmer. I hate to think what my blood pressure must have been at that moment! On closer inspection the circulator was gently blowing the substrate (which in this area area of the tank is primarily coral rubble) away from M. doreensis  foot. 45 minutes later the foot was fully exposed. The tank though was an utter mess and the other reef inhabitants were not happy! Traumatic doesn’t even come close. During this entire time the two A ocellaris didn’t leave their anemone home. Still the anemone had not defensibly withdrawn.

I cannot emphasis enough the state of the water at this stage,visibility was practically zero. The circulator pump directed at the anemone was turn off and the main tank circulators turned down low. I needed the water to clear, but couldn’t risk having the pumps on high to clear it quickly, further risking the tank inhabitants. The last thing I needed right now was for M. doreensis to decide to let go, only to be sucked into one of the pumps. I remained vigilante, eyes fixed on the anemone, gloved hands at the ready. Surprisingly the water cleared to reasonable visibility in approximately 15 minutes, perhaps because the substrate in the water was primarily coral rubble and sable marine sand. The detritus would take longer to clear with the help of the protein skimmer.

During the time the water was clearing, whilst keeping an eye fixed on the anemone for signs of movement, I excavated a new spot for M. doreensis on the east facing side of the tank in the coral substrate (a mix of various grades of coral rubble and sable marine sand) and placed the anemone’s original 3kg live rock in position. Offering what I hoped would be new “just so” conditions – a deep “sand” bed  within the substrate and the opportunity to fit snuggly next to the back glass and / or the large live rock, under direct lighting.

Finally, what for me was the most stressful stage. M. doreensis foot was still firmly attached to the glass and both A. ocellaris still in residence. The main tank circulators were now turned off, the main water pump remained on. Deep breaths, patience, gentle persuasion and dexterity was now required, nothing else would do but a hand job … a gloved hand job. Actually, more accurately, it was a (gloved) finger tip massage to M. doreensis’ foot. All the while I was trying to gently coax the anemone to release its foot from the glass, I was  literally being savaged by the male and female A. ocellaris defending their home from a perceived attack. After 15 minutes of very, very, very gentle massage, M. doreensis loosened it’s grip, a further 5 minutes and it was lying within my cupped hand, physically undamaged from the experience.

And so on the 19 November 2015 the bleached M. doreensis was gently, with much angst, rescued from an inappropriate dark location and finally placed in a new location.

Bleached M. Doreensis and friends

The reef tank  rock-work looked like it was covered in coral snow, so slowly over the next two hours using a turkey baster I gradually blew the substrate off the rock work and any corals it had settled on. All water parameters remained stable, a water change could wait a few more days to give everything, especially the anemone a chance to settle. If any of the parameters had been out of whack, an imminent water change would have been on the cards. Incidentally fresh seawater was already prepped and ready for a water change if it was required.

The road to recovery

Would M. doreensis recover or would it simply perish, as bleaching is all too often fatal?  Zooxanthellae algae provides the anemones they lives in with oxygen and food like glycerol that the anemone needs. The priority now was to keep the anemone well feed to provide it with enough energy to survive and to enable it to stimulate production of  replacement zooxanthellae algae.

M. doreensis body size had shrink by well over a quarter after it had bleached. It is fair to say a bleached anemone is hovering somewhere between life and death and depending on what happened next, it can go either way. It literally is 50:50, but it is possible  to rescue a bleached anemone. My account is evidence that it does not have to be death. Working on the principle anemones in general get most of their nutrition from plankton, fish and raw seafood, rather than the symbiotic algae, it is possible for them to survive bleaching.

Close up of M. doreensis tentacles to show extent of bleaching 

I kept up the regular feeding regime, but this time with smaller meaty feeds and decreasing the days between feeds. Each feed was a piece of raw seafood approximately 1cm cubed, placed near the mouth.  I alternated raw clam,  raw mussel, raw shrimp and raw squid every two days. My theory being if M. doreensis didn’t want it,  it wouldn’t accept it or would regurgitate it. It was only at this stage I began to take photos to monitor for signs of improvement.

After a week, the  signs were hopeful M. doreensis might be on the road to recovery.  There was no signs of further of stress, the anemone had stayed put, continued to accept meaty foods and colour had begun to very slowly return  to small areas of the anemone. The production of zooxanthellae algae was noticeable, a key to the long-term survival of M. doreensis.

M. doreensis wasn’t out of the woods yet though, things could still take a turn for the worse. But after four weeks, with zooxanthellae now evident in approximately half of M. doreensis, the signs were pretty good that full recovery for this M. doreensis was not just possible but highly probable.

20 December 2015 – green tubing in background keeping A. ocellaris at bay during feeding

The feeding regime continued until colour had fully returned to the anemone and M. doreenis had started to regain some of it’s former stature.

One year on and M. doreensis is positively thriving. I still feed the anemone regularly, usually one or twice a week as I am and will most definitely remain a member of the “feed your anemone camp”!  The evidence speaks for itself.

4 November 2016

A comparison of the photos below demonstrates the return of M. Doreensis colour and stature. Especially if you contrast the anemone size in relation to the  A. ocellaris.

As I said at the beginning of my post this is one experience I hope never to repeat again – rescuing  a bleached M. doreensis. There are many other types of anemones in the hobby today, and what worked for M. doreensis may not be appropriate for other anemones.  If you do have an anemone that is bleached or bleaching, check all your tank parameters (water quality & salinity), water flow and movement, lighting levels, and oxygen levels, check for signs of stress – expelling a long and stringy brown liquid, the mouth is open or gaping when it is not eating, exchanging water or expelling wastes, in extreme cases the mouth will be inverted. This will aid you in deciding your particular course of action. It is literally  50:50 between life and death. It maybe too late and your best course of action might be to remove it before it nukes (depending on species) your tank; but, as I hope this posting demonstrates,  it is possible to rescue a bleached anemone.

And, finally for any hobbyist who might be interested in the “basics” of my  Reef Aquarium set up, here are a few details.


  • Square braceless tank with central weir & durso standpipe
  • Maxspect Mazarra P-Series LED lights
  • VorTech  MP40w ES with battery backup


  • Two chamber sump with separate RO water reserve (approx. 1/3 of sump footprint).

First chamber

  • Deltic SC 1455
  • Water heater
  • Temperature probe

Second chamber

  • Abyzz A100
  • Vertex Aquaristik RX-U Universal Filter 1.5 for Rowa phos & carbon (separate, not mixed)
  • V2 Auto Top Up Switches


  • Evolution Aqua Matsukp Switch-boxes
  • V2 Pure RO system




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