LEXINGTON, Ky. — For dedicated aquarium lovers, the creation and maintenance of their own underwater microcosms is not just a hobby but a beautiful and compelling obsession.
Even for casual observers, a surprising otherworldly encounter with an aquarium offering a window into the world of water creatures is mesmerizing. Brightly colored fish cruise back and forth; exotic coral structures form contorted, hide-and-seek caves and tunnels; and plants sway gently with the flow of otherwise undetectable currents.
Besides that, aquariums offer a cool patch of living greenery when outdoor temperatures rise above 100 degrees, a mind-massaging hideaway when life gets stressful and a natural source for maintaining humidity in the home.
Bryan Jones has designed, installed and maintained aquariums for homes and businesses settings in central Kentucky for more than 26 years through his business, Rent-a-Fish (Rentafishky.com, 859-536-5749). He has been involved with aquariums most of his life.
“I got my first 10-gallon tank, with black mollies and a cory catfish, when I was 5 years old,” he said.
By the mid-1980s, his aquarium count was up to nine. After pursuing degrees in biology and art from the University of Kentucky, he managed and eventually owned Regency Pet Center in the Southland area; it eventually closed, he said, mainly because of strong competition from Internet sales in a struggling economy.
Jones then found a niche in service.
“It becomes a big part of your life and who you are,” he said. “This is what I use to share my art, creating aquarium systems and designs. People ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ about them.”
If you’ve ever visited one of the Cheddar’s restaurants in Lexington, you’ve probably noticed some of Jones’ work. He created the 500-gallon see-through wall tanks at the restaurants. (If you go, he said to be sure to notice the bright orange blood parrot cichlid fish, which are an unusual hybrid not found in the wild.)
Jones stresses to his clients that he thinks fish should not just exist but thrive in their new home. The system has to fit the needs and personality of its keeper: Do you want a freshwater or saltwater system? What kinds of fish do you want, and do they suit your personal style — from flashy and energetic to relaxed and laid-back — and are they also compatible with each other by personality and habitat needs?
Results vary widely. In one set-up at client Cooper Hartley’s Pine Mountain Lumber office in Lexington, Jones created a calming freshwater “community tank” that brings together fish from around the world that are not aggressive with one another and can live harmoniously. They include Boeseman’s rainbowfish from Oceania, Congo tetras from Africa, neon tetras from South America and cherry barbs from Asia. They coexist peacefully in a forest of teardrop rotala plants, which look like an underwater jungle of long, narrow, green bottle brushes.
In another tank at Hartley’s home, they decided on different freshwater varieties of flashy, energetic African cichlids. In addition to being active and prolific, these mouthbrooding fish are interesting to observe as they protect their newborn young by holding them in their mouths. Because cichlids would chew up living green plants, artificial plants were installed in the home setup.
“Keeping an aquarium teaches you so much about your environment, for instance being responsible about water quality and aware of the delicate nature of the world we live in,” Jones said.
Another aquarium keeper, Mark King, who has just graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry and is starting a periodontal practice, plans to move one of his four home tanks to his new office.
King’s first tank was a birthday gift when he was about 5 years old. By high school, he was working part-time at Waters of the World, a fish shop in Evansville, Ind., that carries mainly saltwater systems. He said he spent more than he earned at the fish shop, but despite being “always in the red,” he said, he picked up a lot of experience and know-how.
Among the skills he learned was keeping coral, which he raised in saltwater reef tanks, providing them with diverse structure and color. These sensitive animals have exacting requirements for lighting types and timing, water pH level and quality, appropriate and reliable filtration and cleaning systems, temperature optimization and feeding.
King has installed lights on a timer that simulate sunrise and sunset and natural light wavelengths for his tanks’ coral, which in the wild mainly grow in shallow water.
But all the hard work has paid off. King’s arrangement of corals is breathtaking, forming a cave and tunnel-filled cliff-scape along the back of his tank.
“I don’t watch television,” he said. “I play with the fish tank.”
Getting started with an aquarium
If you’re tempted by the thought of starting an aquarium, keep in mind that you will be putting yourself in charge of beautiful, precious living creatures. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Age: For children, starting small and letting the hobby grow with them can develop into a lifelong passion and appreciation of nature. For adults, along with responsibility of keeping things alive is the opportunity for artistic expression, scientific investigation, understanding the mechanics of pumps and water chemistry and, if you choose, an expanded community of like-minded friends.
Responsible sources: When choosing fish, investigate how specimens are obtained, and try to do business with environmentally responsible sources. A couple of places longtime saltwater aquarist Mark King uses are Phishy Business (Phishybusiness.com) near Columbus, Ohio, and Aquatica Reef Supply (Aquaticareef.com) in Louisville. Both specialize in saltwater tanks.
Books: A book King suggests as a great reference and has found useful since his high school days, now out in a 2008 updated version, is “The Conscientious Marine Aquarist: A Commonsense Handbook for Successful Saltwater Hobbyists” by Robert Fenner, Matthew Wittenrich, and Scott Michael. (TFH Publications, $69.95.) Another book, now out of print but worth searching for at used book sources, is “Natural Reef Aquariums: Simplified Approaches to Creating Living Saltwater Microcosms” by John Tullock (TFH Publications).
Networking: Bryan Jones points out that the loss of local specialty shops in recent years has made it more difficult to find places where aquarium enthusiasts can be found. You can learn from investigating online discussion boards such as Reef2reef.com and Reefcentral.net.
Lexington, Ky., aquarist Charlie Keller, who recently reduced the size of his aquarium to accommodate a growing family, suggested the Kentucky Reef Society’s site at Kyreef.com.
Distributed by MCT Information Services