5 Circumstances That Test Marine Aquarists’ Willpower

Resist the urge to bring home a fish you're not able to see feed in the LFS holding tank

Resist the urge to bring home a fish you’re not able to see feed in the LFS holding tank

Several elements/traits are key to success in the marine aquarium hobby. Among them are a fundamental understanding of aquarium-keeping principles, the proper equipment for the type of system you plan to keep, diligent attention to maintenance and detail, willingness to research the needs of each and every organism acquired, and a good dose of patience. But at least one more element that’s seldom discussed should probably be added to that list: willpower.

That’s right, the same self-discipline that helps us resist harmful habits or bad choices in other areas of life (like when CC says “No thanks!” to that eighth beer during our Saltwater Smarts Planning Sessions) will help you avoid making counterproductive decisions as an aquarist. And trust me, if you haven’t already, you will be tempted to make counterproductive decisions time and time again in this hobby!

Here are five circumstances that try men’s and women’s souls…err, hobbyists’ willpower:

1) Delaying stocking until cycling is complete

This is the first real test of every aquarist’s resolve. Like a brand-new pair of sneakers that you just can’t wait to get on your feet and take for a test walk (Royal Crown Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Tennis Shoes, anyone?), that newly set up display tank is just begging for fish and invertebrates to be introduced. As you mark time through the seemingly endless succession of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, the urge to short-circuit the process and add “just a specimen or two” can be pretty powerful.

But it’s absolutely essential to weather this willpower storm. Stocking an uncycled tank is just asking for trouble, and if you jump the gun, you’ll likely fail in this hobby before you’ve even really begun.

2) Quarantining new specimens

This point follows naturally from the first one. When a beautiful display tank awaits, the last thing you want to do with your stunning new livestock is to hold it for several weeks in an ugly, barren tank and watch for disease to develop—a bit like watching paint dry, no? But trust me when I say the first time you experience a display tank full of fish gasping for oxygen, dashing nervously about, and scraping their bodies on the rockwork, you’ll wish you could go back in time and practice a little more willpower.

3) Buying fish that aren’t feeding

When it comes to marine fish, it’s wise to avoid purchasing any specimen that isn’t actively feeding at your LFS—no matter how healthy the specimen may appear. Once, I gave in to this temptation with a pearlscale butterflyfish (Chaetodon xanthurus). When offered some morsels at the LFS (mysids if I recall correctly), it just ignored them. “No worries,” I thought to myself. “I’ve got all kinds of foods to entice it with at home. I’ll bring it around eventually.” Well, it did ultimately come around—over two weeks later. And who knows how long it had gone without feeding before I bought it. Despite finally eating, the specimen died soon thereafter.

Whether this specimen perished as a direct result of starvation or was otherwise ill and thus refused food, I can’t say. But in any case, I should have taken its refusal at the LFS as a warning sign and passed the specimen by.

4) Overfeeding

At the other end of the spectrum are fish that greedily gobble up whatever is offered to them and continuously try to tempt their owner into additional feedings. Whenever you approach the tank, they’ll rush to the glass, eagerly waggle about, and give that irresistible, Oliver Twisty (it could be an adjective!) look that seems to say, “Please, sir, I want some more!” Losing willpower in this circumstance, especially if done consistently, is not only unhealthy for the fish, but also a surefire way of crashing your water quality.

5) “Rescuing” doomed specimens

Here I’m referring to the folly of purchasing a fish or invertebrate that has a dismal record of survival in captivity because “It has a much better chance of making it in my tank than in a less-experienced hobbyist’s tank.” Trouble is, when you yield to temptation in this circumstance, you essentially reward the whole supply chain that brought the inappropriate specimen to market in the first place (as discussed in this post about hard-to-keep species), so it’s likely to keep happening. Not to mention, it will likely perish in your tank anyway.

What’s your biggest willpower challenge?
Naturally, this is just a sampling of the circumstances that test hobbyists’ willpower. If you have another you’d like to add, please share it in the comment section below.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Paul Baldassano says

    OMG, you omitted the biggest one. This is a hobby and the biggest test for marine aquarists is a Love of the hobby. It is a hobby and not needed at all, so if you don’t really love sea life, don’t bother getting into this as it is expensive, takes a lot of time, is messy and you have to think and read. You will not stay in this hobby if you don’t absolutely love it. If you feel “any” of it is work. Don’t get into this hobby. Collect stamps or try to memorize the names of Supermodels who’s’ name begins with the letter H, J or L.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      True enough, Paul. Though, thinking has never been my strong suit, so I may have to throw in the towel!

  2. Paul Baldassano says

    Towel throwing can be a hobby

  3. Definitely takes a lot of patience. .. nothing worse than screwing things up cause you couldn’t leave it alone. . We’ve all learned that the hard way

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      So true, Dave! Sometimes I cringe when I think back on all the havoc I wreaked by rushing things in the past.

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