My Marine Fish Are Plotting Against Me!

Always with the judgmental glare...

Exhibit A: The judgmental glare

A little-known fact about marine fish kept in aquariums is that they’re passive-aggressive and churlish and enjoy mocking their owners. Okay, I know we’re not supposed to anthropomorphize our livestock, but based on a recent disastrous attempt at an aquarium photo shoot, I’m convinced my fish have it in for me—or at least get a kick out of seeing me lose my cool. Come to think about it, I’ve made a similar observation on every occasion that I’ve tried to photograph fish over the years . . . so it’s like science or something.

Anyhow, my friends at Tropical Fish Hobbyist recently requested that I snap a few photos of my tank to accompany an article I’d written for them on transitioning from freshwater to saltwater aquarium keeping. Right away, this filled me with trepidation for a couple reasons. One, the room housing the tank has windows on all four walls, leading to major issues with glare and oddball reflections. Two, my tank isn’t all that photogenic right now. I’ve only recently begun adding corals to it (regular Saltwater Smarts visitors will recall that I just tore down the 75-gallon reef that I’d had up and running since 2000), so it’s sort of halfway between a FOWLR tank and reef system. The only corals I do have in there at the moment are a few dull-colored leathers, so it would be entirely up to the fish to provide visual interest.

That’s where the trouble began.

My plan was to get a shot of the center region of the tank, capturing the open space between two live rock piles. My fish—consisting of a pair of blue-throat triggers, a yellow tang, a unimaculatus foxface, a sixline wrasse, and a tomato clownfish—will often congregate there in a loose shoal, which would make for quite a pretty picture if one could actually capture it. But as it turns out, they were determined not to let that happen. They made themselves scarce the minute I got behind the camera.

Right now, you’re thinking, “Of course they made themselves scarce! They were just reacting to the presence of the camera—a totally unfamiliar object in their environment!” That would seem to make sense, but I had placed the camera on a tripod in front of the tank (about five feet away and in the exact position I’d be shooting from) a few days ahead of time so they could get accustomed to its presence. And with just the camera and tripod sitting there, they seemed totally at ease. They also paid no mind when I was standing right next to the camera. In fact, they came rushing to the front of the tank, hoping to be fed. It was only when I actually stepped behind the camera to snap a picture that their behavior changed.

Instead of swimming lazily into frame in a loose aggregation as I hoped, they dispersed and seemed to be intentionally avoiding the center region of the tank. Or, they’d swim just to the edge of the frame on either side and then suddenly reverse course. I swear there were even a few times when one would swim right up to the edge of the frame, angle straight upward, dash across the top of the frame, and then swim down again just to avoid getting caught on camera. Any fish that did come into range would make a point of either swimming so fast that all I could capture was a blur or turning tail and showing me its posterior (a piscine version of mooning) a mere nanosecond before I could press the button.

Exhibit B: More judgmental glares and avoidance from the whole lot

Exhibit B: More judgmental glares and avoidance from the whole lot (look closely, most are hiding quite well)

The only rational explanation I can come up with for this behavior is that the fish somehow knew exactly what I was doing and were deliberately trying to stymie my efforts—possibly to spite me because I’ve been out of Reef Frenzy® for the last week or so. I also overheard (as I so often do when I’m observing my fish and drinking) a somewhat conspiratorial conversation between my foxface and yellow tang. It went something like this:

Foxface: “Say, what’s he up to over there?”
Tang: “Who, Fatty?”
Foxface: “Who else?”
Tang: “Well, he’s not eating for once, which is encouraging considering his cholesterol level, but what he’s doing with that three-legged box I have no idea.”
Foxface: “Yeah, he looks pretty stupid hiding behind that thing. Fat and stupid. Wanna make that vein in his forehead pop out again?”
Tang: “Sure, why not? There’s not much else to do…and certainly no Reef Frenzy to eat.”
Foxface: “Then follow my lead…”

Of course I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of the conversation. The fish had very clearly, with malice aforethought, conspired to ruin my photos to get back at me for some slight, whether real or imaginary. And I don’t care what Caribbean Chris says, I am not “in need of serious psychiatric intervention” or “clearly delusional and a danger to myself and others.” (Note from CC: Obviously I still stand by my statements…)

That’s just what my fish want you to think!


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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

    I think they are afraid of your candelabra.

  2. That commendation is absolutely hysterical. My Fish got so use to me looking through the magnifying viewer that they started looking through it when they want to get my attention. . Too funny. I’m sure they call me all kinds of names. Lol


  3. Really intresting and funny !

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