Saltwater Confessions: Bizarre Marine Aquarium Blunders

Blood shrimp (Lysmata debelius)

Blood shrimp (Lysmata debelius)

After many years in the marine aquarium hobby—I’m not talking Paul B years here, but let’s just say a reasonable length of time—I like to think I’ve acquired a certain degree of wisdom with respect to keeping saltwater organisms. What I don’t care to admit is how much of that wisdom was actually gained as a result of making really strange and downright inexplicable blunders from time to time.

Some of these are too dark and horrifying to recount here, but I’d like to share a few of the less-mortifying ones so other salties out there can benefit from my experiences—or at least avoid making the same sorts of mistakes I’ve made.

(Note: some details may have been changed to protect the innocent—or to make me look like less of a moron.)

The Blood Shrimp Debacle

One of the species that really got me jazzed about the marine aquarium hobby was Lysmata debelius, a.k.a. the blood shrimp, scarlet cleaner shrimp, or fire shrimp. When I was a kid, I’d seen one in a little out-of-the-way tank at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. This blood-red shrimp with snow-white antennae and “stockings” was absolutely mesmerizing, and I knew I had to have one. (If I were Nigel Tufnel, I might have even posed the question, “How much more red could this shrimp be?” The answer, of course: “None, none more red.”)

Anyhow, when the opportunity presented itself, I bought one at my local fish store—plunking down what would have been a considerable sum for me at the time, I recall—and introduced it to a 55-gallon tank, which it shared with a variety of peaceful fish species.

I could not have been happier with my acquisition! The blood shrimp took up residence under a rock ledge positioned right near the front of the tank where viewing was extremely easy. God was in his heaven, and all the planets had aligned! What could possibly go wrong?

Turns out I went wrong. After molting, my beautiful blood shrimp was hiding and hardening off its new exoskeleton somewhere in the rockwork. Around that same time, I observed that the powerhead located at the right rear corner of the tank, which I used to create water flow behind the rocks, was piling up substrate at the opposite end. “No matter,” I thought. “I’ll just take this pair of aquarium tongs and level out the substrate between the rocks and back glass.”

Bad idea. Completely forgetting to account for the whereabouts of my blood shrimp, I accidentally crushed the poor thing with the tongs as I was scraping at the piled substrate. Apparently, it had taken up refuge on the back of the rock pile right near the aforementioned mound of substrate.

The Salty Rhododendron Affair

The next gaff I’m willing to share actually involved two of my avocations—aquarium keeping and horticulture. A few decades ago, I was keeping both saltwater and freshwater aquariums. Whenever I did a water change in my freshwater tank, I would carry the bucket of dirty water out to my planting beds and use it to water the shrubs and perennials. As every gardener/aquarist knows, nitrate- and phosphate-rich water from a freshwater aquarium is great for watering plants.

What’s not great for watering plants is salt water, however! One fine day, while performing a water change in my saltwater tank, my lone functioning brain cell misfired. Without giving it a second thought, I carried the bucket of dirty salt water right out the front door and dumped it all over my rhododendron, soaking the foliage and root system. What I’d done didn’t even occur to me until I was walking back inside with the empty bucket.

The Decoy Damsel Discombobulation

aquarium-blunders2Last, but certainly not least, in my long and distinguished list of saltwater slipups is the Decoy Damsel Discombobulation. When I first set up my current 125-gallon aquarium about eight years ago, one of my early stocking plans included a shoal of blue chromis (Chromis cyanea). I knew my LFS had them in stock—and even precisely which tank they kept them in. So I headed there with plans to come home with five or six specimens.

Once in the store, the proprietor asked, “What can I interest you in?” Distracted by other fish—or perhaps a shiny object or squirrel outside the store—I gestured vaguely in the direction of the tank that I knew housed the chromis and replied, “I’d like a half dozen of your chromis there if you don’t mind.” It didn’t register in my mind when, following my request, the store owner flashed me an odd look that seemed to say, “A half dozen of those? Really? Well, I guess you know what you’re doing!”

While he caught and bagged up my chromis, I figured I’d check out the rest of the tanks to see if there were any other specimens I couldn’t live without. After all, he knew what he was doing and didn’t need me looking over his shoulder the whole time.

It wasn’t until I got the fish home, acclimated them, and released them into my quarantine tank that I finally scrutinized them closely. Turns out they weren’t actually blue chromis at all. They were blue devil damsels (Chrysiptera cyanea). Now, these damsels can be maintained in groups if you’re careful to keep several females to one male, but if you end up with the wrong gender ratio, you could end up with non-stop squabbling.

These were very small specimens, and I couldn’t be certain of their gender, so I didn’t want to chance it. With as much dignity as I could muster, I captured the decoy damsels and returned them to my LFS. Fortunately, being in a small quarantine tank (the one thing I did right), they were easy enough to capture.

What’s your story?
So, fellow salties, what’s the biggest marine aquarium blunder you’re willing to share? Let us know in the comment section below!

Photo credit: Brian Gratwicke (1,2)


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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 have made a few blunders in the past and I am sure I will make a bunch more. A couple of them come to mind. Sometimes when I collect natural sea water and it looks scurvy or has red tide in it I add Clorox bleach to it. Then I add chlorine remover and after a few days I put it in my tank with a water change.
    One day I did that with collected water and the minute I changed the water, my fish started jumping out all over the floor. I didn’t know what happened. Most of those fish died including an 18 year old cusk eel and al old mandarin. I figured it out. The Clorox I used was “New Fresh Scent Clorox” and not “Regular” Clorox. That New Fresh Scent Clorox kills fish in seconds. But at least they had a nice fresh scent.
    Another time I came home with two new fish and I normally put them in a small container to acclimate them. I put them in the container and poured in a little water from my tank. A little while later I came back to pour in some more water and they were both dead.
    The small container I put them in I had just used for Clorox and some was still in there.
    Fish hate Clorox. But again, their white parts were really white.
    When I first started my tank, it was brackish. I had a bar of soap that I carved into a fish and it was hanging over the tank. One day the water was all foamy and I couldn’t find that bar of soap.

  2. Matt Bowers (Muttley000) says

    I’ll rate any writer that will talk about his mistakes an 11 if I can throw my own Nigel Tifnel reference in!

    Early on in my days in the hobby I had a stand with a 55 salt set up and a 40 gallon fresh water underneath. This was more than 20 years ago, and the selection in rural nw Ohio was pretty scarce, but there was a small shop in the next town over that had a few tanks of salt stuff. I was the proud new owner of a horseshoe crab, that I was putting into the 40 with my seahorse, feather duster, rock beauty angel, coral banded shrimp, and lion fish that was supposed to be fed feder goldfish according to the store owner. Yes, the tank was a slow moving train wreck, thank goodness someone eventually turned me on to some books with better information! In my infinite wisdom I floated the crab to temperature acclimate and subsequently released him into the freshwater tank. I now know he was doomed in my tropical system anyway, I just helped him get there a little more quickly!

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      I was hoping someone out there would appreciate the “Tap” reference. Thanks Matt!

      That reminds me of the time I went to great lengths to catch a Kole tang that I was moving from one tank to another. After finally capturing the thing (which involved lowering the water level and pulling out just about every rock), I proceeded to release the tang–right back into the original tank!

  3. Mine is more of a setup blunder, rather than a stocking blunder. Long story short…. I have always wanted a hanging light fixture. Bought my 400$ fixture and had help connecting it to a well supported shelf. Everything was perfect for around a year. During this time, I began to decorate the shelf with some empty wine bottles.

    Well. One morning before work (early, six thirty or so)….. it ALL comes crashing down. Fixture in the water, and broken glass bottles inside and outside of the tank.

    Worst experience ever. Needless to say, I don’t desire hanging lights anymore.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Now that’s what you call a rude awakening! I guess the only saving grace was that the tank didn’t break, dumping water all over the floor. Thanks for sharing, Cathy!

  4. Paul Baldassano says

    Last week as I was watching my fish (or washing my car, I forget) my lights went out.
    I wasn’t using a hair dryer, (I don’t own a hair dryer for obvious reasons) as a matter of fact I wasn’t doing anything. But I remembered I was heating up some water to do a rare water change. I had 3 submersible heaters in a vat of water. Before I turned back on the breaker that had tripped I figured I would first look for the problem. Being an electrician for 40 years probably had something to do with that decision. I figured a heater was cracked (it’s always the heater) so I lifted the first heater and it was fine. lifted the second, and it also was fine, then I lifted the third heater and it was all black and scurvy and filled with water. I should have known there was something different with this heater as it wouldn’t sink and I used a rubber band to attach a 1/2″ nut to it for a weight. Then it dawned on me. The crack wasn’t in the heater, it was in my head. That heater was not a submersible heater as I had it left over from my fresh water days and it used to have a bracket on it to attach it to the side of the tank. It was probably fifty years old and just broken in.
    I am surprised it worked for about 15 minutes.

  5. Hi there! Y’all sound like some real, honest folks. And your stories are priceless. Thanks for sharing. I woke this morning to a snow scene in my saltwater aquarium. In cleaning out a much neglected 55 I set up a temporary 30 with some of the water from the 55 and trying to get it back up to par. Well the ph is way down and I couldn’t get any kalkwasser yesterday at either of two LFS so I decided to use baking soda. I raised it a little last night and went to bed. Today there’s a white snowy film on everything and a cloud in the water. Can someone help me figure out what I can do to fix this if anything? What happened?! Thank you.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Hi Trish! Thank you for your kind words! Sounds like you’ve got calcium carbonate precipitating out of your water, likely as a result of the baking soda addition. You might want to check out the article linked below by Randy Holmes-Farley (specifically the sections on “Calcium Carbonate Precipitation” and possibly “Precipitations when Carbonate Solutions are Added”). I think you’ll find your scenario explained in one or more sections.

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