Why Do We Find This Marine Aquarium Stuff So Fascinating?

tank-fascinationI don’t know about many of you guys, but I have been watching fish for well over half a century, and today, as I was sitting close to my tank, watching every move of every tentacle, I started thinking, wow, I must really be a fish geek. My wife hates it when I come to breakfast dripping salt water all over the floor after I climb out of the tank in the morning.

After all these years and countless hours peering at fish in my tank, in other tanks, on my plate, in LFSs, on TV, and while diving, everything about them still fascinates me and I never get bored. I mean, I still like looking at supermodels, scenery, my boat…and did I mention supermodels?

A fishy heritage

Fish are such a large part of my life and always have been. (Wait a minute; I think I have something stuck in my left gill.) It is in my genes, as my family has been in the fish business as far back as history goes. I think they had a tank during the Roman Empire. Of course I do other things and have other hobbies, like bungee jumping. Yeah, bungee jumping, that’s what I do. I do that almost every morning before breakfast.

So many mysteries

While looking at the tank just now, I turned off the pumps after filling the baby brine shrimp feeder with newborn shrimp. In a minute or two, the two mandarins stopped their eternal hunt for pods and made a beeline to the feeder. Did the shrimp text them that it was dinnertime? Do mandarins smell pods? Do they hear them? I don’t see ears on my mandarins, and I can’t hear baby brine shrimp. Do baby brine shrimp make noises when they bump into each other? That is one of the mysteries about fishkeeping that keep me up at night (that and poking my head above the water occasionally to breathe).

The copperband butterfly also knows exactly when baby brine shrimp are served, and he just finished eating a large portion of fresh clams and live worms, so I am surprised he can still eat. I turn on the pumps just for a minute to scatter some baby shrimp throughout the tank, then again turn off the pumps. Now the fun starts because the Xenia start pulsing as they sense the shrimp hitting their tentacles and thin tentacles pop out from every crevice.

Crabs crashing in search of clams

Tiny hermit crabs that I didn’t even realize were in there set out looking for food that they smell. The clams I feed are their favorite food, and they literally run in every direction until they find a piece, often crashing into each other. I wonder whether they recognize each other, give a high five, remark on the new shell they may be sporting, or just ignore each other.

A show of tentacles

The sheer number of tentacles emerging from every place is also a wonder. How do all these things ever get enough to eat? How do they know exactly where the food is? It is not like I dump in a Happy Meal from Burger King. Food, by necessity, is kind of scarce, except at feeding time, and then it all is devoured as soon as it hits the water.

Pods with familiar faces

If I look even closer, I can just make out the tiny faces of amphipods trying to determine whether it is safe to venture out for a bite of something. (After you have been doing this for 40 or 50 years, you can identify each amphipod just by the expression on its face). I collect them in the summer and dump them in, but they seem to like the tropical temperatures of the tank and even reproduce. I find them in the skimmer, bathing in the ozone-infused water. So much for ozone killing everything and being so dangerous.

Chillin’ bristleworms

The numerous bristleworms remain in hiding, but if I look under the rocks or in the dark recesses in the back of the tank, I can see them just chilling with each other. They know that I know they come out at night hunting for prey, and that prey could be anything on the gravel from a clam to a freshly shed crustacean or a piece of chicken that a grandchild throws in the tank when you are not looking. I can easily trap them with my bristleworm trap, but that is an ongoing task, as these things have been in the tank from the beginning and the gene pool goes back to when Nixon was president (he was after Lincoln).

Clowny and crabby romance

Of course while I am checking out the tiny stuff, the fish keep blocking my view; they just don’t care. I have these two fire clowns that are very old, and they spawn. But even when the female has no eggs, the male keeps trying to push her into his pad (broken bottle) where he has been cleaning a nest since before Miley Cyrus was born. Way before. I can’t blame him, though. I would do the same thing if I were a clownfish. She is kinda cute.

I had hermit crabs that also did that, but I am not sure whether the larger one wanted to mate, just steal her shell, or make interesting conversation. As hermit crabs go, she was a cutie and very sexy with her above-the-knee shell and long eyelashes on her eye stalks. I lost them a year ago when they were about 13 years old. I am not sure whether that is old for a crab, as Social Security doesn’t keep records on them. But the male (I think) would chase the female (not very fast), and he would push her into a coral, then jump into her shell. I always stopped looking at that point because I’m modest, but I think they spawned many times. It is hard to tell with hermit crabs, but that is what I think was going on because I would then see him standing on one claw, leaning against a rock, smoking a tiny tubeworm.

A fish designed by committee

My all-time favorites are the pipefish. Such interesting animals that really should not exist. They are not fishlike at all; they are not even slimy. Instead of scales, they have plates, and they have an inner skeleton like fish as well as an external skeleton like a bug. Their toothless mouth has no real jaws but a silly flap that opens upward like a landing craft. The males have the babies (better them than me), and they have prehensile tales like a monkey. No stomach, just a short tube. I mean, really! How did these things evolve?

Geeky-ness denied!

Being a fish geek isn’t too bad unless you are in mixed company with a bunch of people you just met—like last night. My son-in-law opened a new restaurant, and it was just for friends and family, but there were quite a few people there that I just met. In circumstances like that, when people ask me what I do, I never admit I am a fish geek and that I put on magnifying goggles and kneel in front of my tank in the dark with a flashlight looking for amphipods and worms. Of course not! I say I am a martial arts instructor, test pilot, body double for George Clooney, secret service agent, Navy Seal, or all of the above. I will be married 40 years this year, and to this day, my wife thinks I am Sylvester Stallone’s personal body guard.

I haven’t even told her that we have a fish tank yet.

Photo credit: Paul Baldassano


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About Paul Baldassano

Paul Baldassano has been in the hobby since the 50s and holds two aquarium-related patents. His current reef aquarium was set up in 1971. He is also an avid SCUBA diver and Vietnam veteran.


  1. Lisa Foster says

    Ha! Knew that was you Paul, before I even read who the author was. Your writing’s very distinctive. This is Eienna from R2R, BTW. 🙂

  2. Absolutely love this, Dad – great job!!! (Only I think Happy Meals are only at McDonald’s…)

  3. Paul Baldassano says

    Wow, that must have been good. My Daughter (who I love) has never commented on anything I wrote. Maybe she will some day become interested in fish for more than just food.

    • Chris Aldrich says

      Friends not food, friends not food. Or, as I prefer, friends AND food. Just not at the same time… 🙂

  4. What a great looking tank. My wife gets annoyed with my fish addiction but embraces it at times. I love looking after seahorses. Most people think they are boring and don’t do a lot. I think they are the most fascinating of all the regular tank inhabitants. I have also just bred some clownfish which has now given me a new drive with my hobby

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