Why Are We Drawn to Marine Aquarium Keeping?

coral reefRecently, while going through the motions of an overdue water change in my 125-gallon FOWLR tank, I found myself reflecting upon this bizarre obsession of ours. I wondered why, given all the cost, effort, and frustration that go into setting up and maintaining a marine aquarium, anyone with his or her full faculties would actually pursue this hobby, let alone stick with it for years or even decades.

So, in my mind (I don’t think it was out loud this time), I ran through the various points that people like me usually write about when attempting to explain our fascination with keeping marine life:

A matter of aesthetics?

Perhaps it’s just the beauty of the thing, I mused. After all, there are few sights more visually appealing than a thriving coral reef in all its splendor. But then, if it were a simple matter of aesthetics, a painting, screensaver, or other artificial rendering of life on a coral reef should serve the same purpose with much less effort, right? That doesn’t explain why we feel compelled to keep a slice of the real thing in our homes.

A source of serenity?

Hardly! We may experience an emotion akin to serenity in those rare moments when all our livestock is healthy, everyone seems to be getting along nicely, all the water parameters are in the right ranges, the stars are otherwise aligned, and Neptune is on his throne, but let’s face it, on balance, marine aquariums are usually more a source of consternation than tranquility.

Scientific curiosity?

Certainly, keeping a marine aquarium can help satisfy the intellect of those with inquiring minds, but so can books, articles, blogs, lectures, documentaries, etc. For all intents and purposes, you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about marine life without getting your hands wet, so that can’t exactly be it either.

A teaching tool?

Of course, there’s also the educational aspect of a marine aquarium. What better way to teach our kids, both at home and in the classroom, about marine life and the interconnectedness of the natural world than to give them a glimpse of the real thing? But then couldn’t one impart a similar lesson with a planted terrarium or even a freshwater aquarium?

What is it then?
Clearly it isn’t one of the above that explains completely why we’re drawn to marine aquarium keeping. Even taken all together, these points don’t really get to the root of our obsession.

There must be something deeper, more primal. Something in our souls draws us to the coral reefs—perhaps as others are drawn to mountains, forests, or deserts—and compels us to at least attempt to recreate them in our glass or acrylic boxes.

Precisely what that “something” is I’m sure I don’t know. Perhaps you can explain it in the comment section below.

Photo credit: Brian Wilson


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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. Matt Bowers (Muttley000) says

    I don’t know who said it but maybe…
    “The success of a civilization can be measured by the complexity of its diversions”
    Has something to do with it?

  2. I personally fall in love with each of my fishes. They have such fascinating little faces, body shapes, eating habits, swimming styles…all of it!!

    And then, I am humbled to be their caretaker and that their delicate survival depends upon my diligence. The ocean holds so many wonders that we can’t even begin to understand how deep it goes 😉

    • You’re so right, Nancy. It always frustrates me when people say fish aren’t “real pets” like dogs or cats. We know better!

  3. Paul Baldassano says

    Aquarium keeping is unlike many hobbies such as hobbies where you collect things like stamps (God Forbid) or little ceramic figurines (double God forbid) Our hobby is about caring for living entities that would die in a short while if we screw up. It is science, biology, babysitting, plumbing, electric, horticulture, medical, sewage etc. We aquarium keepers are smarter, more curious, more patient and dependable than much of the population. I also think you are wrong that fish are real pets. I don’t consider them pets at all. They are part of my family. Some of my cousins look like they need some worms right now. Hold on cousin Bangai.

  4. I’ve been contemplating about this article and I still can’t find resolution. Google can’t help me.

    Let me preface: I tore down a 125 and moved everything to this new rimless shallow 80 gallon in January 2014. This tank was built around an oversize sump that I had to tear down the stand just to fit it.

    Come August and my sump leaked. I haven’t gotten around to tear down the tank and replace the sump. So, my tank is currently sump less. it’s filled just below the overflow line. I didn’t have any filtration outside of live rock and a small HOB added a week ago.

    After the sump leak, I thought I was done. I posted everything for sale. The thought of the leak, sump, tearing it down to replace it disgusted me. It stressed me out. I didn’t want to even look at the tank anymore.

    I still have the tank though. I still spend time with it. I still get lost in a gaze and trance whenever I stand in front of it. It still in disarray and even though I’ve gotten interest in the tank, I cant seem to pull the trigger.

    I hate the tank. I love the tank. I hate the tank. I love my tank. Oh god I hate that tank.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      I know that feeling well. I came pretty close to chucking the whole thing after a major ich outbreak. It was my own fault because I was pretty lackadaisical about quarantine at the time, but it took so much time and effort to resolve the problem that I began to question whether it was worth it or not. Needless to say, I’m still at it. It’s an addiction you can never kick completely.

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