One of the better parts of my job is the time I get to talk with aquarium hobbyists with various interests and experience in the hobby. They can range from excited first timers, techno-upgraders looking for the latest and greatest, to more experienced, shall we say “mature,” aquarium hobbyists. I realized the other day that this month is the 40th anniversary of my participation in the aquarium hobby. I vividly remember my first 10 gallon tank by a revolutionary new company called All-Glass Aquariums. Instead of the slate bottomed, stainless steel corners and trim design of the time, they offered an aquarium made of all glass, the sides sealed together with silicone. (They still hedged their bet a little by including plastic corner trim to protect the edges.) I remember the store owner telling me they were sure it would hold together for 7 to 10 years. Either the silicone or the process got better, because my current 150 gallon is at least 28 years old. My first fish were a pair of Red Wag Swordtails, two Neons, two Black Skirted Tetras, one Aeneus Cory Cat and a small Plecostomus. I had an air driven back filter and had a heck of a time starting the siphon until a friend showed me how to do it. (Fill the filter with water first, dummy!) My one extravagance was a Metaframe Fluorescent hood that in 1974 cost $29.99. (You can buy the newest Marineland LED Aquarium hood for the same price today!) I spent hours watching the male Swordtail chase the poor female and the Tetras dodge to get out of the way. My favorite was the Cory Cat. It seemed to sit there watching you and occasionally rolling its eyes and darting to the top and back down again. From humble beginnings…

I remember walking into a store in downtown Milwaukee in 1976 and, for the first time, seeing a large display of marine fish. I instantly was fascinated by the exotic Volitans Lionfish and really wanted to have one. Fortunately for me, the owner was an experienced hobbyist and was not going to let me set up a marine tank and immediately buy the fish. He patiently walked me through the cycling process and recommended I start with, what else, a couple of Nemos. I bought a used 30 gallon tank, the crushed coral, Instant Ocean and a “state of the art” undergravel filter that you had to silicone into place and build the lift tubes in the corners!  After a few days of set up I went back and picked up the two Clownfish and took them home with a detailed acclimation guide. (This store owner was well ahead of the times.) The idea of keeping frozen fish food in my freezer and thawing it out to feed just sounded gross, so the poor Clowns had to survive on flake food, and of course I overfed them and soon had a luxurious bed of red slime algae covering everything.  Unfortunately, I had to move before the tank finished cycling, and I returned the fish to the store and tore down the tank. When I set it up again, I did not have access to marine fish and turned it into a freshwater tank for Angelfish. I remember thinking at the time that I would never need a bigger tank than this 30 gallon, mirror-backed aquarium. From humble beginnings…

In 1978, I was frequenting a store I often purchased fish from, and the owner asked me if I wanted a part time job. It sounded like a good idea, and I started a week later. I immediately started to learn just how little I knew about fish and aquariums. In the store was a 55 gallon tank with 10-15 different types of Tetras, and it took me more than a week (and the patience of one of the frequent visitors of the store) to finally learn which ones were which. This is also where I discovered they had a miracle chemical that could eliminate the chlorine in the water, I did not have to let it sit around for a few days before I could add it to my aquarium! After a few weeks of work, the store had a tank sale, and the next thing I knew, I was taking home a 55 gallon tank. Surely this was the largest tank I would need. Right about this time, African Cichlids started coming into the country in bigger numbers and species, and I was instantly hooked on owning all of them. Flash forward about a year: I am working full time, and in my bed(fish)room, I have six 10 gallon, two 29 gallon, one 30 gallon, two 40 gallon, two 55 gallon, and two 70 gallon aquariums. And, I forgot the 20 gallon high on my dresser that was in the closet! From humble beginnings…

Now it is 1980, and the only logical thing to do was open my own aquarium store. I did the next best thing and opened one with a partner, the gentleman whose job I took at the original pet store. I moved most of my aquariums to the store for display tanks, and I did manage to set up a 270 gallon “wooden” tank built with two viewing windows for the main display of my prized African Cichlids. As a retailer, I soon discovered that nothing makes a fish more desirable than saying it is not for sale! My concept of showing the adults to be able to sell the juveniles did work, but the requests to buy the big boys eventually broke me down, and we sold most of my fish from the 270 gallon. After a few years and several expansions, my business partner and I purchased a second, smaller pet store and, despite our best efforts, it just never became a tropical fish store destination for the serious hobbyist. The years passed by, and I started to get antsy and make other plans. From humble beginnings…

After 7 years, my partner and I split, and each took one store, and I opened a new, even bigger store. My home tanks had expanded to two 150 gallon tanks and a fish room with five 55 gallon and fifteen 20 gallon long aquariums, filled mostly with African Cichlids and my favorite fish, the Clown Loach. Demands for my time at the stores cut back my interest at home, and my fish suffered. I eventually brought my Clown Loaches in for the 300 gallon store display and once again fell into the “not for sale” dilemma. After 6 years, I was burnt out and closed up my shops. I went into a fish funk, but still had my Clown Loaches in one of my 150 gallons. I went to work for one of the growing national chains and consider my time there as purgatory before I entered the world of catalog/Internet sales. In 1995, I went to work answering the phones and emails, and I quickly learned that, even after 15 years of retail, there was a lot to this hobby I did not know. Marine aquariums had just started taking off, and the world of Protein Skimmers, wet/dry filters and high intensity lighting demanded some serious studying and gave me the excuse to set up marine tanks at home. Things have pretty much stabilized, but with all the new equipment coming out, I am sorely tempted to upgrade my systems. I did change over to a Satellite LED light for my (what else) Clown Loaches, and they seem pretty happy under the slightly dimmed lighting. My group of hardcore aquarists (all with over 40 years of experience) has recently started meeting regularly, and one member has plans to set up a massive fish operation in his basement and garage. He has already set up a couple of larger tanks with schools of Scats, Sharks, Barbs and (of course) Clown Loaches. This has psyched me up to set up more tanks, but as you know, from humble beginnings…

One thing that triggered this round of nostalgia was a link I found from Practical Fishkeeping about the opening of the world’s largest public aquarium in China that holds 4.99 million gallons of water with a viewing window 130 x 27 feet! The picture, below, is the first picture in the article. Those tiny little things in front of the tank display are people!! Now I have something to shoot for! When our Live Deliveries manager, John, saw this, he immediately shouted, “Road trip!”, but I suspect none of us will see this in person.

P.S. I was proof reading this blog and realized that I have never personally owned a Volitan Lionfish, and my Clown Loaches need a bigger tank.  From humble beginnings…

About The Author Don Roberts

comments (1)

  • What a wonderful article/blog. After getting the “fish bug” myself in high school, I eventually graduated to a 100gal saltwater in my residency, and now also find myself almost 40 years into the hobby. The absolute pleasure of the science of water chemistries (yes, I enjoy it!) and learning about fishes of our waters and the oceans, have kept me interested this long. I see no end. I now have a 400gal system at the office, and of course a similar one at home. My wife reminds me, not many spouses put up with these situations, but hey, the comical interaction she has with the Minniatus grouper at home maintains her interest too. Humble beginnings indeed! Virgil

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