My previous blog was about the fish that first got me into the aquarium hobby, and that made me think back to the fish that got me interested in my first marine aquarium.

I was living in Milwaukee at the time and driving to dinner one night when I noticed a sign for “Tropical Fish” hanging on the outside of a nondescript building. The next day, I drove to the store to check it out. (Up ’til then, my only place to get fish had been a large department store downtown, on the 6th floor where you had to catch your own fish.) The inside of this store was just as nondescript as the outside, very much a converted warehouse look. The three walls were lined with lots of freshwater aquariums, with tanks ranging from 10 gallon to 55 gallons. Strangely, most only had one type of fish in each tank.

As nice as the freshwater selection was, it was the marine section that caught my eye. The marine area was in the center of the store, with a 20 by 10 foot box made out of cinder blocks maybe three blocks high. On top of this was a rack with a mix of 20 gallon long and 30 gallon aquariums. I wandered down the line, amazed by the colors and variety of the fish in the marine tanks. I finally came to a tank with a large Volitan Lionfish that I instantly fell in love with. It was in a tank by itself, and when it displayed its fins, they spanned the width of the aquarium. And when the fish turned to face me and “yawned,” I was absolutely amazed at the size of its mouth! I knew absolutely nothing about this fish or marine aquariums, but I had to have one!

Fortunately for me, the owner of the store was very friendly and was happy to take the time to explain to me how to set up and maintain a marine aquarium. You need to realize that at that time (1975), the state-of-the-art technology was an undergravel filter! I bought a used 30 gallon tank, top, and light, and I took it home with my “do it yourself” undergravel filter, Silent Giant air pump, a heater, dolomite, hydrometer, and salt mix. The undergravel filter came in three 12” sections, each with one corner cut out where you glued in a plastic panel into a corner to create the air lift tube. The one for the corner was simple enough, but the other two you had to butt up against each other and the back glass of the aquarium to make a small triangle. After letting the silicone cure for a day, I filled the tank with water, added my salt mix, and double checked it with my hydrometer. I then added the dolomite, and I am sure you are aware of what happened next: I had a cloudy mess of fine particles filling my tank. No one mentioned to rinse the dolomite or to put it in the tank first, then add the water!

It took almost a week for the dust to settle, and back to the store I went to get my fish. Of course, the Lionfish had been sold in that time, and I ended up with two Percula Clowns to cycle my tank. These fish were a big hit with all my friends and a source of a lot of entertainment. Unfortunately, I had to make a sudden move and tear down the aquarium. I reluctantly returned the fish to the store. While I was there, I finally noticed that the 20 x 10 foot “box” of cinder blocks was actually the walls for one big 4,000 gallon saltwater tank! Why in the world the owner had this monstrous tank in a place where it was next to impossible to see, I’ll never understand. It turns out there was a door that opened to the tank, and the owner literally put on waders to go into the tank to feed the fish! If I had not moved out of state, I am sure I would have spent a lot more time in that store.

As was the case with the fish that started my foray into the aquarium hobby, the Piranha, it was several years later that I finally was able to set up a marine tank with a Volitan Lionfish. I kept this fish for about 12 years and for some reason named him Ralph. He was the king of a 30 gallon tank, and then later a 60 gallon “breeder” tank. I converted him from live foods to krill and pieces of fish, and I would like to think he had an enjoyable life. I know I always enjoyed feeding time at his tank.

About The Author Don Roberts

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