Aquarium: Day 1

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It has been almost 5 years to the day since my last blog post. It’s not that I haven’t done a lot of interesting things. No. I guess that maybe that is part of the problem. I have been doing too many things! But that is a topic for a future post. Today I started working on a new hobby. Well, an old hobby made new again for me. I am setting up an planted aquarium! But first, some history… (feel free to skip down if you want) My first experience with fish was back when I was in elementary school, 2nd or 3rd grade I’d guess. Our town held an annual Harvest Festival, and like many kids in the town, I won my first fish, a goldfish, at a booth there. He was a cute little goldfish, orange and white, and maybe almost an inch long. Naturally, we couldn’t keep him in the plastic bag he came in, so my parents got me a 10 gallon or so aquarium, and we set it up. Time passed. “Spiffy”, as I named him (could have been a girl, but I assumed it was a boy), eventually grew to about 3 inches long. Along the way, he acquired a tankmate–a snail I named “Marty” (a play on the title of the classic 1950s era Mickey Mouse Club serial, Spin and Marty). Marty was not much more than a spec when I first noticed him. He probably ended up about 3/4 of an inch before he eventually died. He had a lot of food to eat, because, well, let’s face it. I wasn’t the best at keeping the algae down in the tank. That was Marty’s job after all! I don’t remember when Spiffy eventually passed, but it was probably sometime during 7th grade (a tough year since my rabbit died that year, first). My dad, who was an elementary school teacher who took his 5th graders to explore the tidepools on field trips each year, kept a saltwater aquarium. It was nothing like what modern “reef” aquariums are like! For one thing, it was a cold water (room temperature) aquarium, since everything in it came from the cold California ocean waters (yes, most of California, outside of a warm current near Los Angeles, has very cold water around 50F). My grandpa gave my dad a large glass battery container discarded by the phone company. The thing was big (about18″x18″x24″ with half-inch thick walls, so about 30 gallons) and heavy (250 lbs of water, 60 lbs or more of thick glass, plus substrate and rocks). He kept a common sea star (that’s a starfish to most people), a couple of sea anemones, several limpets and other tidepool mollusks, and sometimes a few fish (although the anemones would occasionally eat them). The highlight of the tank was an octopus. He was super clever–ultimately too clever for its own good. One time while we were on vacation, it escaped (they are notorious for doing that). We searched everywhere when we got back, but couldn’t find him. A few days later, we smelled his remains. He had crawled from the aquarium in the kitchen to the far end of the living room and had expired under the sofa. Poor thing. After that, my dad gave up on the aquarium and returned all the rest of the creatures back to the tidepools where he had collected them. My last experience with fish came during my early 20s while at college (the first time around). I moved into my own apartment, and since I did not have any roommates, it was a little too quiet there. My parents bought me a nice acrylic hexagonal aquarium for Christmas, and it was my first tropical tank. Not knowing much about community tanks, I did most things wrong, of course. Surprisingly, most of the fish survived. It was probably because the fish I picked were pretty hardy and mostly foolproof for beginners. I kept that aquarium for about three years. Algae was the biggest problem. That and a roommate and guests who fed the fish whenever they felt like it. Probably since the conditions in the tank were not ideal (water changes? what water changes? I just topped the tank off when the water got low, but I did at least dechlorinate it first!), the fish started dying off after about 2.5 years. I moved to a different place after 3 years, so I never set up an aquarium again. And now we jump to June or July 2020… Here we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was recovering from surgery to repair a detached retina (that’s another topic for a future blog post). I was looking at aquariums online, and I really got a hankering to get back into aquariums again. It seemed like the perfect time. However, I had looked into it a few years back, and between all the advancements in the technology and the crazy amount of money I would need to invest to “do it right” (combined with my rather lackluster history of fishkeeping), I did not take the plunge that the time. But since then, I have helped to co-parent three kids (yet another future blog topic), and I am fostering two dogs. My level of personal responsibility has greatly improved since my first time going through college, so I decided to look into it further. Since then, I have spent the last 3-4 months falling down the rabbit hole that is YouTube relating to aquariums. I decided to stick to what I sort-of already knew and enjoyed (tropical fish), and avoid saltwater altogether. I knew that I wanted to keep as humane and “happy” of an aquarium as possible (happy for the fish, and happy for me, too). The memories of all those past aquarium animals (especially the octopus) made sure that I understood the commitment that this will take to do it right. Finally, I decided that a “planted aquarium” (which basically means that real living plants growing in dirt inside the aquarium) was what I wanted. I acknowledge that I am somewhat lazy when it comes to routine maintenance and housekeeping types of tasks. The fact that the plants in the tank help to keep the water conditions favorable and reduce algae, is a huge plus for me. I also like the thought of bringing in shrimp, snails, and catfish to keep the detritus down, along with even less algae present. And, probably best of all, a planted aquariums more closely matches a fish’s natural environment, so they should be happy and healthy in it, and that makes me happy, too! This post is getting really long, so I will cut to what I did today… I went back to Petco to swap out the wrong sized aquarium they gave me (a 20 Long) for the correct one (a 20 High). I also upgraded my heaters from 150W Aqueon Submersibles to 100W Aqueon Pros. Over the last two days, I finished all the rest of my hardware and hardscape purchases (thank you Amazon Prime Days and other retailers lowering their prices to compete!). I still have to figure out my plants and my livestock. But, I will have time to figure that out and order them while my tank cycles. So after I got home, I put everything together for both tanks (I have a second tank, a smaller 10 gallon one to age my water and serve as a quarantine/hospital tank when needed). Then I got started on preparing my driftwood. At Petco, I picked up a beautiful, fairly large (for a 20 gallon tank anyway) piece of Mopani wood that will be the centerpiece of the planted tank landscape. I also repurposed a piece of driftwood that Ryan received from a Cub Scout day camp that he was supposed to turn into a windchime but never did. I boiled them in my largest stock pot. The Mopani wood is too long to fit fully into the pot, so I have to boil it one end in, then do it all over again with the other end submerged. I am boiling the small driftwood piece in the pot with the Mopani, and it seems like (as I was hoping) some of the tannins from the Mopani are darkening the driftwood. I boiled them for an hour each time, though the pot never came quite to a full rolling boil despite the stove being turned all the way up. After each soaking, I used a vegetable brush to clean away all the debris and loose pieces that I could. I also used a toothbrush to get into all the little nooks and crannies. While handling the Mopani, I cut myself on some sharp edges. Having read that Mopani is very dense and difficult to sand or work with–even with power tools–I took the opposite approach. I started whacking all the sharp bits with a hammer! Since the wood was still a bit supple from the boiling, it worked really well. The jagged points became rounded nubs, razor sharp edges were blunted, and the wood became much easier to handle. Mopani wood is an interesting two-toned wood. The outer surface is a light tan color and relatively smooth (compared to the inner parts). The inner parts are a dark brown, and it is full of chunky bits that give it a unique texture. Based on the available aquarium space and the shape of the wood, I had already decided that most of the dark wood would be on the bottom, tucking into the substrate. As I was hammering away, I noticed that there was an area that looked like a natural cave. I started hammering at the nubs inside, deliberately trying to knock some more of them out–without cracking or destroying the entire piece. After a bit of hammering, I was able to get a feel for how the wood was formed. I increased the size of the “cave”, and I opened up a few more entrances to the cave. I knocked out a series of passage ways, that I later widened to interconnected “rooms”. My first thought is that it will make an amazing retreat/hideaway for some smaller shrimp. My second though was how cool it would look if I could figure out a way to get some tiny LED lights under there, so that you can see a warm glow coming out from under the “stump”. What stories one might imagine about what is going on in that magical place! I left both pieces of wood soaking in the pot in hot tap water for the night. So that was the first “official” day of me actually working on the new aquariums after 3-4 months of learning and planning . On future posts, I will continue to document my progress, but I will also try to start sharing the knowledge I have gained with you, so that you, too, can get excited about fishkeeping!

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