Aquarium Buff

Insider Info

You wouldn't think that a drifting leaf would be too much of a threat to fish in an aquarium. But watch out if it's really a leaf fish -- this fish uses its disguise to catch dinner! When unsuspecting fish pass by, the leaf fish strikes faster than the human eye can see. It attacks and then eats its prey.

The leaf fish is just one of thousands of fascinating fish which attract people to keeping aquariums.

Aquarium buffs, sometimes called "aquarists," collect and keep fish. They may also get involved in the breeding of fish, aquascaping (arranging plants and rocks), photography, and competition.

Randy Carey in his fishroom.
Courtesy of: Randy's Fishroom

While some people might question how fish can be fun, aquarists enjoy this hobby for many reasons. Randy Carey of Minnesota says that keeping aquariums is relaxing and challenging. "My thrill comes from doing, not having. I like to collect, and I like being a caregiver."

Lots of people share this hobby. One in nine homes are "catching the wave" and have an aquarium of some sort, reports this serious aquarium buff.

There's more to this hobby than just dropping fish into a tank of water. Aquariums have to be similar to the fish's own natural environment. This means the aquarist has to research their fish species to find out what is needed to keep them happy and healthy.

"It is important to do some reading and understand what you are doing before you start," says Cambridge, Massachusetts, aquarium buff Mark Rosenstein. "The lives of a number of creatures will depend on your success at this."

Since different species of fish require different environments, experts suggest collecting fish that live together in one environment. You can't just pick out all your favorite fish at a shop and expect them to all survive living together.

Another consideration is compatibility. Some fish are piceavors (meaning they eat other fish), so it's important to know their habits before combining a bunch of fish in one tank.

"You have to be careful that you don't purchase a new fish, only to find out your existing fish think it's for dinner," says Sean O'Brien of Madison, Wisconsin.

Water chemistry and temperature are both essential factors in maintaining a fish tank. Different tropical fish tolerate different water temperatures and levels of pH (acidity and alkalinity). Aquarists must be careful to match the right water conditions with their fish.

"You need to learn about your water before you use it," says O'Brien. "Typically, you need to treat it to remove the chlorine or chloramine used by your water company to disinfect. The degree of water hardness needs to match the requirements of the fish you keep."

Once you've completed the set-up of the tank, maintenance won't take much time. Five to 10 minutes each day, plus a few hours a month for cleaning, is about all you need for healthy fish. Then you'll want to take some time every day to simply enjoy your fish.

"I stress enjoying your fish because I know some people who spend so much time worrying about water quality, pumps and stuff like that they never sit back and watch and enjoy their tanks," says Rosenstein.

How much you spend on this hobby is up to you. Aquariums can be expensive, but there are ways to do this economically. If you're willing to spend some time and energy searching, garage sales or second-hand dealers can be a great resource for used, inexpensive freshwater aquarium equipment.

"You can spend thousands if you want to, but there are ways to get around it," says Matt Jackson of Ontario. For instance, you may get a tank for free from someone who is moving. Attending a fish show auction is also a good way to get your hands on fish or used equipment.

Your costs will depend partly on what kind of aquarium you get -- freshwater or marine. Most people involved in this hobby are freshwater aquarists, meaning they collect fish that live in freshwater, like lakes and streams.

Fewer people have marine aquariums. These saltwater tanks feature ocean-going fish. These are more challenging and expensive to maintain, since recreating a saltwater environment in a fish tank is more difficult.

Aquariums can be an expensive hobby, but there are ways to do this economically. If you're willing to spend some time and energy searching, garage sales or second-hand dealers can be a great resource for used, inexpensive freshwater aquarium equipment.

Here is a list of the equipment you will need to get started and what you can expect to pay at used and retail prices:

  • The average tropical fish costs between $2 and $10. The rarest fish, however, can cost several hundred dollars.
  • A 20-gallon glass tank ranges from $20 (used) to $50 (new).
  • An aquarium heater for a 20-gallon tank runs for $10 to $15 (used) or $35 to $45 (new).
  • An air pump can be bought for $15 (used) or $30 to $40 (new).
  • An air-driven sponge filter can be had for $5 (used) or $10 to $50 (new -- price depends on quality).
  • Gravel or sand should be bought new for $2 to $5.
  • Food will cost a few dollars a month.
  • Electricity to heat the tank and run the pump and filtration will be $2 or $3 a month.

Marine aquariums require additional equipment. This includes: reef tanks and a high intensity lighting system. They also require a "live rock" which has polyps, starfish, worms, algae, urchins, sponges, and many other kinds of life on it. These must be flown in from the tropics and can cost well over $1,000.

Many pet stores sell "complete kits" for setting up aquariums. Although they're convenient and fairly cheap, experts suggest avoiding these kits when doing your aquarium shopping.

"I personally would stay away from those because they use the cheapest of everything," says Anne Workings, an aquarium buff from Pacifica, California. "Most stores will give you a discount if you buy all your start-up equipment at once anyway,...and you can choose the better quality items."

There are a number of ways in which aquarium buffs can make a living from this hobby. Many fish experts can be found working in pet stores or community aquariums. Marine biology, the study of sea life, is also an option for those interested in studying fish in their natural habitat.

Getting Started

So you're ready to jump headfirst into aquariums? Experts say inching into this hobby would be a better way to start.

"[When I started], I set up the tank, got a couple of fish, and they died within a couple of weeks. I started again and had better luck the second time. You really should believe people when they say to start slowly, and not add the fish too soon or too quickly," says Mark Rosenstein.

Experts say buying a tank, setting it up and filling it with fish all in the same day is the quickest way to end up with floating fish. However, some say buying the tank, getting it properly set up and picking out all your fish could take as long as two months.

Courtesy of: Aquaria Central

Since aquarium buffs are recreating the complex natural environment of certain fish, they need to know their stuff before they begin.

"The very first thing that is involved is an understanding that fish are living creatures, and that to launch into the hobby without trying to educate yourself first is pretty irresponsible," says Anne Workings.

Experienced aquarists say you need to familiarize yourself with water quality, fish compatibility, equipment and tank maintenance before jumping into this hobby. One way to get this information is by asking an experienced hobbyist for help.

"If your fish store is good, they can give you advice. In general you want to avoid keeping aggressive fish with passive fish, and you want to keep fish which are naturally accustomed to the type of water which comes out of your tap," says Bruce Hallman, an aquarium enthusiast in Pacifica, California.

Hallman also recommends this "trick" for finding out more information on this hobby.

"If the clerk at the store seems to know little about fish -- a common problem -- look around the store for a customer who seems to be a 'regular.' Inevitably, the hard-core hobbyists spend a lot of time tank browsing for fun. These people are a wealth of information and usually are happy to help," says Hallman.

You may also want to join an aquarist group. Members of such groups are a wealth of information. Plus, it's fun to meet other people with the same hobby.

Don't forget the Internet. Hallman says she learned everything she needed to know about this hobby online.

"It made a huge difference in my enjoyment of the hobby," says Workings.

"Without the Internet aspect of my involvement in this hobby I think I might have given it up after a year, because I was frustrated with not understanding why my fish didn't thrive. Instead, it has become a very rewarding and satisfying part of my life."


Federation of American Aquarium Societies

American Killifish Association

American Zoo and Aquarium Association
8403 Colesville Rd.
Suite 710
Silver Spring , MD   20910

Aquatic Gardeners Association

North American Cichlid Association
8204 White Oak Dr.
Haughton , LA   71037


FINS -- Fish Information Service
An archive of information about aquariums, including freshwater and marine fish, authored by Mark Rosenstein

Ask questions, find answers, locate pet stores, and read aquarium news

Aquarium Movies
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