The first tank in our home was already established. Established means the tank has gone through the nitrogen cycling process. The nitrogen cycling process means stabilizing the water system. Stabilizing the water system mean. . . are you going to let me tell my story or what?
My Man found a 25 gallon nano tank on Craigslist. It came with four fish, coral, live rock and live sand. Some hobbyist was OVER IT.
*snaps* As an aside, a really great way to snag some cool stuff is to scavenge the remains of a fallen hobbyist.
My Man researched the costs of starting a saltwater tank online for months before finding the deal of the century. I thought we were still in the “discussion” stage of things when he brought home our new saltwater tank. He took great care bringing in tubs and plastic bags filled with saltwater life. I don’t remember being super excited, I could’ve been. I remember thinking, “This is a lot of stuff.” He meticulously recreated the tank landscape and acclimated the fish and coral. With the exception of the blue tang, everything seemed happy. The coral opened, the fish swam, the skimmer skimmed. We were reef-ing. (“Forest Gump” voice)
Do you want to know what happened to the blue tang when we put him in the tank? He sank to the sand bed, laid on his side and died. He didn’t actually die he was playing dead. Every once in a while I would catch him darting one fish eyeball at me to see if I was paying attention, then he would go back to pretending to die.
And the Oscar for best fish performance in a drama goes to. . .
Yeah, well, I bought the act. I thought he was really dying even though the previous owner warned us he would do this fake dying thing. Apparently, when blue tangs get stressed they have to take a five. I was a nervous-nelly, hand wringing mess until the fish flakes hit the water and he snapped to real quick.
Some weeks later all the fish decided to take a five. They were all side down in the sand gasping for air. Their little fish eyes bugged out, fish lips making O’s, gills working overtime. Only this time, they were actually dying!
My Man starts frantically calling around to every local fish store and some not-so-local stores explaining to anyone who will listen that we were having a situation. One guy, at a LFS about five minutes from our place asked him to bring in a water sample. My Man turned into Flash Gordon, scooped up some water in a Ziplock baggie and beat a path to the shop to have the water tested IMMEDIATELY. I sat next to the tank while he was gone offering the comfort of a Mother with a sick child. “Shh, shh little fish, it’ll be okay. Daddy is going to be right back.”
Download a maintenance schedule here
The problem? The nitrates were too high. Why were they too high? Typical rookie faux-pas: overfeeding. Overfeeding led to an abundance of waste. We used a nitrate stabilizing chemical to neutralize some of the ammonia then did daily water changes until the tank was no longer a fishy toilet bowl. The good news? The fish all survived and we learned a valuable lesson. Do not over feed the fish, no matter how desperately ravenous they seem. During feeding time the fish will act like a mob fighting for the last can of soup during the Zombie Apocalypse. Sometimes, the little fish faces will amaze you by recognizing the fish food container. The little gluttons will swim right up to the glass and start tap dancing while juggling.
It’s not cute. It’s a form of manipulation.
Dirty tank water isn’t always obvious. It’s a really good idea when you’re a rookie to buy water testing kits and regularly test your water for nitrates/nitrites/ pH and salinity. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Lessons were everywhere for us. We were so new to the hobby there was nothing to do except learn.
#1 Rookie Lesson Learned:
Regular water changes and regulated feedings might keep your fish from doing the death dance in the sand.
#2 Rookie Lesson Learned:
Make friends with the local fish store guys. They can be real life savers.
It’s been several years since that first situation (I can’t say that word without thinking of “Jersey Shore” and I always say it like a Guido). I am happy to report the blue tang is alive and well and quite a fishy little character. We named him Peter after Peter Griffin from “Family Guy” but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Want to Read More of Melissa’s Piscine Prose?
His and Her Fish Tanks
(Or how a crafty woman got duped into getting a second and third reef tank).