You clicked on that link to learn more about me? Now you’re in for it. Hope you’re comfortable. Because I’m getting older, and I keep making mistakes, which means this story keeps getting longer.
I’ve been an “aquarium-nerd” for a very long time. I hope you’re not offended by the term. I wear that badge with honor.
The origin story of an aquarium nerd
I’ll skip over the first 5 years quickly. Here’s the short version. A very ugly baby.
A lot of drool. A mamma’s boy. Rule-follower. Grew up in Northeast Philadelphia--urban setting loved animals but was allergic to dogs and cats (and almost everything else they test for). So I didn’t know it at the time, animals in a glass box were about as close as I was going to ever get to a pet.
The first fish I owned were freshwater fish. I was age 6 (I think), and they weren’t pets, they were food for my new slider turtle. My grandmother bought me the turtle (because I couldn’t be pried away from the tank at the flea-market). They were livebearing fish, feeder guppies, to be specific, and the pet shop told me to feed my turtle live fish.
This was years before shark-week, but this primal hunting display (and underwater ballet) would keep Grandmom and me stuck to our seats, which meant even more to me because I (middle child syndrome) was jealous of the attention my older brother got from her. Actually, the turtle probably got the attention, but that’s alright. I was there--and I never really had that thought before I just did (and told you). Sorry, Grandmom.
Usually, the turtle made quick work of the tasty morsels, but for some reason, one time, he completely ignored two guppies. And so did I (I hope I fed the turtle in the meantime…but I was 6). Not sure if you know a lot about guppies, but they give birth to live babies every few weeks. Up until that day (I had a lot of life experience to draw from), I was certain that coolest thing you could ever see, was a turtle eating a live fish. Boy, was I wrong! In the corner of the tank, I saw the most amazing thing…the guppy “pooped” out a baby!
So that’s where they come from!
Picture, now, the scene is like when Spiderman gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gets superpowers. That moment was that big…except nothing bit me…I didn’t get any real powers (besides the patience to care for animals in a glass rectangle most other people wouldn’t bother with).
An aquarium nerd was born
I’m pretty sure the turtle ate the fish right after that, my parents broke down the 10-gallon aquarium at some point and we moved the turtle to into one of those small plastic tanks you see on the boardwalk that come with a free hermit crab.
I didn’t die of salmonella but probably should have (water changes were not and are still not my specialty) but the story continues…
By the way, if you’re bored, don’t worry. I can’t see you. I’m not offended. But hopefully, you still want to stick around. I have a lot more to say.
The long walk home
Fast-forward a few more years. I lived about a half-mile from the Franklin Mills Mall, which they built in 1989--which means I was probably 12-13 at the time. My friend and I walked from my house to the mall. It was the first and only time I was allowed to do that. At the far end of the mall, I bought a 5-gallon rectangular tank, a 5-pound bag of bright blue gravel, and a small, air-driven, in-tank filter…and carried it home.
My parents were not happy about this spontaneous purchase. I think the only reason they let me keep it is that I walked the whole way home with it (from the far-end of the mall) uphill both ways.
My first fishes in the 5-gallon tank were: a pair of green swordtails, a corydoras, pleco algae eater. I was all set (I thought). Something to clean the gravel, something to clean the glass, and some fish to swim around. It was a fish tank designed by a child genius and would require zero maintenance (or so I thought).
Upgraded my filter to a hang-on-back power filter. The female swordtail loved to jump up the waterfall and hang out in the filter chamber. I realized later in life I sometimes do that (metaphorically speaking) to get some quiet time in the house. I can’t imagine the pressure she must have been under…although now that I’m older…I have a bit of a reference point…but I digress…
Soon, I had, saved, raised and given away so many swordtails I stopped trying to save them.
Eventually, everything but the algae eater died…so I moved on to predator fish and put a pair of piranhas in.
On to bigger fish (in the same tank)
I was horrified to see the first piranha eat the second’s eye, then the rest of the fish a few days later (guess he never saw that coming…).
Learned that, given enough food to eat (like dumping in a dozen feeder fish at once…not advised), piranhas will just eat…the back half of a fish…and leave the rest to bob around the surface and die of ‘natural causes’. Gross.
Won a goldfish at a carnival that we used to think had superpowers (maybe she got bitten by the spider). The piranha would eat chunks out of her tail, but a few days later, it would grow back. The Pirhana in my tank had invented sustainable harvesting in a 5-gallon tank. I could have been rich if I ran with that idea earlier.
Eventually, the goldfish grew bigger than the piranha and became the dominant fish in the tank. She ate the feeder fish first while the predator cowered. The goldfish got too big for the tank--and it made me mad that I’d spend money on feeder fish…only to feed the stupid goldfish that was supposed to be food.
As much as I had a love for fish--for some reason I never liked that goldfish or any goldfish. Is it me, or do they just look dumber than other fish?
My geophagus phase-us
I read a lot, back then and read every book I could find on the topic. One of my favorites was this one. I wore out the spine.
Turns out I’d get to meet the author of this book (how is that for foreshadowing…).
Looking to work my way up the freshwater tropical fish cool-meter, I wanted to see if I could successfully keep South American cichlids. Again, the details are a bit fuzzy, because I didn’t actually pay much attention to any of the important details at the time, but I loved those fish and as best I can recall, they had to be Geophagus.
The local fish store sold me pair of Geophagus-like cichlids (I think they were Geophagus brasiliensis…they were just listed as ‘cichlids’ at the time).
I LOVED these fishes because they were diggers--they’d rearrange my gravel for me and as luck would have it, I got a male and female. They paired up quickly and spawned.
That’s right, more baby cichlids in the house! My parents were thrilled.
After my geophagus fish spawned, I became obsessed (not for the last time) with trying to spawn fish. Not sure how the first batch of South American cichlids died, but I tried to get another pair. The closest I could find was fire mouth cichlids. I tried and failed to get multiple pairs to spawn.
The Firemouths always seemed to fade out after a few months. Likely my fault, but I didn’t know it at the time. They just weren’t up to my level of lack of care, I suppose.
Switched to rams…same thing…no luck getting any to pair up and breed. At this point I was still a kid on a budget--had a hard time picking out males and females. So I set to research and find dwarf cichlids that had obvious gender differences. That led me to try my hand at raising kribenesis.
The great thing about picking kribenesis is that here is a clear sexual dimorphism apparent between males and females. Males are larger and less colorful. Females are shorter, squatter and have bright, ruby-red bellies.
That made getting a pair quite easy. Luckily for me, they also spawn readily in captivity and are great parents.
At some point, I shut down the 20-gallon tank and scaled my operation back down to a 1-gallon hex aquarium that I was allowed to keep in my room. What’s the perfect fish for a 1-gallon cold water (no heater) tank?
If you’re thinking…there really isn’t a great fish for that setting, you’re right. Want to know what a bad choice is? A pair of convict cichlids, of course (doh!). In hindsight, this choice makes me cringe. This was a terrible choice. Convicts are tropical South American cichlids. They grow up to 6 inches each and of course, should be kept in warm water.
My lack of planning and appropriate research didn’t matter. I got lucky again and the two fish paired up and had babies.
Interestingly enough, I do think confined space induces spawning. When there’s nothing else to do and nowhere else to go…you either fight or spawn.
But with a 1-gallon aquarium, there was nowhere to go--so I raised convict babies in cups, vases, and any bowl I could find. My parents loved that. Please don’t ever do that. I can’t believe any of them lived. More about convict cichlids in a bit.
Time to get an education
Went to college and shut down my tanks--but in my first-year seminar (a special class for Freshman about a topic of interest), I chose the Darwinian Evolution class, which happened to be taught by Wayne S. Leibel, Ph.D., South American cichlid expert and author of the book I mentioned earlier.
Remember this one, from up above? How cool is that! My hero, and he didn’t even know it and I’m not sure I ever told him.
I had no idea that’s where he taught--and I became one of the nerdiest fanboys ever.
That serendipitous connection led to a research project in my senior year comparing the morphology of the dwarf cichlid, Apistogramma cacatuoides with the Convict cichlid--which is a fancy way of saying I was looking at their brain cavities and eye sockets to compare the ratios. I’m amazed scientists never asked that question before (or am I?).
The hypothesis was that there was some ‘minimum size’ the brains and eyes of the dwarf species retained that was disproportionately large vs. body size, compared with the larger cichlids.
Turned out that I couldn’t prove the hypothesis--but I did learn how to clear and stain fishes so that they would look like this:
This is the first cleared-and-stained fish photo I ever took (1999)—on film! It’s a Yellowchin Sculpin (Icelinus quadriseriatus) with its huge preopercular spine. I shot this with an enhancing filter (https://t.co/B092HPhmNa). I recommend people have them in their kit. #fishbones pic.twitter.com/FZSKKtWdTL
— Leo Smith (@fishphylogeny) January 11, 2019
And I got to work daily with Doc Leibel. I never did have him sign his book. I wish I had.
While I was researching the Apistos, Doc gave me a few juveniles to keep and grow-out in my tank but I made one of the biggest bone-headed mistakes ever with these fishes. I added an African Xenopus frog…that ate my fish, one-by-one. I was a little slow to figure out why they were disappearing…until it was too late. Big-time bummer.
Watch out for Xenopus frogs…you can’t trust them.
Neon tetras and tiger barbs, oh my!
After college, I bounced around to a couple of different apartments. Always had a 10-gallon aquarium going, but didn’t have a lot of success or interesting tidbits.
For a brief period, I did successfully spawn neon tetras and barbs. But the good news is that this story turns salty very soon.
Bringing “everything I knew” to start a saltwater aquarium…and messing up a lot
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, however, that I turned salty…pun intended. Of course, I was fascinated by saltwater reef fish and invertebrates--but I had no experience keeping saltwater fish. The key ingredients were:
- having a bit more disposable income (full-time job, no kids yet)
- settling down into a house
Everything I had read said to buy the biggest aquarium I could find said to buy the biggest tank you could afford--so I jumped in with a 75-gallon tank. The plan was to start with a fish-only tank and if successful, add an anemone and corals.
At the time, the information available online did seem to be a bit spotty. Much of the knowledge was dispersed across message boards and on many topics, the advice seemed contradictory.
While I read plenty about the Berlin method and no need for having a filter, per se, I was scared away by the cost of the live rock--so I decided I’d set up my fish-only tank with an under gravel filter! (See how smart I was?) It worked, sort of, but my gravel was gross and my nitrates were amazingly high.
Made a bunch of aquarium mistakes:
- Live-cycled with damselfishes
- Mixed damsels and clownfishes (who fought to the death)
- Didn’t quarantine
- Tried a few garlic-based ich remedies (they didn’t work)
- Tried growing corals with an old 40-watt fluorescent bulb and sky-high nitrates
Dealt with the usual dinoflagellates, cyanobacteria, hair, and bubble algae.
Published (and professional) author
At the time, I was a monthly subscriber to Freshwater and Marine Aquarium, a hobby magazine (that later became Aquarium Fish International), that covered both the freshwater and saltwater aquarium niches. They had a news and tips section where they solicited subscriber input and offered to pay $50 for any tips or articles that got published.
About 2 months after I sent the articles, I received a big, fat envelope in the mail, from FAMA. Inside was a contract where I would sign the rights away to my content. Someone wanted to pay me for my writing. I had become a ‘professional writer’!
SaltwaterAquariumBlog.com is born
Frustrated with all the mistakes I was making, reading conflicting advice online that didn’t help, and emboldened by my recent (minor) success with Aquarium Fish International, I decided to start SaltwaterAquariumBlog.com in 2009 to document my journey, share my mistakes and try to make things better for anyone else starting their own aquarium.
Those first posts were brutal. I had no idea what I was doing. Here is my first post.
A website nobody visited
Check out the homepage--can you tell I built this site myself?
You want to know what it looked like on mobile? It looked like that, only a lot smaller…if you were lucky enough to have an iPhone 3.
Eventually, as I gained experienced, continued learning and writing, I started to get the hang of things:
- added some live rock
- upgraded my lights
- had some more algae problems
- added some mushroom coral.
A little success spurred more success and a desire to increase the complexity and sophistication of my tank. , my interest (obsession) in the hobby really kicked up a notch. This is that same aquarium, several years later, after the under gravel filter and crushed coral substrate were removed. I still have that giant, tacky decorative carpet anemone in the corner.
For a few years here, I became absolutely obsessed with fragging corals. It’s so fun and addictive. You start with one coral, you make some cuts, and end up with as many corals as you want—corals to trade or sell back to your local fish store. I poured over Anthony Calfo’s Book of Coral propagation and tried my hand at almost any coral that came into my tanks.
Here is a picture of the very first coral I fragged--it was a green mushroom coral--I remember Calfo described in his book that you could run mushroom corals in a blender and come out with a bunch of frag-worthy fragments of coral.
First saltwater aquarium breeding success
My first breeding success on the salty side was with the Banggai Cardinalfish. I was planning to leave my tank for a week-long vacation, so I loaded my fish up with fatty, live foods to get ready for their forced fasting. Turns, out, I triggered my pair of cardinals to spawn for the first time.
You can read more about breeding the Banggai cardinalfish here.
Coming home to see my male Banggai cardinalfish with a mouthful of eggs was a flashpoint that really kicked my aquarium obsession into high gear.
I immediately set up two 10 gallon tanks in the basement to help raise the babies. I dove into Matt Wittenrich’s book about breeding saltwater fish over and over again (did I mention obsessive?) with the goal of memorizing all of it and putting it into good use.
Turns out that Banggai cardinalfish babies are the #1 easiest saltwater fish to raise in captivity, because:
- They have giant yolk sacks that carry the babies all the way through metamorphosis
- The male does all the hard work, keeping the babies in his mouth until they emerge as tiny juvenile fish
and don’t forget the babies!
A few months after the cardinals started breeding, my common clownfishes started breeding as well.
This time, I was better prepared and started documenting their activities more on a day-to-day basis.
But the problem I had was that the clownfish eggs were that the pair always spawned on the aquarium glass. There was no way to remove the eggs and hatch the babies safely.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to rescue the fry at night, with a flashlight, but I only got one of the babies to make it through metamorphosis. It seemed that the larvae got too damaged/banged up from being captured and relocated to a different tank.
That, plus some delusions of grandeur inspired me to set up some tanks dedicated to spawning and raising my babies.
The fish room
In order to take my breeding operation up a notch, and leverage the economies of scale associated with having a multiple tank system using larger, but shared resources (single sump, return pump, protein skimmer, heater, etc.), I built a rack of tanks in my basement (I call it a fish room, but it’s really just a rack of tanks in a basement).
I had dedicated tanks set up for yellow-headed jawfish, black ocellaris clownfish, common clownfish, firefish gobies, pink skunk clownfish, and royal grammas
Had success spawning the neon gobies, although I found their larvae hard to raise through metamorphosis. The clownfishes and gobies started spawning so regularly that even with multiple black round tubs operating to grow out the fishes, I ran out of space.
What I didn’t realize was how labor-intensive this whole operation would be. I wanted to raise fish babies, but in reality, I was a full-time phytoplankton, rotifer, and artemia farmer. In order to keep up with all the fish hatches, I had to have live food cultures set up to harvest every day.
Then between the cleaning, disappointment from losses, electric bill and after electrocuting myself (due to stray electrical current in the tank from a faulty pump) and rust I was causing in the basement (I didn’t adequately vent the room), I eventually burned out and shut down the basement.
I never did spawn the firefish, grammas, skunks or jawfishes. Someday, I hope to go back to that.
I live in the distant Philly suburbs--hardly in a major destruction path for Hurricane Sandy--but we have lots of trees up here (Penn’s Woods and all) and lost of above-ground power lines. Soggy ground + high winds = power failures out here.
The years 2013 – 2014
Death by laziness
Is death by laziness even a thing? I got a little bit behind in my ‘routine maintenance’. Ok, the FTC just contacted me and let me know that I can’t call it routine if the maintenance almost never happened.
This was so lazy. I literally just didn’t clean out the intake sponge protecting my Mag Drive return pump. Water flow slowed down dramatically. A coral died as a result (it should have never been that long). And then I started getting problem algae problems. Ugh. Me dum.
2014 was a fun year. That’s when I created this logo--tell me that’s not a gamechanger…
The Aquarium Guys--Will and Gill--and gone
Ok, you don’t have to tell me--it’s not a gamechanger. But this is--in 2014, The Aquarium Guys--Will and Gill made a brief appearance on the blog. This was a lame attempt by me to add a bit of my unique sense of humor into the site--and use my iPad.
Turns out, I’m terrible at drawing. Since I draw like a first-grader, they took forever to do, and I stopped. The premise was that Will and Gill were fish…but they also worked in an office for some reason and would talk by the water cooler…see…they live underwater…but have a…never mind.
Look how sloppily I pasted Carl Clownfish in the image.
Launching a # 1 Bestseller (thank you!!)
5 years after launching SaltwaterAquariumBlog.com, I published my first e-book, titled The New Saltwater Aquarium Guide.
Thanks to readers like you, this book reached the # 1 Bestseller spot for Aquarium books in the US, UK, Australia, and Canada and still hits that spot every once in a while. I’m also honored to have ~50 reviews.
This was a big year for book publishing. In January, I released How to Frag Corals: Step-by-step Guide to Fill Your Frag Tank & Enjoy the Reef Aquarium Hobby.
A bit Tip-sy (see what I did there? that’s a play on words
In May, I released 107 Tips for the Marine Reef Aquarium as an e-book and in print.
In 2015, MACNA was in Washington D.C., which is just a few hour’s drive for me. I made the trip down to see for myself and had a great time. Being an introvert though, it’s a little tough headed to a big conference like that. I recommend you bring along a friend.
In December, Reef Journal became available in print.
2016 to 2018
In June 2016, I launched the Saltwater Aquarium 101: How to set up a saltwater aquarium online course on the Udemy.com platform.
Boiling the ocean
Then, later that summer, I bumped the thermostat dial on my heater when I was cleaning out the bottom of the tank and boiled the ocean--so to speak
A challenging month
In March 2017, inspired by Spring Cleaning and a podcast I was listening to at the time--I launched the 31 Days to Build a Better Saltwater Aquarium Challenge. The live challenge is over, but you can still follow along. If you are interested in doing a new, shorter duration challenge, let me know, because I’m thinking of starting another one.
Thanks to those of you who completed it with me.
Live on stage
In April 2017, I was asked to speak at the 5th anniversary OSRAS Reef Aquarium Conference. I was one of the top 3 speakers on that conference agenda! Ok, there were only 3, but I did my best. Look at the poster--there I am.
Aquarium power failure – and my meltdown
Our house lost power for several days in 2018 due to storm damage from a hurricane. That busted up my aquarium pretty seriously. I lost a lot of livestock and had to start over a bit. This is a picture of one of my soft corals (it was probably 24-inches tall when fully extended) a few hours before it hit the nuke button.
You can read about that big disaster here. There was real physical damage to my reef, and the emotional damage of all the cleanup and parts I had to start overtook a toll on me. I had a backup plan and life support strategy, but it failed me this time.
As my tank was melting down, I hastily reached in to remove some of the rock and got…
Tasered by a bristle worm
I made one of my most painful (and bone-headed mistakes) and got tasered (not literally) by a bristle worm. You could see the 2 lines of bristles in my finger stitched across it. Ye-ow.
Upgraded my life support systems
After the storm in 2018, I upgraded my aquarium life-support system and plan, which came in handy in 2019. If you live in an area where you can run a generator, and if you have a significant investment (in time or money) in your reef (and who amongst us doesn’t?) you should probably have a generator like this one:
This was a rebuilding year for me. Busier in my day job than I have ever been, and a little burned out with the tank (and writing), I took my time rebuilding slowly. Added back some engineer gobies to dig around in my deep sand bed, dealt with a lot of aggression out of my clownfish. They survived the storm in 2018 but now hate everything (living or otherwise) that comes into their territory. Lost a flame angelfish right as it finished quarantine. Then…hit by another big storm in May.
The storm was a bit of a freak occurrence. A thunderstorm cell brought straight-line winds’ and hail that brought a lot of damage to my town. We lost power for almost a week again (high winds toppled trees everywhere in my community). But the new generator worked like a charm at keeping my tank in tip-top shape. My only regret there is that I didn’t buy a big enough generator to power the whole house. My aquarium was cleaner than we were :). That generator was a life-saver. Literally.
SaltwaterAquariumBlog.com turned 10 years old in November! Thanks so much for your support throughout the years.
This was a self-indulgent page, designed to share with you the journey I’ve been on and let you have a bit of a behind the scenes glimpse. If you made it this far, hopefully, you enjoyed it, a bit--either that or the internet apocalypse came and for some reason, this is the only page displaying. Hopefully, you see that I’m a real person who has had successes and failures here. It took a while for me to be confident enough to admit those failures…in public.
Some of this is about ego. Some of it is about creating something. A lot of it is genuinely sharing what I know and trying to entertain and inform--and while I get some fulfillment out of it--it would be a complete waste of time if you weren’t out here reading it. So thank you. Thanks for your support on the site and for the books, online course and for supporting the sponsors and for being there for me. Hopefully, if you need any help, or are looking for information about a topic, I can be here for you.
That’s an underoos shirt…glad I got showered and changed for this important picture.
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