It seemed like a good idea at the time. Sure, I had heard the cautionary tales:
“Aquariums are money pits.”
“They smell like death.”
“They’re a nightmare to maintain.”
Clowns, I thought. Surely I can figure it out.
I’m writing this because I was wrong.
It all started, if you can believe it, with a 15% raise in our rent. To offset the increase, the roommates and I rented out our laundry room for $500 a month.
It takes a special type of person to live in the room where we clean our underwear and we found the perfect applicant: our friend Mitch. Mitch is just as likely to channel his energy and intelligence into studying engineering at UCLA as he is into learning to kick himself in the head. He was well suited for the laundry room. Within weeks, he transformed a 6’ by 8’ box into an actual bedroom, furnished with a custom-fit bed, shelves, and (not by choice) a dryer.
One fateful day in November 2013, Mitch stumbled upon an aquarium store a few blocks from our apartment. The shop windows hinted at underwater worlds—swaying plants, cragged rocks, and glittering fish. “I remember thinking we could have a dope aquarium for like 300 bucks, probably,” he recalled.
Mitch pitched me on the idea that night. I was on board immediately. I had long fantasized about owning an aquarium. As a kid, my dad had regaled me with stories of his childhood fishtank. It sounded like a rewarding hobby—relaxing and meditative. Call it whatever you want—a quarter-life crisis or a quixotic quest—but I was hooked.
On paper, Mitch and I were perfect partners. Mitch researches projects like a PhD student preparing his thesis. His early exuberance is infectious, but after the initial stages, his dedication wanes. In contrast, I generally need a kick in the ass to get going, but then I excel at the long game—planning, plodding along, and willing the project to its next step. Our strengths combined nicely—a dream team, if there ever was one.
In reality, Mitch and I fucked up our aquarium basically every step of the way. The fact that we still have a fully-functioning fishtank despite our incompetence is a testament to the tenacity of life.
We were awful caregivers—ignorant, neglectful, and petulant. Our pockets were drained of cash. Our time was sucked into a whirlpool. If we had known the path ahead, we would never have taken the first step.
For anyone who’s considering owning an aquarium: think twice. For anyone who already has one: I hope you aren’t as dumb as us. For everyone else: enjoy the schadenfreude.
Here are eleven ways to fuck up a fishtank.
1. Placing a 600-pound aquarium tank on a granite ledge
Mitch and I wanted schools of fish. This necessitated a large tank. After weeks of meticulous research—mostly debating which fish looked the coolest—we decided to take the plunge and buy a 55-gallon tank. We figured that no matter how you sliced it, purchasing a gigantic glass container was the first step.
We identified the perfect spot for our tank: the granite kitchen counter ledge between our living room and kitchen. This afforded a 360-degree view of aquatic bliss.
One problem: the aquarium was four inches wider than the kitchen counter.
This is where our plan went awry. Mitch and I assumed we could extend the countertop ledge with plywood and cork board, and place the aquarium on top.
The following questions would have been wise to consider: But what about gaps in the materials? Won’t those cause fluctuations in pressure? Doesn’t placing 600 pounds of glass on a shaky surface risk the aquarium’s destruction?
We did not ask those questions. Instead, we assembled the tank on this patchwork base, and started filling it with water. We noticed that the water level was uneven. We thought it might even out if we poured in more water. It didn’t—of course it didn’t—our aquarium was not immune to the laws of physics. We checked the internet. “Once filled with water, you should have no more then 1/4″ difference.” We were at 4 times that.
A scene flashed through my head: a squeak, a creeping crack, a leak, and a burst. Water spraying. Fish flying. Our living room carpet soaked through in three inches of water.
There went that idea. When aquarium stands went on sale for Cyber Monday, Mitch and I snapped one up and placed it in our living room.
2. Budgeting $300—or any amount of money—for an aquarium
We had heard that aquariums were expensive hobbies. But we thought we had the two most expensive purchases—a tank and a stand—out of the way.
Laughable. The spending spree had just started; we still had to buy myriad marine miscellanea. The immediate next need was a base: the soil and rocks.
Mitch volunteered to go to our local aquarium store, Aqua Forest Aquariums, solo. I got a call later that night:
Me: “Hey dude. I’m at work. What’s up?”
Mitch: “So I went to the aquarium store… and I kind of blacked out.”
Mitch: “Well, I bought the soil and rocks, but they were more expensive than I thought.”
Me: “OK… Like more than $100?”
Mitch: “Oh yeah. Well over $100.”
Me: “How much did you spend, Mitch?”
Me: “What?! How did you spend $360 on soil and rocks?”
Mitch: “Well, the soil costs $120, and the rocks cost $240.”
Me: “You spent over $200 on rocks?!”
Mitch: “Yeah. They look so sick though.”
Me: “Go back to the store and return them.”
The problem with Mitch and purchasing decisions is that he always wants the best. So when he sees rocks for $10 a pound (“dragon-shaped rocks,” he reminded me) he goes all in, not recognizing that rocks are heavy, and thus, expensive.
On occasion, I got sucked into the spending whirlwind—see Exhibit A: a $450 eighty-kilowatt light with LED moon lighting (worth it). But other times, I held out—see Exhibit B: the $0 rocks that we gathered from the Tiburon bay.
Either way, Mitch’s initial estimate of $300 would prove conservative. In total, we spent well over $2,000 within the first year.
3. Setting external deadlines
By December 2013, Mitch and I were one month into the aquarium project. And all we had to show for it was an empty glass container on a stand.
Our roommates, Andrew and Joey, were unimpressed. They had given the initial idea a thumb’s down—a fool’s errand, a distraction, a doomed project. At this point, they were right. The aquarium was an eyesore. Joey was particularly annoyed, as Mitch was using the aquarium as leverage to pay off a $200 debt from another failed project. History was repeating itself.
The four of us had planned on throwing an ugly sweater party just before Christmas. A week before the party, Mitch and I promised that the aquarium would be ready, “with at least one fish in it.”
We thought the schedule was straightforward. Day 1: Layer the soil, pour water on top. Day 2: Let it settle. Day 3: Put some plants in. Day 4: Plunk in a couple fish. Day 5: Done, with a couple days to spare. Happy plants, happy fish, happy roommates.
It didn’t work out like that for several reasons. The core one was…
4. Not following directions and inventing our own
How hard could it be? I remember thinking, three bags of soil at our feet. It’s dirt. Just dump it in.
We layered Power Sand—small rocks that gave the roots something to grasp—on the bottom. On top, we poured Amazonian Aqua Soil—some nutrient-rich dirt that Mitch insisted was “absolutely crucial for plant growth.” We shaped a hill in the corner and smoothed a grade from front to back. It actually looked pretty good.
We just had to add water. If we had read the directions, we would have seen this: “Finesse and slow pouring is key.”
Instead, I dumped in a pot of water like I was filtering macaroni through a strainer. The carefully-sculpted hills looked like they had been struck by a meteorite.
Mitch was livid, and took over. Although he reduced the flow from a firehose to a trickle, the damage had been done. By the time we had filled all 55 gallons, the aquarium figuratively and literally looked like shit. We figured that we just needed to let it settle for an hour or so.
If we had read the directions here, we would have seen this: “It takes about seven days for Aqua Soil to settle. Don’t tamper with it.”
Instead we thought we’d accelerate the settling process by removing pots of dirty water and adding fresh water. Nope. Not only did we remove essential nutrients, we just succeeded in making the water murkier.
If we had stopped there, we would’ve just been garden-variety idiots. But in the face of mounting ugly sweater peer pressure, we took it a step further.
We turned on the filter, thinking it would tranquilize the turbulence. But no, this just stirred up the tank more. It was like turning a dormant nimbus cloud into a volatile cumulonimbus.
By now, it was past midnight. Our apartment was a wreck. Dirty brown water seeped onto the tiled floor. Our sink was clogged with this Amazonian soil bullshit. Because of it, our garbage disposal had broken; when Mitch attempted to fix it, more murky water sprayed all over our kitchen (and to my delight, Mitch’s face). We were fucked—Andrew and Joey were going to lose their minds.
We cleaned up as best as we could. It didn’t help much: the aquarium looked like a pig’s trough, and our apartment the pig’s pen.
As I was getting ready for bed, I heard the front door creak open. It was Andrew. I chirped, “Hey man, Mitch and I started setting up the aquarium.”
“I noticed,” he deadpanned, walking past me. As he closed his bedroom door, he added, “I don’t want to hear another word.”
The next morning, the water was still a deep brown. As it was for the next six days following. Needless to say, it was an inhabitable environment for fish.
The aquarium was the laughingstock of our ugly sweater party.
5. Placing the aquarium in direct sunlight
Did you know that sunlight produces algae? Well we didn’t. At least not until it was too late.
A month after the ugly sweater debacle, we introduced plants to the aquarium. We couldn’t have known it then, but those plants brought microscopic bits of algae.
After a couple weeks, the algae bloomed. Since our tank had been lifeless for months, the algae was actually a welcome sight. It looked pretty cool—green threads undulating with the flow of the filter. But that sentiment did not last. After a couple more weeks, algae had usurped the tank as the dominant presence. Something had to be done.
After consulting our friends at the aquarium store, we learned that algae is a universal problem for aquarium hobbyists. The best way to avoid it is to keep ambient light away from the aquarium. Of course, geniuses that we were, Mitch and I placed the tank in full view of our wall-length glass window. And since the tank weighed well over 600 pounds, the tank wasn’t going anywhere. And neither was the algae.
We had a few strategies to combat the algae blooms. We recruited Siamese algae eaters and plecos, which chomped up and down the aquarium, growing in size with ample nourishment. And on a weekly basis, Mitch and I would roll up our sleeves, dip our arms into the tank, and tear at the algae with scissors, tweezers, and our bare hands. We even bought a black blanket to cover the tank during the day.
Occasionally, Mitch and I seemed to win the battle. But peacetime never lasted—algae was a stubborn and elusive foe. For the vast majority of our aquarium’s lifetime, the flora and fauna were shrouded in velvety green mediocrity.
6. Governing by natural selection
I’m not sure whether Darwin would have been proud or horrified, but our fishtank was a microcosm of survival of the fittest.
We introduced our first fish in March 2014. We’ve hosted a dozen different species of marine life since then: colorful dwarf gouramis, albino cory cats, hulking Congo tetras, sleek bosemani rainbowfish, shy discuses, contemplative blue rams, three species of shrimp, and two waves of snail infestations.
The one thing these creatures have in common? They’re all dead.
I can’t say exactly what we did wrong—fish are fickle—but I have a few theories. When we didn’t change the water for weeks, the fish would die. When algae choked the aquarium with oxygen, fish would die. When we subjected the tank to rapid change—a little too much cleaning, those unappreciative fuckers—fish would die. Sometimes they died for no apparent reason, like they were just sick of our aquarium and decided to give up.
It takes a hearty type of fish to live through the turmoil, and a few have lasted. Our first Siamese algae eater is massive now. The cardinal tetras keep on trucking. But that’s it. We currently have 12 fish swimming in the tank, out of over 100 that have ever flapped a fin.
At first I would get genuinely sad. It’s always a bummer to flush a fish down the toilet (although we prefer the euphemism, “off to swim in the ocean”), and see the lifeless fins artificially flap once more in the current.
Well, with one exception…
Protagonists require antagonists. A hero needs a villain. In our story of the fishtank, the bad guys were unified by genetics: the guppies.
Guppies are well-loved within the aquarium community. Their brilliantly colored tails shimmer like ribbons. They float near the surface and give the aquarium aesthetic balance. Mitch and I diligently picked out our favorite guppy species, and settled on a mix of lemon cobras, blue cobras, and orange sunshines. We placed an order on LiveAquaria.com (yes, you can buy live fish on the internet), and they arrived the next day.
We’re not quite sure how, but the package contained unexpected guests: four fat brown guppies.
Whatever, we thought. Free fish. We acclimated all ten guppies to the tank, and released them into the wild.
It didn’t take long for Mitch and I to resent these unwelcome visitors. They were a bane on the aquarium. Whenever we sprinkled food near the surface, they hoovered it before the smaller fish could nibble a flake. We deemed them bullies. Divas. And worst of all, they were a boring brown in a school of exquisite color.
Oh, and we learned that the brown guppies weren’t fat. They were pregnant. Fifteen more specs were floating through our tank.
In between shots of whiskey, we decided to dispose of the brown guppies, once and for all.
It was painful. For twenty minutes, we jabbed a blue net through the water and terrorized the aquarium. When we caught a brown guppy, we sent it to swim in the ocean. We justified this displacement by freeing up food and space for the other fish.
But really, it was an aquatic annihilation. So who were the bad guys? The guppies? Or us?
8. Leaving Mitch to his own devices
When it’s time to clean the tank, Mitch and I have a routine. I’ll ask, “Hey Mitch, want to clean the tank?”
He’ll wince, slouch, and groan,“Aaaaah, not tonight.”
“Why not?” I’ll ask. “You’re just sitting there on the couch.” He’ll look at me like he’s constipated, and then groan again.
I would say one of two things here. Scenario A: “Fine. I’ll do a bit tonight and you do some tomorrow.” Or Scenario B: “Fuck it… I’m just not cleaning it at all then.”
I almost always chose Scenario B. You’re probably muttering tsk tsk. Something is better than nothing, right?
You’d think. But you’d be wrong. When I did opt for Scenario A, it backfired.
By June 2014, our aquarium was in relatively good shape—strong plant growth, beautiful fish, and clean water. The big issue, as always, was the algae. It was unbearable. So after Mitch and I did our little song and dance, I volunteered to scoop algae on Sunday if he chipped in on Monday.
Lo and behold, I came back Monday night to a clean tank. Mitch had done his part. I was ecstatic. Mitch sat on the couch grinning, like a golden retriever who had just presented his owner with a sock.
On Tuesday, the tank looked even better. The water was clear, the algae had been decimated, and the aquarium appeared less cluttered. As I was admiring it, I said, “Hey Mitch… Is it just me or are there fewer fish in here?”
He glanced at the aquarium. “I’m not sure. I was kind of thinking the same thing.”
I searched the tank. The guppies were nowhere to be seen. The tetras weren’t hanging out by the log. The plecos weren’t near the filter.
“Mitch, when you cleaned the tank yesterday, did you remember to put the filter intake top back on?”
The answer was evident in Mitch’s guilt-ridden face. “What the fuck, Mitch?! Like seven of our fish have been sucked up into the filter!”
Mitch grimaced. “Aaaaah shit… man, I don’t want to clean that. Just let them disintegrate.”
I lit into him. “Disintegrate?! Are you fucking serious? Mitch! You are cleaning this filter. Take responsibility for your actions!”
He hemmed and hawed, sitting there like a lump. So I removed the filter and drained it. It was a grisly sight—fins, tails, and pale floating bodies. Four fish were dead—all the plecos and a guppy. Miraculously, there were two guppies and a tetra still alive. Barely.
From there on out, cleaning the tank was a two-person job. Usually accompanied with blasting trap music.
9. Enabling the critics
Our aquarium was fodder for the peanut gallery. “You should get more plants,” a friend would say. “Why do you have so many plants?” another would ask. The armchair critics abounded.
The worst offender was our roommate Joey. He contributed nothing, and yet offered endlessly inane commentary. He obsessed over the algae growth in particular, espousing a theory that our high-powered light was the culprit.
We ignored him. As he is wont to do, he repeated his points louder and more defiantly. We still ignored him. Frustrated that his arguments had fallen on deaf ears, he took matters into his own hands.
On most days, I decompress from work by gazing at the fish and inspecting the tank. On this particular day in February 2015, however, I couldn’t do much inspecting. The tank was shrouded in algae—the water was a solid wall of green.
It made no sense. We had just cleaned the tank a few days before. Maybe the lights had gone haywire? I fiddled with the switch. No response. Weird.
The light was plugged into the power strip as usual. The power strip, however, was unplugged entirely. Which meant that the filter, heater, and light were all turned off. A stagnant tank is algae’s best friend. No wonder.
But why was the power strip unplugged? Mitch hadn’t touched it. I hadn’t touched it…
He had gone on a rant about the light a few days before. That same night, he attended Wing Wednesdays at a local bar, undoubtedly imbibing several Tecate tallboys. I was asleep before he got back.
I fished the story out of our other roommate, Christina: the night before, Joey had stumbled into the living room. Emboldened by Mexican beer, he decided to prove his point once and for all. But instead of unplugging just the light, dumbass drunk Joey unplugged the entire power strip instead.
I cornered him the next day. “Hey Joey. Can you explain why the aquarium filter stopped working?”
The jig was up. He knew it. I knew it. “I thought it was the light,” he replied sheepishly. Then adding, “It was Christina’s idea.”
“And why did you unplug the light?” I asked.
“Because I thought it was causing algae,” he replied.
“Interesting,” I retorted. “So what you’re saying is that by unplugging the light on your incorrect hypothesis that it created algae, you caused a 5x growth in algae by also unplugging the filter. How ironic.”
It was delicious. Joey was like the annoying twelfth man who subs himself in and airballs a layup. He kept his commentary to himself from there on out.
10. Bringing in an outside consultant
Mitch sprung the news on me in May 2015: our friends had a room open up—a real room—and he snagged it. This meant that we had to find a new roommate.
We found a suitable candidate: Aaron, a recent college graduate from the East Coast. During the roommate interview, he revealed that he loved aquariums and would be willing to help. That won him the room.
Which was great, because our fishtank was in a sorry state. The algae was overwhelming. The water quality was poor. The fish looked lethargic—just a few fin flaps from death.
Aaron moved in on a weekend when I was out of town. I came back on Sunday and was surprised to see our aquarium clear and clean.
With half the number of fish we had on Friday.
At first I was pissed. This aquarium guru comes in and kills ten fish in a weekend? Did we just agree to live with a serial killer? Unbelievable.
But I couldn’t be that upset. It was my fault that the aquarium was in terrible shape. All Aaron did was clean the tank. The fish had become so accustomed to filth that its removal was their downfall.
Even though I’m listing him as one of the eleven, Aaron turned out to be far from a fuck-up. He breathed new life into the aquarium. He eradicated the algae, sculpted the scenery, and recruited a school of new fish. The tank looked amazing.
Although Aaron’s stint was short-lived—he quit his internship after three weeks and moved back home—he left a lasting impact. The aquarium still looks great to this day.
11. Throwing in the towel
Just before Mitch moved out, we watched the sun set from our balcony and reminisced about the aquarium. We laughed and cringed recounting our many missteps. Even though Mitch was moving just 10 minutes away, I knew this amounted to sole custody of our fishy children.
It occurred to me that we avoided the one fuck-up that would have ruined the aquarium: we never threw in the towel. Early in the process, when the tank was a thick sludge of brown, we considered selling the parts for scrap on Craigslist. But we trudged along instead. We didn’t give up.
Which is why, in spite of it all, I’m proud of us. Because make no mistake: owning an aquarium is a commitment. It takes time, money, and effort. Most of the time, the fishtank felt like an enormous burden.
But then there are moments when it feels like someone hits the mute button on the city streets, and all that’s audible is the soft trickle of water. The fish dart through cracks in the driftwood; the plants dance in a synchronized sway. The light catches and shimmers off the scale of a cardinal tetra, radiating blue and red. Worries of the past and apprehensions of the future melt away, and the world shrinks to the shifting mass of flora and fauna inside my living room.
In those moments, I’ll think: It was worth it.