I remember, a couple of years ago, I was visiting the dentist for a routine checkup. There was a new and unusually chatty Dental Hygienist, and after the usual exchange of pleasantries, he started asking about my hobbies and such. And then he shared his hobby. He travelled around the world...on extended weekends. Yeah. What he would do is scout out the cheapest and best airfares he could find to- well, anywhere- on any airline- and just buy a ticket and go. You know- "Oh, Singapore Airlines has a great fare from L.A. to Kuala Lumpur this week...I'm going!"
Yet, his hobby wasn't seeing all of the exotic places..Nope. His hobby was traveling to all of the exotic places! Yeah, like, he loved to get on planes and go places! Like, yeah, fly 14 hours out of L.A. to say, Ho Chi Min City, chill in the airport for a few hours...and get right on the plane back to L.A!!! He knew like every little nuance of international travel; could tell you about the secret coach seat adjustments on an Emirates A380, or the best airport bar in Amsterdam Schipol, or, the quick return through customs at London Heathrow, but he never stepped out of the airports. Never saw the cities- he collected travel experiences- well, a form of travel experiences, that is! And he loved it.
Man, Mondays must have been a real drag, right? All that travel in 72 hours..."What did you do this weekend?" took on a whole new meaning, huh? Although, I'll wager that he must have had some awesome "in your face" comebacks for obnoxious work colleagues: "Oh, I flew to London and back, what about you?"
Now, you're probably asking what this could possibly have to do with the aquarium hobby. More than you think, actually.
I recall during my tenure as co-owner of Unique Corals, we'd see a lot of customers who would want to buy all sorts of crazy corals. Some guys really wanted only specific stuff, like "named" (gulp)- or what would come to be known in the reefing world as "Limited Edition" corals (don't get me started). They'd scour our raceways for stuff that they felt we "mislabeled"- common corals, like Acropora tenuis. They'd think that they got a steal on a freshly-imported maricultured coral for $40 USD, when they knew that 2cm "frags" of the same coral (basically, the colorful tips, freshly snipped off the coral) would sell in their world for hundreds of dollars! Never mind the fact that the colors wouldn't hold, and that they only cost $12 wholesale landed cost, or whatever...These guys felt that they were "beating the system!" (Yeah, freshly imported A. tenuis, stressed and still showing wildly incredible pigments that wouldn't last, are like the "poster child" of the over-hyped coral B.S world.). It was pure adrenaline for them. Get a pic up on the forums quickly to show your "score!" That was their "M.O." These guys had an uncanny knack for stopping by on days we'd receive shipments from our Aussie wild collectors or Bali maricultured sources.
They'd pay breathtaking prices for "microchips" of corals from online "vendors" of dubious reputation, despite the absurdly photoshopped images- just to be able to say that they had the "XYZ Nuclear Fallout Acan" or whatever, in their tanks. There was like this whole subculture of people in the reef world who simply collect this crazy "rare" coral. They talk about it and brag about it...and when you would see a picture of their "reef", it was almost always an uninspired pile of rocks with little frags on frag plugs everywhere, lined up like vehicles for sale at a used car dealership. They'd point out every ridiculous "designer" coral and who they got it from, and how much it cost. You'd almost never see a full-grown colony of anything. Just frags on plugs, some seemingly just hacked off a colony and glued to a plug before shipping.
However, that was their thing. They were fully into it. Now, in many cases, in my opinion, the tank looked like shit, but they couldn't care less. That wasn't what it was about for them. Their "hobby", as I came to realize, was the pursuit of the trendy stuff. They weren't "reef aquarists" in the sense that they were passionate about building and managing reef tanks. No, they were passionate about collecting and acquiring microchip frags of "rare" or highly-sought-out corals. The rush. As a hardcore hobbyist, I'd often look at these people and laugh, and actually shudder at their lack of interest in what I thought were the more "important" aspects of the hobby. All the while, these guys and their whole subculture were loving it.
Yeah, I had to think about it for a bit and realize that: a) it's not for me to judge how someone enjoys their hobby, and b) there are plenty of ways to enjoy the aquarium hobby and, c) it's good for the economy, right?
Nevermind the fact that I thought most of these people were a bit shallow and materialistic, and not particularly good aquarists. In the end, it didn't matter. It doesn't matter. We can enjoy the hobby however we want. It's not for me or anyone else to judge, despite my opinions on stuff.
I remember a guy from my local aquarium club- this goes back quite a few years. He was one of those nerdy, shy, internet subculture kind of guys. My girlfriend at the time was convinced he was a deviant of some sort. The kind of guy, that when he gets arrested for some illegal internet porn scam elicits those comments of "He seemed like such a nice guy...I can't believe it...' Spent all of his days and nights on obscure hobby forums. His house was total "bachelor style"- clothing, pizza boxes, and beer cans everywhere.
And he had like 100 aquariums- all over the house. And plastic boxes and jars of fishes-any vessel that could hold water was "recruited" into aquarium service! Food cultures, spare aquariums, boxes of parts- you know, the typical stuff. And he kept, like- everything.
Any fish you just heard about...Any methodology that was coming along, he'd be tinkering with. Really well, too. Bred all sorts of cichlids and Bettas. Rare plecos galore. Nice stuff. His house smelled musty all of the time, and there were certain rooms you weren't allowed to turn the lights on in because the Croaking Gouramis he was trying to breed in there were in "night cycle"- typical hardcore hobbyist stuff.
I could never have lived the way he did, despite my admiration for his skills and adventurous aquatic endeavors. Despite the fact that he spoke in a sort of dull whisper all the time and rarely cared to venture outside of his house (or so it seemed, because of the pile of boxes from online vendors always on his front porch), he was enjoying his hobby the way he wanted to!
And I envied him for it.
Well, not his personal grooming or housekeeping- but I envied his devotion and creativity. And how he enjoyed the hobby. His way.
There was a stint of a couple of years where I was working in the New York City, area at one of the country's most "exclusive" aquarium design and maintenance firms. Yeah, homesick Los Angeles surfer guy headed east...That wouldn't last too long. I managed the team that designed and installed custom systems in some pretty swanky NYC apartments and homes...Like, 40-50 million dollar "Architectural Digest" kind of homes. Some were owned by very famous people. Money was nothing to these people, and they wanted what they wanted- when they wanted it. Without exception.
They would have these crazy custom aquariums in their homes. And these tanks were usually some of the most non-functional designs I'd ever seen: Absurdly tall and narrow tanks, room dividers, shower installs, incomprehensibly tall cylinder tanks. Many were "semi-reef tanks"- almost all were virtually impossible to maintain properly, because there was no access, or limited flow within the aquarium because of the absurd dimensions. They were not designed by fish people for fish people. They were designed by "enablers"-interior designers- to fit the dimensions of the space, with no regard for functionality or animal health. Souless. As an aquarist, I struggled to comprehend why.
(not one we did...but in the same "genre", if you will...)
These people would often call up (well, their "house managers" would) and tell us they were having some function at the home on Friday night and wanted a new selection of fish to match the "theme" of the party...You know, lots of Yellow Tangs because they wanted yellow, or dozens of Puffers because they were having "Sushi Night" or whatever. And sharks. Always calls for sharks. Or other equally bizarre requests....And we'd get into these long discussions about why these were absurd animal combinations and such, and that choosing fishes on the basis of how they matched your drapes was absurd. They couldn't care less. Sustainable aquariums and long-term health of the animals were of little interest. They wanted a piece of "kinetic art", and the fishes were simply "part of the installation."
Yeah, after having to give in to these people repeatedly, rather than risk my splashy job and my sanity, I had enough. It wasn't for me. I bolted back to L.A. to grow corals.
Again, it dawned on me that, although I'm a hardcore fish person, it was hardly for me to judge how other people enjoy the hobby. Except, of course, of those people, because most couldn't care less or even want to care...it wasn't a hobby to them. However, I suppose, in their own bizarre way, they enjoyed the animals...At least when they were actually home...
Fast forward to now, and with Tannin, we get to work with lots of pretty experienced hobbyists, who take great delight in many of the arcane stuff that we do. we also have all sorts of aquascapers, breeders, even some beginners who want to start in a new way. The people who we work with "get it"- and that's cool. However, not everyone has the same aesthetic taste, interest, or philosophies as I do. And I get that. It took a lifetime in the fish world to realize the simple truth that everyone enjoys the hobby the way they want to.
And that's perfectly cool. Embracing this has made me enjoy MY hobby experience more than ever.
We get to see aquariums, hear ideas, and exchange stories with hobbyists at every level from all over the world on a daily basis. We operate in niche of the hobby that is experiencing rapid growth and interest from many directions. Seeing the work you do, and the secrets you unlock is amazing. It's like oxygen to me...And as I go speak at more and more freshwater events and meet and greet more and more hobbyists, I realize that, despite our differences in how we enjoy the hobby- we all enjoy the hobby!
You may see me criticizing the "underwater diorama" aquascaping crowd, or questioning the coral microchip collectors, but that doesn't mean there is hate there. I may never understand why that lady in Charlotte loves Hillstream Loaches so much, or why that guy in Leeds thinks that Gouramis are the greatest fish imaginable, but I get it. I get them. We- aquarists -are united by a common bond: An interest, a joy, a passion for aquatic life and the habitats in which they reside. We enjoy the hobby in the manner we wish to, and that's perfectly okay.
And very cool. Don't ever forget that, okay?
Simple thought and some reflection for a Friday.
Enjoy your weekend. Stay safe. Stay happy. Stay involved in the greatest hobby imaginable!
And of course...