I have been intrigued by aquaria (plural of aquarium) for a while, and more specifically, really interested in the last year.

When I was an adolescent, my step-father had a freshwater fish tank with tetras, and I thought they were interesting enough, but only mildly so. Perhaps because of their tiny size of a couple of inches long and mediocre colors, I didn’t feel like they were captivating enough to warrant my time.

In a passing comment, I think I asked my parents, “Hey, why not get a saltwater tank! Those seem more interesting!” But my parents dismissed it rather quickly, and perhaps because I wasn’t interested enough in the tank we did have, I didn’t really press further. I instead focused on girls, which were way more fun at that time anyway.

Fast forward 20 years later. Last year, I discovered that a co-worker had some decent experience with saltwater aquaria and had educated himself on the topic rather well. In casual conversation, my curiosity resurrected and I started asking a lot of questions and learning quite a bit – enough to whet my appetite to start looking into the hobby more seriously this time around.

After only minimal research, I quickly realized that, given my age back then, there is simply no way I had the maturity or patience to be able to keep a saltwater tank alive. Saltwater tanks, if you don’t give them the time and attention they deserve, are difficult to maintain. Really difficult. And, as any experienced saltwater aquarist will tell you, they will inevitably become a money sink if you’re not cautious. Definitely not a hobby for a free-willed teenager with a part-time minimum wage job!

But I’ve learned recently that saltwater tanks can be an amazing hobby, and well worth the effort, especially if you enjoy any of the scientific or engineering disciplines. I don’t think I’ve found any hobby that more completely exposes the practitioner to science and engineering in a more fulfilling way. Saltwater aquarists learn more than a cursory amount of at least the following disciplines:

  • Physics: fluid dynamics, pressure, optics, gravity, electromagnetism, and more.
  • Engineering: pump mechanics, flow/pipe construction and building, overflow design, fault-tolerance, lighting design, environmental control systems and systems automation.
  • Construction: if you enjoy DIY, you can make your own tank, the stand it rests on, bracing and sub-systems used to keep the tank alive. If you’re a woodworker, you’ll have a big advantage here.
  • Chemistry: an applied knowledge of the Nitrogen Cycle, reverse osmosis and de-ionization, and knowing how to test for and control calcium, phosphate, magnesium, strontium, iodine, carbon, salinity control, and more.
  • Biology: this one is obvious, but it goes well beyond fish. Aquarists can gain deep understanding of corals, crustaceans, algae, bacteria and parasites, and more. Many aquarists can spout off Latin names and genus classifications like nothing.
  • Ecology: understanding environmental balance, both within a tank, and how it helps you understand the real world (and what we humans do to it) in a way that most people will never be able to understand (other than scientists actually employed to do so).
  • Design: a fun part of saltwater aquaria is aquascaping, where you can design beautiful in-tank landscapes with rock, corals and zoantharia (see? biology!) that can help relax and calm anyone.

Think about this for a second. If you like the Discovery Channel or National Geographic or the Science Channel, you might find saltwater aquaria far more enjoyable and rewarding than the shows on those channels. And let’s face it, Discovery Networks should just be ashamed at the completely false “scientific” crap they spew on some of their shows (Pawn Stars on the History Channel? Is that how low we have become as a nation? Anyway, I digress…). Have a saltwater aquarium, and you’ll be rewarded with first-hand knowledge with real scientific experience. You’ll probably now more than Discovery Networks’ producers anyway.

Anyway, I have been researching how to start my own saltwater aquarium for almost an entire year, without so much as buying a single piece of equipment. If you’re thinking of becoming an aquarist, don’t let this discourage you however; I’m just a little too OCD when it comes to trying anything complicated of which I have little initial knowledge. It is just my personality to want to become relatively knowledgeable in something before I invest real money into a potentially challenging venture. Plus, I just like the process of learning a lot, so the research is probably as fun to me as actually building something. I also like reading as much as I can to ensure that I don’t make silly mistakes, and I benefit a lot from reading from others’ mistakes so I can (hopefully) not repeat them.

That being said, most people start in the hobby with far less preparation, and most are just fine, especially with online help from the ReefCentral Forums (I’m kendoka there – say hi!).

So, as you can see, with so much to learn, saltwater aquaria can be a definite rabbit hole, but for me, and I assume many like me, this is actually part of the appeal of the hobby.

Learning and then applying knowledge to create something truly beautiful and personally rewarding sounds like something right up my alley. I jumped down the rabbit hole last year, and I’m enjoying the journey so far!