Notes on...

The awe-inspiring appeal of aquariums

7 August 2021

9:00 AM

7 August 2021

9:00 AM

Fish tanks were probably first conceived in the distant past by the Chinese, but in many respects, aquariums are a distinctly British phenomenon. The first public one opened at Regent’s Park Zoological Gardens in 1853. The word itself seems to have been first used in Philip Gosse’s 1854 book The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea. And the glass-fronted version was patented by Edward Edwards in 1858. All that Victorian ingenuity definitely benefitted our underwater cousins.

It’s hard to determine if keeping fish is trendy. On the one hand, there’s not much to be said for goldfish in a bowl; on the other, a James Bond-style mega aquarium with sharks sends a thrill down the spine. When I was researching my book For the Love of Fish: An Aquarist’s Journey, most people declared they weren’t interested. But this aquarium-denial has its limitations: a recent survey concluded that 14 per cent of UK households (around four million) keep fish.

Some aquarists are keen on having the most difficult fish they can, migrating as soon as possible to cichlids and marine specimens. I have never understood that. One of the hardiest fish around — the zebra danio (or zebrafish) — is to my mind also one of the most beautiful, shimmering with silver and azure stripes. Moreover, the zebra danio has a significant place in scientific research and has even done a stint on the International Space Station.


The joys of fishkeeping are myriad. Not only do you experience the treat of fish of all shapes and hues, you also learn technical water chemistry around ammonia, nitrite and nitrate, and the disciplines of zoology and ichthyology. On top of that, the fishkeeping community is particularly friendly. Aquarists are more than happy to share knowledge. You might imagine an obsessive, eccentric bunch, but they are quite approachable.

Another joy is aquarists’ propensity for creating naturalistic biotopes of, say, Amazonian habitats. This has the benefit of assisting conservation by preserving fish species, much as rare animals are protected in a zoo. There are those who might argue that this is contrary to nature, but on the whole they have not yet set their sights on aquarists.

That day may come, however. Most fish are vertebrates, and so benefit from the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and most probably the new Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. Accordingly, it may be presumed they can feel pleasure, fear and pain. Did you know that if you abuse your fish, your tank could be seized by the authorities?

The hardest moment for any aquarist occurs at the beginning of the journey. When you establish a new tank, it takes weeks for bacteria to grow in the filter so they can process the ammonia excreted by the fish and turn it into nitrite and ultimately less harmful nitrate. This is known as tank cycling, and if not done right can lead to your fish dying from ammonia or nitrite poisoning.

Many choose zebra danios for these early stages, because of their toughness. Once cycling is complete, though, the zebrafish are often replaced by seemingly more exotic specimens. That choice is, to my mind, an abomination. Make a long-term place for a shoal of zebra danios, and they will repay you a hundredfold.

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