Fishtank Foibles and Tales of Disaster Nearly Averted
A few weeks ago, after returning from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Bobby and I decided that since we like animals (but have an apartment too small to deal with the rambunctiousness and odors of a dog or cat) and are after all embarking on a study of marine science that will hopefully culminate in jobs not involving warrants or bird flu, then we would like to keep our own aquarium. Bobby used to be an aquarium nut, with three tanks in his room at one time: a 55-gallon "aggressive" tank, a ten-gallon community tank, and a five-gallon piranha tank, so this would be an easy undertaking for us.
Last week, we got the tank set up and bought out fish, and everything was going beautifully. But of course, Murphy had to stick his fingers into the water....
We were debating and finally decided to keep an aggressive/cichlid tank. Bobby has kept all kinds of aggressive and cichlid fish before. To start, we bought a few non-cichlids of a hardier variety, to (pun intended) test the water: a featherfin catfish (Maedhros), a plecostomus (Maglor), a bala shark (Celegorm), and a black ghost knife, who Bobby named Mack the Knife.
Once they had adjusted, we added smaller cichlids in small batches over the next few days. All was well. Everyone was happy and healthy. Maedhros (the catfish) grabbed the rock cave right away and quickly established himself as the boss of the tank. The cichlids--such curious, adorable little fish--would poke their little noses into the cave, Maedhros would come flying out, and they'd poke no more. I haven't seen Maedhros out of his cave since we got him (though Bobby claims that he is often out at 5:30 a.m., when he leaves for work, but I am not that eager to see him).
One morning, I got up and could not find Mack the Knife. This was especially weird because he's the second-largest fish in the tank and looks like a jet-black cross between an eel and a fish. In other words, he's noticeable.
I made myself late for work that day looking for him. It's not that big of a tank to hide a three-inch fish. And he wasn't dead, and I'd seen him the night before, so I knew that the cichlids hadn't devoured him.
When I came home, he was back like nothing had ever happened, nosing around in the plants in his corner of the tank.
That evening: gone again. I asked Bobby, "Have you seen Mack the Knife?" Bobby verified that he had seen our three-inch black fish "disappear" on a couple of occasions too.
Now Mack was starting to tick me off. Where the hell was he going, this little fish that was cleverer than me (who thinks herself pretty smart)? I searched the cave, but there was no way, with Maedhros still holed up in there. He wasn't inside or underneath any of the plants or the mechanical diver. He wasn't dead because I'd seen him only a few hours earlier. Then I noticed a water outlet at the top of the tank. It was about a half-inch high (1.75 cm) and completely dark inside. I looked inside and saw a flash of white. Mack has white markings on the tip of his tail. I called Bobby over. "No," he said, "there's no way he could get in there!" Alas, the white markings flashed again, and they exactly matched Mack's, so I stuck my finger inside and, yep, that was a fish-tail I felt.
After a bit of poking, Mack slithered out backwards and into the tank.
A bit of observation proved that Mack was scared of the cichlids. Yes, he is the largest fish in the tank (aside from the plecostomus, who does not really count), but he is a pansy. So we bought a second set of caves, figuring that he could hide in one and Maedhros in the other. Bobby lured him out with food--call Mack what you will but never "Late for Dinner"--and Mack saw the caves and took up refuge. Good. Then along comes Finwe, a pretty little blue cichlid, nips Mack on the tail, and it's right back up into the water outlet. Next I checked Mack's cave, Maedhros had taken up residence in it, and the cichlids were playing in Mae's old cave.
It was pretty clear that Mack was not aggressive enough for our tank. Neither of us were surprised; fish do have temperaments that differ from the expectations based on their species. We had a red swordtail when I was a kid who behaved like a bloody piranha; we had to put him in the baby-tank for "jail" until we could return him to the store. Mack obviously swung the other way, more towards a community tank. So that left us with a decision. Both of us felt bad about leaving him up inside of the water outlet for the rest of his life or leaving him prone to bullying. I made the suggestion of buying a small tank to keep as a community tank; if we added fish that were too mild for Finwe and the Rough-housers, we could move them into the other tank. So late last week, we bought the tank and set it up so that we could let it run while we were away and move Mack in as soon as we got home on Sunday night.
"Watch," I said to Bobby, "the little bastard will come out while we are gone and move into that second set of caves."
"Nah," said Bobby. "He's terrified of the cichlids."
When we came home on Sunday, first thing we did was check on the fish. And noticed something weird.
Our tank is on the entertainment stand that we bought from Ikea, on the top shelf. Beneath it is an expensive array of a Bose iPod docking station, an Xbox 360, the cable box, a DVD player, and my original Nintendo Entertainment System, which is probably worth $5 in cash but $500 in my heart. And the fishtank was suspiciously...leaning. Leaning to the left, rather like Dawn and Bobby both. The rest of the shelf looked normal.
It seems that a bit of water had trickled down over the course of the weekend, saturated the high-quality Ikea wood, and had subsequently begun to sink into the wood, partially collapsing the top shelf. If we had made this a four-day weekend, we quite likely would have come home to a soaking-wet carpet, a dozen dead (and expensively dead) fish, and close to $1000 worth of ruined technology.
As it was, we managed to drain the tank enough to move it to the floor in time. Today, Bobby went to Home Depot and bought a new, sturdier piece of wood for the top shelf. The fish are happily back in place.
But the funniest thing of all in this tale of near-disaster is that when the tank began to sink into the collapsing wood and leaned to one side, the water outlet in which Mack the Knife had been taking refuge was no longer underwater and therefore accessible. So we came home to find him in the first set of caves--fat, dumb, and happy--scaring off cichlids left and right, while his brand-new tank bubbles ready and empty in the next room.
Obviously, we no longer needed to move him, so we started a community tank in there instead. And Mack pokes his stupid head out of the cave every minute or so, looks around, proud of himself, and slides back in. He's got reason to be proud, I suppose: He outsmarted the cichlids...and the humans.