Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, May 4, 1999

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Matt Roberts is the proud owner of a 125-gallon
tank set up in his Kahala home.

Relaxation stations

The silent, colorful tranquility
of aquariums provide asoothing
remedy for stress relief

By Lori Tighe


AS soon as the fish see the big guy in the blue uniform lumbering up to their tank, they disappear. They know he's the man who crashes into their watery sky with a vacuum to suck up their world.

But when the petite woman of Nuuanu comes to the tank, they gather in the front and wag their fins - they know she's the nice lady who feeds them.

That man in the blue uniform is an aquarium cleaner for Advanced Aquarium Systems. He tries not to take fish rejection personally. Like the proctologist, the auto mechanic and the IRS agent, aquarium cleaners realize they make their clientele nervous.

But what they know can save fishes' lives. And a happy, healthy tank can spill over into a happier household because aquarium fish have the power to alleviate stress.

"It's the calmness, tranquility and colors. Fish are so soothing," said Glenn Nakata, owner of Aquatech, an aquarium design and maintenance company. "Studies show (fish) help lower your blood pressure. Sometimes you can sit and watch them for hours."

Already a mainstay in restaurants and hotels, aquariums are now being added to hospital pediatric wards.

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
A close up of Robert's pets.

Six-year-old Sheldon Tamon, who has asthma, rolls his IV stand up to the new Disney-esque tank at Kapiolani Women & Children's Hospital for a peek whenever he has the chance. A bat fish with an 8-inch vertical fin span swims up to the tank and stares back. When Sheldon moves his hand, the fish follows, mirroring the boy's play.

"I'm glad it's here," said Sheldon's dad, Gregory Tamon of Kalihi, smiling at his son's reaction. "I was an asthmatic and came to this hospital when I was younger, and it wasn't here for me.

"It brightens him up."

An aquarium is as educational as it is entertaining and is something families can create and take care of together, Nakata said.

"I remember my dad and I would go to the beach and catch little fish or hermit crabs in shallow tidal pools and add them to our tank at home," he reminisced.

But don't bring home live coral, or you'll get busted by the fish police, i.e. the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which also wants to limit the number of saltwater fish taken from reefs. And, if you tire of your pets, don't toss them into outdoor streams where they can damage the ecosystem.

Rewarding experience

In spite of all the joy an aquarium can bring, it is not without moments of despair. The freshwater aquarium novice can learn through trial and error, usually without a major disaster such as fishocide, losing a tank full of fish. But it does happen.

Fish fatality is an accepted, although depressing, reality of aquariums. Fish life expectancy is two to three years, with big older fish dying sooner.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Kevin Izumi, Advanced Aquarium System
owner, shows Sheldon Tamon, 6, a patient at
Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children,
an aquarium his company installed there.

Matt Roberts, 28 of Kahala, remembers his fishocide tragedy as well as any trauma in his life. About eight years ago, he lost a tank of fish when his aquarium heater fizzled and boiled them.

"It was an emotional loss, a financial loss," Roberts said, shaking his head. "I didn't have to seek therapy, but it was bad."

He still has the first 10-gallon tank his dad bought for him as a boy. He's since graduated to a 125-gallon tank.

"It's a lot more rewarding than other family pets. The damn dog bit me as I recall," he said.

Gandhi or Tyson

The type of fish chosen also goes a long way in determining whether or not you'll have peace of mind.

The Gandhis of the fish world - barbs, rainbow sharks, cichlids (freshwater) and some angels, butterflyfish and gobies (saltwater) - tend to be community types. They are peaceful and mind their own business. They swim slower, but for some reason lead shorter lives.

The Mike Tysons of the fish world - the molly, platy and guppy (freshwater), and damsel, grouper and trigger (saltwater) - are tail biters. They chase each other and rumble. They swim faster and live longer than other fish.

Gandhis and Tysons should not be mixed, or be prepared for the resulting deaths.

"Compatibility is very important. If not, you'll have fish wars all day," said Kevin Izumi, owner of Advanced Aquarium Systems.

Sharp-toothed moray eels and groupers don't belong with small fish, but a large vegetarian fish is OK with small fish, he said.

Fish set up a hierarchy, or pecking order, and by watching an aquarium, one can determine who's the shy one, the bully, the flirt and the fun one.

"The most endearing fish behavior is to have a puffer fish wink at you," Izumi said.

It's not a 'Hey Baby' wink, it's a fearful 'Who the heck are you?!' blink. But to the ignorant human, it looks cute.

"Fish are like people, you never know for sure what you're going to get," said Paul Wagner, owner of Pacific Aquatics. "I've seen a nonaggressive fish pick on other fish. They can become territorial."

When it comes to a biting fish, take it out, Wagner said.

All aquarium stores will take back fish, however they may not return your money.

Beginners should also start with hardy fish. Look the fish over well at the pet store, he advises. Have the fish fed to see how they eat. aquarium enthusiasts often say "A hungry fish is a happy fish."

Signs of trouble in fish include swimming sideways, not eating and rubbing against the tank.

The first thing Wagner does is check the water quality, temperature and salinity, if it's a saltwater tank. He advises having some test kits on hand to check the water in emergencies.

The first few months beginning a tank are the toughest, Roberts said.

Once you stabilize your fish world, the aquarium owner can sit back and relax.

"It's all about relaxation."

How to...:

If you're just getting your feet wet,
a freshwater tank's the way to go

Experts advise starting an aquarium with freshwater fish. Although nowhere near as pretty as their saltwater counterparts, you can still find some colorful specimens. A freshwater aquarium is cheaper and easier to maintain on your own.

It costs as little as $100 to set up a 20-gallon freshwater tank, said Paul Wagner, owner of Pacific Aquatics aquarium design and maintenance company. It costs about $400 to $500 to begin a similar sized saltwater tank.

Wagner, a former University of Hawaii fish researcher at Coconut Island, has enjoyed fish since age 10. He had allergies to cats, dogs and birds. The only pets he could tolerate were fish and alligators.

"I couldn't have the alligator, so fish have always stuck with me," he said.

Starting with a freshwater tank helps build an aquarium owner's self-confidence, Wagner said.

If your heart is set on a saltwater tank, read a book on it first, he advises. Or get help from one of the aquarium companies in town, even if just to set up the tank.

"I see more and more people getting into saltwater," said Glenn Nakata, owner of Aquatech. Synthetic salts can be added to fresh tap water and filtration systems for saltwater tanks have improved to the point where, "It's not much more work," he said.

The filtration system is the life support system of an aquarium. There are three types: biological, chemical and mechanical. The biological filter uses beneficial bacteria to break down fish waste, said Nakata. Chemical filtration removes odors and discoloration, and mechanical filtration eliminates uneaten food and debris.

The key to keeping the tank gurgling happily is to buy the best affordable equipment up front to reduce maintenance time, said Nakata, who added, "With technology, aquariums are getting easier and easier to clean."

Freshwater tanks need a monthly cleaning, and saltwater tanks need a monthly cleaning plus weekly check-ups. Bigger is better for tank size, according to all the experts. Temperature and water quality fluctuate more in smaller tanks. The bare minimum to start with is a 20-gallon for fresh and a 30-gallon for salt, Wagner said.

One of the biggest mistakes beginners make, Wagner said, is being impatient. They set up a new tank and then immediately stock it with fish. An aquarium needs to build up its natural bacteria first to break down the ammonia of fish waste, Wagner said.

A new tank must run at least 24 hours on its own, then two or three fish can be introduced. After a month, more fish can be added. The rule of thumb is roughly an inchlong freshwater fish per gallon, and an inch-long saltwater fish per three gallons.

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