Christmas is probably the one holiday that makes many of us most feel nostalgic, it often makes us think of how things were in the past and at least in my case how simple life was and maybe better. As many of us who have been in the hobby since childhood recall, some presents we received on Christmas when were kids helped us along in our love of the hobby.
In my own case I was recently cleaning out things at my parent’s house and came across a few of the things that they, or Santa, got me when I was first starting out. Seeing these old books and tanks and pieces of equipment made me think of all the various Christmas gifts I have gotten through the years – how good it not only made me feel, but also how it made me think through these gifts that my family, at least for a short time, got into the hobby as well. Sadly, no one else in my family even has a tank, reef or otherwise, but I know that for at least a few Christmases in their own way, they did try to help me enjoy the hobby.
The first fish related gift that I ever got for Christmas was the complete ten-gallon Metaframe tank kit, with all of the necessary equipment to guarantee success. I wish I could figure out how to transfer from the movie film my dad shot to a picture, my opening this present and getting this tank, as my facial expression of pure joy is unmistakable. The kit included not only the tank with its slate bottom, but also the stand, fluorescent hood and all of the equipment including an air pump, heater, thermometer, airline tubing, corner box filter along with the angel hair and charcoal to fill it.
I remember wanting to set it up right then, but my parents made me wait four days until after my sister’s birthday until we could set it up. And this was not a plug and play set-up as the stand had to be assembled before we could set the whole thing up. Looking back, it really makes me appreciate that something as simple as a freshwater ten-gallon tank could bring me so much pleasure over an extended period of time. I worked on, played with and adjusted that tank for the better part of ten years and from my parents comments I never grew tired of that tank, even when I went to high school and started playing sports.
Even then, just as now, working on the tank was my way of relaxing. Because of my enjoyment of the tank, it remained up until I went off to college, and miraculously shortly thereafter all of the fish died and the tank and all of it’s contents vanished. That is kind of a shame, as when I looked online for this tank and set up it is currently selling for around $100, which is about ten times what it sold for then.
Now however, when I go into a store, LFS, big box or department store I no longer see any of these complete packages for sale any more. As a result, I wonder how many kids are not getting something like this for Christmas, and as a result are missing out on the experience of setting up a tank, watching the fish grow and even reproduce and feel a sense of pride in what they have accomplished.
I know it does not compare for the adrenaline rush one gets from a video or computer game, but even today I still feel I accomplished something and more importantly learned a lot from setting up and working on that tank. And as I mentioned in a previous article it also allowed me to spend time with my dad and grandmother going to the fish store.
As much enjoyment as that tank provided, I also got a few other Christmas presents over the years that were hobby related that helped in showing me what I wanted out of this hobby over the long-term. The first of these that I remember after this tank, was receiving the book Exotic Aquarium Fishes by Dr. Innes. At the time, the early 1970’s, this book was the bible of aquarium fish.
I remember reading about the fish it showed constantly as well as making my dad read the descriptions of the fish that were under each of their pictures every night before I went to bed. While other kids got stories of wizards or far away places, I made my dad tell me about guppies, zebra danios, and black mollies. I read this book so much that over the years it literally fell apart, as one by one the pages themselves pulled away from the spine of the book from use.
This book was also ahead of its time as it even had a few pages about the then impossible to keep saltwater fish. So while I must admit I was drawn to the colorful painted pictures of the freshwater fish, the way that saltwater fish were described apparently started my interest in them.
A few years after receiving this book, my interest in saltwater fish and corals was piqued even more when for Christmas my parents got me Jacques Cousteau’s Life and Death in the Coral Sea book. This was the first book that as far as I know, had actual pictures of what a live coral reef looked like as well as color photos of the fish that lived on the reef as well.
When this book was published there was also a television show of Jacques and his crew’s exploits in the sea that I watched religiously with my parents, but it was kind of random and you had to be kind of lucky to figure out when it was going to be on. So having this book that showed their exploits as well as the amazing pictures was to me one of the best presents ever.
Once I saw the pictures of the fish and corals that inhabited an actual reef, something that is completely taken for granted now, I knew that someday I would dive on a reef and hopefully also have an aquarium housing these animals. Little did I know that it would be over ten years before anyone would have even a little success in keeping live corals successfully, but getting this book started me down the road to being a reefkeeper.
While I have always had this book in my possession and looked at it regularly during the 70’s and early 80’s, there was little if any information available on how to keep live corals successfully at that time. While I subscribed to TFH, FAMA and The Marine Aquarist, these magazines for the most part had little information on how to keep coral alive.
For those of us that even thought of it, keeping live corals was then the Holy Grail of aquarium keeping. Saltwater hobbyists then kept bleached coral skeletons in their tanks, which they took out and bleached regularly. No one that I knew and none of the shops had a single live coral anywhere to be seen.
Then in the 1980’s, while my dad was on a trip to Germany he came across a pet shop that had a tank with live corals in the window. He had been in enough pet shops with me over the years that he knew this was something I would love to see. So he went into the shop, and with the people he was with asked them how they were able to keep corals alive. They gave him the book, Moderne Meerwasseraquaristik by Hans Selzle and Jurgen Lemkemeyer. My dad, who always loved making Christmas special, gave me this wonderful book for Christmas after acting like he saw nothing that would interest me while he was in Germany.
Like the ten-gallon tank and the Cousteau book, receiving this book changed my life and keeping fish forever. Once it was translated, and I did share the translation with others who shared this dream, my goal of keeping live coral and the beautiful fish of the reef became possible. While the book is short and simple, it demonstrated all the equipment that would be needed and why it was necessary to keep corals alive.
And even better, it actually showed some pictures of corals that were being kept alive in captivity over time. Needless to say, as Christmas presents go, this one probably had a profound effect on my eventually being able to keep corals alive.
Unfortunately, what this book did not provide was where I could obtain the equipment necessary to keep the corals alive that were described in this book. So after talking to the shop owners in my area as well as my friends who also wanted to do this around the country it quickly became apparent that we would need to build our own equipment if we actually wanted to do this.
However, being poor and newly married, I did not have the finances to buy much of the power tools I would need to build this equipment. Fortunately, I had a grandmother who probably more than anyone else always encouraged me in my love of the hobby. So for the next Christmas I asked her for an electric band saw and a table saw so that I could build the equipment I needed.
Unlike today where you can get just about anything precut or drilled or whatever, in the 1980’s this was not the case. But once I had this equipment, I eventually figured out how to build my own sumps, overflows, and most importantly big protein skimmers and once I could do this, setting up a reef tank, using the directions from Germany was easy.
I would love to say that my success in building equipment as well as keeping corals was immediate, but truth be told then like now the learning curve was quite steep and expensive. But getting those saws from my grandmother for Christmas allowed me to experiment and improve things almost constantly.
Not coming from a family that is especially gifted at building or doing this kind of work also forced me to go outside my comfort zone and learn skills that no one else in my family had. As a result, I ended up being the guy in the family who got called when things needed repaired. So in addition, to helping me in my favorite hobby, my grandmother also helped me to stay close with the rest of my relatives, who would call when they needed help. Which is actually kind of funny as if I had not gotten these as gifts and used them to help, most of my relatives would still view my love of reefkeeping as peculiar, which I’m sure some of them still do.
Fortunately for me my grandmother saw how much I loved doing this, so a couple of Christmases later she got me a 120-gallon tank for Christmas. As with most of the Christmas gifts she got me I still recall it vividly. Prior to this, in addition to the saws she had gotten me bikes and stereos, and nice clothes, and they were usually the gift that I really wanted the most for Christmas.
So when we opened presents at her house on Christmas and I did not see one from her I was at first a little upset. But then after everyone else opened their presents she told me to look on the back porch for my present. She had it wrapped with a bow on it so it just looked like a big box, and actually it looked like she had wrapped a coffin. But as soon as I started ripping off the paper I was delighted to find the biggest tank that I had ever seen.
As those of you who have large tanks know, nothing looks as empty as a completely empty big tank. And for all of my cousins, parents and other relatives who saw it there was only one thought: “How are you going to fill it up?” Now after having had my share of large tanks I know this is a silly question as we now fill them up way too fast. But back then when almost no one had a large tank, it seemed like a good concern.
Over the next couple of years I filled up this tank and a few others mostly with soft corals, as the keeping of stony corals was thought to be impossible and at that time very few Acropora or other stony corals were coming in to the local dealers or anywhere else for that matter. Then in the mid-1990’s Fiji opened up and stony corals became widely available for the first time.
My grandmother always kept an eye on what I was doing and always supported me whenever she could and she would always sit with me and watch my tanks full of fish and corals often asking what each fish and coral was named. As she got older her health was starting to fail, but she always still got me a special Christmas gift each year, usually something special I would ask for.
For what would be her last Christmas with me she got me a present that I will always cherish: the set of Veron’s Corals of the World. For many of us, these are the definitive bible of descriptive coral books so even now many years after I have gotten them I still look through them fairly regularly when I come across something that I have not seen before or often. And every time I do I think of my grandmother who go them for me for Christmas.
Now that she is gone, no one gets me reef or aquarium related stuff for Christmas any more, so now I usually get myself my own reef-related Christmas present. Last year I decided it was time to actually have a tank that added rather than subtracted from the room it was in, so my Christmas present to myself was a new Elos 120-gallon tank.
This may seem a little extravagant, but I was a good boy last year. The tank has been a beautiful addition to my home and my collection of 5 other tanks. It is to me the most beautiful tank I own from the viewpoint of the tank itself. However, I have been naughty this year and tried to rush a few things so as a result the corals and other inverts I have put in the tank have not done as well as they have in some of my other tanks.
But I hope to be nice in the upcoming year and get the beauty of the inside of this tank to match its outside. So far this Christmas, I have not come up with an equally fun present to give myself, but if any of my readers want to take me on a dive trip to an exotic location I could be persuaded.
Over the years I have gotten some amazing presents that encouraged and fueled my love of the hobby. Sadly when I am out Christmas shopping or visiting aquarium shops during this season one of the things I rarely see is involvement by any children in the hobby. While I know how expensive the hobby can be, especially reefkeeping, I still think it is a good idea to have our kids involved in it as much as possible.
I know it is not a video game, or an app that provides immediate gratification, but over the years I have had this as a hobby I feel I have gotten far more fulfillment out of it as than I could any video game. Granted when I was young the hot video game was Pong, but still the reward is greater in doing this.
But in addition to my own enjoyment of the hobby, it has provided me the opportunity to spend time with my parents, grandmother and my kids, that I probably would have missed out on otherwise. So with all of the different ways you can enjoy the hobby from a nano tank, to captive bred seahorses or a soft coral tank there are lots of ways to get your kids involved by giving them a reef related present.
Even if you don’t give your kids something like this for Christmas, spend some time with them working on your tank this holiday as down the road they will likely remember spending time with you doing something you love more than any present you give them. Merry Christmas everyone and have a wonderful New Year too.