Married to the life aquatic (National Post March 19, 2008)

Barbara Kay, National Post 

Published: Wednesday, March 19, 2008

'Love me, love my dog:" That's the story of my marriage to Ronny. Our dog's health, comfort and logistical needs rule our roost. When resentment surfaces, though, I need only think of my daughter's lot -- "love me, love my fish tank" -- to count my blessings. Call it an addiction or an obsession (he prefers the latter):My son-in-law is an aquaholic.

An "extreme" fish hobbyist from earliest youth, my son-in-law also builds and maintains aquariums for a living. To an elite 24/7 aquascaper like him (he has actually been flown to Hollywood to set up an aquarium-themed TV show tank), ordinary Wal-Mart fish in their ordinary two-gallon tanks are as window-box geraniums to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

To maintain a reef tank, the ne plus ultra of aquesthetics, you need obsession. This self-contained and self-perpetuating eco-system -- essentially a miniature Bali coral reef -- demands constant, nuanced attention.

A professionally designed and maintained reef tank is spectacularly beautiful. My son-in-law's old one, martyred to their growing daughter's need for play space, was they pursued their graceful solipsistic progress over, under and through the corals' lush fronds. It was a riveting aquatic Utopia.

Gorgeous, no doubt about it. But pity the lonely life of a reef widow (virtually all reef maniacs are men). My son-in-law sees himself as a Godlike figure, who takes bare rocks and coaxes animated art into being -- his version of the Spirit "moving upon the face of the waters." Unlike God, though, he never rests from his labours.

For reef culture is exquisitely fragile. The slightest deviation in salinity or temperature or current strength can precipitate piscine disaster, and in a night destroy the work of months or years. (Moving houses, my son-in-law aquascaped an enchanted undersea garden of brilliantly tinctured anemones hula-dancing in the artificially driven currents, their delicate fingers caressing carefully triaged non-predator fish, shrimp and snails of exotic shapes and hues as for 36 hours straight to ensure the survival of his fish and coral.)

Thus, fear of sudden peril is the reef addict's constant companion. A dog may occasionally soil the carpet, but that's trivial beside 300 gallons of steadily streaming salt water onto wood floors. So, awake or asleep, all big-tank owners are continuously attuned to the sound of running water anywhere in the house, not to mention pump frequencies and air whoosh. They compulsively monitor fish behaviour and coral colour; the slightest "off " sign, and furious testing of nitrate, ammonia, phosphate, pH, calcium and magnesium ensues.

During the famous Quebec ice storm of 1998, when their area's power went down and all their neighbours sought shelter elsewhere, my kids stayed put for the tank's sake. They kept their Subaru running non-stop for four days: They slept in the living room, huddled in the heat thrown off by the aquarium, attached via an inverter to their car battery. (It worked. The aquarium and fish survived.)

According to my daughter, reef parties are always the same. The guys cluster around the aquarium talking "system" -- calcium reactors, heaters, chillers, ozone generators, pH and redox controllers, moonlight simulators -- while the girlfriends (except for my son-in-law, they're all divorced ?) tick off the reasons they hate the hobby: mountains of "crap" piled everywhere: buckets, salt boxes, wet rags, reactors, pumps; salt-encrusted everything in the vicinity of the tank; the "under construction" feel of the open tank lid and billion-watt ultraviolet lights glaring at you; the high-decibel whine of the wave machines; the nauseating eggy odour from the protein skimmer's collection cup; the subtle but constant vibration of the main circulation pump thrumming throughout the house; the occasional rigid corpse of a suicidal fish on the floor; and the 2 a.m wakeups for flashlit peeks at the tank's "nocturnal life."

As I said, one aquarium was sacrificed for their first child. But now my son-in-law is in the throes of creating a new (bigger!) reef tank. It will be ready soon. Their new baby is three days old. Interesting saltwater days ahead (baby tears, reef tank fears) in my daughter's house. Which -- did I mention? -- is always beautifully humidified.