Saltwater aquariums are the rage and nowadays the sea's exotic designs are very much at home on land—in offices, split-levels and even in singles bars
March 01, 1976

You might havebeen six, the day a molar was aching with portent. Too much ice cream orwhatever, and a man in a white coat with hammers and drills was going to repayyou for your sins. As you sat in the waiting room, you watched the fish in atank next to the magazines and rubber plants. They fluttered silently, bubblesflanking them, rising, falling, tiny ovals of color swimming mindlessly, up,down, back, forth, soothingly, on and on. "Next," shouted the hygienistand you were yanked away to the dentist's chair, your last vision being ofcolor-dotted silence, where teeth seemed to matter not at all. A dentist'soffice was a fine place to gain an appreciation of fish.

Aquariums havebeen popular since the Chinese domesticated carp. The Romans stocked ponds withexotics. Now with the advent of saltwater aquariums keeping rare fish is oncemore the craze. The advantages of fish over other pets are obvious: they needlittle space, don't have to be walked and die quietly. They even servesophisticated purposes—in Florida club owners are using them to encourageconversation in singles bars.

Jettransportation, synthetic seawater (as easy to make as iced tea) and suchadvanced support systems as filters and skimmers have made tropicals reasonableto maintain in places far from the ocean. Few people are satisfied with guppiesand mollies after beholding the splendors of lemon peels, batfish and othersaltwater exotics.

Joseph E. TurnerJr., a 39-year-old Miami fish collector and aquarium shop owner, is one whosebusiness is thriving because saltwater tanks are in fashion. Turner made hisfirst dives as a boy off Miami's South Beach, using window screen as a net. Thespecimens he brought up then he merely looked at, nobody being particularlyinterested in fish that wouldn't live in tap water.

"It's asnatural for a kid in Miami to take to the water as it is for a-kid in Ohio toplay football," Turner says. "The ocean was my first love and remaineda passion after I grew up and became a civil engineer. It seemed natural thatone day I would design environments for fish."

Terming hiscreations "living furniture," Turner became a total process man,guiding his finds from sea to sitting room. Or racetrack. In 1959 he wascommissioned by Hialeah Park to build a $75,000 aquarium. Since then he hasbuilt curved aquariums, table aquariums, aquariums that resemble portholes in asunken galleon. For a bachelor he built an aquarium with one-way glass to serveas a wall between a bedroom and the bar area. In the process of makingsuggestions about lighting and placement Turner frequently ends up designing anentire room down to carpet and woodwork.

"Fish are notyour average pets," he says. "Well, I do have a client who had me builda tank around a 3½-year-old, foot-long oscar that was outgrowing its home. Thething actually comes up to be petted. But mostly fish belong to the realm ofinterior design."

Because no onehas devised methods for successfully mass-breeding most marine tropicals,specimens must be caught, and therefore prices are high and the exotic qualityenhanced. Turner encourages friends and clients who are fit enough to stock andreplenish their own tanks. The feeding of tropicals is touchy, with syntheticor substitute food being the best one can provide. "You just can't give thefish what they eat on the reef every day," says Turner. Filled with anintricate balance of things, the ocean resembles a great bowl of stew, and youcan no more expect to duplicate its complexity in a 30-gallon container thanyou can expect to get all 26 letters in a spoonful of alphabet soup.

"In the oceanthere is a constant exchange of water," Turner says. "Even if youtransfer water directly from the sea to your tank, the native organisms soondie and you are left with toxic wastes. There are parasites and fungi lyingaround that sometimes explode and wipe out an aquarium almost before your eyes.Synthetic water is free from bacteria because it is sterile, but it has nonutrients."

Filling a tankstocked with invertebrates (the organisms normally found on the ocean floorexcept fish) with fresh sea-water gives a stunning example of the ocean'selixir. Within moments anemones wave about, crabs jig, tubeworms throb, algaeglow. The environment absolutely blooms.

Prospectivebuyers at Joe's Exotic Aquaria, Inc. in Coconut Grove, Fla. ("aquaria"is the plural form professionals insist on; an aquarium owner is likewise an"aquarist") are as likely to find a locked door as a sales pitch.Turner may be out providing maintenance service on tanks, a function akin toserving as the family doctor. Entering office buildings and homes toting a kitof drops, tubes and charts, he asks delicately if there have been any illnessesor deaths.

On a recent triphe was assured that everything was fine, except that one fish disappeared forlong periods. Turner explained that it was a blackbird wrasse and that itsnatural behavior included burying itself in sand. "I have to continuallyreassure my clients," says Turner. "One customer started to dismantlehis aquarium looking for a wrasse. And a lady once called, distraught—'There'sa fish on my fish!' she said. It was just a neon goby, a fish that climbs onother ones to clean them of parasites."

A beginner has tospend about $175 for an aquarium equipped with an air pump, a subsand filter, aheater, a protein skimmer and an ultraviolet sterilization unit. This does notinclude fish—another $50—or twice-monthly maintenance of $25. Add to this $50for fish replacement and the one-year total hovers near $600, quite an outlayconsidering that with a mixing bowl, two glasses of water and a 69¢ goldfishyou can have a freshwater aquarium. Turner's clients range from millionaires topeople who he admits "should probably be buying clothes rather than morefish." The prices will continue to rise. Maintenance of holdingstations—Turner has them in Hawaii, Tahiti and Panama—is increasing as is jetfare. Transporting fish long distances is risky, with 50% loss being common.Although most Atlantic reef fish fall in the $2-$15 range, a customer demandinga clown triggerfish from the Philippines must be willing to pay $250. Andmarine tropicals are never guaranteed.

On the days thatExotic Aquaria, Inc. does not open at all, its owner-president can usually befound in the ocean. Though he can get stock cheaper from wholesalers, thepleasure of diving compensates for lower profit.

If the morningwind is low and the water clear, Turner and a friend, Neil Kellar, will slipout of the Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove and head east. On a recentmorning Kellar's 17-foot boat left a wake like wrinkles in Saran wrap. Althoughsome conservationists blast fish collectors for tampering with a fragileenvironment, collectors claim the principal danger to marine life is waterpollution. "As for depletion from collecting, it's nothing," Turnersays. "Sometimes I'll go to a coral head and take two butterflyfish, andevery time I return there are two more because that's how many the coral headwill support. Nature takes care of the excess."

Nevertheless,restrictions on collecting and shipping are increasing as environmentalistsseek to protect reef species and avoid problems similar to those that havearisen when freshwater aquarium fish were released in local waters. Aquariumowners demand increasingly bizarre, even dangerous, marine species. Theelectric eel is one of these, as is the deadly lionfish from the Indo-Pacific.Though frilly as a lace napkin, the lionfish has poison sacs at the base ofeach dorsal spine, and even slight contact with the fish can cause painfulwelts and nausea. The odds against two lionfish getting loose and reproducingin the Atlantic Ocean are astronomical but the chance does exist.

As Kellar aimedthe boat between tiny Soldier's Key and Ragged Key, splotches of turquoisesponge beds and patch reefs began to dot the shallow bottom. Turner pointed toa small mound of debris. "There's an octopus in there," he said."They love to pile beer cans over their front doors."

Moving on, theboat passed Key Biscayne. Standing on the bow, Turner suddenly shouted"Here," and the boat slid to a stop, pelicans on a nearby wreckgronking at the disturbance. The men donned wet suits and gloves, protectionagainst contact with stinging coral, and slipped overboard. They returned withplastic bags filled with tree-shaped algae and rose-petal coral, food for thefish at the shop.

As thestop-and-pick process continued out past the last point of land, the sea tookon the character of a vast supermarket. "People cannot imagine the thingsdown there," said Turner. Other techniques used by collectors includeseining, probing tidal pools and raising clumps of seaweed and shaking them forthe grotesque sargassum fishes tucked inside. And despite man's intrusion, theocean remains beautiful and bountiful. Kellar has caught as many as 25high-hats in a single net stroke.

Having watchedfish all his life, Turner knows a great deal about their behavior and theirtemperaments. When he plans someone's tank he must be, he says, "a fishsociologist. I can't put in too many bullies like queen angelfish. And eachclownfish likes to have an anemone to hide in. Pacific clownfishes generallydon't like Atlantic anemones. I have to decide whether to put in hermit crabsor coral shrimp to keep things clean. It's tough playing MotherNature."

Anchoring theboat in 25 feet of water above an azure clearing in the turtle grass, Turnerdived once more, his hammer, wire probe, knife, nets and bottle of quinaldineand vodka (a homemade tranquilizer used on fish that "hole up")strapped to his waist. The water was the color of mountain skies with sunlightstreaming through like shafts of rain. A spotted eagle ray moved slowly acrossthe white floor raising eddies of sand. A wedge of horse-eye jacks streamedpast, eyes bugged in perpetual terror. Schools of French grunts lingered. Abarracuda drifted in the distance.

Turner located apicnic-cooler-sized ball of brain coral and settled next to it. The coralresembled an apartment building, tiny beaugregories and melon fish peering fromfissures, arrow crabs clambering over the walls, angelfish crow ding thepenthouse, crawfish and urchins peeking from the basement. Using various netsand prods, Joe took what he wanted. The residents would not leave, sometimesnipping at his fingers with match head-sized mouths. The fish flickered likeflames in the holding bucket.

When Turner has apallette full he divvies up the specimens among his projects, using an artist'seye and a naturalist's savvy. Recently he prepared a bizarre arrangement for aMiami bar, which shakes at night with the music of rock bands. He used onlytough species. "Loud music, go-go girls and flashing lights are not exactlythe perfect environment for fish," he says.

But captured fishgo where they are wanted—queens once wore them in earrings. "An aquariumprovides constant movement, a slide show without disturbing anyone," saysthe operator of one Miami club. "It is also an icebreaker. Instead ofsaying, 'Hi, my name's Jack,' a young man can say to a girl, 'Isn't that abeautiful tank?' "

Perhaps it is sadthat when saltwater fish are taken from the ocean they begin to shine less andless. With colors fading they become perishables on display. "I don't tellpeople this but really it's just a matter of time," says Turner."Usually less than six months." On the other hand, life in apredator-filled, increasingly polluted ocean is not always a blessing. There issomething about marine tropicals that makes them seem almost willing to beexploited. Might their colors—chartreuses, ambers, indigos, oranges—have beenmeant, in some small way, to be utilized by man, to soothe, to entertain, tohypnotize, to cheer up this so often tormented race? After all, a fish can doworse than make someone's visit to the dentist's office a less frighteningaffair.

PHOTOKeeping species like the tomato clownfish is costly, but collectors prefer gaudy to guppy. PHOTOflame angelfish PHOTOlionfish PHOTOroyal gramma PHOTOcleaner shrimp PHOTOanemonefish PHOTOblueface angelfish PHOTOyellowtail blue PHOTOAt the edge of her sea FOUR PHOTOSJoe Turner surfaces with his quarry. Among the species frequently found in tanks are lipstick tang (left, top), blueface trigger (left, below) and the Tiera batfish.