Things I Miss About the Hobby

Being with some of my long-time friends a bit ago, we started reminiscing about the early years of the hobby and some of the things that used to be common or major parts of the hobby and how many of them were gone. I am typically not someone who dwells on the past, but I must admit that I do miss some of the things that made the early days “fun”. Maybe I was just young and found simpler things more enjoyable or maybe it was because everything was simply new and exciting. Regardless of the reason there are lots of things that we fondly remembered that are no longer big parts of the hobby and sadly we think that new hobbyists are missing out on these fun parts of the hobby.

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The impressive tank of Ara Deumajian circa 1995. During one of my trips I got to go on a tour of the tanks and saw this tank which was impressive in that he was successfully keeping sps corals long before it was easy.

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During another tour we got to see how a tank was constructed to be outside in the garage but viewed from inside the house. But it took constructing a special stand.

One of the reasons we had time to think of these things is because it was one of the biggest things that we all missed: the road trip. In the early days of the hobby it was fairly common for a group of hobbyists from one locale to get together and travel somewhere for a hobby reason. It could have been to go to a club meeting where a speaker of repute was talking, or to a store that had different corals or fish or that had an awesome display tank or some equipment that was new. Obviously this was before the internet, so it was often necessary to travel just to even get saltwater fish or corals as back then only a few stores carried corals or the specialized equipment that we needed. I was fortunate in that I got to go on road trips with some of greats, although truth be told they were only good back then and had not yet achieved greatness. On numerous such trips I traveled with the master chemist of Aquarium Systems, Tom Frakes, up to Romulus Michigan to visit Dick Perrin and his magical coral farm. I also made several trips to speak at clubs with Charles Delbeek, Scott Michael and Julian Sprung and got to see them speak as well. These road trips were great in that much information was shared, including mistakes, but even better much grief was given to one another. Maybe because of the many laughs that were shared we have all remained friends for now over twenty years. Sadly, those road trips ended more than a decade ago, so now I only make one regular road trip. Once every month or two I take the 3 hour trek up to see my friend Sanjay and his wonderful tanks. I have now been making this trip for over 25 years and over the years I have made this trip with many other hobbyists as companions and still do. Seeing his tanks, sharing information and trading frags among other enjoyable activities are why I will continue making this road trip for as long as I am in the hobby.


After a talk in Boston I got to see this tank that was one of the first to use sunlight for light. The size and health of the corals was impressive in 2005.


A close-up of the sunlight tank.

Similar to road trips, in that they don’t occur as often as they did in the past and I miss them, are Tours of the Tanks. In the early years of the hobby, another way that information was shared between hobbyists was by seeing other’s tanks. But rather than it just being one on one viewing marine clubs and societies would organize days where their members would spend the day visiting as many of each other’s tanks as they could. It was kind of like Christmas caroling without the singing. Food would be given out and a few adult beverages would be consumed, but the best part was getting to see new and different tanks and learn what each other was doing. Again I was lucky in that during many of my trips to speak at clubs a Tour of the Tanks was arranged to coincide with my visit, so I got to see even more amazing tanks than I otherwise would have. To me seeing is learning, so getting to see so many successful tanks helped me more than just about anything. I know today we can see each other’s tanks online, but it is not the same as seeing tanks in person and getting to ask questions of the owner then and there. I saw tanks utilizing dialysis machines, algae scrubbers, sunlight, huge dump buckets just to name some of the things that were unique at the time. While I still love pictures of tanks, I can’t help but admit that I still miss having that sense of awe that occurred when I walked in and saw an awesome tank up close and personal for the first time.


This was also one of the first tanks I saw that used a refurbished dialysis machine for filtration. The water was indeed crystal clear.

As I said, during my above discussion, Marine Society meetings were often a part of the early part of the hobby. In those days, going to a saltwater club or Marine Society meeting were a good way not only to learn new stuff, but also a way to make friendships and be part of a community that at the time was doing something that was not only difficult, but was also unique. Many of the meetings were held on the weekends so I and many other speakers would often make going to these meetings a weekend trip and as a result we got to know the people from a club as well as what an area was like. Unlike today where most clubs function more as trading posts or the reason for a frag swap, club meetings used to have something for everyone. They were a great source not only for beginners to learn, but also where they could get frags and supplies at a discount. Used equipment was brought in and sold or traded and many friendships were started. Back then everyone was not only learning, but many also had a niche that they were good at. Some bred seahorses or clownfish, while others were mastering different biotopes for fish or coral or fish. Regardless of what they were doing I tried to learn something from all of them and that was part of the fun and a reason I think these societies were so important for the development of the hobby. In speaking with Dave Demeter, the president of C-Sea, the Cleveland Aquarium Society this past weekend, we both lamented how much the impact and vigor of the societies have fallen. While many are still around, they are for the most part there to set up frag swaps or shows, not to promote knowledge about the hobby or promote discussion, and the membership and attendance at meetings has fallen significantly, which makes me miss that aspect of the meetings as well.

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A tank discussed by a European speaker where he shared the secret for keeping difficult anthias like these purple queens.


Bringing in speakers from other countries allowed us to see equipment that was new or not available here like this Schuran skimmer.

One of the other aspects of these club meetings that I miss is that this was often a great place to get free or cheap frags. Members would bring in whatever was growing well in their tanks and sell the frags for $5 or $10 or trade them with others who had stuff that they did not have. This was not only a way to get frags cheap, but for beginners it was also an opportunity to get frags of corals that had proven that they did well in captivity. This was more important then than it is now, as back then we generally had no idea if a coral would do well or not and also if it would do well in one tank versus another. By sharing and trading frags we were able to refine what conditions a certain coral did well under versus what would cause it to fail. Needless to say this helped immensely in developing our knowledge base for the proper husbandry of corals. Remember in the early days of the hobby the main mantra was bright lights, strong current, no feeding and low nutrients. Think how many corals we would not be able to keep today if that was still the only conditions we kept in our tanks. During this time the trading and fragging of corals was done to add to our enjoyment rather than as a business opportunity at these meetings. So being able to do so without worrying that we were low-balling a frag of a rainbow whatever made trading frags at these meetings much more fun than it is today. I think that the sharing of frags among fellow club members added to the sense of community and camaraderie that I see missing in a lot of the hobby today. When I have mentioned this to some clubs they tended to agree, but they said when they tried to limit pricing on frags people either quit bringing them in or quit coming all together. So maybe I am missing something, but to me at least trading frags along with information at club meetings is another aspect of the hobby that I really miss.

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During a tour of the tanks in Pittsburgh we got to see a full grown Vlamingi tang in all its glory in its home in a 1200-gallon tank.

In a similar theme to trading frags, I also miss seeing large colonies in people’s tanks. While I know some individuals still have big colonies, for the most part when I see people’s tanks very rarely do I see colonies that have been grown out over more than a couple of years. I understand that space is at a premium and that if you let a couple of colonies get too big they will dominate everything, but I still miss seeing colonies bigger than my fist in all but a few tanks. Again I know that anything rare or brightly colored gets fragged, but I think we miss how awe-inspiring a large coral colony can be, even if it is only a large brown colony. Being someone who loves every colony and almost every frag I see, I understand how hard it is to devote space to only a few large impressive colonies, but as I get older I am trying to do this at least a bit more. It will be interesting to see that if the frag bubble ever bursts and the demand and prices for coral frags drop if more hobbyists will allow their corals to grow out into nice sized colonies as was the case in the past.


Even as early as the late 1990's many hobbyists had frag tanks next to their displays. But back then we usually traded frags with each other when we visited.

Thinking about this less is more ideal, I kind of have the same feeling about shows and frag swaps. Up until relatively recently there was a limited number of “national” shows and only a limited number of frag swaps. Now there about a half dozen really large shows a year as well as a frag swap somewhere just about every weekend. While I enjoy attending these shows, I must admit as is the case with football, I have become less enamored with it due to my feeling the market is now at east a bit oversaturated with it. Maybe I am a bit jaded as I have been doing this for a long time, but I am also worried that overexposure will eventually lead to things being taken for granted. I hope this is not the case with these shows, but at least for me I enjoyed when there were fewer so I could really one when I went to it.

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Back then many tanks had big colonies of staghorn Acroporas, something that is rarely seen today.

Conversely the opposite is true in regards to local fish stores (LFS). In my area and in many of the areas I travel to I see more and more shops closing. While I hate to see any business close, I especially feel bad when they are businesses that cater to my addiction. While some shops have accepted the paradigm shift that has occurred in retail, many more have not and failed as a result. I still remember waiting in a shop when the boxes came in from a shipment and my sense of excitement when I helped cut them open and see all the new stuff come in. When I used to do this there were always a sense of excitement as unlike now surprises often came in the shipments. Corals were unnamed and fish often came in as “assorted”. I remember scoring some crazy fairy wrasses and anthias that just came in as assorted or unknowns where now these same fish fetch prices in the hundreds of dollars. The same is true when miscolored or hybrid fish came in to the shops. Then they were often priced lower due to their odd coloration whereas now they are “one of a kind” and fetch the price of a kitchen appliance or a car. Maybe now when finding joy in new discoveries at a shop is no longer likely is part of the reason that some of these shops are failing. I say this as at least for me, part of the excitement I still find in the hobby after 30 years is knowing that there are still not only new things to learn, but also new fish or corals to see.

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One of the best part of taking road trips or touring tanks was making new friends, some of whom have now been friends for decades.

Another thing I miss that I used to find in my local shops was good live rock. When I say good live rock, I mean live rock that actually had lots of things living on it and in it. So much so that you had to clean off the rock before you would even begin curing it or even think about adding it to your tank. Unlike the live rock I see today, or even worse “dead rock” that looks like it has had all the living material and algae sandblasted from its surface, the live rock that used to sit in tanks or Rubbermaid vats in stores was full of life. Not only was it covered in coralline algae or turf algae, but it often had little corals growing on it and some times had little fish or other animals living in it. It was open and light and to me still the best material for starting a reef tank. Sadly, those days are gone and the rock I see often now has little resemblance to it. I even remember getting excited when the boxes of “fresh” live rock came into my local shops and I often helped with these, as they sometimes held just as many surprises as did the boxes of corals. I worry that not having anything to anticipate or wait for will diminish the joy many of us have in the hobby over time.

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Only by being able to see new ideas and concepts, as was the case with this unique water flow design do we improve how we do things.

I also miss this sense of anticipation that used to occur every month when we waited for the latest additions of the many aquarium magazines to come out and explain or show the latest improvements, new equipment and latest coral discoveries in the hobby. Obviously this was before the internet, and then our main source of new information was via magazines. FAMA, Marine Fish Monthly, Aquarium Frontiers, AFM and Tropical Fish Hobbyist, were all monthly magazines that most of us waited for with baited breath, especially when the reef keeping part of the hobby was in its infancy. Guest foreign writers like Alf Nilsen, Georg Smit, Deitrich Stuber and the late Peter Wilkens all wrote articles in monthly series for the magazines that to us were like waiting for the next Star Wars or Indiana Jones movie to come out. In these articles the authors shared the latest approaches and equipment from Europe and this information is undoubtedly one of the things that kept all of us so excited about the hobby and where it was going. Needless to say now where all information is available immediately at the click of a mouse, this sense of anticipation and waiting is no more. On the one hand the dissemination of any information is good, but no longer having something to look forward to takes away some of the fun. And isn’t having fun one of the reasons why many of us got into this hobby in the first place?

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One of the additional reasons for a road trip was to see corals that we otherwise would never see. And if we were lucky get frags of.

This lack of fun, is something I miss not only for myself, but also as a draw that brings kids into the hobby. Very rarely at the shops or shows I’m at do I see kids having their own reef tanks. For the most part this seems to be a hobby of 25-45 year-old men with some women occasionally getting into it. Even rarer is any involvement by kids of any age. I miss seeing kids involved like I was and like more were even ten years ago. My kids are now grown, and I miss the helping me as well. Often they were kicking and screaming when they did so, but I still miss having them involved.

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An early successful tank that made many of us want to go home and redo our tanks.


One of the first successful large sps tanks in California using metal halides and relatively simple filtration and mineral supplementation.

I know I may sound like Fred Flintstone when I mention things about the hobby I miss. There are now a lot of things that at least in part replace them, but sadly I don’t think they will ever replace the sense of surprise and excitement I felt when I first got into the hobby. Fortunately, every now and then I still get excited or see something new and wonderful that keeps my juices flowing. Hopefully this feeling will be there for many of you as well.
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About author
Mike Paletta
Michael Paletta’s actual career is working in genomics in breast and colon cancer for Genomic Health. He has been an avid reef keeper since 1984. He has kept personal reef aquaria ranging in size from 20 gallons to 1200 gallons and has helped set and build other reef aquaria up to 4,000 gallons in size. He currently maintains several reef aquaria including a 300 gallon sps dominated tank and a 75 lps tank. He has also consulted for The National Aquarium in Baltimore as well the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium.

Michael has published over 100 articles on various aspects of reef keeping in SeaScope, Aquarium Fish Magazine, FAMA, Practical Fishkeeping, and Coral Magazine. He has also published two books: The New Marine Aquarium and Ultimate Reefs. Michael has been invited to speak at various venues around the world and across the country and has given over 200 such talks.

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