Something Good #32: My Life Aquatic
This is my aquarium. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
My aquarium is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.
In the middle of the Second Pandemic Winter, I decided to resurrect my aquarium. The 10-gallon tank, along with a handful of accessories, had been sitting in the basement for over a year, a mildly shameful reminder of my first attempt to set up a tank, which ended in the woeful death of two red platys. This time, I was going to do it right.
Setting up a working freshwater aquarium for tropical fish is a surprisingly complicated and lengthy process. In my case, it involved nearly four months of multiple daily water tests, countless google searches for terms like “what if nitrate level too high after water change,” and the procurement of a container of grey-market ammonia.
But, in the midst of what felt like an endless season of solitude, the practice of testing, analyzing and adulterating the 10 gallons of water that would one day be a living biome for a handful of brightly-coloured fish became a sacred daily ritual. It became the center of my life.
Here is how I did it.
In 2019 I acquired a 10-gallon tank along with some basic supplies from my work friend Laura. This tank was probably too small for a beginner, especially one who wasn’t pay careful enough attention to what the hell he was doing, and my first fish did not survive.
So in 2021, I was extra careful. I knew I had to get one very element right before I added any living inhabitants. That was a process known as The Nitrogen Cycle.
Let me explain this as simply as I can.
Fish and other sea life naturally produce ammonia, mostly in their poop. Unfortunately, ammonia is very toxic for them—which is why they poop it out. In a contained environment like an aquarium—especially a small one!—even a handful of fish can cause ammonia levels to rise to deadly levels within weeks or even days.
So what to do about what is essentially liquid bleach contaminating your tank? Well, as it turns out, there is a species of beneficial bacteria—henceforth, BB—that feeds on ammonia. Great! One problem: the BB also produces its own toxic effluence, a chemical called nitrite, which is almost as bad for the fish as the ammonia.
Luckily, there’s a second species of BB that will itself eat the nitrites. Now, as you may have guessed, this BB also poops out its own toxic chemical. This is called nitrate. Nitrate is not great for fish, but they can tolerate it in higher quantities and if you just replace a percentage of the tank’s water every week to keep the levels down they’ll be fine.
One bacteria to clean up after the fish; another to clean up after the first bacteria. Once both BBs are firmly established in your tank, you have created your Nitrogen Cycle.
🐠 Fish poop out ammonia ➡️ BB1 eat the ammonia ➡️ BB1 poop out nitrite ➡️ BB2 eat the nitrite ➡️ BB2 poop out nitrate ➡️ a human changes the water to reduce the nitrate level ➡️ the cycle continues 🐠
Thing of it is, you can’t just buy beneficial bacteria and dump it in your tank. You need to grow it—cultivate it—nurture it over a period of weeks or months until you have reached that blissful state of biological equilibrium.
There are two ways to do this. One is to buy a couple of hardy fish, throw ‘em in your tank, let them generate enough ammonia to attract the attention of BBs, and just let the fish tough it out in the ammonia- and nitrite-heavy water until you have your cycle, then ditch the tough fish and bring in your pretty, delicate ones. This is widely regarded as fairly cruel as the fish, though hardy, will really suffer.
The morally superior method is known as the fishless cycle. For this, you need to add ammonia manually to an empty tank once every day or so, first to catch the BB’s attention, then to keep it fed and happy. Eventually, they’ll form a colony and start pumping out nitrites, which will then attract the second form of BBs.
The problem is, pure ammonia isn’t the easiest substance to come by, particularly since it has been known as an ingredient in the making of bombs by terrorists the like of Timothy McVeigh, etc.
One friend suggested that I pee in the tank (an actual thing!), but I dismissed that for several reasons, mostly hygienic. Luckily, I was able to find a small container of aquarium-friendly ammonia on the third page of Amazon search results. Using a scale meant for “jewellers” (drug dealers), I carefully measured 1/10 of a teaspoon (0.44g) of the white powder and added it to my aquarium water.
Then, every day for months, I tested the water for three different substances: ammonia, nitrite and nitrates. I’d take water samples, add a test solution, and each little test tube would change colour depending on how high the concentrations were.
I would then compare the colour saturation with a printed guide to determine the actually parts per million of the chemical in question—which was sometimes easier said than done.
Every morning I would perform this ritual, adding more ammonia when the BBs had eaten it up. I waited patiently for the first appearance of nitrites—very exciting!—and then, much longer, for the nitrates themselves to appear, signifying the appearance of both forms of bacteria.
My aquarium became a heat sink for my anxiety as we all waited for news of vaccines and variants. I would go to bed every night and soothe my weary mind to sleep with optimistic thoughts about nitrite levels and pH readings.
But boy, did it take a long time. I think I levelled up my patience skill during the last stage, where I was waiting for those second form of BBs to arrive and bed down in my tank’s substrate and filter media. They took their sweet time, due in some part, I have to admit, to some amateur hour stumbles on my part.
Finally, after what must have been three months of diligent testing, the day arrived when the test tubes showed zero ammonia, zero nitrite, and a modest amount of nitrate. The cycle had been completed. That morning I announced the news to my very patient family, who had long been convinced that this process would never end.
Our aquarium is now home to six neon tetras, a little catfish named Whiskers, a sunset honey dwarf gourami, and two beautifully-striped nerite snails, who do a remarkably efficient job of cleaning the tank of accumulated algae. They seem happy. The tank is in balance, even if our lives still are not.
I particularly enjoy watching the snails climb the leaves of our aquatic plants in search of a bite to eat.
This is my aquarium. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
Discovered, perfectly preserved, in an old book at a friend’s house. Date unknown.
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