“Is this normal??”
The texted photo and question came from Jan, who was taking care of my cat Jasmine while I was on a week-long rail vacation. Her pic showed that the water level in my 70-gallon aquarium was down by at least a quarter.
This was certainly not normal.
Jan added that a couple of my fish had already died and that my house smelled “kind of swampy.” She had opened up a couple of windows, turned on the fan, and was looking for leaks in the tank.
Me? I was in panic mode. I had inherited this tank a few years ago and didn’t know a whole lot about it or its 35 or so colorful residents. For months I had paid a guy to regularly clean the aquarium and take care of other fish issues.
But he was no longer available and did not respond to a rather desperate text I sent him from the train
I did know, however, that if the water level continued to fall, the death count would rise.
“There’s a crack on the right side of the tank,” Jan said, completing a perimeter inspection. “But I don’t think it’s leaking.”
This was good news: An aquarium collapse and its resulting tidal wave of water and fish would not inundate my den.
By this time I was slowly getting a grip. I had Jan look inside the tank’s cabinet, where the filter and air pump are. She gasped.
The plastic tub that held the filter was full to the brim with water and overflowing. I had Jan unplug the filter, which apparently had a hose leak, then grab a bunch of bath towels to sop up the mess.
She stopped the leak. “I think that’s all we can do for now,” I told Jan with an air of false confidence. “I’ll take care of it when I get home.”
I was at the time riding across Utah’s high plains aboard the California Zephyr. And I had no clue of how exactly I’d “take care of” this aquatic emergency.
Jan checked in the next morning. “Tank level’s the same,” she reported. “No more dead fish.” Good news.
The Zephyr got into Sacramento at 2 that afternoon. I drove to Sonora, stopped at McCloud’s Pets, and bought a new filter. Better safe than sorry.
I then went home and, yep, there was a touch of Okefenokee in the air. And the aquarium water looked a shade or two greener than it should.
The fish themselves? No sign of alarm.
Aficionados out there may wonder what species I have: I inherited a three-inch clown loach and a seven-inch and still-growing plecostomus from an earlier era. The pleco is my only named fish: “Monster,” because of his size.
Over many months, I have added sharks, more loaches, more plecostomi, fancy guppies, and various barbs and tetras. So far, they haven’t eaten each other.
My job now: Save them.
First, I refilled the tank. Next, I disconnected the hoses and hefted the old filter out from under the aquarium. It was sodden and dirty. Its hoses were lined with algae.
So I decided on a fresh start with a fresh filter. This way I’d have assembly instructions, fresh out of the box, right in front of me.
That did not help: The owner’s manual was 15-pages long and featured a bewildering array of diagrams, photos and instructions. What’s more, English seemed to be the second or maybe even third language of its authors.
That I’m not a mechanical person didn’t help. Complex instructions and a multiplicity of small, very similar parts typically befuddle me. This happened several times as I struggled to assemble and install the new filter in hit-and-miss fashion.
But, via trial and many errors, I somehow got it done! I fired it up, and the filter worked. The fish – and, yes, I’ll admit that deciphering piscine emotions is an inexact science – seemed delighted.
I went to bed at midnight, crisis averted.
Tropical fish face no pandemic and do not socially distance. Still, life amid our lockdown goes on for them much as it does for me: Yesterday is pretty much the same as today, which is pretty much the same as tomorrow.
But my fish seem to enjoy their daily freshwater flakes and sinking wafers, and the tank generates enough algae to keep Monster and his fellow suckers growing and happy. What’s more, watching them calms me down – even in the midst of that pandemic.
So life does go on in Yankee Hill’s answer to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And that I had some role in averting disaster gives me a measure of satisfaction.
Which is pretty much all it takes to make my day. Especially during these days.