Trish Scala has two views of the water in her East Islip home — one of the Great South Bay and another of a 150-gallon tank with a dozen fish, ranging from arowana to catfish.
"They’re all looking right at me," Scala said as she stared right back. "I love watching them."
It’s a passion Scala and her husband share with other Long Islanders with large aquariums that adorn their homes, providing a beautiful, entertaining, even auspicious element.
Kenneth Wang, who has a 220-gallon tank at his home in Roslyn Heights, believes in the feng shui principle that water and fish make for good chi. "A fish tank sitting in the house brings you good fortune and good luck," Wang said. "I’m a fish lover."
Amid the pandemic, as many people spend more time at home, aquariums are a welcome distraction — a window on a colorful aquatic world awash with a sense of serenity.
"It’s calming. It’s nice," said Peggy Grimsley, of North Massapequa, who sees the fish in her 45-gallon tank as pets. "I also have two dogs," she said. "It’s different."
But along with the pleasures of watching varieties of fish comes the need for planning and laborious maintenance. Here’s a primer for anyone thinking of getting a large home aquarium, or scaling up.
Saltwater or freshwater?
Kenneth Wang’s saltwater aquarium has its own Nemo, or clownfish. "The colors are more vibrant than in freshwater tanks," Carol Bendo, who owns Diamond Clear Aquarium Maintenance in Westbury, said of that and other saltwater fish.
Still, you may want to take the idea with a grain of salt: Saltwater tanks often mean more work and expense, said Bendo. They generally need more equipment and corals that can be very expensive, additional work during water changes and also special lighting. "They’re more difficult to keep," Bendo said.
Size and quality of materials also make a difference when it comes to price and maintenance. Freshwater fish tend to be much heartier and generally less expensive than saltwater fish. More freshwater fish are bred in captivity than saltwater. Some saltwater fish and corals are plucked off reefs on the other side of the world, so shipping and handling add to the cost, Bendo added.
David Schiffman of Hauppauge is happy he switched from saltwater to freshwater about five years ago. "It makes my life easier and it’s a lot less expensive," he said.
Keep the ‘school’ friendly
If you go with a community tank with a wide variety of fish, it’s important they get along. "You’ve got to behave to be in this tank," Helen Schiffman said of her aquarium with a dozen fish including angelfish, swordtails, black tetras, gouramis, zebras and neon tetras.
David Schiffman’s community tank has roughly 40 fish, such as angelfish and freshwater scats. Grimsley furnished her community tank with five parrot fish, two tricolored sharks and a pleco. "It cleans the aquarium," she said of the pleco. "It takes the algae off the sides."
The Scalas’ freshwater tank includes a dozen fish that Trish Scala thinks are "hearty and will survive." Strength matters as well as appearance. Wang has around 15 fish, including a wrasse, and tang. "You get attached to them, some more than others," Helen Schiffman said of her fish, which she too sees as pets.
Long, tall or round?
You can buy aquariums, used or new, at pet stores or online, but make sure they include filters, heaters, canopies (glass covers) and a light. Aquariums are available in glass or acrylic — made of sturdy plastic — and come in various shapes. While rectangular aquariums are common, you can get a "bow front" aquarium that fits in a corner. Angelfish thrive in tall aquariums, swimming from bottom to top, Bendo said. "Other fish like to go from side to side," she said, citing danios. "They thrive in longer tanks."
Bigger fish, more room
Bigger can be better — and pricier. Kenneth Wang’s 220-gallon aquarium, with supplies and fish, cost him $30,000. "It’s dependent on what you want to spend and where you want to put it," Bendo said.
Bigger tanks may have benefits, David Schiffman believes. "If you make a mistake with a little tank, it goes bad quickly," he said, while a big tank "looks more impressive."
Some people scale up when they relocate. Wang expanded from a 130-gallon tank when he moved from a Queens apartment to his Roslyn Heights home three years ago. "Many people say an inch of fish per gallon," Bendo said. "The bigger the fish, the more room they need."
Find the sweet spot
Where you put your aquarium will determine when, whether and how often you see it. "You want it in an area where you can kick back and look at your tank," Bendo said, noting hers is between the foyer and dining room. "It’s near where we watch TV," Trish Scala said of hers. "They’re very entertaining." David Schiffman installed his behind a bar. "It’s the focal point of my house," he said. "When people come to my house, they start out at the bar."
Peggy Grimsley set up a corner tank in her breakfast room. "The corner’s out of the way," she said. "When I have company over, a lot of times they’d rather go there than in my den or living room. They like to look at the tank."
Weigh your options
While most aquariums are freestanding, you can also build your tank into furniture. Helen Schiffman’s 40-gallon aquarium is mounted in a wall unit in her Melville condominium. "It looks prettier," she said. The aquarium fits in a wood unit with shelves and cabinets visible from three sides.
But think twice before going that route.
"Water is really heavy," Bendo said, noting water weighs about 8.5 pounds per gallon. "If you put something in a wall, it has to be very secure underneath. If you put a 100-gallon tank in your wall, you’re holding over 800 pounds."
Changing the decor
Many people leave the aquarium decor as is, but Grimsley changes hers monthly with orange, purple, blue and pink themes. She has a stone, conch and wood, but can’t put much in, because the fish are large. "When you have too much in your tank, you can’t really see them," she said, noting driftwood helps plecos thrive.
Freshwater tanks typically have gravel, but saltwater tanks, such as Wang’s, often have sand. David Schiffman bought artificial coral from a company in the "Deuce Bigalow" movie credits. "They look beautiful," he said.
Real or artificial plants?
For her tank, Grimsley uses silk and plastic shrubbery to cover the ultraviolet light and heater. Artificial mushrooms float, moving in the filter’s bubbles. "Sometimes we take them out to clean them," Trish Scala said of her artificial plants. Helen Schiffman prefers live plants. "It’s more natural looking," she said. For freshwater tanks, you can buy plants that grow easily, Bendo said.
Caring for your fish
Fish can be lots of fun — and work. "Frequent water testing for fresh and saltwater tanks includes measuring pH," Bendo said. If you can spend one afternoon a month doing maintenance, you may want to care for and clean your own tank.
It’s also possible to hire individuals and companies to clean and change water. Wang pays a company about $200 for monthly cleaning and maintenance. During the pandemic, fish died, he said. "I couldn’t have the person come over to take care of it," Wang said. "Now we’re back to normal."
Bendo maintains tanks, as well as ponds, for a wide range of individuals and businesses. David Schiffman uses a wet dry filtration system to change water — and brings someone in every few months.
However you do it, caring for fish pays off. "We’ve had the fish for a long time," Scala said. "That’s because we’re taking good care of them."
If you'd rather try turtles
While fish inhabit most aquariums, some people prefer turtles.
"Turtles are a very long commitment," said Carol Bendo, owner of Diamond Clear Aquarium Maintenance in Westbury, adding that red-eared sliders are the most popular. "They live forever."
People often buy young turtles that can live 20 or 30 years, growing up to 9 inches in diameter, she said. "They’ve got personalities," Bendo added. "They’re very interactive."
Turtle aquariums should be filled with water two-thirds to three-quarters of the way up.
"There has to be a way for a turtle to climb up out of the tank on slate, bricks," Bendo said, noting islands and ramps also help.
Turtles use basking lights to dry their shell and prevent shell rot and turtle owners often scrub shells, removing algae.
"Sometimes male turtles will fight with each other," she said. "So you may want to separate male turtles."
In addition to turtle food, turtles eat vegetables, grapes and strawberries. Reptilian vets can care for them.
Turtle owners sometimes let them walk around the home and provide other areas for them.
"The turtles like to bask in a sunny area," Bendo said. "One customer puts a baby pool in the back porch in the summer and puts the turtle in it."