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A window on life under water

Aquariums offer a mind-massaging hideaway - and help maintain humidity

For dedicated aquarium lovers, the creation and maintenance of their own underwater microcosms is not just a hobby but a beautiful and compelling obsession.

Even for casual observers, a surprising otherworldly encounter with an aquarium offering a window into the world of water creatures is mesmerizing.

Brightly coloured fish cruise back and forth; exotic coral structures form contorted, hide-andseek caves and tunnels; and plants sway gently with the flow of otherwise undetectable currents.

Besides that, aquariums offer a cool patch of living greenery when outdoor temperatures rise above 100 degrees, a mind-massaging hideaway when life gets stressful and a natural source for maintaining humidity in the home.

Bryan Jones has designed, installed and maintained aquariums for homes and business settings in central Kentucky for more than 26 years through his business, Rent-a-Fish. He has been involved with aquariums most of his life.

"I got my first 10-gallon tank, with black mollies and a cory catfish, when I was five years old," he says.

By the mid-1980s, his aquarium count was up to nine.

After pursuing degrees in biology and art from the University of Kentucky, he managed and eventually owned Regency Pet Center in the Southland area.

It eventually closed, he says, mainly because of strong competition from Internet sales in a struggling economy.

Jones then found a niche in service.

"It becomes a big part of your life and who you are," he says.

"This is what I use to share my art, creating aquarium systems and designs. People 'ooh' and 'aah' about them."

He created the 500-gallon see through wall tanks at Cheddar's restaurants in Lexington.

Jones stresses to his clients that he thinks fish should not just exist but thrive in their new home.

The system has to fit the needs and personality of its keeper: Do you want a freshwater or saltwater system?

What kinds of fish do you want, and do they suit your style - from flashy and energetic to relaxed and laid-back - and are they compatible with each other in terms of personality and habitat needs?

Results vary widely.

In one set-up at client Cooper Hartley's Pine Mountain Lumber office in Lexington, Jones created a calming freshwater "community tank" that brings together fish from around the world that are not aggressive with one another and can live harmoniously.

They include Boeseman's rainbowfish from Oceania, Congo tetras from Africa, neon tetras from South America and cherry barbs from Asia.

They coexist peacefully in a forest of teardrop rotala plants, which look like an underwater jungle of long, narrow, green bottle brushes.

In another tank at Hartley's home, they decided on different freshwater varieties of flashy, energetic African cichlids.

In addition to being active and prolific, these mouth brooding fish are interesting to observe as they protect their newborn young by holding them in their mouths.

Because cichlids would chew up living green plants, artificial plants were installed in the home set-up.

"Keeping an aquarium teaches you so much about your environment, for instance being responsible about water quality and aware of the delicate nature of the world we live in," Jones says.

Another aquarium keeper, Mark King, who has just graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry and is starting a periodontal practice, plans to move one of his four home tanks to his new office.

Like Jones, King got his first tank when he was five years old. It was birthday gift.

By high school, he was working part-time at Waters of the World, a fish shop in Evansville, Indiana, that carries mainly saltwater systems.

He says he spent more than he earned at the fish shop. Despite being "always in the red," he says, he picked up a lot of experience and know-how.

Among the skills he learned was keeping coral, which he raised in saltwater reef tanks, providing them with diverse structure and colour.

These sensitive animals have exacting requirements for lighting types and timing, water pH level and quality, appropriate and reliable filtration and cleaning systems, temperature optimization and feeding.

King has installed lights on a timer that simulate sunrise and

GETTING STARTED WITH AN AQUARIUM

If you're tempted by the thought of starting an aquarium, keep in mind that you will be putting yourself in charge of beautiful, precious living creatures. Here are some things to be aware of.

Age: For children, starting small and letting the hobby grow with them can nurture a lifelong passion and appreciation of nature. For adults, along with a responsibility for keeping things alive comes the opportunity for artistic expression, scientific investigation, understanding the mechanics of pumps and water chemistry and, if you choose, an expanded community of like-minded friends.

Responsible sources: When choosing fish, investigate how specimens are obtained, and try to do business with environmentally responsible sources.

Books: Longtime saltwater aquarist Mark King suggests a great reference he has found useful since his high school

sunset and natural light wavelengths for his tanks' coral, which in the wild mainly grow in shallow water.

But all the hard work has paid off. days, now out in a 2008 updated version: The Conscientious Marine Aquarist: A Commonsense Handbook for Successful Saltwater Hobbyists by Robert Fenner, Matthew Wittenrich, and Scott Michael (TFH Publications). Another book, now out of print but worth searching for at used book sources, is Natural Reef Aquariums: Simplified Approaches to Creating Living Saltwater Microcosms by John Tullock (TFH Publications).

Networking: Bryan Jones points out that the loss of local specialty shops in recent years has made it more difficult to find places where aquarium enthusiasts gather. You can learn from investigating online discussion boards such as Reef2reef.com and Reefcentral.net.

Lexington, Kentucky, aquarist Charlie Keller, who recently reduced the size of his aquarium to accommodate a growing family, suggested the Kentucky Reef Society's site at Kyreef.com.

King's arrangement of corals is breathtaking, forming a cave and tunnel-filled cliff-scape along the back of his tank.

"I don't watch television," he says. "I play with the fish tank."