What’s to Love about Aquariums?


Aquaria are beautiful, diverse, interactive, complicated, and so many more adjectives. Their sounds bring peace, their sight brings smiles, and millions of people around the world bring these boxes full of water into their homes. But why? What are the joys that aquaria provide to those who keep them? I’m so glad you asked.

Aquaria Are Interactive

Aquaria are alive. Aquarium panes are transparent in both directions, and the fish and other animals inside look out just as much as human viewers look in. Fish will follow fingers, react to things happening near their tanks, and taunt cats that decide to paw at their glass. Fish will learn their feeding routines and throng excitedly near where food arrives. Fish can be trained to eat from hands and to accept affectionate touch. More intelligent aquarium inhabitants, including octopodes and mantis shrimp, benefit from the same kind of environmental enrichment that cat toys provide to cats and can be seen enjoying the challenge of food puzzles or the novelty of brightly colored unfamiliar objects. Owners of less readily handleable pets often deride aquaria as not tactile enough for their tastes, but aquarium keepers know that their charges are not just for show.

Aquaria Are a Technological Puzzle

An aquarium aims to emulate a small piece of a much larger natural system. As such, it must have the stability and interconnectivity of a system many times larger than itself, subject to natural forces from which it is sheltered, and that means technology. Aquaria, virtually without exception, have filters, heaters, and lights. As aquaria become more specialized, so too do the devices required to keep them healthy. Some systems employ chillers as well as or instead of heaters to keep temperature within specific bounds, often alongside electronic thermostats that control when one device or the other is active. Others, particularly saltwater systems featuring corals, use micronutrient dosing pumps and elaborate water-testing equipment. Heavily planted freshwater systems often use CO2 delivery systems to keep their plants thriving. Freshwater aquaria that emulate fast-moving streams, and marine tanks that emulate the movement of ocean waves, make use of powerheads to keep water moving at desired speeds. All these devices and more can be connected to programmable power strips or fed information from elaborate electronic testing equipment, some of which is Wi-Fi- or even ethernet-capable and connects to people’s computers. Even the living components of an aquarium, flora and fauna alike, can be thought of as part of this equipment, affecting water chemistry in specific ways that the technological components either make use of or attempt to counteract.

What this means is that aquarium systems can provide much the same joy that assembling computers brings to people with that hobby: the joy of building a complex system made of interconnected, interdependent parts that all contribute to a harmonious, beautiful whole, and accomplish wondrous things along the way. Each aquarium device is a marvel of engineering for its specific role, and together, they bring into a person’s home a small piece of what nature itself requires a literal planet to maintain. That is exciting, and that is wonderful.

Two butterflyfish, Pantodon bucholzi.

Aquaria Are a Biological Marvel

The core of the aquarium is not the technology that keeps it running, but the living things that technology serves. There is far more life in the world’s waters than there is on land, and bony fish have more species than mammals, birds, squamates, and turtles combined. Alongside fish, freshwater and especially marine aquaria can feature a seemingly endless array of other animals, including aquatic amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, annelids, cnidarians, and groups obscure enough that only enthusiasts can rattle off their names by heart. These inhabitants all interact with each other and the plants and microbes in their homes in the ways that creatures always do: feeding, jostling for territory, pair-bonding, reproducing, forming mutualistic connections, and more. An aquarium, by its nature, is an ecosystem and a window into biological interactions an aquarist might have no way to observe in the wild, in all their wonder.

This means that aquarists can approach the biological side of their charges any of various ways. Some aquarists collect whatever they can keep alive in standard tropical-aquarium conditions, achieving communities with African catfish, South American tetras, and Asian gouramis swimming through Indonesian plants in water whose base chemistry is Appalachian. Others aim to emulate specific places in their livestock, water chemistry, and aquascaping, such as an Amazonian floodplain, a Caribbean salt marsh, or an Australian coral reef. Aquaria can even be set up to exhibit the behaviors of specific animals to best effect, such as the precision water jets of archerfish, the symbiotic associations of pistol shrimps and burrowing gobies, or the partially terrestrial existence of mudskippers. Marine aquaria emulating coral reefs often aim to have a relatively small number of display fish and a veritable menagerie of small invertebrates acting as “cleanup crew” for uneaten food, keeping substrate clean, and acting as meat on the hoof for specialized carnivores such as dragonets, all while the corals themselves dominate the tank’s aesthetic with their pulsing movement and otherworldly color. For anyone interested in observing animals living their lives in all their splendor, an aquarium is an ideal opportunity.

A bright green lobster-like shrimp with red limbs and tail.
Odontodactylus scyllarus, the peacock mantis shrimp.

Aquaria Are Art

Much of the point of an aquarium is to view it, and that means that aesthetic considerations are never far away. Unless a tank keeps the largest, strongest, most determined redecorators in the animal world, there is ample room for an aquarium to reflect the aesthetic sensibilities of the person putting it together. Fish can be chosen in part for their complementary colors, to fill different levels of the tank with activity, or for their interesting shapes. Aquatic plants, corals, bivalves, and other stationary features can be arranged to fit photographic sensibilities and create interesting contrasts and visual layers that will then shift on their own as these organisms grow. People add artificial decorations reflecting their fandoms or just cute and funny images they enjoy, personalizing their system in ways no natural décor ever could. An aquarium in the hands of someone with a solid aesthetic sense becomes a living painting and sculpture in one, every bit the visual delight of one done in oil on canvas.

It is in this niche that fish selectively bred for unusual shapes or colors, such as round goldfish breeds, designer clownfish, long-finned bettas, and guppies particularly excel. Often less able to live in community or naturalistic homes, these fish live long, happy lives in tanks designed to safely show off their unusual features.

Particularly invested aesthetes can also manipulate their aquaria’s soundscapes. In addition to the unavoidable machine hums of filters and such, aquaria almost always come with the sound of flowing water. How that water flows depends on the nature of an aquarium’s plumbing, so to speak, and can vary from sharp streams to gentle riffles. Systems with extensive land areas, called paludariums, can pass their water flows over waterfalls, down channels, and otherwise into potential soundscapes inaccessible to those whose tanks are not so endowed. Also, some fish make noises.

An assortment of colorful guppies.

Aquaria Are Everything

Like cooking and electronics, aquaria are every kind of obsessive appeal rolled into one. Wherever one’s fancy tends to reach, there is the aquarium hobby ready to accept it. Whether one’s thoughts are toward highly mechanized systems that communicate over computer networks or tanks that expect more hands-on care, toward biotopes that imitate nature or hodgepodges that merely accept it, toward psychedelic fluorescence or earthy peace, the aquarium hobby has a fish tank to match. The beauty of this hobby is in the sheer abundant possibilities it encompasses, and every aquarist’s regret is that they will never live long enough to try them all. Which possibility will you try next?

What’s to Love about Aquariums?