“Jambo” Says The Fish Whisperer (Very Quietly Though ‘Cause He’s Whispering)

So what did I do this year to celebrate the anniversary of my birth?  Usually I head off to the coast and do some fishing or I head off to the mountains and do some fishing or I might even just go down to the Willamette and do some fishing.  But now that I have my daughter living with me, I can’t just take off and go fishing for a few days on a whim any more.  So what to do, what to do?

Well, I was not going to break with tradition and work.  That would be inconceivable.  I have managed to indulge in not working on my birthday for the past twenty years (since I was but a wee bairn) and I saw no reason what so ever to break with tradition.  I might be a staunch Bolshie, but don’t get between me and my traditions.  At least I do not indulge in a display of military might through Red Square on my birthday – although that would be kind of fun in an egotistical, monomaniacal sort of way.

But no, no parades for me this year on my birthday:  for me it was a fun four to five hours spent tearing down my Rift Lake aquarium and conducting repairs and cleansing on a massive ecological scale so it looked all pretty again. Oh that one could accomplish in nature what I did to faux nature in a morning.

This is not like cleaning out the goldfish bowl.  It requires planning and concentration and the use of all available space and just about every cleaning supply in the place and buckets (and buckets and buckets) for holding water and towels and limitless patience and, preferably (which is why I chose my birthday for this) no other person within sight to interfere, kibitz or generally be close enough to hear the vast and colourful array of profanity that is generated.

Having all of my requirements met , thus setting up the perfect aquarium cleaning situation, it was time to lay out the complete plan (and set up contingencies – just in case).  Unfortunately one of the key goals in all of this was to remove two rather militant blue cobalt cichlids that had not only driven all of the other fish to living behind the rock reef but who indulged in constant fighting with each other.

As a result of this squabbling, they now looked like a pair of second rate boxers:  they had chewed each other’s dorsal fins off and generally looked completely beat to shit. The best way to accomplish the removal of the fish was to drop the water level as low as possible without killing any of the other fish in the tank and then remove all of the rocks that I have in there for the reef.  This served a dual purpose since I wanted to remove everything for cleaning anyway; plus, in order to remove the filtration units, the rocks that surrounded it would need to come out (and basically the reef is a house of cards so if one is pulled, they all must be pulled).

My overriding concern was to save as much of the water in the aquarium as possible since the water chemistry is seemingly ideal and the fastest way I know of to fuck up an aquarium is to get a case of the clevers with the water.  I was already taking a controlled risk with the amount of maintenance that was planned.  After removing 10 gallons (20% and the upper limit of what I would risk removing at any one water change) from the tank and dumping it, I was able to fill three more buckets and set them aside to go back in the tank as soon as possible.

I had old towels at the ready to protect my carpet and started pulling the rocks from the top layer.  These were then soaked in fairly weak solution of bleach and water to get any algae off of them.  Fortunately this tank is set in a location where it gets no sunlight, plus there are no plants in the tank so it never gets fertilized: the fertilizer feeds algae as well as it does plants.  My kitchen sink could take about five of the rocks at any one time; so this would be a fairly arduous process. After about fifteen minutes or so, the first batch of rocks was pulled from the water and then rinsed off really well and set aside to dry.  Another batch was loaded to bleach.

I did have to leave the foundation rock layer in place in the fishtank as I did not want to uncover the plastic light grid that I use to support the rocks and distribute the weight. All told it took about two hours just to remove, clean rinse and dry the rocks.  Once they were all dry, the rocks were laid out on the floor so that I could visualize (being the artiste, that I am) and rebuild the reef.  One of the most important lessons learned from the original set up was to create more space behind the reef and more, and larger, passages in the reef.

The tank is kept at a pH of about 8.2. Because of this alkalinity, lime build up has been an ongoing issue with the filters.  So both of these were pulled along with the heater.  First it was necessary to pull the bio-wheels and set aside so that nothing would inadvertently happen to them.  Then all of the “yuk” was washed off of the filter and cartridge.  New charcoal was added to the secondary filter cartridges as well.

More “yuk” was cleaned from inside the plastic housing and from inside the water intake and a wire brush was used to clean the “yuk” residue from inside and hard to reach areas.  Then I used CLR to clean the lime build up off the plastic and also from the glass of the heater.  This worked really well but I also had to make sure that all of the cleaner was removed so that I did not contaminate the tank (Love Canal was not what I was looking to achieve here).

Then it was time for the epic battle of man against fish.  I have tried many ways to get the fish out of the tank.  The Old Man did not have half as epic of a battle with the Sea as I have had with these cichlids.  I looked more like Carl Spackler chasing gophers (“Not golfers, you great fool! Gophers!”).  But necessity is the mother of all invention – or more correctly – I am a lazy bastard so I combined all of my chores into one frenzied orgy of tank cleaning.

I was able to corner the two fish that were living the thug life and then I was able to remove them and euthanize them.  There was no point in trying to trade them in at the fish store as they had faces that even their mother would not love.  They were incredibly beaten up and ratty looking.  All that was missing was a gold chain and Rocky Balboa pork pie hat.

Since I was feeling my oats and oozing testosterone from defeating not one, but two, fish in a battle of wits and strength, I decide to remedy one of the original problems with the tank and make sure that it was level.  It was not until I had everything in place and had filled the tank that I discovered that it was fractionally off from being level.  And since water weighs 8.5 pounds per gallon and there was an additional 300 pounds of rocks, just the thought of trying to lift the tank gave me a hernia. The tank and stand probably add another 200 or so pounds as well.

Now that the tank was mostly empty, the tank, oak stand and water, rocks and sand that were left probably did not weigh any more than 300 pounds (mere bagatelle for a 48 year old stud muffin like me).  I lifted the tank high enough to put a shim under one (the correct one, no less) end.  Then with a high pitched sigh, and after several careful steps to see if anything fell off that shouldn’t, I congratulated myself (carefully) on a job well done while avoiding patting myself on the back just in case that pulled something (though there really is not a lot left to pull these days).

With everything cleaned and pressed and washed and waxed – martinized even – it was time for the rebuilding.  I will spare you the fables of the reconstruction, but within an hour, the reef had been rebuilt, the filters were reinstalled (with bio-wheels spinning) and the three buckets of water were back in the tank.  I did have a minor tete a tete with a heater that did not want to suck up to the aquarium back.

By the time the water change had been completed and the chemicals had all been added, it was about five hours worth of labour that had been expended:  without a tea break even.  The Bolshie in me wanted to complain to the shop steward about what an arsehole I was working for …. But then in a lucid moment I remembered that I was self employed on this project.  Like I said, I was working for an arsehole.

The results of this work have been positive:  not the least because there is nothing poking through my abdominal wall that shouldn’t, and nothing pulled that was pushed into the power lifting after running wind sprints with rocks first.  I had more surviving cichlids than originally thought now that they are coming out of the rock work (literally).  And the kiddies seem quite happy about the new situation.

I do intend to get some more fish for the tank, and I am going to fly in the face of convention (who me?) and only buy them in pairs rather than threesomes.  For some reason, my fish survive in pairs better!  I buy three and next thing I know there are two.  The tank is clear, and functioning.  The pH is 8.2 and the temperature is 84 degrees F as my African fish like it.

The reef is working well and the fish are moving in and out nicely and not chasing each other around the tank.  But, best of all, when I was sitting there with my daughters, and sometime future son-in-law, eating my birthday dinner that was cooked by my oldest daughter (under close supervision as she has inherited the cooking issues that afflict the female members of my side of the gene pool) when all of a sudden my youngest daughter noticed a school of little half inch long baby cichlids.  At forty eight, I am a daddy again!


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