Written by Candace Jackson
Stuck at home during the pandemic, many Americans took in dogs or cats. Others took up a more elaborate pet hobby: luxury home aquariums. Something of a cross between home decor, entertainment, wildlife and pet shelter, these custom aquariums can weigh more than 75,000 pounds and cost as much as $750,000 at the top end.
“We’ve seen a tremendous boom in business,” said Nic Tiemens, of Infinity Aquarium Design in Los Angeles. He said demand has grown by about 400% since the start of the pandemic and is still going strong. Clients who may have long wanted to splurge on a home aquarium were stuck at home and were finally willing to take the plunge, he said.
In more typical times, he would install a high-end home aquarium every few months — now he’s doing multiple aquariums every month. The company is fully booked into the third quarter of 2022. Some of these aquariums rival installations at public aquariums in size and scale.
With many affluent Americans upsizing or relocating, aquarium designers say a good part of the demand is coming from repeat customers upgrading their sea life’s home as they upgrade the human home that surrounds it. “The aquariums are getting bigger and bigger, and the homes are getting more expensive,” said Gerry Calabrese, founder and president of SeaVisions, a 40-year-old South Florida company that installs aquariums worldwide for homes and businesses. He has built home tanks as large as 5,000 gallons. “We’ve never been busier,” he said.
Craig Atkins, a real estate developer in Newport Beach, California, hired Tiemens to design and install a 1,500-gallon tank in the living room of his house on Lido Isle, a human-made island off the Newport Beach harbor. Atkins, an avid scuba and free diver who said he taught both his children to dive at age 5, wanted to bring the feeling of the sea into his home. “We’re fish geeks,” he said.
In his previous house, he had an 11-foot-long custom tank — the width of a supersize sectional couch. For his new house, he wanted to go larger. His saltwater tank is 15 feet wide — the length of the widest piece of seamless acrylic that was readily available. Tiemens said it’s big enough that the tank in the living room is visible from the length of a football field away through the home’s windowed glass exterior. “I like to say that it’s central to Newport Beach,” said Tiemens.
Retrofitting the tank into an existing home was a challenge. “I bought this house kind of on a whim because it’s on a corner lot on an island,” said Atkins. “Then it was like, ‘How do we fit a tank in?’” It wasn’t easy. Atkins said the crew slept at his house a couple nights, pulling all-nighters to get the tank installed on time.
First, a contractor had to install steel reinforcement into the floors to handle the 20,000 pounds of weight — water is heavy. Next, they retrofitted a basement space originally used as a wine closet into a filtration room with about a 300-gallon capacity. From there, saltwater gets filtered and pumped through six different pipelines built into the floors. Outside, there’s another 400-gallon tank for water changes. The setup ensures that the tank operates silently in the living room.
The tank is filled with synthetic coral and a colorful mix of tropical fish such as queen angels, parrotfish and cowfish. “It’s like living art,” said Atkins, who said he enjoys feeding the fish himself. (They eat sushi-grade seaweed, shrimp and krill.) Atkins said he spent about $125,000 on the aquarium and accompanying equipment.
The initial installation and setup is only part of what aquarium owners can expect to pay. The fish themselves can cost hundreds of dollar each or more (at the top end, a masked angelfish can cost as much as $15,000). And high-end companies say customers can pay as much as $5,000 a month for weekly cleanings and maintenance. Tiemens, of Infinity, said a loose rule of thumb is to figure in $2 per gallon per month for maintenance, although it can vary widely based on the type of food and medication the fish might require. (Medication comes in liquid form and is generally used in quarantine tanks to prevent disease.)
Brad Barton, an emergency room doctor in Orange, Texas, put a custom-built tank in his new home, which was completed about six months ago. Barton said the house, which overlooks a large human-made pond on the Texas and Louisiana border, was designed around two things: water views and his fish tank.
Barton said he has been a sea-life hobbyist since childhood. By the time he was in college, he had a 125-gallon tank, which he got for free after finding it discarded in a chemistry lab. When it came time to build his dream tank for his current house, he wanted something unique and custom-built to suit the space. He hired SeaVisions to design a 1,000-gallon, two-sided saltwater aquarium that would take the place of one of the archways in his living room.
His fish, he said, have formed relationships with unique personalities an one another that are fascinating to watch. There’s a clown fish that feeds and plays with the sea anemone. And a leopard wrasse that goes to bed like clockwork at 7:35 p.m. and wakes up exactly 12 hours later. “If you think of it like a lava lamp, it’s like that times 10,000,” said Barton, who declined to say what he spent on the tank other than to say it was “a lot” and “I could have a really cool car for the same price.”
Because Barton lives in a remote area, he has not yet found a company that can service a tank such as his on a regular basis — so he has been doing the work himself, cleaning, feeding and maintaining the chemical balance, which he said takes daily monitoring and about 30 minutes every other week for cleaning.
The boom in high-end tank demand has coincided with a shortage in key aquarium building materials such as acrylic, said Tiemens. Grocery stores, restaurants, salons and many other businesses around the globe were using acrylic in massive quantities for sneeze guards during the height of the COVID crisis. Calabrese said the worst of the delays have passed, but supplies in general are still backed up. The time it takes to build an aquarium has doubled, from roughly three months to six months, he said.
Sourcing the fish has also become a challenge. Some remote tropical islands have cut off or have limited trade, said Calabrese, making some tropical fish difficult to come by. Yellow tangs, the brightly colored saltwater aquarium staple native to Hawaii, have shot up in price and gotten much harder to find, he said. (They now can cost more than $500 each, up from less than $100.) More aquaculture farms are cropping up to sustainably grow some popular fish, but not every species can be bred.
Keith Poliakoff, a lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, recently built a 550-gallon tank into a den area of his home — an upgrade from the 150-gallon tank in his previous house. His saltwater aquarium has live coral, which Poliakoff said is painstaking and expensive to grow and maintain, but also rewarding. (He purchases coral grown in captivity.) Poliakoff splices together small fragments, which eventually grow together to form larger coral — a process that can take years. He selected fish that are reef-safe, including clown fish, which don’t eat or hinder coral growth.
“To be able to have a tank where you can learn how to grow corals and make it thrive and succeed in a protected environment,” he said, “it helps others appreciate the beauty of coral and sea life.”
The tank, designed by SeaVisions, makes up the wall behind a bar area.
For those looking to install or build an aquarium into a new home, the process ideally starts early. Tiemens recently tagged along with a couple and their broker on their house hunt in Los Angeles.
The couple wanted a house with a living room that could accommodate a 1,500-gallon tank. They ended up finding a house with an ideal layout for the tank, with a bedroom and bathroom they have since converted into aquarium filtration operations and a separate quarantine tank. He and his team used a forklift to get the aquarium into the house and then built the custom cabinetry around it.
Putting a high-end tank in a high-rise brings added complexity. Justin Muir, owner and principal designer at New York-based City Aquarium, said additional structural supports, such as steel plates to reinforce the floors underneath, are a must. But that can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost. Condo and co-op board rules often dictate how large a client can go. Still, he said it’s possible to build a pretty large aquarium — 300 to 500 gallons, or 6 to 8 feet in length — in many taller buildings.
During the pandemic, his business shifted toward suburban homes after many of his Manhattan high-rise clients relocated to Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut. But he has gotten some new clients as well. “If you’re going to be stuck at home working,” he said, “then this is for sure the best time to start a fish tank.”
Technological advances in recent years have made maintenance easier and more precise. Calabrese said he remotely monitors many clients’ aquariums and gets alerts when pH levels or temperatures are off.
The downside, said Calabrese, is that he’s always on. “They’ll send me an email on Saturday at 10 at night saying, ‘A fish got stuck behind a rock and he can’t get out!’,” he said. “People get panicked. But fish like to hide.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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