The fish are watching me watching them. Every so often, one or another will come to the corner of the aquarium and look out into the world around my desk and we watch each other, eye to eye. It is a strange feeling, wondering who is the observer and who the observed at such moments… and can we truly draw that distinction?
It is only with the advent of modern technology that we have really had the privilege of looking beneath the waters and watching the piscine world. I remember being spellbound by Cousteau’s undersea adventures as a child, exploring waters I will never see. The rich diversity was breathtaking, but there was not the same intimacy as living with fish and watching them day by day.
Keeping fish is an old, old story. The Roman’s did it, so did the Chinese. Around 50 AD, the Romans first used glass on one wall of their marble tanks in order to keep sea barbel. The Chinese kept goldfish in porcelain bowls. Conditions for the fish, with insufficient oxygen and no water flow cannot have been good. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that fishkeeping began to catch on in Britain and the technology was still too poor to maintain healthy communities of fish.
By the middle of the twentieth century, we had aquarium heaters, filters and electric lighting. Keeping tropical fish became a viable proposition and our understanding of the necessary parameters for water quality, temperature and a diverse ecosystem has grown since then. We have learned how to mimic the natural environment to a point where most aquarium fish are now tank bred; wild-caught fish are frowned upon and many species now extinct in the wild through environmental changes are preserved only by dedicated hobbyists.
It is a bit of a touchy subject, because the original ‘specimens’ were all wild-caught. Even today, there are still those desperate to get hold of newly discovered species who will pay through the proverbial nose in order to acquire the latest novelty… often long before there is any real understanding of their needs… and the primary need of a wild fish, after all, is to be wild. Novelty is also responsible for the aberrations of the profit-seekers who will chemically dye fish to make these beautiful creatures ‘more attractive’.
Most fishkeepers, though…even the accidental ones like me… are simply fascinated by their beauty and behaviour. Their individual characters soon show themselves. They have a distinct hierarchy, they dance for their mates, they even play games… and for the first time in history we can see these creatures face to face with perfect clarity in an environment as close to nature as any confinement can ever be.
If all they, and generations of their ancestors, have ever known is life in a tank, then their environment will not feel like confinement…it will feel like home. As they look out of their glass boxes at us, comfortably confined with the glass and concrete of the modern home, I wonder if they think the same of us?