Tank Watch

Of cannibal fish, sharks, and undersea butterfly hunters: bringing color and drama to luxury aquariums.

Frank Giorno hovers in the cool blue water. All is silent but for the rhythmic rasp of his own breathing in his snorkel tube. He kicks his legs, pivots his mask. Below him the tropical coral reef teems with activity. A rare golden-mouth moray eel pokes its head out of a crevice, waggling its hook-jawed mouth. A Caribbean stingray cruises past, gliding along the sand on rippling wings like an underwater bat. Reaching down, Giorno grabs hold of a piece of coral that has fallen askew and lifts it back into position. The motion disturbs a four-foot-long white-tipped shark, which shoots out from its hiding place and darts past.

Satisfied with his handiwork, Giorno pushes up to the surface and pulls off his mask. Behind him, the plate-glass windows of a money management firm look out over downtown Greenwich, Connecticut. He climbs out of the 3,500-gallon saltwater tank, strips off his wet suit, and changes into dry clothes.

Swimming with the fishes is all in a day's work for Giorno, whose employer, House of Fins, supplies and services luxury fishtanks. The booming economy of the past decade led to a vigorous market for ever larger and more elaborate custom aquariums. These aquatic show-stoppers are a world apart from the windowsill goldfish bowl decorated with tiny plastic sunken ships and divers with bubbling air hoses. Costing anywhere from $20,000 for a basic 300-gallon tank to $2 million for swimming-pool-size extravaganzas, they are works of art, miniature marine ecosystems, and monuments to personal wealth all wrapped up in one. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is famous for the enormous aquariums throughout the offices of Bloomberg LLP.

"Ten years ago, we would do one or two $20,000 installations a year," says Rob Bray, the owner of House of Fins. "Now we're doing one or two a month." And some of the installations are gigantic, requiring rooms of special support machinery and a full-time staff to keep everything in order. At Dent & Company, a private investment firm in Greenwich, Giorno spends two or three hours a day cleaning four tanks, which are four feet deep and 11 to 27 feet long, and feeding 350 fish representing 200 different species. The whole installation cost $1.2 million—which seems like a hefty sum until you consider that two-inch-long queen angels can cost upwards of $500 a pop.

The 47-year-old head of the firm, Stephen Dent, values his 7,900 gallons of undersea life for purely aesthetic reasons. "It creates a very soothing effect," he says. "It's a light feeling, an uplifting feeling. And it's different. I've been in hundreds of standard wood-paneled offices, and every one looks the same." Dent dreams of one day having a 10,000-gallon tank. "The larger the tank, the more you can mix the species," he says.

For Dent, aquariums are "sort of a hobby." He adds, almost apologetically, "I don't have the time I once did to study the fish." Indeed, few of Rob Bray's clients consider themselves true tropical-fish enthusiasts. "A lot of people want a hands-off approach," Bray explains. "They just want to enjoy the beauty. We feed the fish; we do everything to keep the tank looking beautiful all the time." It's a job that keeps 24 employees busy servicing more than 250 accounts.

Unlike the typical home aquarium, almost all the high-end ones are saltwater. They're much harder to maintain—the life-support equipment costs 30 to 75 percent more—but ocean-reef fish come in a much wider range of shapes and colors. And of expense: The price tag for a single specimen can run from a few dollars for a common orange-spotted goby to $3,500 for a rare species of angelfish.

There are good reasons for the high cost. Prize reef fish come from all over the world and must be transported by air freight, water included. Many die from the stresses of shipment. Some species are incredibly hard to find in the first place. Dean Takata, whose company, Hawaii Seascapes, builds and maintains tanks in southern California, once traveled with a friend to the remote South Pacific island of Tubuai in search of Smith's butterfly fish, a rare species that can fetch $500 apiece. They found a school, but it was swimming too deep to be captured with the equipment that they had on hand. When they returned four months later with the proper gear, there wasn't a single Smith's butterfly fish to be found.

Exotic fish are a gamble for the customer as well. Sure, that biotech stock might seem risky, but you're not going to find it floating belly up by the skimmer one morning. Reef fish, on the other hand, can expire at the drop of a hat. Even the most spacious tank may be too cramped for some fish transplanted from the wild, and without proper handling, mortality rates can be quite high. Only about seven percent of all saltwater species will survive in captivity. Though they may be lords of the ocean, sharks fare notoriously poorly in aquariums, and fewer than 10 out of 360 species can be kept at all.

"Almost all these fish are wild-caught, so they can come in with diseases that you can't see, and they'll die from them," says Takata. Other fish can also be a threat. "One time we put a stingray in the shark tank, and right away it got eaten by an eel," says Dent. "It's all part of the game."

When it comes to shelling out the cash, fish are just a small part of the picture. Ninety percent of the cost of a major installation is the tank itself. Large aquariums are a world in which, as Lenin is said to have observed, quantity has a quality of its own. Tanks holding several hundred gallons of water cannot simply be parked on an end table. Clients need to work with architects, engineers, and tank designers to build an aquarium into a residential space in a way that will maximize its visual impact and minimize the appearance of support structures, pipes, cables, and machinery. Acrylic sheets at least an inch and a quarter thick, to carry the sheer weight of hundreds or thousands of gallons of water, are heated and fitted to molds to achieve custom shapes such as bow fronts or cylinders. No wonder $20,000 is the bare minimum for a luxury aquarium.

Add in large-scale replicas of sunken ships, and the price climbs considerably higher. International Concept Management, one of the leading players in the business, specializes in underwater fantasy seascapes, mainly for commercial clients. For the Club Regent Entertainment Center in Winnipeg, Canada, it built a 36,000-gallon tank complete with a 30-foot-long transparent tunnel containing a "shipwrecked" pirate galleon. But for the most part, ICM's residential clients tend to favor more subdued scenes—generally artistic re-creations of tropical reefs rendered in fiberglass and synthetic resin. Customers can choose from styles based on actual reef structures from around the world, with an emphasis on dramatic features like overhangs and arches to create an undersea-grotto effect.

Much rarer are aquariums built around real pieces of living reef. (Coral may still be gathered legally from the South Seas, though some environmentalists discourage the practice.) "Corals are much more sensitive than fish," says Giorno. "You've got to have just the right lighting, just the right water temperature and chemistry." Let conditions spiral out of control for even just a few days and you could wind up with a bunch of very expensive slimy rocks. But when it all comes together, the effect can be spectacular. In a kaleidoscope of color, the fish dart and circle, each weaving its own hypnotic dance through the water in weightless slow motion. A bright yellow banana wrasse swerves around a coral as a trigger fish with regal bearing soars, its face painted with violet crescents over the mouth and a starburst of yellow lines radiating from around the eyes. Says Bray: "It's living art."

To create visual impact, Brad Ducich made a 250-gallon, $45,000 ICM aquarium the centerpiece of his family's new $3 million house in Orange County, California. "It's built into my entry hall on a pedestal," he says. "It looks like a curved big-screen TV. The first thing people say when they walk in the house is 'Oh, my God!' "

As a real-estate developer, Ducich knows that jaw-dropping touches are what lend a trophy home that essential aura of magnificence. "I built the house for myself, but I also have resale in mind," he says."When you're into that caliber of home, you have to give people something for their three million bucks. That's why, when I built my house, I put in five major items that I thought would make people go 'Wow!' "

Among the knock-your-socks-off amenities are a half-million-dollar rock pool (with 35-foot waterslide) out back and a 1,200-square-foot rec room with 24-foot ceilings. The real high point, though, is the aquarium. "The key is, when you walk in, you see this fishtank, and it is gorgeous," Ducich says. As for the details of his undersea livestock—well, Ducich is no ichthyologist. "They chose the fish to match my decor," he says. "Colorful fish, little ones, blue and yellow and all sorts of good colors. I have no idea what kind. The coral is a fluorescent lavender that matches the glass in and around my front doors. The colors look outstanding at night."

Ducich compares his investment in the fishtank to his purchase of a $25,000 1906 Steinway piano: They both look great, and he doesn't care a thing about how they work. "I don't know how to play the piano, and neither does the wife," he says, "but that's what high-end homes are all about—which has the most luxurious features."

It's nearly the end of Frank Giorno's fish-tending shift at Dent & Company. He dangles a piece of fresh flounder fillet into the predator tank, so named because it holds some of the more aggressive species of reef fish: sharks, moray eels, groupers, and stingrays. Hand-feeding isn't the easiest way to get the job done, but it's the only way to ensure that everyone gets his or her fair share, not just the big clown-faced queen trigger that cruises up and down like an underwater beat cop. "She earns her name," Giorno says with obvious admiration. "She's the queen of the tank."

Finally a boxy, cow-eyed porcupine puffer darts up to take the proffered tidbit from Giorno's hand. No bloodshed—not this time. "I've gotten bitten by sharks and eels before," he admits. Stitches? "Some people said I should have gotten some," he says with a shrug. He throws in a last piece of fish. A bright red squirrelfish zips up to grab it and then speeds off, the fillet flapping in its mouth like a flag. As it reaches the end of the tank and slows to turn, a moray eel darts out, grabs the chunk, and swallows it whole.

Giorno's work here is done. After three hours of cleaning and feeding, it's off to the next job. Tomorrow may bring new surprises—a casualty here, an injury there, maybe even a new brood born. Each tank is a little world, a colorful little drama of life waiting to unfold. "When you're playing with Mother Nature," says Giorno, "you never know what to expect."


Brave New Underworld

First, find a firm to make your tank Some of the better aquarium companies include: HOUSE OF FINS in Greenwich, Connecticut (203-661-8131; www.houseoffins.com), is known particularly for rare fish and living corals, and works primarily for clients in the New York metropolitan area. INTERNATIONAL CONCEPT MANAGEMENT of Grand Junction, Colorado (970-241-6864; www.icm-corp.com), does work mostly for zoos and commercial aquariums but is expanding into top-end tanks for individuals. LIVING COLOR ENTERPRISES of Fort Lauderdale, Florida (954-970-9511; www.livingcolor.com), specializes in aquariums with eye-popping accessories.

Design the space Big tanks require a lot of tubing and support machinery, so it's best to work with an architect and engineer.

Select your fish It's wise not to put hungry and aggressive fish together with big, fat, soft, juicy ones, so decide which kind of tank you want: one full of sleek predators or colorful, mellow eye candy. Whichever you choose, you'll need to start out with hardier creatures like damselfish, groupers, and moray eels in order to establish the tank's biological cycle; once nitrifying bacteria have reduced the toxicity of fish waste, you can introduce the rest of your fish.

Arrange for upkeep Your tank contractor can help arrange for a cleaning and feeding service to take care of your tank. Weekly visits are standard. The service personnel will help you make new acquisitions and deal with the inevitable fatalities. Beware: Aquarium management involves patience, devotion, and its own portfolio.