Sleeping with the fishes: Home aquariums and beyond

Susan Donahue of Seascapes Aquariums cleans and rearranges the tank at the Edgartown School. — Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

Once a month, Susan Donahue takes a morning ferry from Woods Hole, steps into the middle of the Edgartown School’s front lobby, and gets armpit deep in 180 gallons of warm saltwater.

She’s here to perform the routine maintenance required by the tropical fish who inhabit the school’s saltwater aquarium (including a dog faced puffer, a coral beauty angel and a yellow and purple fish called a Spanish Hog).

“The puffer’s a favorite,” says Ms. Donahue. “He’s the mayor of the tank.” A pilot’s daughter who skated with the Ice Capades, she’s been fascinated with fish tanks all her life. Now she works as a marine technician for Seascapes Aquariums, which specializes in saltwater aquariums, installing and maintaining them in schools, hospitals, restaurants, even funeral homes, throughout Massachusetts.

In a small utility room behind the tank a life support system of equipment is revealed. Standing on a stepstool, Ms. Donahue removes chunks of artificial rock and coral in preparation for scrubbing and sand vacuuming. It’s unclear whether the fish are bewildered by their rapidly emptying surroundings, but she grins at the telltale sound of kids heading toward the lobby. “You’ll hear four or five screams in a minute,” she warned. The kids always notice when their tank is different.

She adds cupfuls of snowy aquarium salt to a barrel of replacement freshwater and tests its salinity, then flips a switch to pump the new water back in, and starts to replace the decorations. A crooked line of five-year-olds makes its way past the tank and upstairs, following their teacher. Some look curiously as Ms. Donahue’s disembodied hand nestling decorations into the sand. The fish dart and drift, their habitat refreshed.

Seascapes Aquariums has designed, installed, and maintained saltwater setups since 1986. Founder Rob Shain is a self proclaimed “fishhead” who keeps a 145-gallon tank in his kitchen, a 125-gallon reef tank in his living room, and a 1,000-plus gallon holding facility, which sustains a collection of fish, corals, shrimp, sea urchins, starfish, and clams for stocking his clients tanks. FedEx delivers the delicate creatures right to his doorstep.

Like his employee, Mr. Shain has a variety of skills and interests. He plays classical piano in his free time (his grandfather was a conductor of the Boston Pops), and leads Sinatra singalongs at nursing homes with his golden retriever. His true calling, though, is creating beautiful, natural saltwater aquascapes.

“A fish tank benefits everyone it touches,” he said. “We’ve had a tank in the Pathology Department of the Norwood Hospital since 1988, and it’s a great moral-booster, a wonderful enhancer to any location, and a great conversation piece. In effect, it’s a natural antidepressant.”

Having an expert get a new tank started can make all the difference. Even a single rookie mistake can send a pricey marine animal belly up. His team of employees puts in a lot of miles traveling to different spots to do the unglamorous maintenance that is required to keep tanks looking sparkling, the fish active and healthy. For some clients, Seascapes Aquariums takes care of everything, including feeding. For those who want to take a more active role in maintaining their tank, they act as an expert support system.

Setups range from the straightforward rectangular tank to the elaborate and more creative. There was the woman who wanted to enjoy soaking in her hot tub without having to look at her toilet. A fish tank to block the view was just the ticket. There was the tank built within the swirl of a winding staircase; the tank shaped like a bar; the tank sitting, impossibly, atop a fireplace. During one particularly tough job, Mr. Shain recalled, “We had to lay 150 feet of pipe through the house for filtration – that was a horror show.” But the complicated ones are what he likes best. “The crazier the better.”

After almost 30 years in the business, he is still enthralled with his work. “The most rewarding part of my job is the satisfaction of seeing a beautiful, well-tuned showpiece, and knowing that we created it,” he said. “It’s a piece of art, and we’re very proud of our work.”