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     Volume 4 Issue 36 | March 4 , 2005 |

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The Ocean in a Glass Cage

Imran H. Khan

There is one thing that can be said with certainty about Captain Tofail Ahmed: He is a man of many talents and passions. By profession a pilot in Biman for more than two decades, he is an animation master, miniature ship builder as well as a musician "in his younger years." Ahmed has always been fascinated by marine life, and in the mid-nineties, it led him to do a one-year diploma course in London, on the "Basic Care of Salt-water fish". The tale only begins there.

Ahmed is careful to make the distinction between all freshwater fish, which require little or no expertise to keep, and saltwater fish, which is usually more expensive and requires more know-how to keep alive for a long time.

One has to understand that these fish are not cultivated in just any place. Maybe a week back, they were swimming around the vast ocean. The stress of capture and transportation can harm the sensitive biological processes of the animal.

Ahmed has four aquariums and is in the process of building another one. The last one he built was different: it is a quarantine tank (also known as a Doctor's Aquarium) for fish that gets sick and need special attention.

The first thing that must be done is to make the aquarium bacteria-friendly, so that the tank can sustain life. The bacteria has to be created under the surface of the aquarium bed and this process can take a long time, even up to eight months. For the base of the aquarium, Ahmed gets rocks mostly from Katabon but has, on occasion, ventured as far as Saint Martin's Island for corals.

His fascination for corals has led him to create something similar to a Reef Tank in one of the aquariums. There are numerous corals there that are alive and moving during the day and become stone cold at night, while other species are alive during the night, but are just plane coloured rocks during the day. His prize collection is a Fan Coral (also called Elephant Ear). To give it the respect it deserves he has kept it in a separate tank. His aquariums are vibrant with live corals and coral reefs, all providing curious dwellings for his colourful assortment of sea life.

Most of the marine life in Ahmed's aquariums are either from Singapore or Bangkok. His collection includes about ten distinct categories of aquatic beings including an impressive collection of Discus, Animos, Dwarf, Lion, and even a Clown fish (yes, his own Nemo!)

The Clown fish is especially interesting. It is a small, brightly coloured marine fish and is also known as anemone fish, or clown anemone. It belongs to the species Amphiprion percula and the genus Amphiprion. An eye catching fish with vibrant colours, a percula has a bright orange body with three white vertical bars: one just behind the eye; one in the middle; and the last one (the posterior bar) near the caudal fin. In nature this fish can grow to 110 mm in length. Clowns, in general, are very territorial, but are not otherwise aggressive except to other clowns. Though in the wild the longest known life-span is an average of 6-10 years, in captivity they may live as long as 18 years. A percula forms symbiotic relationships with sea anemones (thus the name) which it uses both as shelter and protection from predators. In nature the fish and anemone pair generally occurs on coral reefs. In captivity, they do fine without the anemone, which is good, since anemones are much more difficult to keep. However, in order to keep the smile on his 'Clowns', Ahmed also has a good collection of anemone.

One unique fish is the Boxfish with its smooth texture and vibrant colours. It looks a little gloomy compared to the Clown but nonetheless, its cuddly dimensions makes it a prize collection in any aquarium.

The Lionfish is a fairly aggressive fish whose venom is deadly. "Its bite will cause you to become sick and as yet, there is no cure for its bite in Bangladesh" says Ahmed. At most two Lionfish will co-exist in one tank. Ahmed, being a man of peace, has played it safe and has only one.

What about sanitation? When you have pets, you need to look after them. "I have a Cleaner Shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis) in one of the aquariums," was the immediate response, "Whenever a fish is ill or damages its scales, it goes to the shrimp. This invertebrate creature then cleans the fish of its illness. So basically, the whole environment is autarkic in nature. Most shrimps are scavengers and don't necessarily need to be fed overtly--they usually eat food dropped by other fish." Hats off to such helpful, undemanding creatures!

The type of fish one has, dictates to some extent the setting up and maintenance of the aquarium. The exciting part is that one has to totally recreate an artificial environment for the fish and corals to live in. The slightest variation kills them. "I make the aquariums, myself and first have to get the aquariums ready, making a bacteria contaminated area explains Ahmed. Once this is done and the bacteria have started to reproduce (thereby creating an artificial and self-sustained container) I am able to put in the fish. This process can take more than half a year."

"One thing I have learnt over the years is that you have to know your water chemistry," says Ahmed. Since the living atmosphere has to be recreated, you have to know about all the things that occur in the tanks. "I even have to recreate the lighting system in the aquariums." Ahmed has a totally computerised system installed for his little marine friends. There is a lighting system that turns on a 20 to 30 watt tube at dawn, and the intensity of the bulb increases throughout the day (as it does in reality). In the afternoon, the temperature of the bulbs is the most intense at 75 watt. By evening, another lighting takes over and the intensity decreases and at 10 pm at night, it's lights out for this mini aquatic world. The whole system is automatic and is attached to a UPS system such that the ecology of the ocean lives are not affected by local load-shedding. Most people who collect salt-water fish are from colder countries and hence, they have to have heating system installed in their aquariums. Contradictory to this, Ahmed has a chiller, which always keeps the temperature of the aquariums at 26-degree Celsius.

There are also UV lights installed in the tanks to kill the harmful or excess bacteria and a calcium reactor with a dosing pump. Though it is a very crude contraption, it provides the fish with calcium dosage that is vital for a healthy fish. Ahmed also has to ensure that there is no metal in the apparatus he uses, since the saltwater would cause corrosion and this would be dangerous for the health of the living things in the aquarium.

Most marine fish are collected in the wild rather than raised in captivity, so think twice before you venture in Tofail Ahmed's bold footsteps. Always do your homework before messing with Mother Nature and remember your mistakes impact the world's oceans!



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