Last October, Nantahala School received a Macon County Academic Foundation grant to build a marine habitat. Through the grant, donations, and support from other classes, we have established a unique saltwater aquarium that has greatly enriched the learning environment at Nantahala School. This aquarium provides many educational opportunities and allows students to interact with marine life in a way that has never been possible at NHS. Initially, I thought that caring for these fish would be a simple task. I soon learned that it was not.
Our Physical Education teacher, Andrew Burton, has kept saltwater tanks for more than 10 years and brought the idea of establishing a tank at school early last year. After it was approved, he began this project by generously loaning a 90-gallon glass fish tank, a protein skimmer, and many other pieces of equipment. He also donated 75 pounds of live rock, that has the capability, with the right lighting, to grow fluorescent coral. With the grant, we purchased a 48-inch T5 high output light, an Emperor 400 mechanical filter, two Hydor powerheads, a 400 watt heater, multiple containers of oceanic sea salt mix, 50 lbs. of crushed coral gravel, and water quality testing equipment. Josh Taylor, our Industrial Arts teacher, wired the electrical outlet and had one of his classes build a custom hardwood cabinet stand for the tank.
The first marine life we obtained were three Damsel fish from Mountain Pets in Murphy, N.C., who gave discounts to our school with every purchase. Two were blue and the otherwas striped. We also kept an undulated trigger fish, which had enough jaw strength to break tough coral.
To take care of the fish, some jobs were required daily, such as feeding and making sure the water temperature was at 76°F. Once a week, Mr. Burton and I would test the quality of the water. We had to check the specific gravity of the water, which is the salt: water ratio, by using a hydrometer, and high quality test trips to measure the pH, nitrite, nitrate, and carbonate levels in the water. About every three weeks, we made a water change. To do a water change, we first have to siphon the water from the tank into a jug, until the water in the aquarium drops approximately three inches. We pour the old water out, and mix two 2.5 gallon jugs with fresh water and the sea salt mix. We let the salt mixture dissolve for about five hours and pour the new water into the tank. This was our regular routine until the day we came back from Christmas break.
As usual, my first priority when I came to school was to check the fish. Expecting to see them in good health, I found that the tank was barren. Apparently over the break, a form of diatom outbreak happened which absorbed most of the oxygen, ultimately killing the fish.
It took a few weeks to stabilize the living conditions of the habitat. Many students wondered if we would be able to keep any more fish in the tank. So in response, we finally appeased the students anticipation, by getting a plethora of blue leg hermit crabs. Unfortunately, to young observers, moving shells are not fascinating.
Generously, out of their own pockets, Mrs. West our Science teacher, and Mr. Burton added a Mocha Clownfish, named “Starbucks”, two more Yellow Tail Damsel fish, an Emerald Crab named “Kermit,” and last but not least, our Snowflake Moray Eel with his original name, “Snowball”.
Each of the fish are unique in their own way. The Damsel fish are a bright blue, and even though they are small, they are extremely fast and have to be fed salt flakes which contain garlic. The Mocha Clown has a habit of swimming close to the glass. I guess you could say that this type of fish is vain for always looking at their reflection in the glass. He is fed small sinking pellets, which the Damsels pick off as well. To feed the Emerald Crab, it is a bit more challenging. Although he acts as a scavenger, eating off the gravel and live rock, he is often fed silverside fish skewered on a clear feeding rod, where he picks it off with his pinchers. But my favorite, our snowflake eel, acts as if he is the reincarnation of the great white shark Jaws.
Snowball looks like a shimmering flash moving through the water as he strikes the silverside fish from the feeding rod. He then swallows the fish whole like a snake and retreats to the cover of his hole under one of the rocks. The coolest fact about a Snowflake eel is that it has the capacity to grow up to three feet in length.
Caring for these aquatic animals is not only a hobby, but also a great way to learn responsibility by making sure that the living environment is safe, and the fish are healthy. I would like to thank the Macon County Academic Foundation, Mountain Pets, Mrs. Shannon West, and Mr. Andrew Burton for making this all possible.
Submitted by Tyler Fuller