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Shawn Arbuckle: My History in Aquaria

21 02, 2024

Early Years - How it all started.

I’ve always been drawn towards nature and animals.

Most kids when asked what they want to be when they grow up would answer Policeman, Fireman, or Space explorer. Not me. I would answer, Wildlife Photographer.

We never had your typical pet growing up. No dogs or cats. However we had rabbits, birds, and where it all started for me, goldfish.

When I was 8 years old I won a goldfish at the local fair. I was so excited to get it home and into a fishbowl. I stared at it for hours and would check on it throughout the night. I couldn’t sleep. Unfortunately, I woke up to a floating fish, I was devastated.

My parents seeing how sad I was went out and bought me my first “aquarium”. Not your standard glass rectangle, but a bubble gum machine designed to be an aquarium. Complete with plastic gum ball substrate and a bubbler it was ready to go. We got it all set up and off we went to the local pet store. I came home with two small goldfish and I fell in love.

I had that aquarium for a year or two until the two fish passed away. Years would go by until I turned 15, got my first job, and had my own money to spend. My first “real” aquarium was a 20 gallon Mainland kit that I purchased from Big Al’s aquarium. I bought some tiger barbs and a female betta and set that baby up in one day. I was obsessed with watching planted freshwater tanks on YouTube at this time and tried to replicate what I saw. The next day I went back and bought some plants, Java fern, some amazon sword, among others. This would lead to approximately 9 freshwater tanks in my moms basement. It became an obsession.

Reef Tank - My first saltwater experience.

Fast forward to 2006. YouTube was growing and saltwater videos started to emerge. I remember seeing a 10g nano reef and being absolutely blown away by the colours. The shrimp, hermit crabs, clownfish, and red digitata. I was hooked. I went to big als and to my surprise they had a large saltwater section complete with corals, inverts, and fish. I went home and did some research on nano tanks. Ending up on nano-reef.com I signed up and asked one million questions. This forum took all of my time and focus, I was on it probably 6 hours a day.

I took some time to decide what size tank to purchase and ultimately landed on a 15 gallon long. I purchased live sand, salt, live rock, and a swing arm hydrometer. Excited to set it up I picked a spot in my bedroom, mixed the water, added the sand and rock, and let the cycle begin. Knowing nothing about lights or even having money to buy some, I purchased a DIY t5ho kit online with moms credit card and built a crappy hood out of scrap lumber and hand cut plywood. My first experience was learning about flow, all I had was a used aqua clear filter and it was my only source of flow. With so many dead spots I ended up with a hydor koralia, my first powerhead.

I don’t remember exactly what my first coral was but I’m 90% sure it was a frag of dragon eye zoanthids, a frag of pulsing Xenia, and some green star polyps. I had mini panic attacks every time I noticed something off in the tank. Coraline growing on the glass, diatom algae, or even the “baby shrimps” that came only at night. It was all so exciting and scary. The tank did well for over a year but I quickly wanted bigger and better.

Upgrades - More space, more fish, more coral.

Those who know me well know that I always get the itch to upgrade and change tanks. One of my favourite parts of the hobby is setting up a new tank. The plumbing, the aqua scape, the building phase, I LOVE it. Over the years I think I’ve had about 15-20 different reef tanks. Im not sure I will ever find myself in a position where I have one aquarium that doesn’t change for more than a year or two, its a real problem.

Some of my favourite tanks of mine which can be found on the internet still are my 40 Gallon soft coral reef. This tank won Tank Of The Month on Nano Reef in October 2018. Probably my proudest moment in the hobby.

I’ve also had a beautiful 90 gallon soft cube, a 70 gallon sps tank, a 120 gallon lagoon and so many in between. I tell myself that one day I’ll set up a large peninsula tank and that will be my forever tank, only time will tell.


Trial and error - Learning as you go.

I’ve had many ups and downs in the aquarium hobby. My biggest failure would probably be losing 18 fish in 48 hours to a severe case of velvet. Some fish included a pair of Split Face clownfish which were only bred by one person in Ottawa, Canada. You can no longer get these fish as he has stopped breeding for many years. A friend of mine bought a tank shutdown with some beautiful big tangs and wrasses and had nowhere to keep them for a few weeks. I agreed to house them in my sump for him. Not quarantining these fish was my biggest mistake and regret. Within 24 hours I noticed my fish were absolutely covered in a white slime. 24 hours later, all but one fish was dead.

It’s so important to learn from your mistakes. Only buy fish and coral from trusted sources, setting up a quarantine system is even better. These animals are precious, we must treat them as such. Take your time and be prepared. I think the best way to learn and apply knowledge is to have some sort of journal. Whether it be on a forum, in a book, or even just posting about your tank on instagram or Facebook. Having a database of changes made or even test results is an invaluable resource to look back on.


Favourites- Fish and Coral.


The answer to what’s your favourite fish or coral changes for me over time.

Years ago my answer would have been zoanthids and pearly jawfish.

Today, the answer would be Sarcophyton and dwarf angelfish.

Although I don’t currently own a dwarf angel, my dream fish is the Tigerpyge.

When I finally set up my forever large soft coral peninsula I will build it around getting a Tigerpyge.

I NEED to have one.


Moving forward- What’s to come?

I’ve often wondered what the next step in reefing looks like to me. I’d really like to try my hand at breeding some sort of fish. Captive bred, sustainable, and disease free corals and fish will be the future of our hobby. For now, its nano soft coral reefs that are simple and easy to manage.

Words of Wisdom - My thoughts.

Do you. Don’t listen to everyone else and follow the latest trends on livestock or equipment. I mean it’s cool to have a list of named corals that you can brag about but at the end of the day it’s all about how much you are enjoying your tank and the hobby.

Take your time, research your livestock, plan your aquascape. It’s been said by many reefers before me but nothing good happens fast.

Reefing doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. You do not need the internet or a smart phone to have an aquarium. Buy the nicest glass box you can afford, and fill it up with things that YOU think are cool, not what everyone else likes.

Don’t skip water change day.

Be kind to one another.


To check out more material from Shawn please visit his instragram! https://www.instagram.com/sharbucklesreef/