Dip Into the Piscine World
With the advent of winter's bitter bite, nature has shed its vibrant colors, and most activities have moved inside.

So now is the perfect time to make your home a great place to relax -- and build a soothing aquarium filled with beautiful fish.

You could swap the plasma TV for a 30-gallon wall-mounted aquarium -- your children will thank you (much) later.

For a professional touch, try a high-end professional tank designer. To keep it clean, you can even hire a tank-service specialist to do all the work.

But if you prefer a more hands-on experience, you can easily get started all on your own.

Gone Fishing

An aquarium aficionado since the '60s, Fred Barron, 59, of Norfolk, Va., has had as many as five tanks and an outdoor fish pond.

He has since downsized to one tank with two oscar fish -- an albino and a tiger; not surprisingly, they resemble their names -- and the pond.

Barron, a retired biology teacher, constructed his fish pond nine years ago in his back yard, where temperatures average 35 to 70 degrees in the winter. The pond is home to about 50 fish -- koi and fancy goldfish -- that range in size from 2 to 12 inches long.

Gazing into the pond is a proven stress-reliever: "I get lost in sweet nothings. The fish are different colors, so it's like watching a kaleidoscope going around and around as the fish swim back and forth, playing and bantering," Barron explains.

Breed All About It

For beginning aquarists, Barron recommends low-maintenance guppies or zebras. Guppies are known for their oversized, flowing tail; one type of hearty zebra, the danio rerio, is often used in biological studies.

Prices for goldfish -- another good starter fish -- can vary widely. BurkesBackyard.com says you can get them from $8 to $20 each. Rare or new varieties can fetch $5,000 to $15,000 apiece.

It can be a worthwhile investment -- goldfish can live about eight years in aquariums and up to 25 years in well-maintained ponds.

Keith Seyffarth, 36, of Bozeman, Mont., is a Webmaster who has loved fish since elementary school and ran a fish department in a pet store for seven years.

As this seasoned guru points out, most beginning fish shoppers look for qualities such as beauty or aggressive behavior. People seek out bright colors so they can identify each fish and tell them apart. But fish can have interesting personalities, too.

Seyffarth is partial to the dragon fish, or violet goby. Dragon fish have an eel-like body, small eyes and poor visual acuity -- but to Seyffarth, their charm outweighs their arguably off-putting appearance.

Tank Talk

Seyffarth created the First Tank Guide in 1994 to disseminate "bare-bones information on tank setup." The site has since evolved into much more -- aquarium owners can access extensive material on troubleshooting or even ask Seyffarth a question directly.

As Seyffarth explains, the ideal tank for beginners is a 10-gallon unit with an appropriately sized filter and just two fish. At this point, the tank cycle begins, a process necessary to remove the toxins that the fish's metabolism creates. For more fish, Seyffarth recommends adding only two fish for each 10-gallon increase in tank size, and only after the tank completes its initial six- to eight-week cycle.

Three-gallon tanks and tiny "night-light" fishbowls should be avoided, he warns. Larger tanks create a more stable environment for the fish, and you are able to get more of a variety of fish as well as larger fish.

Siamese fighting, or betta, fishbowls with protruding, live plants are also popular with beginners. However, it's not clear whether they are safe for the fish. So if you go this route, be sure to keep the bowl clean, the plant it feeds on healthy and supplement it with betta fish food.

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