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Marine Aquariums In The Long Ago Time pt.1

Many things marine aquarists today take for granted were unthinkable in the nascent days of the hobby, just over half a century ago. In the early to mid-1970s, saltwater aquariums were only kept by the most intrepid and resourceful of individuals.

Very early on, synthetic sea salt mixes were non-existent. You "might" be able to concoct a formula by contacting a large public aquarium for information, then a chemical supply house for the requisite components. But, a hobbyist in New Orleans named Harry Freiberg was able to solve this by flying a helicopter carrying 55-gallon drums several miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and collecting natural seawater. The distance from shore, and away from the mouth of the Mississippi River, helped to insure full salinity, and reduced the chances of the water containing pollutants often found in the waters closer to the coastline.

This practice of using natural seawater was common among aquarists living in the tropical areas native to the types of ornamental marine fish sought by such hobbyists. But, using natural seawater meant first keeping it in opaque containers in total darkness for months in order to kill off any micro-organisms present in it.

One of the first widely available synthetic salt mixes, Instant Ocean, was produced by Aquarium Systems in Mentor, Ohio, and it was they who Mr. Freiberg would call upon to assist him in his endeavors, even going so far as to travel to his home in New Orleans to build undergravel filtration into the impressive in-wall display tanks in his den.

And an impressive display it was. Three large, acrylic aquariums side-by-side, each six feet long by three feet wide by four feet deep spanned the length of his den wall. Mounted with their bottoms at four feet above the floor, the installation dominated the vaulted-ceilinged room.

The filtration Aquarium Systems built for Freiberg would be of the type that would become ubiquitous in the early days of the saltwater hobby: plastic "eggcrate" lighting grid raised off the bottom of the tank, covered in fiberglass window screen, and powered by airlifts made of glass panels walling-off the rear corners of the tank. A dozen or more "Silent Giant" air pumps powered it all.

The massive tanks were actually housed in a structure built onto the side of the house by Freiberg specifically for the purpose. The tanks sat on a concrete slab raised up on cinder block walls. In an open area underneath sat a 125-gallon quarantine tank.

At the far end of the room was a 100-gallon Nalgene drum for mixing up the synthetic seawater. A pump and PVC piping led to an overhead nozzle which swiveled to reach each of the three aquariums. A library style ladder rolled the length of the room to allow Freiberg (or his employee) to access the tanks for feeding, etc. A drain in the floor simplified partial water changes by allowing siphoned water to be direct toward it.

On the aquarium room wall opposite the tanks sat a bench with water quality testing supplies (and even a microscope). Next to it were situated a 55-gallon aquarium housing feeder goldfish (to feed the trio of massive volitans lionfish) and a specially-made pallet, precisely sized to hold 6 cases of Instant Ocean salt mix safely off the often-wet floor.

The aquarium room had it own heating and air conditioning, so in-tank heaters were unnecessary. Lighting was suspended from the ceiling, so as to be able to freely access the tanks.

The aquarium inhabitants were typical of the era: mostly fish and a few invertebrates including banded coral shrimp, and anemones for the clownfish. The successful keeping of live corals was still years, if not decades, away. But all the fish were long-lived and had attained sizes rarely seen in typical home aquariums.

Freiberg passed away peacefully at age 97 in 2014 at the Uptown New Orleans condo in which he had lived for several years. Whether or not the tanks still existed at the time of sale, or if the buyers of his Bayou St. John home retained them if they did, is unknown.

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