POSTED: MAY 9, 2011 by Clay Jackson on

You see it at fish shows and at aquarium club meetings, what? you say — the graying of the hobby. I often hear from aquarium club members, aquarium retailers and aquarium show purveyors, “How can we attract new blood into this great hobby of ours?” And while lamentations are frequent, solutions are often slow in coming.

Well, the World Pet Association (WPA), the organization behind America’s Family Pet Expo (AFPE), was speculating on how to generate more buzz about its fish exhibits at the conclusion of last year’s Expo. In particular, WPA member and United Pet Group Director of Marketing Les Wilson wanted to really increase the enthusiasm in the fish area, to draw-in kids and parents and to plant seeds of interest about the joys and wonder of fishkeeping. And out of this great notion came the idea of the “Aquatic Experience,” which recently dazzled seasoned aquarists, budding hobbyists and casual passerbys this past April at the 2011 AFPE, in Costa Mesa, California.

The Aquatic Experience made use of faux family living areas, such as a kid’s room replete with bunkbed, a home office, den and living room areas and even a spectacular backyard pond setup, and showcased working aquariums in each, thus showing visitors how an aquarium can affect one’s quality of living by easily fitting into a particular living space and becoming the focus of whatever room it is being displayed in. Many people have home offices, everyone who owns or rents has a living room, den, bedrooms, etc., but how many of these people have a spectacular aquarium as the focal point in some of these same living areas, not many?

The second aspect of the Aquatic Experience were the perimeter tanks that hemmed in the entire exhibit area. Each perimeter tank was set up with a particular aquatic theme in mind, and there was an educational banner hanging down to the side of each tank explaining the thinking behind each display, as well as general information about a tank’s fish residents and a geography lesson about the places where these fish originate from. Perimeter tanks included a goldfish setup, a livebearer tank, Malawi and Tanganyikan cichlid aquariums, a clownfish and regal tang tank (think Nemo and Dory) with Little Mermaid figurines, a re-created reef tank and others. The perimeter tanks were mostly 125-gallon affairs, but there were lots of smaller tanks scattered about in the living areas and grouped together as stand-alone displays. The message was loud and clear: you don’t need to break the bank to incorporate a beautiful, well-planned aquarium into your current living situation, and keeping an aquarium is something the whole family can participate in.

The final piece of the Aquatic Experience was a large open-topped coldwater touch tank with live marine invertebrates taken from the Long Beach breakwater; these animals were supplied for the touch exhibit by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, out of San Pedro, California. Opened in 45-minute bursts with rest periods in between for the animals, the touch tank was continually ringed with appreciative kids, parents and young adults all vying to interact with some local sea life, including Pacific sea stars, bat stars, keyhole limpets and purple sea urchins.

Immediately outside the Aquatic Experience, there were several long rows of small themed aquariums that kids in different age groups put together and entered into a kids’ aquarium contest. There were easily 100 kid aquariums, and many children were craning their necks and standing on their tippy toes to see what their grade-school counterparts had created. I distinctly heard one young child asking if he could get an aquarium of his own.

All in all, the Aquatic Experience generated a new level of enthusiasm among the pet-loving public at the AFPE as it unveiled the joys of fish and aquariums to a whole new group of folks, hopefully, “in the market” to become the next generation of aquarists to “pay it forward.”

For anyone not able to attend the April AFPE in Costa Mesa and to experience the Aquatic Experience firsthand, there’s another opportunity this summer. The Aquatic Experience will make its second debut at another America’s Family Pet Expo to be held in the Pacific Northwest in July. People can visit this AFPE and visit its Aquatic Experience at the Puyallup Fair and Events Center, July 8 to 10, in Puyallup, Washington.

If you live in the Northwest and have children you would like to mentally engage in an activity that doesn’t have a twit, book or face in it, you owe it to yourself and them to check out the Aquatic Experience.