RALEIGH — Alex Nunn arrived at the N.C. State Fairgrounds Sunday morning with $300 in cash – all of which he hoped to spend on aquatic flora and fauna.
The attraction that inspired Nunn, a 26-year-old race car mechanic, to hit the road at 8 a.m. and drive two hours from Mooresville to Raleigh? An auction sponsored by the Raleigh Aquarium Society.
“I’m basically here because the aquarium stores in the Charlotte area don’t cater to freshwater or planted tanks,” Nunn said Sunday before the auction got underway.
For the uninitiated, planted tanks are focused foremost on aquatic plants rather than the fish that swim among them. Count Nunn, who has a half-dozen tanks at home, among the initiated.
“I’m really into aquascaping,” he said. “It’s like landscaping, but under water.”
The twice-yearly auctions held by the Raleigh Aquarium Society – as well as those held by similar organizations across the country – are renowned for having exotic fish, plants and invertebrates that you’re unlikely to find at a local pet or aquarium store. More than 500 items aimed at aquarists, or people who keep aquariums for a hobby, were sold at Sunday’s event.
And, as with auctions of any type, bargains were there for the bidding. As of late Sunday afternoon, the winning bids for fish ranged from $1 for a bag of 10 guppies to about $50 for a single, rare discus.
“You get some significant bargains here,” said Chris Smith, who chaired the weekendlong aquarium workshop that culminated in Sunday’s auction. “To buy at full retail can be expensive.”
One of the oldest clubs of its type in the country, the Raleigh Aquarium Society has held auctions for more than 20 years. Many of the club’s approximately 250 members breed fish at home and take them to the auctions to sell, as do other home breeders who flock to the event from other states. People from Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were among those who registered to sell items at Sunday’s auction.
“We want to encourage people to breed fish,” said Michael Maieli, the club’s secretary. “We want to encourage people to … keep some of these really dicey species from becoming extinct.”
But the club implores those who take fish to the auction to sell them to refrain from transporting them in food bags, such as zip-close bags, because they’re too thin.
“They break too easily,” Maieli said. “We don’t want to have a disaster with fish flopping. Believe me, we have learned from experience.”
The latest issue of the club’s newsletter, “Fish Tales,” features an article on “How To Bring Your Fish To The Club Auction” that cautions against filling a fish bag with too much water. One-fourth full is sufficient.
“There should be enough water to cover the fish when the bag is on its side, but oxygen is more important than water,” the article notes.
Curtis Alexander, 46, of Raleigh, took 16 bags of fish and aquatic plants to the auction to sell. He was planning to plow the proceeds – which the club gets a percentage of with each sale, the amount depending on whether or not you’re a club member – into buying other fish or equipment.
Alexander said of his hobby: “I try to make it support itself.”
Alexander is a salesman who sells molecular genetics equipment to scientists; he has 10 tanks at home.
“Certainly, there’s the geek factor,” he said. “You try to set up the tank to be a replica of where these (fish) come from. It gives you a window. You’re kind of taking a trip there.”
Then, Alexander added, there’s the “technical challenge” of learning how to enable the fish to survive in “an artificial environment.”
“When you get a new species of fish, you have to crack that,” he said.
Regina Spotti and her fiance, Eric Bodrock, breed fish in their home near Pittsburgh and sell them online at alloddballaquatics.com. The couple drove down for the Aquarium Society’s weekend event.
Bodrock was a speaker on Saturday. His topic was “Corydoras Breeding Made Easy,” and they stayed for the auction with the intent of landing some exotic fish.
“You get to raise things that are extinct in the wild,” Spotti said. “It’s rewarding on a lot of levels.”
Spotti met Bodrock when he owned an aquarium store and she was a customer. She theorizes that the connection between humankind and aquariums is formed even before we’re born.
“No matter who you are, you start out in a bubble of water,” she said. “In the womb, you are surrounded by water. The very first sound that you hear in there is your mother’s heartbeat.
“And,” she continued, “your mother’s heartbeat is muffled by water, and it sounds just like an aquarium.”