Dec 062011

Betta Splendens Siamese Fighting Fish

Our Georgie, Betta fish, resting on the aquarium bottom

Georgie is our “accidental” Betta fish (Betta Splendens). Last year we decided to get our daughter a hermit crab for her birthday and when the day arrived, although full of expectations, she wasn’t enthusiastic about it at the pet store. She saw all the colorful Betta fish and kept asking for one of them instead, so I let her have it, knowing that daddy’s long experience with aquariums can help.

I helped her choose a healthy fish with a gorgeous mix of purple and blue. We bought him a Betta fish tank, barely big enough to be called so, but it was much bigger than the cup in which he was held in the store. At home we set everything up (NOT with tap water which kills fish if not dechlorinated) and we decided to call him Georgie Porgie.

It felt wrong seeing him in that little tank with one fake plastic plant next to my big planted 55 gallon tank with Turquoise (Kutubu) Rainbow fish, so after a day or two I suggested that we move him to the big tank to make him happier and less lonely, and my daughter immediately agreed.

New Mansion

Sudden changes of water and temperature can kill any fish, so after gradually replacing his water with that from the main tank throughout about 20 minutes, we slowly filled and submerged the little tank in the big one and he swam out.

Planted 55 gallon tankHe must have been shocked with kindness. Possibly for the first time in his life he was able to freely swim around. He was “puffing up” his colorful fins, probably expecting a fight whenever one of my Turquoise Rainbow fish approached him, but although big and quick, these dudes are quite friendly and everything went without a single conflict. There we learned his first quirk: he apparently loves to sleep tangled in plants or laying down at the bottom and the first few times we worried he was either sick or dead, but no, these are just his naps and he even takes them during the day.

After a day or two he was totally used to the beautiful and huge new environment and so his destiny was decided – or so we thought – he would spend the rest of his longer and better than average life in this big and beautiful tank. My fish tanks are always under-stocked and reasonably well-kept without any chemicals, so most of my fish live longer than the books say they would. But destiny had different plans for Georgie, hopefully not affecting his lifespan.

The Flood

Two months after he was brought into our home, we had to evacuate. After one extremely rainy Summer night pour-down of almost 8 inches of water, the Chicago river rose higher than ever because the entity governing the river locks refused to open them to prevent Asian Carp from spreading from lake Michigan into Chicago river. So because of one fish species, many cities and homes in Illinois flooded. (For the record, not all fish are bad, and this had nothing to do with Georgie.) After the river overflew the wall that has been always keeping it in place, our basement and garage filled with over 6′ (about 2 meters) of water. Our car wasn’t totaled like the other 150 only because it was parked outside.

I didn’t think this would affect us living many floors above, but all the main electrical facilities and the auxiliary generators were in the basement, so the building lost all of its possible power sources. In addition, the garage was filled with a mix of the river, the sewer, the chlorine for the gym’s swimming pool, the gasoline from the cars and the diesel fuel from the generators. We were dead in the water, pun intended, with a hazmat (hazardous materials) situation and all the residents of about 450 condominiums and businesses in the commercial area had to leave the building for days as we were first told, what later turned into weeks.

I thought all my fish would be OK even without filtration because the heavily planted 55 gallon fish tank with four Rainbowfish and one Betta wasn’t crowded at all, and before leaving I had just enough time to set up my automatic battery-operated feeder which I regularly use when on vacation (I set it to minimal amounts of food to prevent adding much waste to the tank as it’s much better to underfeed than to overfeed and polute a tank). But when we were temporarily allowed in the building several days later, we found the fishtank in a very sad condition. Since there was no power or air conditioning in the building, during the extremely hot weather the temperature inside our condominium rose to above 100 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) and I found the Rainbowfish floating bellies up, dead. I also found one dead shrimp, red as if it were cooked (I thought it died years ago and there were no more shrimp in my tank), and so I thought all life in my tank has perished.

The Little Fish That Could

Amidst all those bad news came the big surprise – when I started cleaning the tank, Georgie Porgie came out of one of his hiding places, still alive and kicking, swimming around like nothing happened. The little fish who could. He survived because Bettas can live in shallow, hot and dirty waters, as they breathe not only oxygen from the surrounding water through their gills but they also take in the surface air and absorb oxygen in a labyrinth organ in their head. This is what makes them able to withstand the very harsh conditions inside the small plastic cups in which they are sold, while most other fish would die very quickly in such an environment and this also saved him from suffocation in the poorly oxygenated and overheated aquarium during the flood.

Lonely Days

This was a beginning of a very lonely period in his life. For more than a year he has been the only fish in that huge 55 gallon tank. He had plenty of room but got slow and didn’t move much. He was a castaway in his own paradise “island” with only snails and a few surviving plants as his only company. I wanted to buy him a “wife” to keep him happy, but we kept postponing it because we were supposedly moving out, and it’s always easier to move one fish than more. But as it usually happens in life, things take their time and he is still alone, almost year and a half after the flood.

Back to Confinement

Then this Fall (2011) we finally started moving and I was in a dilemma what to do with him. Since we are moving to a place without a safe spot where the 55 gallon tank could coexist with children, I thought the original small plastic tank will have to do and I had it placed on the bottom of the big tank for a few weeks to collect all the good bacteria and make the move easier. When the time came, the tank with some water was packed separately and I actually moved Georgie in a 16 oz solo cup wrapped in a transparent wrapping foil, but don’t try that unless it’s a very short ride (in my case it was 30 minutes). After bringing him to his future home and watching him again turn around in the same sorry excuse for a Betta aquarium from the beginning of the story, I didn’t have the heart to leave him in that prison without no plants, hiding places, open spaces and other fish.

New Home

So we’ve done it again. We bought a 10 gallon tank for $12.99 at a local pet store and I added some other equipment and the light fixture I already had, and my kids are now more than ever excited about Georgie. The big tank was too big for them to spot him and the small plastic betta solitary was way too small for him to move and shine. Here he seems happy and energetic. It took me a week to set up the tank with “live” sand, gravel and plants from the now abandoned big old tank, so we didn’t have to wait for the chemical equilibrium that usually takes so long to establish in new tanks (also known as tank cycling).

Betta SplendensAs of December 3 he’s been let out of his “prison” and into the new home. I read somewhere that Bettas live only a few years in captivity, and although Georgie is probably already two years old, he’s still big, alive and agile, looks very healthy and he’s swimming around seemingly happier than ever. We are getting ready to buy him that wife we promised long time ago (bad master, bad), but we want to wait for a few weeks until “the nitrogen cycle is adapted to the new biological load” or in other words until the fish, the tank and the good bacteria that thrives on fish waste (converting ammonia to nitrites and nitrites to nitrates) are used to each other and the ecosystem is stable. I’ll have to carefully watch their behavior because sometimes the male gets aggressive, in which case she’ll get a divider in the tank, so Georgie better keep in mind that it’s cheaper to keep’er.

The tank has no filter and I most likely won’t use any because the plants will grow and absorb the waste and there will be a bit more frequent partial water changes. In my 55 gallon tank I used to change about 20% of water every 6 months or so, which is far below the necessary once a month or recommended 10% once a week on such a big tank, only because I had less fish and plenty of plants.

Some Advice for Beginners

By the way, those of you adding fish to your aquarium, SLOW DOWN! You are not supposed to add many fish at once, definitely not more than what you already have in your tank, and it’s best to only add one at a time, then wait three weeks to get the biological balance established again in the tank. Yes, some people add a ton of fish and rely on huge filtration equipment and frequent water changes, but I prefer my tanks well established and stable.

Another great rule of thumb is to have less inches of fish than gallons of water in the aquarium. This can be adjusted if you have some of those thin and long (eels, kuhlis) or short and tall (angelfish) species, and if there’s no filter there needs to be much less fish, but for average fish tanks equipped with all the necessary filtration, light and heat, this is a good guide to follow to increase the quality of life and longevity of your fish and make them healthier.

Water dechlorination – I don’t use any chemicals. I just leave the water in a 5 gallon tank used for water coolers (not filled to the top) and let it stand for weeks. A few days is usually enough to get the chlorine out if there are no chloramines in water, but that must be verified with the local water department. I’ve been lucky in Chicago where they only treat water with chlorine.


The current 10 gallon tank doesn’t have a filter and the heater is still not in because the room is very warm and around their happy spot (75-80 Fahrenheit), but the heater will get in if it gets colder. I may write more about Mr. Georgie Porgie in the future if there’s interest and I also started taking photos of the tank so perhaps someday I make a time-lapse series to show how the whole thing is progressing. I hope Georgie gets many more years of happy life.

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