Send in the Clown Fishes

Straining to describe to a tropical fish dummy the appearance of the moorish idol, one of the dozens of different species he keeps in his sixteen home aquaria, Rafael Estenoz resorts to the more familiar realm of home furnishings. "You'll see them on a lot of bathroom curtains that depict an aquatic environment," he notes. Oh, that fish.

Estenoz knows from aquatic environments, both saltwater and freshwater. Last year his twenty-gallon Mini Reef tank copped four different awards, including Best in Show, at the Florida Marine Aquarium Society's annual Marine Aquarium Show. It brimmed with various marine (saltwater) organisms -- living corals, snails, hermit crabs, a purple tang, and a pair of percula clown fish -- artfully mixing and matching the elements to replicate a harmonious, symbiotic, reef-like universe. "There's a certain amount of creativity involved in setting up the tank," Estenoz points out, "so that it doesn't just look like a pile of rocks."

Unlike their freshwater counterparts, marine aquaria teem with colorful invertebrates, notably coral and tubeworms (both useful in filtering out pesky plankton), sea anemones, spiny sea urchins, and starfish. As for a marine tank's main attractions, an array of actual swimmers includes angelfishes, butterfly fishes, clown fishes, trigger fishes, tangs, moorish idols, and nurse sharks, among countless others, not forgetting ever-popular sea horses.

The 46th annual Marine Aquarium Show will feature approximately 100 tanks, ranging from 5 to 200 gallons, the bulk lovingly designed by FMAS members. Just before the show opens, a panel of judges will weigh in with their top choices in a handful of categories, such as Best Miniature, Best Atlantic, Best Pacific, Novelty, and Showmanship, with trophies displayed atop the winning aquaria. "The panel of judges comes from three different areas," explains show coordinator Mike Brown. "We take somebody from the [marine aquaria] industry, plus a hobbyist, and then someone considered a renowned expert."

Established 46 years ago by an ardent group of local saltwater-fish aficionados, the FMAS now has about 140 members, who pump up interest in their hobby while simultaneously educating the public about ocean conservation.

A past vice president of the society, the 39-year-old Estenoz, a software developer who lives in Miramar, dipped his big toe into the hobby in the late 1970s with freshwater tanks, moved into saltwater around 1990, then plunged into "propagating corals" more recently. His largest tank -- he maintains nine saltwater, seven freshwater -- checks in at 350 gallons. For this year's show he plans another Mini Reef: "Same tank, different look. To be honest, I don't know which corals I'm going to pick out yet. There are so many different organisms that you can put into it."

All of which require what he terms constant "vigilance and care." And, of course, time. While brushing aside the possibility that he's obsessed with marine aquaria, Estenoz admits, with a laugh, "My wife will probably tell you that at this point it's more than a hobby."