The firefish and the reefkeeper: a lesson on coming back from adversity.

September 14, 2015

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The firefish goby. (Nemateleotris magnifica) From the warm waters of the Western Pacific, it’s not considered a difficult fish in the reef keeping hobby. Unlike its strong name, the firefish is peaceful. Even shy, often darting into nooks and crannies when alarmed. It won’t pick on other fish or nibble on corals.

I picked one up from my local fish store a few days ago and introduced it into my reef aquarium. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of my tank were not as hospitable to the firefish as it was to them. Within moments of releasing the goby, it was harassed by several different fish. You see, many reef fish are as territorial as they are beautiful. As soon as the startled firefish visited another section of the tank, a resident attacked it. They didn’t want to eat the goby, merely to chase it away. Not in my neighborhood, each told the firefish. Go wave your dorsal fin somewhere else.

The bullying continued and soon I feared for the creature’s life. With good cause. A pecked upon fish is vulnerable to disease. Worse, the wounded animal is easily taken for dinner by the invertebrets living within the rocks and on the sand floor. They aren’t called the “clean up crew” in the hobby for nothing. My crabs, shrimp and snails would make quick work of the struggling firefish.

When the animal disappeared from my tank, I pretty much knew it was lunch. Even so I looked everywhere for it. With a pen light I gazed into every recess, behind every rock. Nothing. Not even a frail skeleton. Terrified, the firefish must have swam deep into a small cave, died and was eaten. Hopefully, in that order.

I’ve lost fish before. Over the years, hundreds. You get used to it. But this one hurt a little more because it touched a nerve. I, too, had to leave a reef of sorts: my job. Only a few days ago I’d been ensconced with my tank mates. And then…

My aquarium had been a pleasant distraction, same as a garden brings another solace and tranquility. The firefish was my first addition since I’d left my post. Now it was gone. I’d failed. The perfect metaphor, yes?

No.

This evening when I was feeding my tank, up from the depths emerged the firefish wielding its great dorsal fin like a sword. Not so shy anymore, he hovered middle of the water column like a samurai. No longer did the other fish bother him. Looking right at me, he took his evening meal. I realized the firefish hadn’t been hiding; he’d been gathering his resolve. And now he was ready to take his proper place, front and center, this coral reef. As he chewed the krill, spitting out bubbles, I imagined him saying: “Fin up, brother. We got this.”

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Up from the depths, front and center…

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