RM Featured Aquarist: Terry Siegel, Part I

by | Mar 17, 2015 | 0 comments

Terry Siegel has been in the marine aquarium hobby for over 40 years. He is a noted author and publisher responsible for many of the seminal hobbyist publications of the past four decades. Currently, he is the founder and editor of the groundbreaking Advanced Aquarist magazine. Recently, Reefs Magazine Senior Editor Randy Donowitz had the chance to chat with his old friend and mentor about his life and his unique perspective on the history of the marine aquarium hobby in America.

terryRM: When did you get into the aquarium hobby?

TS: Oh, about 65 years ago {laughs}. I was about 8-years-old and I recall having three small freshwater tanks – two 5 gallons and my pride and joy, a 20 gallon long. I even remember some of the fish I had in those days: a dwarf gourami, black tetra, angel fish, cory catfish, Amazon sword plants, I think I had some neon tetras also after a while.

Anyway, I kept those fish until I went to college. During my high school years I played a lot of hooky from high school which I found insufferably boring, and spent a lot of time working at a local pet store which was run by a man who knew a lot about fish. Even though it was a small store he had a lot of very interesting stuff. In fact at one point, I don’t remember exactly when but I was in high school, he brought in a percula clownfish and a trimac damselfish. No one was interested in buying them because they were salt water so I took them home and put them in a five gallon tank where I kept them for quite a while because I lived near the ocean and just kept changing the water. I don’t recall exactly what became of them.

In any case, I went away to college, graduate school and all that sort of stuff and then after that I got married and bought a house in Brooklyn which had a large enclosed front porch which eventually housed a variety of saltwater tanks. But I’m starting to get a little bit ahead of myself…

Around the late 60’s close to 1970, I had a 150 gallon ambassador all-glass tank in which I kept discus fish. One day I walked into a pet store on Coney Island Ave. in Brooklyn called Atlantis Aquarium. They had set up a 55 gallon salt-water tank and there were two long-nosed butterfly fish in it and once I took a look at those two butterfly fish extending their dorsal fins at one another I became absolutely mesmerized and knew immediately that I had to have salt-water fish. This was about the time in history when salt-water fish were being brought into this country and people were really excited about it but having a terrible time keeping them alive. It was also around this time that I became president of what I believe was called the International Marine Society which met in the Education Hall at the Coney Island public aquarium.

RM: What were the biggest problems you faced at that time?

TS: The biggest problem then was what we called the new tank syndrome. Essentially, what we would do was set up a salt-water tank and put fish in it and they would look pretty good for a couple of days and then they didn’t look so good a couple days after that and then after a couple more days they were dead. There was a lot of discussion amongst the group of us that were trying to keep these fish that, oh, it must be the salt mix, or that something is wrong with the tank- it must be the plastic, it must be this that or the next thing and so we would break it all down and sterilize everything and start all over again with the same results. At some point we discovered that the problem was ammonia and the toxicity of ammonia in seawater. Finally we figured out how to use under gravel filters and later trickle filters to help manage the nitrogen cycle and started having a bit more success. I had a lot of large tanks, all fish only tanks at this point – a 200 gallon, a 150, a 100 and a 60 all on this front porch. Now that the fish would live for a while the problem was disease. Even though we had solved the ammonia problem we were forever having problems with various pathogens – saltwater ich… velvet disease… Amyloodinium and later, I don’t know when it made its arrival, that particularly nasty parasite Brooklynella hostilis, and so it was a constant struggle.

RM: I’m sure it was very frustrating. You guys really were flying by the seat of your pants.

TS: Absolutely, you set up a new tank, couldn’t resist buying a new fish, put a new fish in it and sooner or later you’d bring in a parasite and have to treat the whole tank with copper. It was hard to know whether you were killing the fish with the copper or if the parasites were killing them, in any case it was a constant struggle. There were some people at that time, one guy in particular I think his name was Jerry Riddler, who was able to keep saltwater fish for extended periods of time, even several years. The way he did it was he had about thirty tanks. He would buy one fish, put it in a tank, and that was it, he never added a new fish. And in that way he eliminated the problem of disease at least for the most part.

RM: I guess there wasn’t much, if any, information readily available.

TS: There really wasn’t much to be found. That’s why around this time at the International Marine Society – around 1970 I believe – John Miklos and I began The Marine Aquarist magazine which was an attempt to disseminate information about biological filtration, information about fish and what to feed them and how to keep them alive. It was the first such publication in this country. I was the editor and wrote a column called “Fish of the Month” and the publication was quite successful. We put it together by hand, justifying the lines with an IBM electric typewriter! It was a nuisance.

After a few years John Miklos decided he wanted to make money, even though he was a solid- state physicist and he literally ran off with the publication and moved with his wife. That didn’t make anybody too happy. {laughs}

This Caribbean coral reef was run with a plenum style of filtration.

This Caribbean coral reef was run with a plenum style of filtration.

RM: Moving away from the hobby for a moment, you also had a lot of other things going on around this time.

TS: Well, for one I was a full-time English professor at Pratt Institute for 33 years until 1999. I taught a range of things like Modern British Writers, Shakespeare, Freshman English and other Humanities and inter-disciplinary courses.

RM: What is your favorite Shakespearian play?

TS: Oh, I don’t know. I suppose “Macbeth” which appeals to the nihilistic darker side of my personality. “Hamlet”, certainly “The Tempest”.

RM: How about your favorite character?

TS: Prospero, who I think is Shakespeare himself. He knew perfectly well what his genius was all about.

RM: Turning back to the hobby, things really started to change for the better in the 1980’s right?

TS: Lets see. I believe it was in 1984 that I tried my first reef tank. It was a 90 gallon tank and somehow or other I had learned that you needed a lot of light. I’m not sure where this information came from. Possibly from articles that were beginning to appear from Europe talking about “the Berlin method” of reef keeping. I think Schmidt was the author’s name. And what I did was to go to the hardware store and get a couple of security lights, I believe they were quartz lights, and hung them over this 90 gallon tank and I had some success. I had a bubble coral and I had a hammer coral both of which I still have believe it or not. There were a variety of other invertebrates that I do not recall any longer, and they did not survive the way that the bubble and hammer did. I can also remember having lots of Aiptasia and being very proud of them.{laughs} I did at that time get a tomato clown fish, a pair in actuality, one of which lived for 25 years in captivity.

One of Terry's early reef tanks.

One of Terry’s early reef tanks.

RM: That is a pretty remarkable achievement. I’m glad you mentioned the early days of reef lighting, I was wondering if you might tell one of my favorite reef keeping stories? I think you know what I mean.

TS: Yes indeed I do. Around this time, I was looking for better ways to light my reef. I came across a magazine called High Times, which was recommended to me by one of my sons – and one of the big advertisements was for hydroponic lighting by a company called Energy Savers.

I called up Energy Savers and spoke to the owner, a man by the name of Omar Dursom, and told him that I wanted lighting for a fish tank – for a coral reef tank. He started to laugh. He said, “well, usually people tell me they want lights to grow tomatoes…” But I said, “no, no, no — no. I don’t want to grow pot, I want to grow coral.”

And so he became somewhat interested. He asked me to send him a drawing of what I was talking about, which I did, and about a month later, believe it or not, the first American produced aquarium reflector with 175 Watt MH lights in it– I think they were about 37 K– got delivered to my house, and that began the business we know today as Coralife.

In fact, I believe you still have that reflector in your basement and it still works!

RM: Amazingly it does. How did you decide to start Aquarium Frontiers?

TS: It was around this time (and I don’t remember the dates exactly), that I met a number of individuals who were to influence me enormously, and they played major roles in the development of the reef-keeping hobby in the United States. Certainly one of them was Julian Sprung. He was about the age of my sons and I met him visiting my parents in Florida through one of my students who had freshman English with me. His name was Danny Ramirez, a graphic artist, and he introduced me to Julian Sprung who had worked with Martin Moe and was keyed into the latest European developments. He was writing a column in, FAMA, called Reef Notes and one day while Julian and I were driving out to the Keys where we collected snails, live sand and things like that, I said to Julian, “you know Julian, most people who read FAMA read it for your column. What do they pay you for that?”

When he told me, I said, “that’s ridiculous. You know what, Julian? Why don’t we start a magazine of our own where we pay writers a respectable amount of money, and produce a nice publication?” He said, “You know, that’s an interesting idea.” So we went back to Coconut Grove to meet Danny, who is a graphic artist, and he liked the idea – he also had a big reef tank. And so we started Aquarium Frontiers.

The first issue was almost unreadable, but it had some really interesting stuff in it – because it was at this time that Walter Addy was promulgating his theory about how to establish a reef tank, and they had a large one at the Smithsonian, using turf, or algae scrubbers — a system that worked, but had certain problems. And Julian, of course, was a proponent of the Berlin Method. His critique of Addy’s work garnered a lot of attention. In any case, Julian, Danny and I produced Aquarium Frontiers, which was published quarterly, and from a little black and white publication to a full-color publication as we took on advertising and quite quickly we became the American reef-keeping publication of record.

After about, I don’t know, two years, Danny and Julian had started a company called Two Little Fishies, and they had started publishing books that Julian and others wrote, and started doing business, and found themselves too busy because they were also promoting some of Peter Wilkins’ products at around that time, Combisan, Wilkins’ carbon, and so on.

In any case, they came to me and said, we just don’t have time to do this. Let’s sell the magazine. I was really unhappy about it. On board at that time were several very, very influential people in coral reef-keeping who were writing regularly for Aquarium Frontiers; Craig Bingman and Doug Robbins and Greg Scheimer. We were all very upset, but it seemed like there was no choice but to sell the publication, and it was sold to Fancy Publications, who published things like Aquarium Fish, Dog Fancy, Cat Fancy, Gerbil… whatever. {laughs}

I was to stay on as the editor, and I did for a while. But rather rapidly, I found myself unable to work with Fancy Publications because I knew that hobbyists wanted legitimate product reviews, even when the product was not very good, and my writers were told – Scheimer in particular – “just write, whether you think this thing is snake oil, whether it works or doesn’t work, and so on, we’re not going to censor your work at all.”

And, of course, Fancy Publications was not too happy with that. I wasn’t too happy with them, and we parted company. Unfortunately, I had signed a contract with them that I could not start a competing publication for five years and during that time I felt like there was a void in the quality and variety of what was getting published.

Terry's old 135g reef tank.

Terry’s old 135g reef tank.

This concludes part one of our interview with Terry Siegel. Please keep an eye out for the conclusion in the forthcoming Summer issue of Reefs Magazine.

  • Randy Donowitz

    Randy Donowitz has been keeping aquariums most of his life. During the mid 1980s and 90s he was consumed with the breeding of African Cichlids. In 1994 he purchased his first marine system- a simple 55 gallon reef setup and he has been an incurable coralholic ever since. Randy's articles have appeared in numerous hobbyist publications including Aquarium Frontiers, Advanced Aquarist, Marine Fish and Reef USA Annual and Aquarium Fish magazine. Currently, he curates and maintains the 3 system, 700 gallon coral reef display at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY where he enjoys the privilege of sharing his knowledge and love of the hobby with students, staff, and community members from around the Tri-State area.


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