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Calgary Fishnerd Safari:
by Owen

With the Opinionated Fiancee out of town, and with nothing to do all day, I decided to fully indulge my newly emergent fishnerd, and take a road trip to some of the biggest pet stores in Calgary. Not to mention the day before, when I went to Pisces Pet Emporium. I know this sounds dumb, but when Jean set up her 10 gallon tank, it seems to have activated some dorky latent geekdom which I had almost forgotten existed within my demented mind. I suppose there is nothing for it but to indulge myself in a bit of web-surfing and window shopping, and this review covers the second half. Here is a recounting of my journey.

PetCetera: Not what one would call a fish store, it has perhaps two rows of fish stuff, and a livestock selection that wouldn't rival a typical mall based pet store. Also, its selection of live plants was scanty and the propriatery starter kits came with undergravel filters, which are universally scorned on the websites I have looked at, as being old technology quite past its usefulness, requiring an obnoxious amount of upkeep, and having the major advantage of cheapness. Prices weren't really very good either, compared with any of the other stores. Not a fish specialty store, however, and not to be held to the same standard. Two pints of mass marketed beer. Not a destination store, but good enough if you need someplace and everywhere else is closed. Also conviently located on a c-train line, if you dont' have a car. Good luck getting a 25 gallon aquarium home on the train.

Score: Two Pints

Big Al's Aquarium Services: I am fairly sure that this used to be a locally owned fish store which was bought out by the rapidly expanding Big Al's franchise from the states. They have a huge selection of tanks, and a selection of huge tanks. One tank was on offer for three grand, 400 gallons. It was huge. And there was another sitting in the front doorway that was even bigger marked as sold. I can only imagine it was sold to a business of some variety and is destined to be a built-in, and stocked and serviced by Big Al's. Maybe not. I am sure that there are people who have 600 gallon home aquaria, but their fishnerd-dom so far exceeds mine that I cannot contemplate. At the midpoint of the store, it changes from supplies to livestock, with the first tank being a display only tank containing a 4 foot nurse shark, and possibly a similarly sized lemon shark. I seem to recall that that was what was in there, having vaguely heard of it before, but the water was so murky that I could not see into the bottom of the tank where the indistinct shape of the nurse hovered. There was, however a large sign, "Tuesday night Feeding Frenzy" where if you show up at 7:00 on Tuesday, you get to see them feed the sharks. I used to live down the street from a pet store in Winnipeg where you could pay $0.25 and watch them put a goldfish in the pirhana tank. Seemed kind of cruel to have a six inch pirhana in a ten gallon tank with no plants or rocks, but that was a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Same applies to a filthy rectangular aquarium for bigass sharks, I guess, although I'm no expert on their care and feeding. I saw a few other things that put me off, a large tank of tiny little densely crowded kissing gouramis, which kids will want to have in their ten gallon starter kit, but will soon reach 8-10 inches or more in size, if their picky eating doesn't kill them first. I got the feeling that the staff, who were attentive but kind of surly, wouldn't have mentioned thier potential size or needs to a potential buyer. Just a feeling that I had, nothing concrete, purely my own opinion. Kind of substantiated by the presence of painted glassfish, however. For those who don't know, these are glassfish, which are really pretty in their own right, though some no doubt find them funny looking, who are injected with flourescent dyes to make them "Pretty". Cruel practice, and unnecessary, in my opinion, which I have not seen at any other store. Finally, I noticed that one bank of tanks was completely overrun with snails, as were the live plants. The store clerk, however, was right on top of the situation, plucking the snails off of the glass on the plant tank, and...tossing them back into the middle where you couldn't see them. Losing battle, that, there were hundreds of them. I guess the idea is that every planted tank gets infested with snails sooner or later, so why not sooner. Big Al's gets three pints for selection and supplies, but I would hesitate to buy any livestock there, and absolutely balk at plants. If you are of a morbid frame of mind, however, that's Tuesday Night at 7:00 for the shark feeding.

Score: Three Pints

Riverfront Aquariums: The folks at Riverfront have no illusions about what they are in business for. It is not to have a pretty location, with shining floors (floors are concrete, better for drainage) Bright lights (lights are subdued for better fish viewing), or the biggest selection of supplies, (more than petcetera but way way less than Big Al's or Pisces). They are in the business of having the biggest damned selection of live fish in town without exception. Like, it is huge, and I didn't even go in the reptile section. You walk into the front door of the building, and from the outside it looks like a run down old warehouse on the wrong side of the tracks. From the inside, however it looks like a run down old warehouse on the wrong side of the tracks, filled with ordinary looking fishtanks of every size and shape, with every damn kind of fish you could want to find (within reason). The tanks are almost universally bare, with separate filters for each (no spread of diseases or other nasties) with a few display tanks thrown in here and there. I found it amusing that the Pirhana tank ( in which were about fifty 2" long red-bellies) was located not with the other more exotic fish, but in the middle of the "feeder" fish section. How terribly morbid. The tanks are probably in some kind of rational order, but I couldn't find any, nor could I figure out how the rows were arranged, except perhaps if it were a maze to keep the kids amused while the grownups haggled over discus. And discus there were, a dozen varieties or more, and those really ugly asian fish that are restricted under CITIES and you need a captive-bred certificate to avoid prosecution, and freshwater stingrays, and other stuff I hadn't even heard of. Not to mention a big selection of marine fish, amphibians, and even a whole bunch of more normal fish like Danios, Neons, Pl*cos, Corys, A _Ton_ of different african cichlids, probably because Calgary water seems to suit them, and all priced not cheap, but not expensive either, with really common species cheaper than anywhere I've seen(3 zebra danios for $2.49), and the staff seemed to be taking pretty good care of them. Packed dense, no doubt, but with clear water and I was watching tanks being maintained as I walked through the aisles, these folks seem to know a bit about what they're doing. I wonder that there is enough demand for some of these fish that they stock the number that they do. Fifty Pirhana is a lot, but they all seemed to be brothers and sisters, so perhaps they had a breeding. For all I know these folks breed a whole bunch of different animals themselves, they certainly seem to have the space, or they buy local, or perhaps not. I really don't know. What I do know is that if you want fish in Calgary, this place deserves a look, especially if you want sonething a bit out of the ordinary. These guys get four and a half pints of Belgian beer. In Belgium the breweries are kinda dingy, but you can get beers that you just can't find anywhere else. It would be five if there was a better selection of hard goods.

Score: Four and a half Pints

Pisces Pet Emporium: This store, for my money, has the best combination of price, selection, and healthy fish. The Store is located in a hollowed out strip mall near Golden Acre Garden Centre, which they seem to have progressively taken over. A locally owned business, they are quite the success story. Editor's note: They used to be my next door neighbors before we moved. They used to run this store out of their garage until everybody else who lived on the crescent including my dad started to complain because it was so parked up with customers that the residents couldn't park anywhere. I'm glad they've had so much success. It's really nice to see a local business that can compete with the Big Box stores. Their prices on supplies and equipment are very good, as is their selection. They had the lowest prices I had seen on a number of items. Maybe even low enough to keep me from buying supplies off of the Internet. Also, each of thier very numerous tanks of live plants was free of snails (to the naked eye, I might still want to keep them in quarantine) and each tank of fish is treated to its own filter, preventing the situation in petland where a whole bank of fish is wiped out by snails or worse. Why would a store have a bank system? Ease of maintainence. One wet-dry filter that only has to be maintained every couple of months may cost more to begin with, but $5.85 an hour is a lot to pay staff to clean individual filters on tanks. And if the fish all die on a bank, hey, we're out maybe a few hundred bucks on livestock. Make that up in two months on what it would cost to clean individual filters. At Pisces each tank has an individual sponge filter, which all look homemade out of couch cushion. Result? Incoming fish can be effectively quarantined (and are) in thier eventual display tank, one sick fish doesn't kill a whole bank of 8 or 12 tanks, less diseases pass to your eventual customer's home aquarium, and you can't even suck up one of your little fish into a filter like you can on Jean's aqua-clear. On the hard-goods side, they have the best selection in town, along with a big selection of plants. They don't have the gigantic aquaria that they have at Big Al's, but I'm sure they would order you one if you wanted it. They keep plenty of tanks in stock, from empty 10s for 13 or 14 bucks, up to 90 gallon bowfront corner marine starter kits for, like, three grand, that would look fantastic, but are way beyond the price range of, well, me. For their combination of concern for their livestock, big selection, price, and knowlegable staff, they get a rating of five pints of stout, which is a beer that is very good with seafood.

Score: Five Pints


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