Perhaps one of the biggest surprises for me nearly twenty years ago was my discovery that fish have personalities and that they can actually express themselves to us.

I am not kidding.

My African Cichlid, Blue, could be featured in a children’s book. It took me a while to understand what was going on, because I thought he was just a not-so-bright, pretty fish. It turned out that Blue was quite intelligent and let me know when he wanted my attention, or more amusingly, when he was mad at me.

I called Blue my “home improvement” fish. Week after week, he would busy himself pushing every bit of gravel to the back of the tank. Now this wasn’t very pretty, so I’d reach in and smooth it out again. That’s when I noticed Blue had this odd habit of spitting gravel at the side of the tank. Plink-plink, again and again. Weird habit I thought.

Eventually it dawned on me that this happened every time I put his tank back in order. He could see me outside the tank and he was expressing his disapproval. Then he’d go back to rearranging the bottom of the tank. I was amused. It was like our private tug of war. But then he let me know he could communicate in ways other than spitting gravel at me.

In the tank were three half shells, rounded side down. I’d get up in the morning and discover that three pieces of gravel had been placed in each shell. One day it was two blue and one green piece in each shell. The next day three green. The next day two green and one blue. It was like getting a semaphore message from an alien species but it certainly told me that he could count and that he could distinguish colors and make a plan with them.

We really felt Blue’s passing.

Then I got some Orandas. I think of them as puppy dogs. They would come to the edge of the tank to greet me. They would let me touch them. One even let me pull him from the tank and hold him while I removed a parasite from his tail. He never once wiggled to get away. When I put him back in the tank, he swam happily to the side to look at me, as if he understood.

After the last Oranda left us, I tore down the aquarium and it remained empty for years.

Anyway, this time when I restarted my aquarium, we agreed on one thing: not to get fish big enough to name. We were really saddened by our loss of Blue and the Orandas, so now we have little platys. They’re cute, they swim around in a colorful school, they explore and demonstrate curiosity. But I’ll never name them.

I learned my lesson. It’s possible to love a little fish, the way you love a kitten.

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Photo Credit: Winter B (BPICampus)