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Mr. Fish to the Rescue

Pond Caretaker Bob Morris Has an Affinity for All Things Aquatic

June 06, 2004|Susan Heeger

He wasn't born with fins, scales or goggle eyes, but over the last 28 years, Bob Morris, a.k.a. Mr. Fish, has learned to think and act as if he had all three. Every day he drives around the city checking backyard ponds to see how the fish are faring. Is their water clean enough? Deep enough? Well-aerated? Not too cool or too hot? Are they getting the right food, but not too much? Do they have places to hide from predators?

If the answers don't please him, if there's a clogged drain or a sluggish pump or some other hidden problem, Morris might don a wetsuit and plunge in. "I get paid for doing things I got punished for as a kid," he says, snapping on prescription goggles as he prepares for a dive. "I get very wet! I get very dirty! It's great!"

But most important to one who sees the poetry in dragonflies, flashing fins and mossy rocks, he gets to share these joys with others. "I love to bring nature into people's lives," says Morris, who would be a veterinarian today were it not for college chemistry. Instead, he started Mr. Fish Aquarium and Pond Service, which does a full range of aquatic jobs from installing, maintaining, repairing and remodeling ponds and fish tanks to designing biological filtration systems and nursing sick koi back to health.

An Inglewood warehouse holds the other part of his operation, BLM Aquatic Distributors, a barn-like, fishy-smelling place where koi in vats weave endless figure eights, and empty fish bowls, packaged fish nets, fish food and boxed fish decor (coral and lava rock) are piled to the rafters. Outside, in a courtyard, are tubs of aquatic iris, lilies, hyacinth, clover, cannas and mint amid stacked water filters and more lava rock. In short, everything a fish or pond might need.

For years, Morris had all this squeezed into his Westchester garage, the plants jammed in his driveway, until his wife Lori said enough. Recently, he bought 47 acres above Malibu, where he plans to build bigger fish tanks and grow more plants.

Yet in his first months as Mr. Fish, Morris didn't know he had found his calling. Quite by accident (once his vet dreams had been dashed), he fell into part-time aquarium work as a student at Cal State Northridge. When school ended, and unwilling to let his clients down, he kept the business going. After five years, his client list had grown from 19 to 100. He hired a helper and started working on ponds. Soon afterward, an accountant recommended him to Richard Gere, and other Hollywood clients followed.

"I don't discriminate, though," says Morris. "My customers run the gamut from factory workers to some of the richest people in the country." To accommodate everyone, he sells domestic koi as well as pricey imports from Asia. And he teaches people the fundamentals of pond maintenance, advising them to shade water with trees to reduce algae instead of shelling out for algicide, a less eco-friendly option. But hobbyists, he says, often get too busy to tend their ponds. Neglecting a pond endangers the fish by allowing debris to reach unhealthy levels.

To prevent this, Mr. Fish uses both biological filtration, in which naturally occurring bacteria breaks down debris, and mechanical means that separate dirt from the water and then eliminate it. A combination of methods often works best to clear the water and improve fish health. "A man-made pond is not a true representation of nature. It requires human input," says Morris, who, with his current staff of eight (including both his sons), now tends the aquatic needs of 300 clients. They have built a lake stocked with fish for one, and converted swimming pools to ponds for others. Water features he has serviced range from tiny--150 gallons--to large-scale--250,000 gallons--but the point Morris likes to make is that even small ponds are relaxing and therapeutic. "When you sit quietly by the water, you see amazing things," he says. "A hopping frog, a patch of moss where water splashes. Mother Nature doesn't rush. But if you're patient, she unfolds."

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Resource Guide

Mr. Fish Aquarium and Pond Service and BLM Aquatic Distributors, Inglewood, (310) 645-0366.

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