Founded in 1948, the San Diego Tropical Fish Society (SDTFS) is one of the oldest continuously running fish clubs in the United States. In early November 2019, the nonprofit organization hosted its Annual Fish Show, which has been held since the 1970s at Balboa Park. More than 3,000 people attended this year’s two-day event to see aquariums featuring aquatic animals and plants. Join Inhabitat on an exploration of the show, its history and its members’ efforts — past and present — in sustainability and fish conservation.

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Signage of the San Diego Tropical Fish Society, on a section of the SDTFS Annual Fish Show

SDTFS has been bringing together fish hobbyists to promote interest in, further the study of and encourage the preservation of aquatic life. “As a club, we’re very concerned about conservation, stewardship and sustainability, and we’re very ecologically involved,” said Victor Tongco, president of SDTFS. “We do consider a lot of the hobby as living art, especially when keeping our fish and plants as healthy as possible, while also educating the public on what is their stewardly responsibility.”

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Besides exhibiting aquatic life, the Annual Show also recognizes the aquascaping efforts of the fishkeepers who participate. Three notable awards given during the Annual Show are the President’s Choice, the Dorothy Cobleigh Trophy for the People’s Choice Award and the Mark Ferguson Memorial Award for the Best Planted Aquarium.

family looking at fish tanks
fish swimming through wavy fronds in a fish tank

SDTFS treasurer Jimmy Cobleigh is popular among SDTFS members, because his mother, Dorothy, was a co-founder of the organization. Cobleigh fondly mentioned that his mother was a strong proponent for young children to also be included as junior members of SDTFS. Oftentimes, she would pay for the membership fees of youngsters who wanted very much to be a part of the team; she would also drive groups of SDTFS junior members to and from meetings. To this day, the San Diego Tropical Fish Society opens its membership to individuals as well as families.

In the mid-1960s, Mark Ferguson was one of those SDTFS junior fishkeepers. Even before his membership, Ferguson was already interested in the natural world. “He lived near, at that time, where Qualcomm Stadium is now — that used to be all wild lands and ponds. He would go down there after school with his net and his bucket to collect stuff with his younger brother,” shared Ferguson’s wife, Arlene. “Then, there was a gentleman on his street who had aquariums in his garage. One day the garage doors were open, and Mark saw them, so he went over. He asked the man about his aquariums and found out about the San Diego Tropical Fish Society. Mark was still too young to drive, so his parents would drive him to the meetings. He started setting up a lot more aquariums; they were always natural. That led to his interest in fish as a career.”

yellow spiny albino plecostomus in a fish tank
aquascaped nano tank on display

By age 14, Ferguson was a volunteer intern at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, caring for marine life. He eventually became head aquarist. When the Monterey Bay Aquarium was being built, Ferguson was one of the original biologists hired for his expertise with aquarium and exhibit design. He was vital to ensuring that the many exhibits were showcased in very natural ways. Ferguson and his wife were at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for over two decades, and he spent a lifetime working with aquatic life.

One of the most prestigious prizes offered at the SDTFS Annual Show is the Mark Ferguson Memorial Award for the Best Planted Aquarium, in honor of Ferguson’s motif and vision of the natural look. The award is given to the entry that best simulates nature with all-natural plants in the entire tank, including substrate and background. There is to be no presence of anything artificial in the tank, just like the public aquarium exhibits Ferguson designed.

fish tank with plants on ground and floating
angelfish in a fish tank

Arlene elaborated, “He would design an environment for the animals to survive in and flourish in that would also look like their natural world. That captured everyone’s attention. He became known as the man with the magic touch when it came to aquatic plants. To him, that was the most important part of an aquarium. When he would look at aquariums, he would look at the overall environment approach — just this idea that you’re looking at a fish’s world, and you want to see it through their eyes. When he’d look at an aquarium, his eyes are those of the fish — I’m swimming through this, this is where I’m looking for fish, this is where I’d hide, this is where I’m looking for a mate. The [SDTFS] club recognized his expertise. So when we realized he had health issues and that he wasn’t going to be around for a long time, the suggestion [for the award] was a way to remember him and his influence.”

Regarding this year’s entries, Arlene gushed, “This year I was excited to see as many entries as there were and to see that everybody had upped their game. The tanks looked better. There was obviously thought going into it. It wasn’t just sticking one plant here and there, or one plant for the whole tank. There were a lot of aquariums that had a variety of plants. Plants were healthy. They were set in a way that fish could be in them and around them, and yet not be hidden by them. The lighting was good — the choices of lighting. The choices of where things were placed — foreground, background, mid-ground, heights — there was a lot of thought that went into it.”

fish tank filled to the brim with plants and healthy fish
On the left, plants and fish in a tank. On the right, Mark Ferguson holding aquatic plants.

Arlene hopes to see participants with better and better aquariums each year, “because Mark’s vision was always to inspire others to do the same thing. It was always to share. The people that he trained up in Monterey and Scripps, where we had his farewell party, all everyone said over and over again was what a mentor Mark was, and how he shared his vision so that they could succeed as well. To this day, when I go to Monterey, people up there always say, ‘All of this and what you see is because of how Mark trained us.’ That’s a beautiful thing to hear, just beautiful. I’m just thrilled the [SDTFS] club is doing this in his name. I think it’s a beautiful tribute.”

+ San Diego Tropical Fish Society

Images via San Diego Tropical Fish Society and Mariecor Agravante / Inhabitat