Andrew Bunya-Ananta figures he's had a fishnet in his hand since the womb. Some people know early on they want to be doctors or dentists, but ever since he was a kid growing up at his dad Peter's various fish stores, Bunya-Ananta knew he would be the proprietor of an aquarium store that would have gorgeous tanks and glorious fish, where customers would come to learn about fish, buy fish, talk fish. It would be less a fish shop than a fish center, and would be nothing less than the fulfillment of his destiny. Now, at the age of 22, Bunya-Ananta stands in the store he dreamed about creating, Aquarium Connection in Thousand Oaks.
"My name is famous in the fish world," says Bunya-Ananta, who has a sweet face and a confident, playful demeanor. "My grandfather [Kit Bunya-Ananta] was the first one to start importing exotic fish from Thailand. He built a small business up into a multimillion-dollar wholesale company."
Wholesalers want to know him. Retailers want to murder him. When he goes to buy fishstock at the nucleus of the world's aquarium business known as "Fish Alley" — several exotic-fish outlets and showrooms clustered on the streets near Los Angeles International Airport, including one run by his uncle — he often sees people do a double take when he casually drops his last name.
"Oh," they inquire, "you're starting up a fish shop?"
At the moment, Bunya-Ananta's Aquarium Connection, open less than a year, is the proverbial small fish in a big pond. But he is getting set to blow the competition out of the water — the jellyfish tanks alone are going to rock the ornamental-fish trade. And he has great plans to host coral-fragment swaps to coincide with the Southern California Marine Aquarium Society's annual "Reefapalooza," as well as wine tasting on the back patio, classes, lectures and barbecues (but not of the fish).
You can easily spend hours in Bunya-Ananta's store, watching the restless circling of the black-tip reef sharks in their room-size tank, or contemplating the miniature underwater forests, so ethereal and haunting. I want to say that live-plant tanks are the shop's specialty, but really, everything is a specialty. Though Bunya-Ananta himself doesn't eat seafood — how could you, with the doelike eyes of the dog-faced puffer staring deep into your soul every day? — there are fish enough in his sleek, immaculate shop to fashion the world's most delicious bouillabaisse: shrimp, saltwater fish, freshwater fish, crabs, eels, sea horses, octopuses.
Customers here run the gamut of folks looking for salvation through fish: from the Merrill Lynch broker who commissioned a feng shui goldfish tank in his office (it had to hold an odd number of fish in certain colors) to the elderly lady who spent $300 on a tank for her 99-cent betta, because you can't put a price tag on love. He's done high-end tank design for people who think $175 purple tangs, $1,600 dragon moray eels or $9,500 koi are no big deal. The store is surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate in Southern California (Malibu and Westlake are within leaping distance). But there's also a constant stream of kids coming in for run-of-the-mill guppies.
Aquarium Connection is where you'll realize that the saltwater-fish-aquarium hobby is a lot like collecting designer shoes — addictive, colorful, expensive, impractical, apt to get you in hot water with your significant other — and that the space you've allotted to contain your acquisitions (closet, fish tank) is far too small. Soon you're knocking down walls in your house to make room.
Nanocubes are the gateway drug. Before you know it, you're clearing out your swimming pool to make room for the bass. This, by the way, really happens. People, evidently, fall so much in love with their fish they feel compelled to swim with them. Spending fifteen grand on koi in one day, as a client recently did, is typical. Insane, but typical. It could be worse. From the department of "Why buy a house or a car or finance your daughter's college tuition when you can buy a fish": A fellow from Japan, which corners the market on extreme-spending behavior, owns an $80,000 fish. Eighty thousand dollars. For a fish.
To run the shop, Bunya-Ananta has assembled his "power team" or "triple threat." Brandon McConnell, who wears his hair in a dorsal-fin-like Mohawk, specializes in sharks. He takes care of shark tanks for major rap stars (who choose to remain anonymous). Keith Amador is the jellyfish specialist. If it weren't for Bunya-Ananta, Amador would be on a tropical island somewhere. He went in to get worms from Bunya-Ananta's dad's store and walked out with a job offer from Andrew. Amador was Bunya-Ananta's childhood mentor and it was like bringing the old sensei back from retirement. (Whenever they travel, Amador's wife says, "Honey, do we have to stop at every single damned fish store along the way?") Thanks to Amador, Aquarium Connection is the only store in California that sells octagonal, carousel-like, round-cornered jelliquariums, which Amador designed, and which simulate the ocean currents.
Bunya-Ananta is into coral reefs ("They're just my style") because it's like having your own small piece of the ocean. In time, with global warming marching steadily along, the only reefs left won't be in the wild but in people's living rooms. He keeps a massive tank of beautiful coral, all grown from 1-inch fragments, as an example of what you can do with tiny specimens if you optimize your mix of live sand, live rock and water.
I could listen to fish stories all day. Like how the silver arowana lurks in the Amazon rainforest and gobbles up small rodents or birds that fall into the water. (This now in: Fish eats bird!) Or how the endangered Red Asian arowana has a fondness for a cricket or baby-frog snack. Or how the octopus is a talented escape artist, able to ooze through the smallest spaces, so make sure to tie down the tank cover tightly or it'll go out hunting for dinner at night and wind up splayed out on the kitchen floor by morning, a desiccated mess. Or how different jelly species will battle to the death in a tank, yet you can't put in so much as a sunken toy pirate ship because it will rip their tissue to shreds. Or how Bunya-Ananta knows locals who have raised piranhas and snakeheads, which are illegal in California, because petrified owners dump them into the local rivers, where they wreak havoc on the local ecosystem. The snakeheads get as big as golf bags, can walk on land, live out of the water for days ... and eat rats (yes, rats).
The ornamental-fish hobby has a murky reputation because of how the fish are acquired and what that does to the places they're taken from, so the guys won't buy fish that have been caught with the "stun 'em with poison," sodium-cyanide method. Which should make you feel better about relishing the dynamics of life in the tank; namely, who in fish society will kill whom, and who will love whom ... and when. For instance, as long as you keep the reef sharks fat and happy with squid chunks and anchovies, they won't eat their tank mates (or each other). The store has a family of docile frontosas for sale ($400, party of seven) who must go together or they'll get sad. Other fish make you glad to be human, like the venomous lionfish, which eats any fish he can get his lips around. Or the mean undulated trigger — bane of scuba divers and lionfish alike — which are the Charles Mansons of the ornamental-fish hobby.
It's one thing to turn your bedroom wall into a see-through tank, but how do you keep it from becoming a watery graveyard? With that in mind, Bunya-Ananta can set you up with all manner of high-tech gear, such as a pager that will beep you if you're out at a business meeting, say, and you need to haul ass to get home because the temperature in your tank dropped 2 degrees, or the water chemistry is going wonky. Or you can hire his crew to come in once a week and take care of your livestock. Amador is a fish "life-support specialist." He once got called in by a rival aquarium store to help cure a malfunctioning tank system that killed every fish the store's staff stuck into it; they'd nicknamed it the "Death System."
"Well, for one, you can't call it the Death System," scowls Amador, who has wild, intense eyes and a braided goatee. "But I was like a fish god walking in."
Never mind the gigs with National Geographic Channel, IMAX, MTV and the Discovery Channel; the eels he raised for Jennifer Lopez to wade through in The Cell; the fish food and vitamins and water conditioners he helped to develop that now line aquarists' shelves. Or the Mars tanks he designed for the terrified fish in pet stores nationwide; the filtration systems he set up for the Cabrillo Beach and Monterey Bay aquariums; the industry connections (Amador's father-in-law, for instance, invented the lobster tanks you see in restaurants like Red Lobster); even the revolutionary jelliquariums. The story that says the most about Keith Amador is this: A man once showed up at Amador's home in the middle of the night. The man's pet fish had died. He held the fish up to Amador, weeping. "Why did it die? Can you save it? Is there something you can do?"
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Amador, who is known as the ultimate "green fin" (as opposed to green thumb), put his arm around the man consolingly. "It was a good fish." They said a few words for it, and buried it.
So great are the guys' reputations for fish compassion that people have recently been leaving buckets of unwanted fish — overgrown $1.99 Petco oscars, usually — in their parking lot, like kittens on a doorstep. I screamed when Bunya-Ananta fed one of these orphans (you can hear them gulping in the store's lower tanks) and it flippered up like a beast from below, its meaty mouth agape.
Fish, of course, are easy come, easy go. An egret recently flew away with one of Bunya-Ananta's koi. "Well," he groaned, "there goes $1,500."
Aquarium Connection, 3200 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, (805) 497-3444 or www.theaquariumconnection.com.