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So it has been about four months since my wife and I moved 1000 miles across the United States with our fish: What did I learn? Well, basically fish are extremely resilient and honestly should not have a great problem moving! Written below is the long version of the story of our move with the fish, my actions and their consequences. Click here for the short version with step-by-step actions.

55 gallon tank. September, 2009 (prior to the move).

55 gallon tank. September, 2009 (prior to the move).

Feeding before the move
I did not feed the fish since Saturday 24th October. (Why not feed them before leaving on the 28th? Because they would have pooped in the water during travel and the ammonia levels would have killed them long before starvation or lack of oxygen would have.)

Water change
The day before moving, I did a 50% water change and cleaned the tank.

Moving day
On October 27th I finished my last day in the office at Bedford, MA at 3pm. We collected our moving truck by 4pm and went home to finish packing and loading the truck. About 8 hours later we had almost done, so I began siphoning the water out of my 55 gallon fish tank into two trash bins so I could throw the water away. I had bought a number of buckets from a company called US plastics and was planning to transport the fish in those.

Bucketing the fish
After emptying the water down to about 40%, I began catching the fish and placing them in buckets (I used tank water which I had done a 50% water change on the previous day and which had good water parameters).

I placed the Zebra Danio, Dwarf Coral Platy and Neon Tetras all in the same large bucket with a minimal amount of water (probably about 20% of the bucket depth). I put the Tiger Barbs in their own large bucket, the Ghost Shrimp and Crayfish in another bucket (with a very low water level so the Crayfish would be able to breathe air if he wanted). I also put the Peppered Corydoras and Snowball Pleco into another small bucket. None of the buckets had very much water.

Bucketing the filters and snails
The filter sponges all went into another bucket (filled) with water and the snails I like went into another bucket with minimal amounts of water (they breath air). I also did not wash any of the filter equipment, I just put it in a plastic bag.

Bucketing plants
I then put plants in another bucket (that one almost full of water) and also put some plants into the Crayfish/ghost shimp bucket, figuring these would help him get out of the water and breathe air if he wished.

Removing substrate from tank
After completing the tank siphoning, I scooped out about 80-90% of the sand substrate and threw it away knowing I had another bag (of Childrens Play Sand – what I use for substrate) in storage in Illinois.

A little bit of warmth for the fish
I then put the Corydoras, Tiger Barbs, Tetras, Platies, Pleco and Danio buckets into the cab with us, the other buckets all went into the back of the truck. The fish tank itself (containing a tiny bit of water, about 20% of the substrate and some snails) went into the back seat of the car which we were towing.

Travel time
We were on the road from 1am Wednesday morning until 11am Thursday morning. The fish were in those buckets for over 30 hours.

At location: temporary tank setup
As soon as I was able to, I put my 10 gallon tank into operation on the kitchen counter of the new apartment in Illinois and filled it with about 50% tap water (which I treated with Kordon NovAqua+ Water Conditioner). I then poured the plants (and that buckets water) into the tank along with everything else except the Crayfish.

The fish looked very, very poorly. The Tiger Barb black stripes were a very pale blue, the Neon Tetras showed no bright colors whatsoever and the Peppered Corydoras were a pale, pale grey. The Pleco actually looked like it had a bacterial infection as there was a white area all the way down the middle of it’s back.

Obviously as upsetting as this was, I didn’t panic. I knew the 10 gallon tank was too small for them, but it was going to take some time before I would be able to get the 55 gallon ready. I fed the fish a very small amount of food and continued bringing the boxes from the truck into the apartment.

About an hour later I went to go take a look at the fish and was absolutely amazed. The Tiger Barbs looked perfectly healthy, the Neons were starting to get their color back and although still poorly looking, the Corydoras and Pleco were starting to become more active.

Setting up the main tank
By Thursday night I had my 55 gallon in the house. I removed all the snails and unfortunately one ghost shrimp I had missed when emptying from the tank. I filled the tank to about 75% with fresh tap water and treated it. We then went to our storage and got the sand I would be using to replace the old substrate I had thrown away.

I use play (childrens) sand for the substrate. For a similar weight of sand from the fish store I would have had to pay about $130 rather than the $2.50 I paid for this sand. I’ve used the sand since July in my tanks and had no problems with it, it is pre-washed and sterilized (the sand from the pet store usually isn’t). I turned on my filters (I have two 60 gallon filters on my 55 gallon tank) and started to pour the sand into the water. It obviously immediately clouds up and this is why (contrary to every other bit of advice you’ll read) I have my filters on as they’ll suck up and filter out a lot of the floating particles. I obviously had my heater running by now and I left the tank like that over night on Thursday.

I woke on Friday to find the tank looking fairly clear. The fish looked great in the 10 gallon, but I still had my concerns for the Pleco and what looked like Fungus or Bacteria. He was eating, but I was being careful not to over-feed while they were in such a small tank.

I put the large (fake) rock into the tank and positioned it where I would want it, then began to siphon out about 50% of the water. This removed just about every bit of floating sand which still remained and when I replaced that water I made sure to pour the water directly onto the rock so that the sand wouldn’t be disturbed and re-cloud the tank. I made sure to leave enough space so that I could take water from the 10 gallon and put it in the 55 gallon when moving the fish to hopefully preserve enough bacteria.

Adding fish
So, that’s what I did next. I setup the tank with plants, air stones, etc and started to transfer the fish, taking the water they had been used to with them. Both tanks were reading to be about the same temperature and chemical readings, so when I got them to the 55 gallon I simply poured them in with the water. One of the most amazing things was to see a Zebra Danio is actually capable of swimming up a stream of water being poured out of a bucket!!

I did not transfer the shrimp, snails or Crayfish back into the 55 gallon, I instead setup the 10 gallon for them. This is so that I could start treating the 55 gallon with medication if I needed to later and not risk them dying from it.

Fish suffered no effects
To my great surprise though, by Saturday morning the Pleco had lost his huge white stripe and actually looked back to normal… I believe this was a sign of extreme stress he felt, which quickly vanished in the new tank.

As I said above it has now been about four months since all the fish were placed into the 55 gallon and these fish have absolutely amazed me. They survived not being fed from Saturday to Thursday, they survived without heating, they survived probable low oxygen and obviously with no light. They survived a very stressful experience. Amazing.

I think the keys were not feeding them before travel so as to reduce the waste produced in the buckets during transit, keeping the filters unwashed and the filter media moist and (due to the bumpiness of roads during travel) agitated, keeping some of the sand substrate in the tank during the entire process, keeping the buckets containing the fish in the truck cab to give them a little warmth and of course the quick setup of the 10 gallon when we reached Illinois.

Keys to our successful move (the short version)

1. No feeding during days prior to the trip: Reduces fish waste in buckets during travel.

2. Water change in days prior to leaving.

3. Keep filters unwashed and filter media wet in their own bucket: Helps bacteria survive.

4. Keep some/all of the existing substrate in the tank or a bucket and keep it wet.

5. Keep buckets containing fish in warmth, the truck cab (room temp) was enough for mine… But remember very warm water means less oxygen, so look for that ‘room temp’ balance.

6. Setup a temporary tank (only require water, filter, heater) as soon as you can if delayed setting up main one.

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AquariumsAquarium Category Information
Left: Rotkeil 'Severum'.

My first word was "fish", and my earliest memory is of the fish tank my parents had while I was a baby. Starting with a 10 U.S. gallon tank and easy fish like Zebra Danios, and some Cory Catfish, I quickly upgraded to 55 then 125 gallon tanks, and at one time had seven tanks in a relatively small apartment.

I've had some interesting experiences with my fish, such as moving them 1000 miles across the country and of course going through that lesson everyone needs to learn; not to trust the fish store. I've ordered fish online, but now primarily use a store called Animal Island in Midlothian, Illinois. This store accepts fish returns for partial store credit, so I have used this to my advantage and kept many different types of fish, gaining experience in a short time about a huge number of species.

My favorite fish so far is the Vulture Catfish, which is an absolutely beautiful long-whiskered and active catfish. My current biggest fish is a Fahaka Puffer.


Tim is British and lives in the United States with his wife and kids.

He works for software developers Image Space Inc. and Studio 397 on their racing simulations, and is a fan of Gaming, Motorsports, and photography.

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