My Two Cents: The Dragon Behind the Glass
I remember the first time I laid eyes on an Osteoglossum bicirrhosum, commonly known as an arowana. It was a big fish, nearly two feet long, undulating in my uncle’s living room like a prehistoric beast. The bonytongue fish with chainmail-like scales glided across the top of the tank. As it swan circles behind the glass, one eye remained fixed on me the entire time. That large menacing eye wouldn’t drop its gaze. I couldn’t tell if it was sizing me up or if it was simply curious. Compared to my Ram cichlids and cardinal tetras back home, this fish was regal and intelligent.swan circles behind the glass, one eye remained fixed on me the entire time. That large menacing eye wouldn’t drop its gaze. I couldn’t tell if it was sizing me up or if it was simply curious. Compared to my Ram cichlids and cardinal tetras back home, this fish was regal and intelligent.
I kept aquariums for the majority my life. Pet fishes were forced upon me at a young age because my parents decided a cat or a dog was too much work. Two of my uncles kept extravagant aquariums in their homes and one spent his youth working in local fish stores. I was always impressed by the diversity and personality of pet fishes. I kept everything from the majestic Discus to your garden-variety clownfish. All of these organisms were unique and brilliant in my teenage eyes.
It wasn’t until college, when my roommates and I decided to set up an aquarium, that I realized I only knew one type of arowana. The silver Amazonian arowana my uncle kept were wildly more common than their Asian counterparts. Asia harbored the truly magnificent beasts. My roommates and I were dazzled by brilliantly red, green, and gold variations of this massive pet fish. Those varieties left us thinking of the silver arowana as drab. But we quickly learned that purchasing an Asian arowana in the United States wasn’t legal. With our hopes dashed, we settled for a trio of Ranchu Goldfish.
It has been four years since I disassembled my last aquarium and though I miss the hobby, I now find myself too busy to properly maintain an aquarium. When I saw Emily Voigt’s The Dragon Behind the Glass, I was captivated by a Super Red arowana perfectly juxtaposed against a black book sleeve. I couldn’t believe it at first. Had someone actually written a whole book about aquarium fish in 2016? I read a few pages and was hooked. Voigt had brought my ultra-niche childhood hobby back to me. I spent the next few weeks reading the book while riding the DC metro. Each morning and evening, I would spend my commute half a world away, in pursuit of an elusive fish.
The Dragon Behind the Glass was a great piece of travel writing. It was an adventure journey and reminded me of books like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air or Rosemary Mahoney’s Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff. Voigt took me on a journey from New York to Borneo and everywhere in between meeting aquarist celebrities like Heiko Bleher and Kenny the Fish (Kenny Yap).
In the main storyline, Voigt attempted to find wild arowana in the jungles of Borneo, Myanmar, and the Amazon. Her journey was colorful because of the quirky cast of Ichthyologists, fish farmers, and aquarium enthusiast she met along the way. She ventured into a few of the last remaining wild places on the planet, all of which are under threat of deforestation. The historical facts littered throughout the book added to the adventurous narrative. Voigt followed the footsteps of great researchers and scientists and I appreciated her recognition of the people who came before.
I could tell Voigt wasn’t an aquarium enthusiast within the first few pages. But by the end of her adventure, I think she understood why so many people are captivated by the dragon fish. I was excited to find someone recently writing about fish-keeping and arowana. My aquarium hobby is behind me but Voigt’s book left me wondering whether I could fit a 360-gallon tank in my condo. On the other hand, I would much rather see the fish in the wild. Maybe it is time for me to follow Voigt’s lead and venture into the Amazonian jungles myself. Nevertheless, I would highly recommend The Dragon Behind the Glass, especially if you find the diversity of aquatic life across the globe fascinating.