The tropical reef tank in Fairfield resident Penny Harkins’s living room is mesmerizing. You see it; you want one. Gazing at it is the next best thing to snorkeling off the coast of Florida or Hawaii. Tropical fish with iridescent stripes and glowing yellows, blues and orange glide by and disappear into pathways between the 50 or so species of coral that fill the 180-gallon tank. The coral, most of it dressed in subtle colors, flutters, undulates and sways. It’s shaped like fans, fingers, flowers, and pillows. The tank is packed.

This is the showpiece that spawned Harkins’s business, AquaCorals. It serves as parent tank for the marvel that lies below the living room in her basement and what was once a garage: 16 smaller tanks that hold baby corals snipped from the mother tank’s inhabitants. Four other tanks of varying sizes hold tropical clams with magical shapes and colors, as well as fish and live rock, and there is also a room with large equipment and nook with all the small paraphernalia a person needs to maintain a tropical reef tank.

Harkins started this un-Maine-like tropical adventure when she first saw a reef tank in a pet store she had visited to buy supplies for her freshwater fish tank. “I was hooked,” she says. She converted to a reef tank, and when the corals flourished and grew to the point their heads were pushing out of the water, she snipped them and put them in additional tanks. “I couldn’t just throw them away,” she says.

One tank led to another and she decided she might as well create a set-up for a soft coral aquaculture operation and go into business selling the “babies.” A web designer by day – she owns Maine, Inc. – she knew she could sell the corals over the Internet.

Although she had no experience with a large-scale operation and no outside help beyond books, she sat down with a pencil and paper and designed the system that she now has in the garage. She figured out how many tanks she would need, the amount of pvc pipe, the number of valves and other hardware, and the set-up for water purification. Her husband built the framework to hold the tanks. Like most smaller aquaculture operations, she relied primarily on the ingenious use of less expensive materials wherever possible, such as using 52-gallon plastic totes instead of custom-made $300 acrylic tanks to hold the pumps, filters and skimmers, and more totes for mixing salt water.

Harkins has been selling over the Internet for several years. When her connections with Maine reef tank enthusiasts picked up and people asked her to open for retail, she began to offer hours at the house three days a week. The winter months are huge, she says, especially after income tax refunds come in. Some days in the summer, her yard overflows with reef tank owners, who come from as far as Fort Kent and New Jersey. While they wait to talk with her, they sit in lawn chairs and exchange information on what has and hasn’t worked for them.

Harkins has a mission beyond selling her corals and supplies: she wants to help people set up the reef tanks of their dreams and learn how to make them flourish. She will even go into homes and help customers get started, and she teaches them how to cut and propagate their corals and gives them store credit for any they bring in. “When I started, there wasn’t any help around and I lost a lot,” she says. “As I figured things out, I wanted to share what I’d learned.”

On her web site, she outlines detailed directions for setting up a tank, giving prospective tank owners a clear picture of what they are getting into. This is an expensive hobby, she admits. There’s the cost of the initial set-up, and then, buying corals and fish. One two- to three-inch baby coral will cost $25
or more. In addition, running lights, heaters and pumps gives a jolt to the electric bill.

Harkins isn’t ready to quit her day job yet – she has been putting all profits back into the business – but if her business continues to grow, she says she would jump at the chance to forsake web design for full time coral aquaculture. She and her husband hope to build a new home with a wing devoted to coral aquaculture and the reef tank business. But to accomplish that sort of expansion, she believes she will need grant money or some sort of funding.

She likes selling tank-raised corals because they help save the world’s natural reefs. Also, she says, they are more likely to thrive for her customers because they are acclimated to a tank environment.

For further information, see, or call Penny Harkins at 207-453-2810.