MCPL Aquarium Residents Survive Harrowing Repair

Written by Chad Dally

Fish swim around rocks and a Rose Anemone in the Phyllis Donner Aquarium at the Marathon County Public Library in Wausau.

It’s a situation no aquarium owner ever wants to happen:

A complete removal of all the aquarium contents to make a repair.

After all, once tropical fish and other sea creatures move into their new home, they’re supposed to stay there. Yet, that’s exactly what happened recently with the Phyllis Donner Aquarium at the Marathon County Public Library’s Wausau Headquarters.

A deteriorating seal along the base of the 650-gallon saltwater aquarium tank required immediate and drastic action.


We’re happy to say (spoiler alert!) that the crown jewel of the MCPL–Wausau Children’s area was repaired without the loss of any life.

The saltwater aquarium was constructed in 2012 by Las Vegas–based Acrylic Tank Manufacturing (ATM) — famous for their Animal Planet television show “Tanked” — thanks to a generous donation to the library by the late Phyllis Donner. The aquarium’s construction and ongoing operation has been a true team effort. Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork in Wausau hauled the tank from Las Vegas; Crystal Finishing Systems in Schofield built a custom frame to support the massive tank; annual maintenance costs are covered by the Friends of MCPL and the MCPL Foundation, and Darren Letner (owner of Tank Mates, LLC, in Wausau) cleans and maintains the aquarium.

The fish flourishing in the tank came from all over the world, and Letner expressed how fortunate we are to have such a diverse system, as oftentimes fish don’t survive such a long journey.

A Powder Brown Tang fish nibbles around some coral in the Phyllis Donner Aquarium at the Marathon County Public Library in Wausau.

In December 2017, Letner noticed a few spots at the bottom of the aquarium where bubbles formed and slowly spread, which indicated the seal holding in 650 gallons of saltwater was starting to deteriorate.

Thankfully, the aquarium had not sprung a leak or we would’ve had a disaster — and hundreds of gallons of water — on our hands! Can you imagine the damage that would have caused? We’re so grateful to Darren (and his professional eye) for catching this potential disaster in time.

To fix the failing seal, a plan was hatched that required Letner to empty the entire tank — sand, rocks, and the more than 40 species of fish, crustaceans, coral, and other aquatic life that live inside. The contents were placed into six large plastic tubs and kept at a steady temperature of 78–79 degrees (the preferred temperature for these tropical creatures). An ATM employee was flown in (as the tank was still under warranty), and the entire perimeter of the tank received a fresh application of sealant that should keep the inhabitants safe for a long, long time. The tank’s warranty was then extended for another 5 years.

Such a move from the aquarium to holding tubs and back is incredibly stressful for the fish:

“It’s something you don’t ever want to have to do,” Letner said.

In fact, Letner had prepared library staff (and himself) to lose at least some aquatic residents, including the most sensitive fish, like the Emperor Angel and Copperband Butterfly. But to everyone’s surprise and delight, all the creatures pulled through the 48-hour ordeal and have re-adjusted nicely.

What’s more…

A couple of days after the repair was finished, Letner pointed out a couple of Chromis fish vigilantly guarding a group of tiny eggs… A happy sign that life goes on!

If you haven’t yet popped by to visit the library’s aquarium in the Children’s section of the MCPL Wausau Headquarters, we invite you to check it out during regular business hours.

The Rose Anemone is one of several types of invertebrates in the Phyllis Donner Aquarium at the Marathon County Public Library in Wausau.

The aquarium’s popularity is obvious, especially among the library’s youngest patrons.

“When the kids see it, they just get lost in it,” said Letner.

In the meantime, you can check out the library’s aquarium photo album on Facebook, showcasing the initial construction of the Phyllis Donner Aquarium and some of its cool inhabitants.

Chad Dally - MCPL - Library SpecialistChad Dally

Library Specialist  |  Marathon County Public Library

Chad Dally is a library specialist with the Marathon County Public Library, where he’s worked since 2012. He splits his time at the library between reference and programming, and generally prefers to read nonfiction over fiction. He’s heard chickens are smart, but the small brood he keeps at home provides evidence to the contrary.  Email Chad Dally

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