New club makes a splash: Monterey Bay Koi and Pond Club taps deep passion

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Adra Ross never expected koi to change her life. When the high-tech marketer purchased a Ben Lomond property in 1983, she didn’t think of the neglected swimming hole in the front yard as anything other than a potential landscape feature. But after she had a filtration system put in, one thing led to another “sort of like a home remodel,” and Ross found herself the caretaker of several dozen exotic fish she knew nothing about.

Dan Rutledge, president of the newly formed Monterey Bay Koi and Pond Club, said Ross is not alone.

Koi ponds are a fast-growing hobby here on the Central Coast, but caring for them can be complicated. Where can you buy healthy koi? Which filtration system should you use? How can you protect fish from predators? The club is here to help, dedicated to the well-being of koi, koi ponds, and the people who care for them.

Rutledge saw his first koi at the happiest place on earth.

“In the late 1970s I was in real estate and won a trip to Disneyland for my family,” he recalled. “We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, and they had a big koi pond. I was fascinated.”

After retiring, Rutledge followed his passion, joining a koi club in Santa Clara and building a multilevel 5,000-gallon pond in his Ben Lomond backyard complete with a waterfall, tropical plantings and 25 vibrant fish.

“It calms you, watching these fish swim,” he said. “They’re living jewels with incredible colors and such a grace about

them. They’re probably the most soothing things you can watch. And they’re extremely communal. You don’t want to have just one because it will die of loneliness.”

Koi are descendents of the common carp, a fish originally found in Central Europe and Asia. In the 1800s the Japanese began selectively breeding them for color and pattern variations, leading to nishikigoi, or “brocaded carp,” ornamental varieties that are kept for show. Originally owned by Japanese emperors and high officials, the fish were revered as symbols of perseverance, courage and good fortune.

Today koi are the most popular fresh-water ornamental fish in the world. While many people only see them in the lobby of their favorite Asian restaurants, koi are bred and shown in high-end competitions, just like thoroughbred dogs, throughout the world. They are categorized based on their red, white, black, blue, orange and/or yellow markings. Mature koi can reach two to three feet and weigh up to 35 pounds. Well cared for, they have a life expectancy of approximately 50 years, though legend has it that some live for centuries.

A Fine Kettle of Fish Lovers

Like the fish they love, Monterey Bay Koi and Pond Club members are communal, eagerly sharing information and advice at their monthly meetings. The group also sponsors guided pond tours and special events such as an upcoming lecture on ways to make your pond a frog-friendly habitat.

“You’re in the company of zealots,” warned a smiling woman as a dozen club members several wearing fish-print shirts, ties or jackets animatedly discussed koi, koi food, and the latest products to control algae, the bane of pond enthusiasts.

“You need a trickle tower to aerate the water,” one member suggested.

“I found a great deal on 50-pound bags of calcium bentonite,” another shared.

Guest speaker Mike Perret of Pond Life Aquatic Landscaping led the group through a koi appreciation and judging exercise, using side-by-side photographs of entrants in a recent competition. He explained that koi are judged on their body shape, skin quality and color patterns. A fish with a pleasingly symmetrical pattern is considered more valuable than one with random markings. There are also complicated rules about how colors should sit on a fish, with a “saddle pattern” positioned on the shoulder blades more highly prized. The skin should appear silky and shiny rather than dull or matte.

“I wouldn’t kick any of these fish out of my pond,” Perret laughed, as members broke into good-natured debate about wrap patterns and fin configurations.

The average owner shouldn’t worry about what a judge tells you to buy anyway, he advised. “You’re the one who is going to see the fish everyday.”

Of course, just as one man’s best friend is another’s mutt, koi range from $10 fish available in a local pet store to $10,000 fish imported from Japanese breeders. Winners in the prestigious All Japan Koi Show have sold for $250,000 each. Sadly, rolling blackouts caused by the recent earthquake and tsunami cut off critical aerations systems at several Japanese koi fisheries, killing numerous fish.

Club member Michael R. — he asked to remain anonymous, fearing for the safety of his fish — appreciates this type of fun and informative interaction with other pond owners.

“It’s great being able to discuss problems and get ideas,” said the Pleasure Point-area resident. “We live near the ocean, and since we didn’t have a view, we decided to create one [with our pond]. But I wondered if the salt air might be a detriment. It turns out the salt kills quite a few parasites.”

“Watching koi is like watching a fireplace, or watching leaves blow in the wind, that same sort of natural attraction,” he mused. “There’s a very calming effect.”

Then again, you have to be calm to put up with the hassles and expense of keeping koi.

First there’s the cost of designing and building a healthy koi habitat. Hint: straight, deep sides and protective overhangs will deter raccoons, herons and other predators. Second, there’s the electricity needed for constant filtration to keep the water clear and oxygenated. Add in the cost of food, rock work, plantings and the koi themselves, and we’re talking about a high-priced hobby.

But for Adra Ross, it has been a life-changing investment. In 2008, tired of pulling on a wetsuit and cleaning her pond herself, Ross hired Rick Blazo of Blazo Pond Services to maintain it. That led to an extensive redesign of the entire ecosystem. Over the years, Ross and Blazo’s working relationship turned into a friendship that eventually blossomed into romance.

Today they are the proud owners of a magnificent 375,000-gallon pond that is home to more than 40 mature koi. It’s such a successful breeding site that each fall the couple harvests hundreds of babies to sell or give away.

“It’s an amazing hobby that brings joy to a lot of people,” Ross concluded while overlooking her peaceful oasis. “Our pond is a beautiful, magical place.”

At a glance

The Monterey Bay Koi and Pond Club
What: A nonprofit club dedicated to the well-being of koi, koi ponds and the people who care for them.
When: Next club meeting is 7 p.m. Friday, April 29.
Where: St. John’s Episcopal Church, 125 Canterbury Drive, Aptos

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