It started 12 years ago in the garage with a single 200-gallon fish tank. Today it's Aquatic Visions, a 6,000-square-foot aqua stucco warehouse with 10 aquariums and 70 varieties of fish and marine life collected from Florida and the Caribbean and shipped to clients across the country.
"I've always been drawn to the water," said owner Diane McMahon, 49, who moved to Port Richey 21 years ago from New York and once owned a canoe rental and bait shop.
McMahon, then a bar manager, and her fiance, David Naumann, a door and window installer, had decent jobs, but they wanted to supplement their income to help recover from the housing slowdown of the early 1990s.
He liked aquariums. She liked to fish. It was a no-brainer.
"It was a spontaneous idea," said McMahon, a tanned, 5-foot-10 athletic blond who still wears the gold guardian angel pendant her grandmother gave her when she was 5.
Less than a year after starting, business was so good they expanded the warehouse to a 1,500-square-foot leased space on Siesta Lane. But after an exterminator's chemicals killed all the fish, they decided to buy their own place. They settled on the current location on Pine Hill Road.
"It was basically a shell," she said. "We put all the A/C in, all the plumbing in."
Not long after that, Naumann died of an apparent heart attack at age 41. McMahon found him on the couch. She did CPR, but it was too late.
But McMahon had no time to cry. Fish had to be shipped out that day.
"I really have had no time to grieve," said McMahon, who remembers it was almost Halloween when her fiance died.
"The air getting cooler this time of the year makes me remember," she said.
Owner is hands-in
Since then, McMahon has thrown herself into her work. She's open every day but Wednesday.
She has three employees but is very hands-on — or more appropriately, hands-in. She's immune to the fishy smells that can't be diffused despite strategically placed fans that run constantly. Likewise, she's not bothered by the nonstop gurgle of water flowing through pipes into fish tanks.
"It can kind of make you dizzy. I guess that's why I'm so ditzy," she says jokingly.
The business works like this: Licensed collectors bring their finds to McMahon's warehouse, or she goes to the boats to pick them up. She deals with 15 divers from Key West to Hernando County.
"I try to take care of the Florida people," she said.
Nothing is shipped to her, so the product remains fresh.
"It's only touching one hand," she said. "It's not touching 10 different hands."
Everything is kept on aerators during the transport to Aquatic Visions.
Once there, the fish and corals are put in saltwater tanks until they can be shipped to customers such as pet stores, although McMahon opens her place to local retail customers. The business gets its water from a private well and it is treated to support marine life. It also has backup generators that kick in during power outages.
She maintains a network of established customers and has a client base of between 300 and 500.
She texts, e-mails and calls her network.
Orders are shipped right away. The turnover is about two days.
McMahon and her staff pack the sea creatures in plastic foam boxes with ice or heat packs, depending on the season.
They then take them by van to Tampa International Airport to be shipped.
"I always try to work closely with flight schedules," she said. "Everything's been made pretty easy on the Internet."
After more than a decade, she's got the process down to a science.
It wasn't always that way.
"When we first started, we didn't know how to pack fish," she said. "We learned."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.