Remembering Jake Adams
28 Oct, 2022
Matt Pedersen shares personal reflections on the impactful life of aquarist Jake Adams, 1981-2022
“All well in the world with you?” I asked.
“Yes sir, had a fun time at Aquashella…” – Jake Adams, October 17th, 2022
For the past week, I have struggled with how to properly convey the news that Jake Adams unexpectedly died on a flight to Bali, Indonesia, on October 20th, 2022. The journey would have reconnected him with friends in that part of the world, most notably Vincent Chalias of Bali Aquarium, to dive and explore the region’s coral reefs. Jake would utilize the requisite downtime (surface intervals) before and after airplane travel to gather his thoughts and write about new discoveries relevant to the reef aquarium hobby.
Adams was a true thought leader in the marine aquarium world, and he served as the Managing Editor of the Reef Builders blog since 2008. But there was so much more to Adams. In the wake of his untimely exit from this world, hours of phone and chat conversations among many of us who were friends confirm a collective opinion that the best was yet to come from—and for—Jake Adams.
Jake was often unapologetic, unwilling to suffer fools. “Arrogant” was both his reputation, and a descriptive word often thrown around by folks who he had rubbed the wrong way—particularly as his younger self. However, I would often counter-argue that if you were as smart and savvy as Jake when it came to all things reef aquarium and coral, you too would pretty much have earned the right speak with a certain confidence, to boldly hold a position in an argument, and to not waste time with interactions or relationships that didn’t enrich or inform your soul. Jake Adams absolutely did not waste his time on this planet. I remember, years ago, I asked him where he got the stamina and seemingly endless energy. His response; “Vitamin B”.
But when I think about the energetic, focused, highly-driven Jake Adams who worked so tirelessly to manifest his vision for how he would impact the marine aquarium world, those of us who are now forced to reminisce in our shared grief all seem to agree that Adams was on the cusp of maturing into his best self. Many suggest he had “mellowed” a bit in the past couple of years.
For over a decade, many of my private conversations with Jake went far beyond marine fish and corals into our shared love of all fish, salty or otherwise, but most notably, children, and being a father. If there was anything that rivaled Jake’s deep-seated love of all things aquatic, it was his fundamental love of family, and a burning desire to start a family of his own and to become a father (a recent snippet of a conversation between Jake and co-host Mark van der Wal from the Reef Therapy podcast alludes to the importance of family and the support of his mother). All those hours we spent talking about my own children, whom I know he loved, I think Jake was privately interviewing me (and undoubtedly others), taking notes on what being a husband and parent could look like. No doubt, he was weaving together his own tapestry of ideas encompassing what he wanted from and would put into the experience.
Jake married the amazingly gracious and warm Windsor (née Cowart) in February 2021, starting a new chapter in his life during the Pandemic. We have all come to learn that Windsor and Jake had just revealed to their immediate family, and now publicly, that they are expecting their first “little frag”. I am personally gutted every time I think about the potential child who will never experience firsthand the love of the man who so passionately wanted to bring him/her into this world. Children, arguably, were going to be the crowning achievement and legacy of Jake’s life, more so than anything he would do in the world of aquariums.
Jake’s passing leaves a chasm in the lives of so many. The public and private outpouring of shared grief reveals an ocean of deep personal connections that Jake forged with people around the globe. He actively maintained these relationships, he sought out his friends to make and nurture connections. A random call, text, or chat message from Jake was certainly within the norm. He brought people together, and he quietly lifted people up and made introductions where he thought they needed to happen. He made his friends feel important, special, and unique, and I think that is how he saw all of us. And through all his life in the public eye, Jake still managed to keep portions of his life private, striking an amazing balance in this modern world where we often put our lives out there for everyone to see through social media, particularly if you’re a “personality”.
Indeed, Jake Adams is synonymous with Reef Builders. He authored a mind-boggling 6,649 blog posts at ReefBuilders.com. The main Reef Builders YouTube channel boasts 30 million views at this time, with 746 videos uploaded, nearly all featuring Jake. He was the driving force behind ReefStock in Colorado, which later expanded into Sydney, Australia. Jake’s Colorado-based Reef Builders Studio represents an awe-inspiring, immaculate shrine to all things aquarium. The Reef Therapy podcast, launched in April of 2021, marked another unique approach to sharing a deep appreciation for aquarium keeping with co-host Mark van der Wal. One only needs to read the 100+ comments shared by supporters of the GoFundMe campaign to support Windsor and her unborn child, to start to understand the immense impact that Jake’s work has had upon aquarists around the world.
So, to the aquarium world, Jake will be remembered as a truly gifted and influential marine aquarist. I believe I came to know a man whose outward confidence was driven by an encyclopedic mind, a rabid pursuit of news, and just enough willingness to admit he was wrong when he truly was; arguably the mind of a scientist with the understanding of how anecdote and hunches inform and often lead to scientific discovery.
Still, there was nothing haphazard about Jake’s approach to aquarium science. His success as an aquarist came about through a methodical thought process and a desire to excel at his craft; he didn’t have to be the first, but I think he intended to be the best. Whatever destination or goal he had in mind, he was going to go his own way to get there. And wherever he was going, you knew he was going to have a good time along the way.
Behind the scenes, Jake Adams pushed us all to be our best as well, never hesitating to ask a hard question, to put someone on the spot, or to challenge one’s assumptions. As arguably “competing journalists”, I loved to scoop Jake Adams, and hated when he beat me to a story, particularly if I was halfway through writing my version of it only to discover he had published his own take an hour prior. We absolutely taunted each other about it in a way that only true friends can do, but we also shared our thoughts and would never hesitate to answer a question or debate an idea. In the last conversation we had, Jake had sent me a link to some new species of Corydoras catfishes, asking if I was aware of the news.
I remember the days gone by when he’d tell me “print is dead” and ask why I was devoting my life’s work to CORAL and AMAZONAS, and yet in just the past year he had finally come to truly appreciate and value what we do; I can only describe his view as a complete change in perception. Jake Adams, the lifelong learner, was not as rigid as many would have thought. Even if it took a decade for him to change his mind.
Truly, for a man who has left an indelible mark—no, perhaps better phrased “impact crater”—on the aquarium world, and a man who so deeply valued the importance of family without yet fully experiencing what that means, I can clearly say that the best was yet to come from Jake Adams.
I remain furiously angry when I think about the stolen future; the cruelest of fates have truly robbed us all.
A Closing Word from Reef Therapy Episode #14, July 2021.
“Definitely shout out to my mom and your dad,” says Jake to Mark, “and I’m sure everyone has someone in the hobby that they started young, that really had a huge influence on their experience of being in the reef aquarium or aquarium hobby, or other hobby. Definitely let them know what they’ve done for you, so that they know.”
“You just don’t know how much time you have with somebody, so it’s a good reminder to just spend time with them,” concludes Mark.
“Absolutely.” – Jake Adams
About the author
Matt Pedersen is a Sr. Editor and Associate Publisher with Reef To Rainforest Media, LLC & CORAL Magazines, and is a Sr. Editor and Publishing Partner with Aquatic Media Press, LLC & AMAZONAS Magazine. Matt has kept aquariums for 38 years, has worked in most facets of the aquarium trade, is an active aquarist and fish breeder (both marine and freshwater), and was recognized with the 2009 MASNA Award as the MASNA Aquarist of the Year.