Koi Pond Tour gives a glimpse into an ancient tradition

By Gina McGalliard

San Diego is home to a number of beautiful koi ponds, which will be on view when The Koi Club of San Diego presents its Koi Pond and Garden Tour. The tour will feature eight koi ponds on properties in the La Jolla and Point Loma areas on Saturday, Oct. 20, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The practice of keeping koi fish, which Shirley Elswick of the Koi Club of San Diego describes as “essentially living jewels,” began originally in China and spread to Japan in the nineteenth century. Koi breeding flourished in Japan, and many varieties of koi were produced. America had its first introduction to koi fish in 1915 at the World’s Fair, and since then Japanese immigration and American travel to Japan have given Americans additional exposure. Today in Japan, raising koi fish, which the Japanese call Nishikigoi, is a “highly prestigious hobby,” said Leland Helzer of the San Diego Koi Club, mainly because only the wealthy own land in Japan, so breeding koi is considered aristocratic.

According to Helzer, koi are members of the carp family and are related to goldfish. Elswick said that koi are cold-water fish and “are a responsive pet that will eat out of your hand.” They tend to grow very quickly and can eventually reach over three feet long, and no two fish look exactly alike. Helzer also said on average they tend to live 70-75 years, although the oldest fish on record was 250 years old.

“It outlived several generations, obviously,” said Helzer. One is able to tell the age of a fish because they have rings on their scales like the trunk of a tree would have.

Of the San Diego climate, Helzer said, “this is an ideal climate for keeping koi because it doesn’t freeze.” In Japan, where temperatures dip considerably lower in the winter, breeders must bring their fish indoors, although the fish can generally tolerate most temperatures. Normally the fish need to be fed about twice a day, but they require very little food in the winter because their metabolism slows down substantially.

“In nature they would live below the ice,” said Helzer.

Although keeping koi is “not a cheap endeavor,” said Helzer, koi ponds are currently much easier to maintain than in years past. This is in large part due to modern water filtering, although the water cannot be chlorinated. Elswick said that the ponds must be at least three feet deep and have parallel sides to prevent raccoons from feeding on the fish. The ponds for koi can have a variety of shapes, but often will include a waterfall or a fountain to put oxygen in the water. According to Elswick, this has the benefit of adding “additional beauty and luxury to the aesthetics of the viewer.”

“There is a huge variation in what a koi might be worth,” said Helzer. He said the value of a koi might range from $5 on the lower end to a prize-winning fish that is worth a quarter of a million dollars. He said the value of an individual fish is in large part determined by the shape of its body, which ideally is shaped like a surfboard. Other determining factors are its colors, which should not overlap, and defined markings, as well as the shape of the fins and markings on the head.

Koi breeders in Japan often will enter their higher-quality fish in shows for prizes. But according to Helzer, the owners are prohibited from taking the fish out of Japan. Helzer also said that prize-winning koi fish tend to be female because they usually have fuller and thicker bodies. Male fish tend to be leaner, although they are usually more beautiful before they reach maturity. According to Elswick, most people who own koi do so for their personal enjoyment, although one of the homes included in the tour will feature prize-winning fish.

The tour itself will feature eight homes, five of which are in La Jolla. One of the homes in Point Loma is the residence of former mayor Maureen O’Connor.

“For the public, it’s a rare opportunity to see these properties and these ponds,” said Helzer. It is also a good opportunity for people who are interested in building koi ponds of their own, since in some cases they may be able to speak with the owners and builders of the ponds.

Tickets, which can only be purchased the day of the event, are $10 for adults and $5 for children, and includes guidebook, map, and information about each pond. The self-guided tour, which is about 20 driving miles, has start locations in both La Jolla, at 8471 Whale Watch Way, and in Point Loma, at 567 Gage Lane.

Tickets are available for purchase at each location between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. For more information on the tour, or if you are interested in joining the Koi Club of San Diego call Shirley at (619) 222-9825 or visit