Beneath the manhole, six-foot-six Nick Tobler bows his head to walk across a cinder-block bridge without hitting the ceiling or falling in the pit, before plopping down in a lawn chair on a platform at the cave’s edge. He brings out some worms, and an eel starts to feed as he drops them in. “My main goal is for them to come right up when they see me, eat out of my hands, maybe be able to pick them up slightly,” Tobler says. “I want them to follow me around the stepping stones too, that’d be awesome.”
For Tobler, a 25-year-old Northern Kentucky native, it’s always been animals. Not the cute and cuddly kind you’d normally think of as pets—Tobler prefers tarantulas, black widows, Indian tortoises, the closet full of scorpions he used to have, a small aquarium’s worth of exotic fish, and, oh yeah, the pit of eels in his home that’s garnered 30 million views and half a million followers on TikTok. “I like weird stuff,” he shrugs.
As a child, Tobler would sit by the creek catching aquatic life before taking the critters home to live in assorted fish tanks. “I’ve always been catching toads in my yards, snakes, really anything I could get my hands on,” Tobler says. “I was a big fan of like, Steve Irwin, Animal Crossing, Pokémon.” As a student, he initially worked for PetSmart and then World of Pets, a local pet store in Florence, and his paychecks were frequently spent buying new fish from the same store that had just paid him.
Now working as Freshwater Manager at Discover Aquatics in Taylor Mill, Tobler’s focus is on growing his hobby even further. After his brother purchased their grandma’s old house, they found something they’d never seen before: a manhole in the corner of the garage with a giant freshwater cistern underneath it. “I immediately opened it up and filmed that first video of it, where I just go, ‘Oh, cool, my new house comes with an eel pond.’ ”
Since then, Tobler has built a water filter, filled the pit with gravel and created a cinderblock bridge across the cistern—no small feat, since he needed “about a hundred” blocks while his car can only hold eight. A video of the pit’s construction netted him 10,000 TikTok followers overnight; by the end of the week he had already passed 100,000.
In the pit, which Tobler describes as “Chamber of Secrets-y,” live several freshwater species, including catfish, goldfish, minnows, and others. All the creatures inside were named by TikTok comments, including the eels, which are named—deep breath here—Tequeela, Shaqueel, Mentally Eel, Eely Dan, Eelbow, Neel, Eelissa, Lemon Peel, Meelanie, Lee, Unagi, and Crunchwrap Supreme. His most expensive purchase was a burbot named Bourbon, whose death the day after this interview drew many sorrowful responses online. He also has three crayfish: a white one named Mayonnaise, a red one named Ketchup, and an orange one (sent to him by a fan) named Sriracha.
One of the most common questions he gets, other than if the eels are electric (they aren’t), is about sunlight in the pit. He has an artificial light to simulate the day/night cycle, but fish don’t actually need light to survive; UV rays don’t even penetrate water. “It’s like an aquarium. They don’t get natural sunlight either,” Tobler says. “People will say ‘Fish in the wild have this,’ and yeah, sure, but they don’t need it because they’re underwater, and also most river systems look like chocolate milk anyway.”
Many of Tobler’s videos are filled with comments like ‘I know it smell crazy in there’ or a sarcastic ‘I bet that smells great,’ to which Tobler responds “Well, it does! It’s concrete and a lot of water, there’s not much that can go wrong.” (He’s right; there’s not much of any smell in the pit, although it is incredibly hot and humid). Viewers frequently joke about his pit being the lair of a serial killer or somewhere a Bond villain might throw an unfortunate spy to sleep with the fishes. Tobler acknowledges that the cave could be perceived as a bit scary. “But to me, I don’t want to paint the walls. I don’t wanna make it all bright, white, and sterile,” he says. “I like the cave vibe.”
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It’s not all negative feedback, though. Most comments are “hilarious,” with his personal favorite being “The government fears the indoor eel farmer”—which he’s planning to put on his upcoming merch line. And he’s gotten plenty of flirtatious comments calling him the “eel daddy” and DMs like “let’s see your eel,” among others.
The eel pit isn’t the only place he’s been taking videos of, either. In his house, Tobler’s got all sorts of creatures that pop up on his feed from time to time. His personal favorite is the Australian lungfish, a species so endangered it came microchipped with a permit. Along with his brother, he’s breeding Indian star tortoises, a very rare and expensive species, of which they now have about 14 babies roaming around the property. He’s also got tanks full of fish he obtained on a recent trip to the Everglades. To top it all off, there’s a black widow—the most venomous spider in North America—living on top of the refrigerator.
During that Everglades trip, he had his first IRL brush with Internet fame. A man camping beside him asked if he could tag along on a fishing trip, and he obliged. “Then I was netting out a fish, and I was like, ‘Oh, this would be cool in the pit,’ and the man responded, ‘Have you guys seen that eel pit online?’ and I said, ‘Hey, that’s me!’ ”
These days, you might see Tobler around Gunpowder Creek and the Little Miami River gathering up new species for his subterranean menagerie. After a reminder that his life now is a lot like the Pokémon or Animal Crossing video games he enjoyed in his youth, he laughs. “I get to live it. I don’t need to play the games anymore.”