When Martin Lakin wanted a bigger reef tank, he didn’t let the size of the front room get in his way — he just moved the walls! We visit the man and his spectacular aquarium.
WORDS: KAREN YOUNGS; PHOTOGRAPHY: NATHAN HILL
If you’re a fan of the tabloids, you might have come across Martin Lakin before. He hit the headlines in the media earlier this year with his ‘£150,000’ marine aquarium and the fact that he sent his apparently unsuspecting wife to Tenerife while he gutted the house to have the tank built.
But the real story behind this glorious saltwater system is rather different. We went to visit Martin and his wife, Kay, to find out more about the set-up that caused such a sensation — and, of course, for an excuse to ogle the tank and everything in it!
Martin has kept marines from the age of 12, back in the days of undergravel filters when knowledge was severely limited, as was the equipment and the choice of livestock. He worked at a garden centre (actually owned by Kay’s dad at the time), which had an aquatic section with a few marines on sale. Martin has an aquarium log that records everything he’s ever bought back to his very first fish (a damsel) and invertebrates, including a Flame scallop, which even now would be considered very difficult and back then practically impossible, as Martin sadly soon discovered.
Despite lots of knock backs in those early days, he persevered, and 37 years on Martin’s enthusiasm for the hobby and the animals he keeps is just as great. The difference is that he’s gained vast amounts of knowledge along the way and, coupled with the advances in technology that has made reefkeeping so much more achievable, this has led to a truly outstanding set-up containing some of the best specimens of both fish and corals that we’ve seen.
The aquarium has actually been running for three years now. But before he decided to set about building the ‘big one’, Martin had a 165cm long x 120cm deep x 60cm high/66 x 48 x 24in set-up in the corner. That would have been large enough for many people, but Martin wanted a tank with more height.
“We did discuss moving house,” he explained. “The front room wasn’t really big enough for all the family at Christmas anyway. But we didn’t really want to move, the location is great. So we decided that it might be an option to extend the front room into the garage.”
On the advice of a structural engineer and a builder, steel columns were built into
the walls of the house and across the ceiling in the front room for reinforcement.
As you might imagine, this was a considerable undertaking.
While the work was underway, Kay did go to Tenerife for three weeks, to visit a sick relative. When she returned, she and their son, James, who was 12 at the time, as planned, stayed with Kay’s mum until the building work was completed. Despite reports to the contrary, she knew exactly what was going on and in fact was overseeing some of the work as Martin was away on business for much of that time, only coming back at weekends.
The builder, Paul Homden, was a longstanding friend of Martin’s and also a very experienced marine fishkeeper. Martin explained: “If it hadn’t been for his valued input I don’t think we would have achieved what we did. I explained what I wanted to do and it was Paul who designed and built the steel frame that the tank sits on, for example.”
A company called Glass Connections (which also built the aquarium at the Natural History Museum), put the tank together in situ, using 19mm thick laminated glass.
All the existing livestock from Martin’s set-up had to be moved into a spare room, housed in the old sump, along with all the essential equipment needed to run it. Unfortunately, there was so much dust about and, with the work taking far longer than estimated, the water conditions deteriorated and some of the hard corals and fish died. “In hindsight, I should have paid someone to look after it all for me whilst I was working abroad and the building work was taking place,” Martin admits.
With the lounge now around 1.5m wider, there’s plenty of room even with the much bigger tank. And while it has an outstanding presence, as you might imagine, it doesn’t overpower the room.
Three rooms with a view
Martin’s 5,000 l aquarium has ten sides — an irregular decagon — but broadly is ‘L’ shaped, with the largest panel being more than 2m in length. It can be viewed from three rooms of the house: the lounge (which is where the main body of the tank sits), the family room, where it can be viewed through a ‘window’ and the incredibly tidy tank maintenance/wet room, which was formerly part of the garage and is now home to most of the stuff that makes the aquarium work — and there’s a lot of it. This last perspective might give you the ‘back’ of the tank, but it’s still definitely a view worth seeing, as this is a set-up that looks amazing from any angle.
The aquarium is a metre tall, giving Martin the height he so desires. Even now, a huge growth of Acropora ‘Bali slimer’ is actually breaking the surface of the water.
While it’s understandably noisy in the maintenance room, those fishkeepers with experience in the tinnitus-like effects produced by running pumps will be astonished at how quiet things are on the other side of the aquarium. To keep the volume down in the lounge — and enabling everyone to get a good night’s sleep in the room above — the tank has been soundproofed using acoustic foam and high density fibre glass underneath the bedroom floor.
The tank is quite heavily stocked with fish for a reef system. There are some superb and highly sought after angels in his collection, including a pair of Regals and a Clarion, alongside a rather lovely adult Emperor angelfish. There are also butterflies and tangs aplenty, with several species swimming around in the decent sized shoals that are so difficult to achieve in more modest sized systems.
Anthias are also present in numbers — and in this set-up they are among the happiest we’ve seen on our reader visits. And then there are damsels, including some of those that would cause territorial issues in smaller tanks, such as Humbugs, all of a good size and looking very fit indeed.
Some of Martin’s choices might be considered a little risky in a reef tank, but this is another benefit of a system with these kinds of proportions — the odd nibble here and there is not going to cause any noticeable damage.
In among the forests of branching corals are some of the biggest Ricordea mushrooms we’ve seen in a home setting, and these are gradually making their way up the side of the tank, while a huge tridachnid clam looks very at home.
Spares of everything…
If there’s one thing that Martin has learned over his many years in the hobby, it’s to keep spare equipment handy — and he has spares of just about everything! “Let’s say that you’re running a tank for ten years — during all that time the water will need to be stable,” he explains. “But some equipment will go wrong over that ten-year period, so making sure you have a back-up is crucial.” There are two sump pumps located in the cupboard, for example. Both of these are running at half speed. “If one stops working, I can isolate it both electric- and water-wise, and I can increase the other to full power until the problem is sorted.”
Martin’s system has two independent sumps connected by a 4in pipe that balances the water between them. “This means I can still keep the tank running if I need to work on one of the sumps,” he explains.
As you might imagine, on a tank this big, the equipment needs to be of a size to match. There are two Bubble King 300 skimmers, two huge phosphate reactors and calcium reactors — plus all the necessary pumps.
When it comes to lighting, Martin reckons he must be the only reefkeeper still using metal halides. He has five Giesemann Series 400s and five double D-D Razor Light fluorescent tube fittings. The tank also gets loads of natural light from the roof, with direct sunlight from April through to September. “It looks unbelievable — you should see the glitter lines it creates on the fish,” Martin tells us. “But on the down side, it does brown out some of the corals.
“If it gets very bright, I have a blind installed in the ceiling, but I haven’t had to use it yet. The windows in the ceiling can be opened and closed automatically — there’s a temperature sensor at the top, so if it gets too warm the windows will open. And I can also open the garage doors, but to be honest it never gets really hot in here.”
The stainless steel lighting rig can be winched out of the way to allow Martin access to maintain the tank — and it’s also useful when new corals are added, as the bulbs can be positioned further away, so they don’t burn the corals. “The weight of the lighting is horrendous,” he explained. “Some of the shackles broke, and now I have a roll of lead as a counterweight, so that all the weight of the lights doesn’t go through the winch. I’ve also installed a safety chain so that if anything were to go wrong, it wouldn’t all come crashing down!
“I’d probably have LEDs if I started again from scratch, but I already had the metal halide lights and I knew they worked, so I decided to stick with them. I might change further down the line.”
During the summer, water flows out of the sump and through a chiller located on the roof, but in winter Martin can divert the flow to avoid it. “At the end of the winter I flush out the chiller lines so that the stagnant water inside them doesn’t go back into the tank when I switch the flow to go through the chiller again,” he says.
All those fish…
Because Martin has a lot of fish in his tank, nitrate can be an issue. “I’ve tried lots of methods of keeping it down and I’ve found that vodka dosing is the only one that works,” he says. “A peristaltic pump takes the Smirnoff at a very slow rate into a reactor, producing sulphur — which reeks, so I’ve set up the system so that what comes out of the nitrate reactor flows through a layer of carbon, and the air is pumped up through the bottom and goes outside.“
There’s been surprisingly little aggression between the fish, due no doubt to the fact that they can get out of one another’s way in a tank of this size.
Just in case there are any problems, Martin has made his own fish trap, which he can lower into the aquarium and leave to do its job. He reckons he can catch any fish with it. “You’ve got to be able to get fish out of a reef tank if it’s necessary and in a tank of this size that isn’t going to be easy.” The trap is a box made of glass and importantly, is of a size to accommodate any of the fish in Martin’s aquarium. The door slots into a panel at the front and is attached to a drawstring tied off in the garage. Once the trap is in place, Martin begins to put the fishes’ food inside it. The more timid species might take a few days to venture inside for food, but as soon as the one he’s after gets inside, he drops the door to keep it there. Any other fish he’s caught alongside it are just returned to the tank.
There’s a Regal angel residing in one of the sumps — the current pair in the main aquarium used to be a trio, but Martin had to remove the ‘spare’, who has now happily lived in the sump for three years.
And more recently, Martin tried to introduce a Blue-faced angel, but the resident Clarion angel had other ideas and launched a full scale assault. The ‘intruder’ was so stunned that Martin didn’t even need to deploy the fish trap — it pretty much surrendered into the net. It was transferred to the other sump tank where it’s since made a full recovery and is soon to be re-homed in a friend’s aquarium.
Martin’s sumps also contain loads of very healthy looking coral frags. When some of his hard corals died during the building work, friends he had previously given frags to were able to provide him with a frag — of a frag — of the corals he’d lost.
Martin says that he has enjoyed helping other fishkeepers with their problems, but adds that his friends, including Paul Homden, Tony Rogers and David Saxby, have provided huge support that has helped his dream to come true.
Martin’s maintenance regime
There’s access to the tank behind panels all the way around it. The pumps are situated in a cupboard where they are easy to get to and the equipment/wet room is designed to be as easy maintenance as possible, with all the electrics positioned well up on the walls out of the way, and a bottom drain in the centre of the floor. After doing any maintenance, everything can be rinsed down using a hose, and this also gets rid of any annoying salt creep.
All the valves on the closed loop and the associated pumps are located above sumps, when means that should there be a leak the water will remain in the system.
Algae is removed from the glass once a week. Martin uses a new razor blade every time he cleans it.
Martin has three sets of four 100 and 200 micron filter socks, using one set at a time in a box with a spray bar. Each week he removes and cleans one set in cheap thin bleach, leaving it a bucket for about a week before they are jet-washed and then left to soak in a bucket of freshwater for another week to ensure there’s no trace of bleach when they are replaced in the tank.
The two phosphate reactors are each filled with Rowaphos and have been covered in black butyl to keep encrusting algae at bay. The Rowaphos is replaced every two months on rotation — 5 l at a time.
There are eight 55W UV tubes on the system. “Unless you only have a couple of fish you need UV,” Martin says. “It’ll catch you out sooner or later if you don’t.” The UV tubes are changed every six months. Once a year he also changes the quartz sleeves, which get calcium build-ups on them.
There’s a tank installed in the garage, which holds 1,170 l of water, supplied by an RO unit. Martin carries out a 20% water change once a month. He pours the best part of two 23kg buckets of H2Ocean salt into the RO water tank and then leaves a pump running to circulate it (and a heater if required). Water from the aquarium flows into this container and then overflows back into the main tank, so the new water is gradually mixed with that already in the aquarium. It takes about 24 hours. Once the water change has finished, Martin is left with a container full of water, which he can choose to either use for topping up after maintenance — such as rinsing and cleaning the phosphate or calcium reactors — or
he can send it to waste via a drain in the garage floor.
For topping up with freshwater to replace that lost through evaporation, there’s a smaller RO unit on a float switch.
Martin and Kay’s 16-year-old son, James, earns his pocket money by helping out with the maintenance.
The tank is run on an IKS Aquatics computer — and yes, there’s a spare computer in the cupboard along with a spare plug bar.
“Having the whole system automated means I can go on holiday knowing everything will be fine. I also have an automatic fish feeder suspended above the tank,” Martin tells us.
The system isn’t so easy on the wallet, however. It costs around £4k a year to run, a great chunk of which is electricity. Martin has recently added 22 solar panels on the roof, and he’s interested to see what difference that makes in the coming year.
One problem Martin has had since the tank was built has been with the galvanised steel frame. He noticed a powder forming on the surface, which was being blown into the air. “I was having problems with coral growth and other issues, and I think it may have been due to fine particles getting into the water,” Martin says. “Even on the top of the tank, which was powder coated on top of the galvanised steel, it had started to break down. The galvanised steel is now enclosed in plastic that was fabricated and then welded on.”
Desert island fish
Martin gets his stock from Swallow Aquatics in Gravesend, H2O Aquatics and Advanced Aquarium Consultancy in Essex and The Abyss in Manchester.
Asked to name his favourite fish, Martin goes for the pair of Regal angels due to the colour. But then he adds that if he could only choose one fish to take with him on a desert island, it would probably be the Common clown: “Colourful, interesting, educational — you can learn a lot from clownfish behaviour — and it just goes to prove that not all the best fish are the expensive ones.”
He feeds New Era marine pellets and TMC frozen foods, which he buys in 250g packs — he reckons on getting through a pack a week. He favours Mysis, brine shrimp and also Krill Pacifica, which he says seems to keep the fish’s colours strong.
So how did the media get hold of the story? “I replied to a post on a forum by a journalist looking for interesting tanks,” Martin said. “I was told I would see a copy of the draft story and understood it was probably going to be published in the Mail. So I was really surprised when, without notice, the story was published in The Sun. Then a couple of days later, it just went mad and was published in the Mail, the Mirror, the Metro, the Times; radio stations wanted interviews and magazines wanted the story too.”
“We were away in Norway when the media frenzy hit,” Kay continues. “There were journalists and TV crews going up and down the street at 6am in the morning, knocking on neighbour’s doors trying to get a story and asking if they could have our mobile number. A producer even asked us if we wanted to appear on The Jeremy Kyle Show — which we politely declined!”
“It wasn’t just a UK thing,” Martin adds.
“A friend of our son even came across a story that had been published in China — we couldn’t understand the words, but we could see it was our tank.”
And just to put the record straight — Martin’s set-up didn’t cost £150,000. That was the total cost of all the building work, including the tank. He reckons it was probably closer to £60,000 — but for that he’s got the tank of his dreams!
Meet the aquarist
Name: Martin Lakin.
Occupation: Estate management consultant.
Location: Rochester, Kent.
Time in the hobby: 37 years.
Favourite fish: Regal angel.
Dream tank: This is it. I can’t think of anything I’d change, although I’m considering LED lights.
Martin's fish list
3 Regal angels, Pygoplites diacanthus (including one in the sump)
2 Emperor angels, Pomacanthus imperator
2 Flame angels, Centropyge loricula
2 Venustus angels, Centropyge venustus
4 Bicolour angels, Centropyge bicolor
1 Clarion angel, Holacanthus clarionensis
1 Scribbled angel, Chaetodontoplus duboulayi
2 Potters angels, Centropyge potteri
1 Blue face angel, Pomacanthus xanthometopon
14 Yellow tangs, Zebrasoma flavescens
1 Tri-colour tang, Zebrasoma scopas
1 Regal tang, Paracanthurus hepatus
1 Powder blue tang, Acanthurus leucosternon
7 Bartlett anthias, Pseudanthias bartlettorum
7 wreckfish, Pseudanthias squamipinnis
2 Percula clownfish, Amphiprion percula
3 Blue damsels, Chrysiptera cyanea
7 Emperor damsels, Chrysiptera parasema
2 Starcki damsels, Chrysiptera starcki
1 Four-stripe damsel, Dascyllus melanurus
15 Blue/Green chromis, Chromis viridis
1 Banana wrasse, Halichoeres chrysus
2 Mystery wrasse, Pseudocheilinus ocellatus
1 Candy cane hogfish, Bodianus opercularis
9 Pyramid butterflies, Hemitaurichthys polylepis
2 Bicolor dottybacks, Pictichromis paccagnellae
3 Macropharyngodon sp. wrasse
1 Symphodus sp. wrasse
Lights, main tank:
2 x 400W Giesemann metal halide Series 400 (16K lamps)
3 x 400W Giesemann metal halide Series 400 (20K lamps)
1 x twin 80W DD Razor T5 (Actinic Plus)
3 x twin 39W DD Razor T5 (Actinic Plus)
1 x twin 58W DD Razor T5 (Actinic Plus)
ATI Sunpower with 6 x T5 mixed.
The rest of the kit:
2 x Bubble King 300 skimmers
Dastaco calcium reactors
Deltec Eco chiller
Teco TC500 chiller
Blue Eco 500 (return pump no. 1)
Abyzz 400 (return pump No. 2)
Closed loops 2 x Abyzz 400 pumps
Nitrate and phosphate removal:
Deltec NO3 containing DLS, Siporax and Bioballs
PO4 with Rowaphos
Martin's top tips
- If you’re setting up a reef tank, understand what you’re letting yourself in for in terms of time and money, particularly with respect to ongoing operational items.
- Never use melamine shelving for your fish room — it just gets wrecked when it gets wet. I use solid plastic shelving now.
- Carry a spare of everything — sooner or later a piece of equipment will go wrong and it will
- never happen at a convenient time.
- If you’re ever intending to take on a project like this, work out exactly what it’s going to cost and take, double check your calculations — then double it!