The highs and lows of the ‘Insta-aquarist’

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Debbie Sinclair is a home-grown UK social media figure currently making waves the fish world. We caught up to discuss the latest happenings in Instagram and aquaria.

Practical Fishkeeping: Debbie, lovely to talk to you. Let’s start at the beginning: how did you encounter the hobby and what was your first tank? 

Debbie Sinclair: As a little girl everything under the sea amazed me — it started off with the film The Little Mermaid, I think. Then my mum received an annual pass to our local aquarium, Deep Sea World, and we spent lots of time there. 

I had a few ‘hook a duck’ goldfish from the funfairs over the years too, though I now understand why most didn’t even survive the journey home. The first ever tropical aquarium I encountered was at a friend’s house when I was about 10 and still in primary school. It had a beautiful bright red Betta in it and I instantly fell in love. My fascination grew when my best friend’s brother got a tank and some of his Mollies had fry — I would sneak into his bedroom when he wasn’t there to watch them. I begged my parents to let me have a tank but it took a few years of convincing. 

Finally, at 15 years old, I got my first tropical aquarium. I recall it was a 40-litre hexagon tank. I wanted a red Betta like my friend’s, and I remember my mum eventually found a store in Edinburgh that had some in stock. The store suggested I also add three females with him, to see their natural behaviour. That didn’t end so well — the three ‘females’ killed the red male and turned out to be plakat male fighters. So, my first experience wasn’t great. 

PFK: When did the hobby really take off for you? 

DS: Probably when I got my own house. That allowed me to have more aquariums and experiment with keeping different sizes of tanks, which in turn opened up the opportunity to keep different types of fish, slightly larger species, species-only set-ups and so on.

PFK: How would you class yourself now? Aquascaper? Fishkeeper? Which genre of the hobby defines you? 

DS: I am a fishkeeper at heart. I don’t class myself as an aquascaper at all. I prefer my tanks to look natural and be good for the fish rather than just look good to me. The sterile looking, perfectly trimmed aquascapes just aren’t for me. I like a full working ecosystem that includes different snails, lots of nice bushy plants to give fish plenty of cover, and some algae in there. The benefit of such a system is that there’s less work for me than if I was keeping pristine aquascapes. The likes of aquascaping competitions have never appealed to me — I’ve always been all about the fish. 

PFK: How many tanks are you currently running, and what’s in them?

DS: I’ve recently cut down on the number, but I currently have four aquariums: a temperate tank and three nano aquariums. My temperate tank contains a few different types of fancy goldfish, along with danios, White Cloud minnows, Platies and gobies. Two of my nanos have a resident Betta each along with Ramshorn, Trumpet, Chopstick, Rabbit and Red devil snails. For my third nano I’m currently awaiting on another Betta arriving from Indonesia. 

PFK: What has been your favourite aquarium to date? 

DS: My current temperate tank. The goldfish are fantastic to keep, they’re absolute water pigs with individual personalities, and kept in the right set up look amazing. They are such underrated fish, and I’ve set the tank up in such a way that it’s very minimal maintenance. 

PFK: How do your aquaria usually run? 

DS: For anything over about 80-litres I prefer external filtration — my temperate aquarium runs two large external canisters. I’m a massive fan of classic sponge filters, and these are usually my choice for smaller aquariums. 

I’ve had so many lights over the years and it’s one thing I don’t usually scrimp on since I keep all planted aquariums. LEDs are a must for me and they must have a good light spectrum which must include a good portion of red LEDs. 

I plant my tanks extremely heavily from the offset. It costs a little more at the start, but the plants bed in so much better when there are more of them. In the long run it saves a lot of hassle and money from replacing plants that are covered in algae. 

PFK: What has been your biggest setback and what did you learn from it? 

DS: Around six years ago, when I first started keeping planted tanks, I killed everything — even Anubias died on me. It was disheartening and expensive, and I gave up a few times and went back to using plastic plants. But gradually I researched into it and added better lighting, set up a fertilisation schedule, added CO2, and spent countless hours reading up on different plants. Now plants are a great success for me, but it was a massive learning curve. 

PFK: How does your audience respond to you keeping fancy goldfish?

DS: I get really positive feedback, and I think that seeing how goldfish can be kept in planted layouts has inspired some people to try and do the same. Fancy goldfish are often kept in bare tanks, which can lead to issues like algae, dirt accumulation, murky water, and sickness. 

I think this stems from the belief that goldfish eat plants. While that’s true to a certain extent, they won’t eat all plants, and I think the issue comes more from goldfish uprooting plants while sifting through the substrate. I’ve even deliberately added plants into my goldfish tank for them to eat and they haven’t touched them — Java fern, Anubias and Bolbitis mainly. That said, it’s also important to include some greenfoods in goldfish diets. Mine regularly get shelled peas, vegetable flakes, and algae flakes. 

PFK: What do you think is driving the hunger for aquariums on social media? I mean this from the perspective that historically speaking, fishkeeping has always been seen as something geeky.

DS: What are you talking about? It still is geeky, the geeks have just united on Instagram!  Aquascaping is massive on that platform, with thousands of dedicated pages. 

I think aquaria are now being seen as interior design rather than just fishkeeping, which is making it trendier. It’s similar to the houseplant scene that’s exploded recently — especially through lockdown when people were spending more time indoors. I think that’s really helped the hobby grow over the past 18 months. Hopefully it’ll continue. 

PFK: What are the highs and lows of being an Instagram fishy celebrity? 

DS: Highs, I’ve met some amazing people. I get to interact with folks with the same interests as me that I’d never have come across in real life. In my earlier years never had family or friends that shared my passion for fishkeeping so at times it could get
a bit lonely. 

There’s so much inspiration on Instagram, driving me to keep trying new things out and to improve on the things I already do. The knowledge of some people is exceptional and without this I’d have found venturing into new genres a lot more difficult. I love receiving messages with pictures of people’s set-ups that I’ve inspired, too. That’s a high point. 

As for lows — social media can be cruel, especially as your following grows. There was a whole ‘movement’ which insinuated that my following was only the size it was because I posted images of myself, that I wanted instant gratification and that I was ‘overshadowing accounts with real talent’. They even gave this movement its own hashtag. 

Unfortunately, some high-visibility aquarists backed this, giving it more oxygen than it should have had. I took it hard as I pride myself on my set-ups, my fish, and the pictures I take for Instagram — it takes considerable dedication and time on my part. That was the lowest point for me on Instagram, feeling personally attacked and not understanding why. Even now there’s something of a ‘boys club’ that occasionally assemble on my posts to have a go at me, call me unattractive, or denigrate my aquaria. 

PFK: As a female aquarist, do you ever witness any chauvinism in the hobby? 

DS: Fishkeeping is still very male dominated, and that’s amplified on social media. I have 30,000 followers and 90% are male. Everyone I’ve talked to about it (male and female) seems to echo this, with a following that’s predominantly men. While most are both supportive and lovely, there’s definitely some sexism. For example, male aquarists regularly appear in their own content, but are never subjected to the comments and messages that females get. 

PFK: What’s the most common mistake you see fishkeepers making in the 2020s? 

DS: For the past year I’ve been helping out in a local fish store and the biggest mistake is still the classic: ‘I set up a tank let the water sit for 24 hours added my fish and they all died.’ People just don’t bother to learn anything (or simply aren’t informed) about the nitrogen cycle before they start fishkeeping. Learn about that and the whole journey into aquarium care becomes a thousand times easier. 

Another mistake is thinking that fishkeeping will always be plain sailing, and being discouraged when it’s not. Go into it knowing that it’s a hobby that you’ll be constantly learning about and growing — at almost 20 years down the line I learn new stuff nearly every day. There will be tough times, frustrating times, and outright ‘I’m giving this up’ times, but when you get an aquarium right, then sit back and think ‘wow,
I created that,’ it’s so worth it.

PFK: What’s currently in fashion and what’s out of fashion?

DS: Heavily aquascaped tanks are in — rimless, open topped, Optiwhite tanks with sleek lighting, no equipment on view and neat layouts inside. As for what’s out, a lot of people seem to be coming away from the bulkier wooden-looking tanks that were high fashion a few years ago, and much more of a minimalist design has replaced them.

PFK: What would be your advice to someone looking to start their first aquarium? 

DS: Research, research and research. The internet has so much information, but you can also find a good local fish shop and get some advice — emphasis on ‘good’ as there are still stores out there that are more interested in making a quick sale than giving proper advice. A good one will hold your hand every step of the way. The more info they give you right at the start, the smoother a ride it will be. Plus, it’ll cost you less money in the long run. 

Learn about the nitrogen cycle, and read all about the fish you want. If you want a planted tank, focus on quality lighting, a deep substrate, and research the plants too. Plants are similar to fish; some are very easy
to keep and some aren’t.

PFK: Do you have any favourite brands or stores? 

DS: Riverside aquaria in Broxburn is an absolute gem. Not only does it have knowledgeable staff but the livestock is laboriously cared for, the tanks are spotless, and they always have a great variety of fish. 

I’ve never aligned myself to a particular brand. Right now, I’m in love with my Aquael nano lighting, my Fluval FX6, my Flipper magnet cleaner, my CO2art regulator, my GHL Mitras lighting, and my Aqua One AquaSys aquarium.