Aquarist Steven Baker has set up a tank that extends way above the watermark. We meet the man who brought a piece of Borneo to Britain.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL & STEVEN BAKER
PHOTOGRAPHY: NATHAN HILL
Steven Baker is an aquarist with ambition. A long term fishkeeper, with ample time spent in the industry, he’s picked up a lot of ideas along the way.
For some time now, Steven’s tank photos have caught my eye. To my mind, he’s a conventionally unconventional fishkeeper. I see classic biotopes — his African Rift lake aquaria, which we’ll be featuring in a future issue — perfectly executed, while his unique take on a community tank is a modern angle on an old theme.
My original plan was to cover all of Steven’s five current set-ups in one heavily abridged feature, but the first tank I saw threw all of that out of the window. Hitting you like a triffid as soon as you enter his living room, Steven’s above water/below water set up becomes the main attraction.
Leering from the wall — he calls it the ‘wall of life’ — is a bounty of colour. Vain orchids compete for attention amongst creeping vines, and it is only with persuasion that I’m convinced that what I see isn’t synthetic. A squeeze of a leaf confirms its authenticity.
Below it all, nearly lost against the colours, sits a glass-trapped pool of orange water, testament to the acids and decomposition true of Steve’s intended habitat. Half filled, this tank is his vision of Borneo — slow and dark, and alive with fish that require patience.
Living the dream
Here’s what Steven has to say about his flagship aquarium:
“Imagine setting off to a faraway tropical country; a couple of days travelling on airliners, beat-up buses, small charter planes and 4x4s. You set down for the night under a roof thatched with palm leaves supported by bamboo frames. It’s warm enough that walls aren’t really necessary.
“By afternoon the following day you’re walking through dense, tropical rainforest surrounded by lush growth and an abundance of life. Hours in, you stumble upon a small, shaded forest stream. The water is stained brown by discarded leaves from the canopy above. Terrestrial plants grow sparsely in the low light but enjoy the high humidity along the banks. More adaptable plants spill into the water where they grow fully submerged. Taking a few steps for a closer inspection of the plants, you notice the hasty movement of fish darting away from the vegetation to be lost among the leaf litter.
“That’s what I did... I imagined my trip to Borneo.
“Aside the barriers of time and money I’m unsure I’ll ever actually go. The idea of creating all the pollution travelling across the world, so people like me can stomp through the undergrowth and go home with memory sticks full of imagery turns a sweet dream sour.
“So… forget about it? No. I can still experience it indirectly.
An authentic replica
“If you’ve visited the Eden project in Cornwall or if you’ve ever driven a Caterham7 kit car rather than the original Lotus7 you will understand that replicas can be authentic — and so can an aquarium.
“A biotope is fishkeeping’s Caterham — a product of lengthy research that aims to be an authentic replica of nature. For the tank here, it was around three months between the original idea and laying down anything physical.
“First, I needed to cross reference the fish I wanted, build a shortlist of fish species and study pictures and videos of my desired habitat. Once a design was conceived I could consider the materials and methods, factoring in how to conceal my cables, pipes, heaters and filters.
“I wanted to move an existing shoal of Redline rasbora, Trigopoma pauciperforatum, from their 70 l dwelling to a more spacious home. They’re not a fish that normally floats my boat; I’m attracted to character and oddities, fish like puffers, leaf fish, killies and small cichlids.
“They shared their tank with some Indonesian floating frogs (or Puddle frogs) Occidozyga lima, which I also wanted to move on to a larger setting. Luckily, their areas of distribution overlap among the slow-moving forest streams of Borneo.
“So that was my start point.
“Because the tank I intended to use would be open-topped, I opted for a low water level — there would be less chance of me finding frogs crisped on the carpet one morning. It also allowed me to plan for a world of mosses, ferns and some classic aquarium plants growing just above the water.
“Borneo stream biotopes have low equipment demands. Recreating a shady habitat means a standard internal, T8 light or an inexpensive LED unit and a conventional heaterstat will suffice. My light unit is a low-power Arcadia stretch LED which is ample for basic plant growth.
“Vegetation is quite sparse, and made up of slow growing, low energy species so additional CO2 isn’t essential and liquid fertilisers can be basic and dosed lightly. Substrate fertilisers are worth using, holding adequate nutrients to last a long time.
“My tank is drilled to discretely incorporate an external filter; there is no other piece of equipment I like more to tidy up a tank (unless it’s an external filter with an integrated heater – even better!)
Wall of plants
“Decor in my tank is a dedicated affair. Early on, a doubting voice popped into my head: “If this doesn’t work it’s going to be hell getting it back to clean glass!” A deep breath later, and I’m opening a second can of expanding foam.
“I’m an aquarist at heart, but I work on a site that also deals with amphibians and reptiles. Though I expected to be enchanted by frogs and lizards, in the event I was overwhelmed by ‘crossover products’ like decorative sealants and mist makers. Each marked a new possibility for my fish tanks!
“I used expanding foam on the plant wall above the tank and was happy about using it in the tank. When I discovered a sealing resin and a range of colouring powders marketed for amphibians, I knew the destiny of my new set-up.
“Straight from the tin, the resin was a pale, stone grey — ideal for sealing the lower level where the substrate blends into the background. To blend further I used a heavy coating of resin and covered it with sand and fine gravel, which stuck as it dried. Once happy with the substrate level I added a brown colouring powder to the resin and completed the rest, this time adding coconut fibres instead of sand for texture and realism.
“When the resin dried, I tidied any excess from the glass and the wood and put down the substrate. I used Seachem Flourish gravel as a substrate fertiliser covered initially with coarse German quartz gravel, then fine 1mm quartz gravel in patches, topped off with JBL Sansibar river sand, a natural-looking substrate that tends not to compact as easily as other sands. Leaf litter added the finishing touch.
“A Borneo biotope has a limited plant selection available. To start simply, Cryptocoryne bullosa is easy to get hold of, but how natural the obtainable strain is may be questionable. Still, it’s a lovely plant to grow above or below the water line.
“The once scarce Bucephalandra motleyana mostly grows above the water, clinging to stream-side boulders and creeping up muddy banks. Bucephalandra species are widely available now but there are so many variants that if you want to stay true to the regional biotope it may take some searching.
“Then there are species you just will not come across in your local fish shop. Luckily I have a contact, Luke Landsburgh from Bucephalandra UK, who was able to supply me with a natural form of Cryptocoryne bullosa, with a much more prominent ‘hammered’ effect to the leaf compared to my shop bought plants. He also supplied Barclaya motleyi, a dark lily-like plant which is yet to show strong growth, Java fern ‘Narrow’, Aridarium to grow on the ‘bank’ and some Bucephalandra, all of which come from Borneo.
Choosing the right fish
“Though Redline rasbora and Puddle frogs were the original inspiration for this tank, I also already had three Khuli loach, so these joined the mix.
“I added a common Bornean species — the ill-named Pentazona barb — to act as a dither fish and inspire confidence in the rasbora. Pretty much all commercially available ‘Pentazona’ are in fact the more prevalent Desmopuntius hexazona, as mine are. Geographically, they perfectly suit the location of this biotope and they have also encouraged the Redlines to be more outgoing.
“Then there is the fish that really hits the target; the Forest halfbeak. Hemirhamphodon pogonognathus is a full-on predator by design. From its pike-like fin placement to its super-sensory beak detecting the smallest of surface movements, it is fully equipped to feed on flies, gnats, beetles and anything else that falls on to the surface. At 10cm they can threaten small fish even though their attention is focused on the surface, but if they can’t swallow them there’s no danger. They’re unaggressive toward other fish and only slightly so between conspecifics.
“There’s also a pair of Betta albimarginata, which appeal to my love of cryptic fish. I can search for them for some time without a sniff, then all of a sudden they’re right in the middle of the tank, bold as brass before they are gone again. I had to slightly bend the rigidity of my location for these as they live quite a few miles to the west of where I had set the biotope.
“So, though I may never reach Borneo in person, there a part of my imagination which has come to life and now sits in my living room. It’s not an active, buzzing set-up at all, but a peaceful, tranquil tank that you can lose yourself in for a little while every evening.”
Meet the aquarist
Name: Steven Baker.
Location: Cambridge, England.
Occupation: Aquatic retail assistant and also building Cambridge Aquatics as a maintenance service for tanks and ponds.
Time in the hobby: 27 years.
Favourite fish: Freshwater puffers.
Most ever spent on a fish: £175 on a Koi.
Dream tank: A converted indoor swimming pool with sunken logs, lilies and waterside planting. Fish would include a Mbu puffer, a group of Mastacembelus eels (whichever best suit the range of the puffer) and some mid-sized African catfish.
Redline rasbora, Rasbora pauciperforata
Clown rasbora, Rasbora kalochroma
Pentazona barb, Desmopuntius hexazona
Kuhli loach, Acanthopthalmus semicinctus
Forest halfbeak, Hemirhamphodon pogonognathus
Tank: 120 x 45 x 38cm/48 x 18 x 15in.
Filter: Aquamanta EFX400 external canister.
Heating: 200W in-line Hydor external heater.
Lighting: Arcadia Stretch LED on the tank. Fluval Plant LED on the wall.
Quick fire questions
How long did the project take?
Three months of research and planning. About 12–15 hours to construct over three days. It’s now just over seven months old.
What was the approximate cost?
The display of the plant wall and the tank display with all the materials, wood, roots, substrate and so on came to £200, give or take a little. The tank and equipment was purchased bit-by-bit and all some time ago.
A ballpark figure overall would be £550 if I think quickly. I don’t want to think for any longer as it probably cost more. I’d have to guess at the cost of fish and plants — maybe £85 for livestock and a similar amount on the plants.
Which aspect took the longest?
Building up a reasonable selection of plants.
How is the plant rack constructed? How is it supplied with water?
It’s built on a background made from an old shop shelving unit (a peg panel, from which you’d normally have hooks jutting out). Guttering was attached, with drainage pipes and airline to feed water through an airline splitter. A small pump in the tank waters it all for just one minute once a day thanks to a digital plug timer.
What filter media do you use?
Three stages of foam and a mixture of different biomedia collected over the years. There’s definitely some Eheim ehfisubstrat and Fluval Biomax in there.
How do you keep the water stained and acidic?
I add Catappa and Oak leaves regularly but mostly I boil up Alder cones to make my own blackwater extract.
What are the water parameters?
Temperature is 25.5°C, pH 6.2, KH 5, GH 10.
How often do you test?
I test a lot in the early stages to get to know the tank. For the first three months, I tested weekly but I have found this set-up to be quite stable. I now check hardness and acidity one a month.
Do you favour a fish-in or a fishless cycle?
I’ve had fish tanks solidly for many years so I have the beauty of mature filter media on hand. For anyone without this available I definitely recommend fishless cycling. It’s a good way to get used to tank maturation and using test kits without harming fish through innocent enthusiasm.
What’s your advice to anyone who’d like a similar set-up?
If you are at all crafty or artistic it’s not hard. If you struggle with model making or flat packed furniture, then maybe you should call in a mate!
An aquarist who travels the world and builds tanks based on where he’s been is inspiring. What’s even better is when he shares those tanks with the rest of us...
WORDS: TAI STREITMAN. PHOTOGRAPHY: GEORGE FARMER
Looking around at the hobby today, I feel it’s fair to say that for many fishkeepers, the days of plain aquarium gravel, a few plastic plants and a novelty treasure chest air-stone have been left behind. High tech aquascapes, biotopes and complex reef systems have all entered the hobby and changed our perspectives on what is feasible, what is available and what is ethical.
There are those who will never relinquish plastic plants, shipwrecks and a diverse community, and that’s fine — each to their own. As long as fish are healthy and quality of life is maintained, people can put whatever they like in their tanks.
My own feeling is that for a little effort, we can create displays that not only prioritise the wellbeing of our fish, but also look beautiful and natural. Looking online or at some of the incredible aquascapes that appear in this magazine can be daunting, but a bit of research and patience can provide even the beginner with an engaging and successful set-up.
I’m a huge fan of blackwater set-ups. If it looks like tea, I’m in. These set-ups aren’t hard to create, although maintaining water quality and stability are important. Using lots of wood and leaf litter produces tannins that stain the water and lower the pH. Also, believe it or not, they’ll bring out the colours of many species more spectacularly than crystal clear water.
Many of our popular characins, dwarf cichlids, rasbora and gourami species will all thrive in blackwater set-ups that mimic their natural environments. I was lucky enough to explore blackwater streams in Colombia and Peru and they have inspired me to create a small blackwater community with species found in the Amazon basin.
I have used a 90cm/36in, 100 l/22 gal tank and Catappa leaves (easily bought online) and a stash of dried finger palm fronds that actually come from the gorilla enclosure at London Zoo!
You can just as easily use beech or oak leaves and it’s worth collecting a few bags in the autumn and storing them in a dry space for use as and when you need them. Amazon frogbit, Limnobium laevigatum, and Salvinia natans provide cover for the fish and with those aerial roots they suck up spare nutrients.
I wanted to have activity at all levels and my choice of fish reflects this. At the top, Giant hatchetfish, Gasteropelecus sternicla, and Hockey stick pencilfish, Nannostomus eques, cruise through the floating plants. Slightly lower down, a troupe of Dwarf pencilfish, Nannostomus marginatus, flit through the palm fronds while Green neons, Paracheirodon simulans, emerge from the shadows to show off their brilliant iridescence before diving away again. A few juvenile Gold tetras, Hemigrammus rodwayi, add contrast to the Green neons in colour and body shape.
At lower levels, charismatic Apistogramma viejita and Rams, Mikrogeophagus ramirezi, scuffle and argue over small territories and favourite display spots. Keeping several females to each male reduces tension but providing plenty of cover is the best way of ensuring that no one fish gets hounded by an opponent or over-amorous male.
Finally, on the bottom the classic Panda corys, Corydoras panda, shuffle and nuzzle their way through the sand and leaf littler, hunting for morsels and providing endless movement.
This was a very simple set-up; two 24W T5 bulbs, a 150W heater, dried leaves, play sand and floating plants was no great investment. The only thing you should not cut corners on is filtration and this tank uses an Aquamanta 300 EFX filter with a flow rate of 1100 lph, although this is turned down to mimic the flow of the natural habitat.
This is one of my favourite set-ups, where the colours and characters of the fish draw you in and the simplicity of the set-up makes running the tank very straightforward.
Blackwater tank factfile
Hardness: 18–215 ppm.
2 x 24W T5 bulbs (running six hours a day).
Aquamanta EFX 300 filter.
Aquarium species and their needs are nothing if not diverse and staying with the theme of simple, easy set-ups catering to the needs of engaging and charismatic species, I have also set up a hillstream tank for Stiphodon atropurpureus.
I got to see Stiphodon gobies in the wild in the Philippines and vowed to keep them at home. These little gems are often seen in shops, slowly starving to death in tanks devoid of the auchwuchs they need to graze on, with little flow and kept much warmer than their natural waters. As these fish are always wild caught, providing them with a close replica of their habitat is vital for success. Cool (20–24°C/68–75°F) oxygen rich water, excellent filtration and plenty of algae and hidey holes will see these little characters thrive. Unlike many gobies, my
S. atropurpureus are not aggressively territorial. There may be the odd spat, but again, providing several females for each male and ensuring that each male has at least one big rock he can perch on will generate harmony. Watching them graze over boulders in a line abreast is very satisfying!
Although plants are not a feature of their natural habitat, I have included Java fern, Microsorum pteropus, and Anubias, both of which will tolerate the flow and cooler temperatures, so as to add colour and cover. Algae gathers on the leaves of these slow-growing species and the gobies will tear chunks off and zip over the plants, happily grazing. The main rocks in this tank were allowed to soak in a tub outside for weeks to build up enough algae to support the gobies when they were added and this will quickly spread to newly added pebbles.
For dither fish I have added White Cloud Mountain minnows, Tanichthys albonubes, a truly underrated little fish which, when kept in cool water with plenty of flow and oxygen, will reward you with gleaming red and gold colours, and stunning displays by the males.
While Stiphodon aren’t the cheapest of fish, the rest of this set-up can be created affordably. An Aquamanta EFX 400 filter provides flow and a high turnover in this 100 l/22 gal tank. No heater is used but to produce plenty of algae, I’ve added cool-running TMC Grobeams, (these could be replaced with simple T5 bulbs). A fine substrate that isn’t light enough to be moved about by the flow allows the gobies to dig. I’ve opted for standard, fine gravel.
Hardness: 18–215 ppm.
2 x TMC Grobeam LEDs (ten hours a day).
Aquamanta EFX 400 filter.
As an aquatic plant enthusiast, I have to have at least one planted aquarium and so my main tank, a 240 l/ 53 gal set-up, is stuffed with greens. I combined plants and species from several habitats from the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil to produce a busy but not overbearing display with subtle fish colours, plenty of movement and some cryptic yet charismatic species.
I enjoy creating layouts with different plant heights and textures and then letting them run riot. A jungly tank, where you have to work to spot some of its inhabitants will always hold more interest for me than a display where everything is on show, straight away.
Again, this is not a particularly difficult display. CO2 injection, a daily and weekly fertiliser regime for the plants, twice-weekly water changes and solid filtration (in the form of a Fluval FX6) does not entail too much effort, but the rewards are considerable.
I believe in trying species that are either considered common or dull, and working to get the best out of them by creating an ideal environment. In this case, I have chosen the Dawn tetra, Aphyocharax nattereri. Famed for being a fin nipper, this behaviour (as in many species) does not become apparent when they are kept in sufficient numbers. They will spend their time chasing each other, with no one fish receiving too much aggression, and race about the tank in their battles to establish hierarchy. You will likely never notice this in shops, but the males develop a soft red on the bellies and anal fin and when well kept, they develop a lovely green gold colour on the body.
A group of Serpae tetra, Hyphessobrycon eques, provides riotous colour to contrast with the subtle tones of the other species and the green backdrop. Rathbun tetras, Aphyocharax rathbuni, dart between the tall leaves and hover like aquatic hummingbirds, eyeing up the situation before zooming to another part of the tank. A gang of Red-breasted acara, Laetacara dorsigera, stalk the long grass, their purple flanks gleaming through the blades of Echinodorus.
Several shy Sheepshead acara, Laetacara curviceps, watch from the shadows and then emerge slowly into the light, their shimmering blue scales, erratic movements and suspicious investigation of everything making me smile. Isn’t that what it is all about at the end of the day? Making your fish happy, so they make you happy?
Helanthium bolivianum ‘Latifolius’
Persicaria sp. ’Sao Paulo’
Hardness: 18–215 ppm.
2 x 39W T5 bulbs (running eight hours a day)
Fluval FX6 filter
CO2 solenoid and gauge with 8kg bottle (two bubbles per second).
There's an art to creating authentic tanks and Tom Austin has not only mastered it, he's winning awards for it! We check out some beautiful biotopes.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
As biotope fever continues to tighten its hold on the UK, it’s invigorating to see ever increasing numbers of aquarists embracing the concept. Though community tanks remain unyielding in their place as a domestic favourite across the land, fishkeepers like Tom Austin are seeking out new sources of information, forging contacts from regions that go beyond the local retailer and using it all to create displays with an outstanding blend of aesthetics and fishy happiness.
Tom, a 25-year-old chef from Oxford, has a simple and direct ethos with his livestock. "If you’re keeping a fish," he says, "keep it the way it’s supposed to be kept."
The first tank that catches our attention is his majestic Juwel Rio 400; a 151cm/60cm slice of dark and moody South American river. Inside, we see the telling flashes of burnished yellow with coloured streaks that indicates that this is a home for discus. As the photographer sets up his flashes to begin shooting, the discus, true to form, slink themselves out of sight behind tangles of wood.
A shaky start
Biotopes aren’t how Tom started out in this hobby. Three years back, when he began, he inherited a small tank from a friend. It turned out that this housed a rambunctious tankbuster — a Red-tailed catfish, no less — and Silver sharks, both woefully ill-suited for this tiny home. The fish were eventually rehomed by a sympathetic Maidenhead Aquatics. However, Tom persevered.
When a partner at that time moved out, a bigger tank moved in. Tom’s bedroom was, for a while at least, the residence of a 90 x 60 x 60cm/36 x 24 x 24in tank, which he established as a classic community with tetras and gouramis.
But this is the digital age, and certain influences have their ways and means of finding a route into a person’s home. On Facebook, Tom stumbled upon another prolific biotoper, Hamza Poonawalla. Soon after, he was flicking through Ivan Mikolji’s (a Venezuelan field explorer) nature videos. It didn’t take long for a purist seed to germinate, and now Tom boasts not one, but three biotopes in his home.
As we turn our attention to a second tank, we decide to make a concession. The fish inside — Altum angelfish — have only arrived the night before. The lights are off and the fish huddled at one end, unsure of our alien antics around them. We decide to spare them the photographer’s flashes, and my ugly, inquisitive mug to let them settle instead. It is a shame as, at a glance, they are young but already stunning.
Tom leads us upstairs to his third set-up. In the hallway at a desk sits a comparatively smaller aquarium: a 90 x 30 x 30cm/36 x 12 x 12in Clearseal all-glass tank, from which he has removed the braces around the rim. Now open-topped, the tank bathes under the light of two clamped-on LED units and houses one more-than-happy family of Yellow convicts, Cryptoheros nanoluteus, from Panama; their insouciance at our presence a clear contrast to the previous two aquaria we’ve seen. Inside, bundles of fry at various stages of development pay homage to Tom’s skill at giving the fish a home so cosy that they bred in it.
Breeding is something that Tom is unintentionally superb at. He bred standard Convicts quite early on, and though he doesn’t really go out of his way to spawn them, he’s also had historic successes with Ivanacara, some Gymnogeophagus species, Nannacara anomala and both Apistogramma agassizii and macmasteri. If you’re a cichlid, then Tom may well be your Cupid.
Despite the charm of this Central American tank, Tom professes a love for all things further south. He also concedes that he’d like to try African riverine fish, as well as species like Pseudocrenilabrus nicholsi.
Then he throws me. "I’m a catfish fan," he says, making me frown as I consider the cichlid-heavy leanings of everything we’ve seen so far. “I just haven’t found what I want yet. I’m after Tatia musaica 'Ninja'’ cats — I think they’re from Orinoco. I’ve never even seen one in the flesh, but I’m captivated by them."
He’s humble about it, but eventually I tease out of him that he’s won contests for his tanks before, entering the JBL sponsored biotope contest and taking two rankings: second with a Central American set-up and fifth with a discus layout. He’d considered entering the Aquatic Gardeners Association contest too, but managed to miss the cut-off date for submissions.
To go from community start-up to almost romping home with first place in a biotope competition inside of three years, tells me that we’ll be witnessing more of Tom’s tanks cruising the viral vine over years to come. Personally, I can’t wait to see them. And when you see how easy they are to copy, you’ll want to have a stab at your own, too.
The discus centrepiece
You wouldn’t think it, but Tom’s centrepiece tank was borne out of absolute disaster. The Friday before our visit, there was a different 400 l/88 gal tank sat in that spot, which chose to spring a leak. After a weekend of fluster, and scouring for a second-hand replacement, another tank was sourced, cleaned, installed and assembled. Not only does Tom put together great looking tanks, it seems he keeps a cool head under pressure.
Rigged up beneath the new 450 l/100 gal, 151 x 51 x 66cm/60 x 20 x 26in system, he has one Aquamanta EFX600 canister filter and an Eheim Profi 2073. The latter of these also connects to the heater on the return feed, a Hydor 300W inline model, so that it doesn’t intrude on the natural look of the tank.
On top, producing a haunting glow, is a USA satellite LED, complete with colour control and storm settings, which Tom found online for £135. With its tight pin-sources of light, it does wonders to create a soft, flickering effect.
Inside, he’s created a finger-tangle of wood using Manzanita branches, combined with a little Redmoor root. The substantial lumps you can see are Sumatra wood, which offer a sturdy hiding place for the fish when they’re feeling shy.
The billowing sand dunes at the base are made up of mere play pit sand, acquired from a garden centre, and the rounded stones, sourced from the aptly named ‘Stoneworld’ are rounded to give a worn, riverine look.
Tom admits to some testing slackness, but knows that the aquarium is currently sat at a TDS (total dissolved solids, or hardness) of between 85 and 90, with a low pH of 5.2.
Contrast that with the chalky, alkaline water at source, and you’ll understand how valuable Tom finds his TMC V2 RO unit. To get the chemistry just right for the demanding discus, he uses one measure of TMC Discus Mineral per 100 l/22 gal of water, and in his canister filters, he runs peat balls from Tyne Valley Aquatics. These leach acids to give his water the slightest 'tea' hue and help to chase the pH down to where the discus like it.
Look about the base closely and there are scattered alder cones. "They stain the water nice and dark," Tom says. "Anything natural I can get my hands on goes in the tanks."
It hasn’t always been that straightforward, though. "I had one bad experience collecting leaves," he explains, "when I thought I was picking up Oak, but it turned out to be something toxic. Some fish died on the back of that, and I felt terrible. It was my own fault, and I felt horrible for it."
Since then, he’s tried buying a few leaves from safer sources, including Guava leaves — noted for their antiseptic and healing properties. At some point, he wants to try some Savu pods, too.
The discus stand out because of their wild origins. They weren’t cheap fish, but then wild types rarely are, and Tom paid out a bargain £90 each for them from Chen’s Discus in Middlesex. The fish came in as Rio Paraconi types, and Tom thinks he has three potential males and a female. All he knows for sure is that when they go through their spawning motions, the harmony of the tank is upset.
Also in there are some Geophagus altifrons 'nhamunda', which Tom sourced from a northern retailer. Though substantial sized fish with potential to grow large (to 25cm/10in), they are peaceful beasts, content to while away their days sifting the sand for nutritious titbits.
Then there are the pacifist Mesonauta festivus cichlids that fill the higher levels of the tank. But like a few fish today, as the flashes go on to the tank, they retreat away and only spend the afternoon teasing us from the corners. Only when we creep up slowly and peer through the sides like fishy voyeurs, do we get to see as much as a glimpse of them. But as soon as the camera comes out, they just go deeper underground and refuse to play.
Tom’s 90cm/36in Panama tank is so simple a set up it’s almost sickening. And with a selection of fish that thrive in harder water, he needn’t do anything to tweak his hard, pH 7.6 tap supply.
Once again, Manzanita features as an integral part, taking on a different hue under the cleaner, brighter light of two cheap, unbranded LEDs clipped to the back.
Beyond that, it’s a riverbed of fine sand and cobbles, the latter providing refuge for young, while the former gives the fish plenty to rummage and forage through. A moulded Exo-Terra polystyrene backing (sold for vivariums) provides a convincing enough illusion of a riverbank.
Powering this tank is an All Pond Solutions 1400 canister filter, which Tom admits rattles, leaks and often doesn’t prime, so it spends its life in a washing up bowl. True to Tom’s style, an inline 300W Hydor heater sits out of sight, between lengths of hosing.
The tank is designed to emulate the Rio Guarumo and only has two species inside it: Yellow convicts, Cryptoheros nanoluteus, and Green swordtails, Xiphophorus helleri. Aggression during post-spawn, when a single cichlid went on a murderous rampage and nailed the male swordtails, means that only the two females remain, but they seem happy in themselves and are most likely pregnant from a former coupling. Doubtless, there will be more of them to follow.
This tank, alas, is on borrowed time. Tom already has someone lined up to buy all of the fry, and once they have vacated the premises, he’s looking to do a complete overhaul. What he’ll venture into next he’s unsure of. Honduran red points (think upmarket Convicts) are possible, but so too are standard Convict cichlids, and even Jade eyed sajica cichlids.
That said, even Teleocichla or African shell dwellers are feasible, as Tom drifts through a long potential list of all the other ‘possibles’ that he clearly has in mind for some point in the future.
Meet the aquarist
Fishkeeper: Tom Austin.
Time in the hobby: Three years.
First fish: Red-tailed catfish and Silver sharks!
Number of tanks: Three.
Favourite fish: Discus.
Fish he’d like to keep: Potamotrygon scobina stingrays.
Most spent on a fish: £90 on discus.