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!
We catch up with former PFK aquascaping star Kris Oddy to see his current, hard-to-tame explosion of greenery.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
Kris Oddy blew us away when he first appeared on our PFK radar. A leftfield aquascaping unknown in what was usually a tight knit community, he had put together an amazing layout both below water and above it, using orchids and mosses to keep the ’scape going up above his protruding decor.
At the time, he alluded to another project in the pipeline, and now it’s here and it’s even better than his first stab!
We let Kris take up the reins on his new project…
This is a very different layout to your last tank. What was your inspiration behind this one? How would you describe it?
I wanted to create something using the dimension of the tank’s depth, which was tricky in a tank of this size. Originally, I’d planned on using sand to create a ‘disappearing point’ involving a pathway that separated the two sides of the aquarium. In the end, for this particular layout I decided that a carpeting plant like Micranthemum would produce a softer, less dramatic and more delicate feel.
The layout was assembled by placing the hardscape and plants in layers from front to back in such a way as to produce a sense of perspective and depth. Banking up the substrate played a key role in creating the gradual heightening effect. I think it produces a grander sense of scale, even though the aquarium is in reality not that big.
How long has it taken for the tank to grow in? Did you add all the plants at the same time, or were some added later? Which plant species have you used?
It’s all grown in fairly quickly. The photos here were taken after just six months. I started the aquarium with substrate and hardscape – the rocks and wood – for the first couple of weeks before even planting.
I’d planned my plant species from the beginning and knew exactly where they would all go. This isn’t always the case for me, and adding or removing plants is something I consider pretty normal throughout the development of a nature aquarium.
The layout contains: Micranthemum ‘Monte Carlo’; Hydrocotyle sp. ‘Japan’; Micranthemum micranthemoides, also known as Pearl weed; Riccia fluitans; Anubias nana ‘Mini’; Pellia liverwort; Riccardia chamedryfolia; Fissidens fontanus, Phoenix moss.
How do you keep the Riccia down? Isn’t it usually a floating plant?
Riccia is usually a floating plant but it’s easy enough to anchor down just by tying it to stone. It grows extremely well when fully submerged and given the right conditions it pearls — produces loads of bubbles through photosynthesis — like crazy, which is awesome to look at.
What have you done differently to grow the plants in this tank, compared to your last one?
The only things that are different this time are the lights and the method of fertilising. Last time, I was using ADA fertilisers, specifically Green Brighty Step 1 and 2, as well as Brighty K.
This time I’ve adopted the estimative index (EI) method. Co2art.co.uk have formulated their own two-bottle version — one using macronutrients and the other micronutrients. I don’t do anything fancy, I just use as directed and I get great results. I’m not ashamed to say that my reason for deciding to use it is simply because Co2art have given me an unlimited supply to try out for as long as I want.
How much time does it take to maintain the tank? Which chores do you do daily, and which weekly?
This set-up is pretty high maintenance; keeping it at its best takes a lot of effort. I trim and push down the Hydrocotyle every couple of days. Left to its own devices with this much light and CO2, it’ll just take over the aquascape.
I perform a weekly 50% water change, directly after cleaning all the glass and trimming the Pearl weed. At the same time, I run my hand through the mini Pellia to lift out any detritus and give it a little movement — this is important because I’m not running any supplementary flow pumps for circulation, and debris can build up fast. Riccardia chamedryfolia is delicate so I try not to touch it – occasionally I’ll have to reattach it to the wood or rock with a little superglue, and I’ll take the opportunity to trim it. Some of my plants, like the Pellia liverworts, are slow growing and prone to algae so a good clean-up crew is essential. I use Amano shrimp, Otocinclus dwarf suckermouths, and a Flying fox. I’m not doing it myself, but I’d suggest additional flow pumps or powerheads if keeping Pellia.
What substrate are you using?
As in my last tank, I’ve used the full ADA system including all additives, power sand, and Amazonia Aqua Soil.
How much light do the plants get a day, and what light is being used?
The tank gets an eight-hour daily photoperiod. Maxigro supplied me with their Maxibright daylight 315W ballast along with a Philips 315W ceramic metal halide lamp, which is a beast of a set up — it’s actually a horticultural light for hydroponic growth
What type of wood have you used?
I’ve used a driftwood from a local store, Southern Aquatics. Before buying, I like to spend as much time as possible playing with wood and rocks, to decide which will work best for my particular project. It’s vital that a ’scaper takes time when deciding on hardscape for a layout and not just rush into anything.
What size is the tank? What glass is it made of? Is it branded or a custom made model?
It’s the same tank I used for my last layout – a 112 l custom-made 80 x 35 x 40cm Optiwhite glass design. The cabinet was custom built by my brother out of pallet wood.
Which CO2 set up do you have, and how much are you dosing? Do you use a bubble counter and drop checker?
I’m using a fire extinguisher with a dual-stage regulator and 12V dc-safe, low-power, cool-touch solenoid magnetic valve from CO2art, feeding through a bubble counter. I do use a drop checker to assess CO2 levels.
What filtration are you using?
Nothing exciting, just a bog standard external canister filter from CO2art, with the standard media it turned up with. I kickstarted it by using some biomedia from my old set-up.
Is the heater internal or external?
I’m using the Hydor external heater.
Do you use RO water?
No, tapwater all the way, with a pH of around 6.8pH.
Which fish have you opted for?
I personally think a tank looks best with one schooling species — Cardinal tetra, for example. But this time I decided to do something different and went for Cardinal tetra, Rummynose tetra, Celestial pearl danio, Pygmy corys, Amano, Cherry, Rock, and Rilli shrimp, Otocinclus, Flying fox — and a freshwater goby that just sort of ended up in there. Not sure what type it is but he seems happy enough in the tank.
What is the most difficult part about running this tank?
Controlling the Hydrocotyle. It really is rampant.
How do you control algae? Do you use chemicals, fish, or clear it manually?
A mix of everything. If I really need to, I’ll use some hydrogen peroxide 3% in a spray bottle — it kills off algae and is harmless to the plants. For the most part a good clean-up crew consisting of Otocinclus and Amano shrimp will do the job. I added a Flying fox recently after noticing a little hair algae — if you keep the feeding down a fox will happily eat hair algae. During water changes, manual removal of algae is also performed.
What would you guess the combined cost of this set-up to be?
I’d say just over £1,000 all in.
What would you advise someone looking to put together a tank like this for the first time?
I wouldn’t advise it unless you’ve already got some experience in aquascaping. Always think about how much time you have for maintenance chores. This set-up needs daily attention and can get difficult to control if I slack off.
If you do want to do a similar set up, I advise against Hydrocotyle unless you have no life and can spend countless hours maintaining it. I’d also strongly advise having additional flow pumps when using liverworts and Riccardia.
Where do you source your plants?
CO2art supplied all the plants I needed.
Tell us one new thing you learnt when putting this set-up together.
That Hydrocotyle sp. ‘Japan’ looks amazing but is a force to be reckoned with!
Curious shapes can make for amazing projects, as one Cambridge-based aquarist discovered. Here’s how he made the most of an unheated, novel set up…
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY: TAI STRIETMAN
Not so long ago, I was at university, where I spent a lot of time ignoring my reading lists on Latin American politics, the social legacy of the civil war in El Salvador and the informal market economy of Brazil, and instead immersed myself into the aquatic works of Peter W. Scott, J. Tullock, Takashi Amano, Dr. Axelrod, and of course Practical Fishkeeping!
At that time, I had neither the money nor space for a big planted tank. My flatmates weren’t keen on additional energy bills and the market for nano tanks hadn’t become as developed as it is now. But then I came across an article by George Farmer, showcasing a simple but beautiful White Cloud Mountain minnow, Tanichthys albonubes, biotope.
I immediately set about recreating his idea, and made several visits to my local fish shop, the venerable Arundel Aviaries & Fisheries Ltd. Despite the rows of colourful tanks full of plants, mosses and exotic fish, I purchased a straightforward 60 l/13 gal tank kit plus external filter, sand and gravel. I collected river pebbles from the Hampshire countryside and after cycling the tank, I bought ten White Clouds. It was a joy to watch them play in the flow and it gave me the fish fix I needed to get through university.
Several years and many tanks, biotopes and experimental set-ups later, I acquired a secondhand tank from a neighbour at home in Cambridge. It had a volume of 225 l/50 gal, was just over 240cm/8ft long, but only 30cm/12in high and wide.
Choosing the stock
In went play sand, gravel and river stones, along with circulation pumps, air pumps and the hardy plant, Sagittaria subulata. A population of Amano shrimp was added to the tank, happy to browse on the forming algae, and I added a school of Pearl danios, Brachydanio albolineata. Later, they were joined by eight juvenile Giant danios, Devario aequipinnatus. The tank really came into its own at that point; the fish schooled, swarmed and swayed in the current, they danced through the streams of bubbles and appeared very happy and healthy.
After waiting for the rocks to become fully smothered in algae I added three Borneo hillstream loaches, Gastromyzon ctenocephalus and a few weeks later I made a visit to Kesgrave Tropicals near Ipswich, where I acquired another three, plus six Vietnamese/Goldring hillstream loaches, Sewellia lineolata. I also acquired six gobies, listed as Rhinogobius wui but which may have been a mix of species of the R. duospilis complex.
The danios provided constant movement, the loaches would glide over the rocks and engage occasional disputes over who got to sit on which pebble, and the gobies provided endless interest, flitting about the tank, displaying to each other. During feeding times, they would race up to tear chunks out of frozen foods, more than holding their own with the danios. The tank was lively, with activity at all levels and I could sit for hours, observing the fish behaving as they would in their natural environment. Maintenance was straightforward. Plenty of algae was encouraged to grow on the rocks and back pane of the tank, and I cleaned only the front, although I was not too vigorous, so as to give the loaches a chance to graze first.
Water changes were 10% weekly and a large Aquamanta 600 external filter provided a flow rate of 2200 l per hour. My local tapwater is hard, about 7.5pH, perfect for the species I was keeping. All Pond Solution circulation pumps at each end of the tank (including a 12,000 lph pump) dispersed bubbles from a TetraTec 400 air pump and ensured there were no dead spots within the tank. Apart from water changes, the only regular job was to syphon the top layer of sand and remove any detritus, such as leaves, that might be clinging to the circulation pumps.
Take the ‘rapids’ approach
A number of rapids-style biotopes can be recreated, from Central African rapids for Blockhead cichlids (though heated), to Burmese mountain streams for danios and loaches and even Andean whitewater set-ups for several Loricarid species. Tanks don’t need to be huge, lighting doesn’t need to be too strong without plants (though it promotes algae and biofilm growth) and simple LEDs provide fantastic rippling effects in the water movement. However, flow and oxygenation are very important.
Some aquarists may want to try to build a river manifold, which is an excellent way of circulating water the length of the tank. These can be built relatively cheaply from PVC piping, with the main expense being the powerheads required. In these difficult financial times, with high student fees and rising living costs, the unheated or temperate aquarium can provide a cost efficient, yet fascinating project, either as a first time tank for a beginner, or for a more experienced hobbyist. You can also go the other way and invest in a Maxspect Gyre if you want to create a real torrent!
Although a mid-sized system and unusually shaped, it was the simplest tank I have set up since that little 60 l aquarium in my room at university and I would strongly encourage every aquarist to give an unheated aquarium a go. There are plenty of loach and goby species out there, along with White Clouds, Shiners, danios (including the beautiful Kerri and Choprae danios), barbs and even shrimp suitable for cooler water.
A number of tetras such as those from the Aphyocharax and Hyphessobrycon families will appreciate good flow and cool water too, along with interesting cool-water catfish such as Scleromystax species, so you can still get your South American fix! It was George Farmer’s simple little biotope that first got me excited about cool water and it took the advice of a fish-enthusiast friend to (eventually!) convince me. But now, as I sit back and look at over my own eight feet of mountain stream, I wonder how I could ever have done it differently.
See a video of this set-up below
African cichlid fan, Scott Lynch, explains why his passion is Malawis and how this magnificent display tank was set up.
WORDS, PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEO: GEORGE FARMER
I contacted Scott Lynch a few months ago to discuss a project involving a 180cm/6ft aquascape for African cichlids. Soon I was gathering all the necessary hardscaping materials including over a quarter ton of rock and specialist gravel. I’d never created an aquascape for Malawi cichlids before, so I was excited to work on something new using a large amount of rocks.
After the set-up had been up and running for a while, I re-visited the tank, now complete with fish, and I have to say it’s the most impressive aquarium of its type I’ve ever seen (scroll down for the video and see for yourself).
I spoke to Scott about his passion and his amazing set-up.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into African cichlids?
My dad has been keeping fish for as long as I can remember, the ones that always stood out to me were African cichlids. At the age of eight I set-up my own tank. I went through all the usual standard tropical species such as guppies and tetras but nothing attracted me like African cichlids. I was very lucky that my dad enjoyed fish as much as I did and would often tag along to the local aquatic shops to use my pocket money to purchase fish for my tank. In the early years there wasn’t as much of a choice of African cichlids as there is now. I remember fish such as what are now known as Melanochromis auratus, Pseudotropheus elongatus ornatus and Labidichromis joanjonsonae being particular favourites of mine.
One of the most fascinating aspects of African cichlids that stood out for me was their behaviour and activity, they are constantly on the move or digging their next cave and trying to attract a female into it. As a youngster I loved to watch females mouth brood their young and still find it fascinating to this day to watch a female release young from her mouth and then take them back in unharmed in the presence of danger.
Unfortunately, when I joined the RAF I was forced to take a short spell away from fishkeeping but as soon as I was able to set a tank back up I was straight back to my love of African cichlids. One of the great things I’m finding now is passing that passion for fish on to my children that are of a similar age to when I first started getting into fish and seeing that cycle repeat itself. In recent years my dad’s love of African cichlids has turned into a business for him. He now runs one of the biggest African cichlid specialist businesses in the UK. Fortunately for me I now get the opportunity to browse 60 tanks of some of the rarest fish in the country and like to try and help out down at the fish houses as much as I can, work allowing.
One of my favourite aspects of helping is opening the boxes of fish that have come directly from Lake Malawi — it’s so exciting to see all the rare and wonderful treats that sometimes only days earlier were swimming around in the great lake. My ultimate dream that I hope to fulfil soon is to visit the lake and dive with the fishes at all the various locations across the lake.
The set-up looks very impressive. Can you go through the kit specifications?
Many hours of planning have gone into this tank, I wanted the tank to tick as many boxes as possible. I believe you should give African cichlids as much water volume as you can so I opted to go for a 180cm/6ft tank. I chose a rimless braceless tank to give that clean, open look. I envisaged a ’scape that would rise above the water line and give extra depth and perspective to the tank — to make this possible I lowered the height from the standard 60cm/24in to a 50cm/20in. Fortunately, because the steel stand is just short of 120cm/4ft high it brings the tank to an eye line where you get a view through the aquarium and over the top without adjusting your view too much.
The tank’s full specifications are 15mm polished glass with clear silicone and fitted with two Ultra Reef overflows and drains, the dimensions are 180 x 50 x 60cm/72 x 20 x 24in. The tank was made for me by Selwyn Lloyd. The Zetlight UFOs from TMC are lights that are stylish, very cost effective, give you a full spectrum and the ability to manipulate the lighting cycles throughout the day to give you a true replication of their natural environment from dawn until dusk. At 90W the lights have given me tremendous algae growth which for African cichlids is paramount to supplement their diet and promote grazing.
The custom stand was made in partnership with Nick Chan from Aquarium Cabinet Solutions. The quality and finish is top quality. I’m currently running a 90cm/3ft sump on the system. The first chamber is filled with sponge for mechanical filtration, the second is running as a refugium with various fast growing plants and the final chamber has Alfagrog and polishing media. My return pump is a Jecod 6000 l to provide as much flow as possible through the Ultra Reef drain and returns.
Does the rock layout have an influence on fish behaviour?
Rockwork is very important in an African cichlid tank, especially for mbuna. It is my belief that you should try and produce as much height as you can whilst also creating caves, but you can reduce this when it comes to Haps and Peacocks, which like free swimming space. You will always get dominant males in an African cichlid tank but getting your rockwork right will help to dissolve this behaviour and give your females and sub dominant males the chance to hide or break the line of sight and distract the dominant fish from his pursuit.
Rockwork is also very important to help support the fish’s natural behaviour. Mbuna especially like to graze on the algae from the rocks to support their diet whilst the rocks also provide the perfect surface to breed for many species. I have found that many of my holding females have been more successful at holding full term in this set-up due to the fact that they are able to retreat to the rocks and stay away from the males who would usually harass them and create stress if that rock cover wasn’t there.
Through my stock selection I have created groups with heavy female numbers and this is paying off with plenty of successful breeding. Up to yet I have had holding females of Labidochromis joanjohnsonae ‘Likoma’, Tropheops makokola, Cynotilapia zebroides hongi, Labeotropheus fuelleborni ‘Katale’ and Metriaclima fainzilberi hongi so all going well. I have a trio of a rare species of Metriaclima sp. ‘Yellow tail Manda’ that I’m really hoping to have breed soon. The breeding side of the hobby and rearing the young to adulthood is very rewarding.
What are the main misconceptions about Malawi cichlids?
Most people believe that they are incredibly aggressive — there’s no doubt that they certainly do have an aggressive streak, but with the right stocking and balance of fish this can be minimised hugely. I’m not a fan of the add more fish to dissolve aggression theory, I believe that balanced stocking and correct ratios works much better — you will usually find that in overstocked tanks ultimately there will be fish that end up at the bottom of the food chain and become bullied and start to lose weight. This leads to the fish either dying through malnutrition or being an easy target for an aggressor.
A well thought out, balanced tank with reduced males and compatible species works much more successfully for me and will ultimately end with healthier fish and breeding.
Scott on his aquascape
“I knew I wanted this tank to really stick out from the rest and change perceptions whilst still representing a small piece of Lake Malawi. “We chose the grey pillar rock to give the tank a colour and texture that reflects that of some areas of the lake, there are two huge 40kg plus stones, one on each side that have really made the scape for me. The large pieces gave a strong foundation to allow the rock to break the surface of the water and provide the depth perspective I was looking for, the extra shadows that have been created are a huge bonus as well.
“The substrate is something you will very rarely see in an African cichlid tank but it has complemented the rock perfectly and the varying texture is amazing —who else can say they have algae growth on their substrate? All the substrate was provided by Dennerle — Baikal and Yukon.”
Scott’s top tips for new African cichlid keepers
- Research your stock, read about them as much as possible and look for reputable dealers who will be able to answer any other questions you may have.
- Start with good sized groups of each species — aim for between 5–10 — and try to achieve full stocking as soon as possible to reduce the stress of repeatedly adding new stock.
- Always have a spare tank available to isolate fish should they become bullied or need treatment, and ensure you have the right medications available. I’m a big fan of Waterlife products and always have Octozin, Myxazin and Protozin on hand.
- Stress management is key to successfully keeping these fish happy and healthy. Keep your water quality high with constant water parameters.
- Feed a good quality diet. I’m not a fan of changing foods. I select a good quality fine granular food with added vitamins and spirulina and that becomes the fishes’ staple diet with an addition of Mysis occasionally and maybe a stick-on grazer. Watch your fish, get a feel for their behaviour and then you can identify any issues early — the sooner you catch any problems the more likely you are to successfully treat them.
- Enjoy your fish!
How Scott’s amazing set-up came together
Follow this step-by-step guide and see how this fabulous aquascape was created.
1. The aquarium is 180 x 60 x 50cm/72 x 30 x 20in tall with a 90cm/36in sump. An initial layer of gravel is added to protect the bare glass from the heavy rocks. The colour of the gravel matches the rocks.
2. The largest rock is added with a supporting stone underneath to prevent it from toppling. The first rock acts as a base where smaller stones are placed around it to form the first of two islands.
3. A glue gun is used to fix the rocks in place to help prevent any potentially disastrous accidents involving slipping rocks. Additional smaller stones are added around the base.
4. The first island is complete. The design incorporates lots of overhangs and areas for the fish to use as territories. The point source LED lighting is effective at creating contrasting areas of shadow and light.
5. The same process is repeated to create an island on the right. The two islands form distinct areas of territory for the fish. The island is deliberately made small to prevent too much symmetry.
6. A combination of two gravels from Dennerle (Yukon and Baikal) are added. One is rounded and the other has a sharper texture. The colours suit the aquascape perfectly and the combination adds interest.
7. Water is added slowly with a colander. The dust from the gravel and rocks clouds the water. Usually I would clean the rocks and gravel but the quantities involved here made doing this impractical.
8. The remaining water is added and the filtration is turned on. The tank clears after 24 hours and Scott adds mature media and begins to stock his fish.
Witness the final days of Paul Hughes’ magnificent reef tank on our recent reader visit.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
Display tanks in stores are the mannequins of high-street boutiques. They should inspire, elicit a desire to copy, and show the customer what can potentially be achieved. They’re also a reflection on a retailer’s competence. After all, would you take advice from a store that ran dishevelled tanks with dying corals and ill-looking livestock?
Advanced Aquarium Consultancy in Essex owns the textbook example of a display tank done right. Its reputation preceded it, warranting several aquarists to contact me and advise that I should get over and see for myself. When I first visited the store some months back, under the auspices of a shoptour, each and every testimony I’d heard was validated. This is a shop display that hits hard enough to wind you when you see it, leaving you with nothing to say but ‘wow’.
In a curious twist, the tank has become a victim of its own success. If aquascapes can be King for a day, then so this tank is peaking right now. As the store has grown and the business has boomed, the premises it calls home are now expanding, meaning that a bigger, newer — dare I say better — display is in the awnings. Within weeks of this magazine hitting press, the tank will be no more. Its prime coral choices will be clipped and fragged, the fish transferred and a whole miniature reef seeded afresh in a new home. Having witnessed the ‘dry’ layout of the new tank, I feel safe in saying it’ll be wonderful.
Its owner, Paul Hughes, is a man with a name rightly associated with quality reefing. After long stints in the industry, including spells of coral farming, he has turned his hand to installations and consultancy, with a long list of successful reef builds under his belt.
I was so impressed after my shoptour that I was soon booking up for a return visit. Here’s a little of what we saw and discussed that day…
Your tank is ostensibly called a display tank, but to what extent is it a self-indulgence? Looking at it, and the pride you have in it, I sense that this set-up is more personal than corporate.
Absolutely! It’s more than just a shop brochure, although of course it does aid the shop in terms of sales. As I practically spend every day of the year at AAC HQ, there’s no longer any time for a personal home aquarium — so why not have a good one here instead? I may be working in an aquatic profession, but I think that it’s essential for customers to feel my genuine enthusiasm for the subject too.
How long has it been up and running for now?
Approximately three years, but it was started from my extensive collection of LPS corals and SPS mother colonies from a previous home coral farm and display tank.
From a hardware perspective, how has the tank evolved? What has stayed, what has gone, and has anything in particular impressed you?
The aquarium’s principal system equipment and engineering has pretty much remained the same throughout my career, since the advent of the Berlin system ideals. The tank’s fundamental ingredients are a protein skimmer, calcium reactor, kalkwasser reactor, phosphate control, high levels of circulation, lots of living rock and strong lighting.
Although nothing has been sacked equipment wise on the current system, what has impressed me during the tank’s development, has been the evolution of the high-powered AI LEDs which have been changed several times to more improved models. The Deltec protein skimming has been uprated too.
Would you class yourself as more of a fish person, or more of a coral person?
Without a doubt, anyone who knows me well understands that I see fish mainly as a pain in the backside in a reef system, apart from those that perform useful jobs, such as wrasse, dragonets and pipefish and the odd grazing tang.
In recent times a customer trend towards fish-only systems has rekindled an old interest in butterfly fish and other possible combinations in a reef aquarium too. I'm meeting more and more aquarists that risk introducing one of their wish-list 'reef-safe' angels or butterflies, or alternatively try to shape their coral garden around those species that won't view everything as a potential meal.
But corals will always be my first fascination, and my specialist subject. I'm focussing more of my spare reading time on studying coral pests, diseases and viruses — there’s so much more to learn than just the chemistry, and nutrient cycles to grow a coral.
It stands to reason a lot of people will be inspired by the looks of this tank. Who inspires you?
Recently on the international scene (and from a design perspective), Youngil Moon from Korea for his Real Reef Rock displays.
Closer to home, reefing gods such as Reef bloke of Ultimate Reef fame and other greats such as David Saxby, Terry Evans and Martin Lakin.
For me, one of the most inspirational aquariums ever was a classic tiny 60cm/2ft SPS reef tank by Julian Sprung, which had a mangrove tree growing out of the top of it! Check it out — I think it was in volume 1 or 2 'The Modern Reef Aquarium' in a thing called a book (Feature eds note: The Modern Reef Aquarium range of books, by Fossa and Nilsen are available from the publisher Birgit Schmettkamp Verlag, and may be the best marine books in existence.)
Did you plan livestock before you started, and did you stick to it? Or was the selection a gradual process?
I never make too many hard and fast rules, or rush things. Any selection of livestock has to constantly evolve in a decent reef aquarium in my opinion.
The phenomenal success of one species in a mixed reef may prove to be detrimental to others, especially as you learn more of the coral’s own personal requirements including growth patterns, lighting and hydrodynamic requirements, and aggression. This may mean forfeiting one species to save another.
What I do have, like many experienced gardeners with their planting schemes, is the ability to visualise the final outcome and how it should turn out. But it's never written
I understand that some of the coral in here comes from frags of colonies that have never been imported since. How did that all come about?
It is true, some of the corals in the display can trace their ancestor’s roots back 15 to 20 years or more. The initial frags and colonies were passed on to me by like-minded stony coral pioneers, including David Saxby and Martin Lakin.
Is there any livestock you regret adding? I heard something about a cantankerous crab that’s been causing you problems…
Well, 'Robert the robbing crab' certainly wasn't added deliberately I can assure you. He recently consumed a £150 Papaya clove polyp, pinching a ‘flower’ from it every night. Other species at times that have brought great annoyance include adult wrasse that have terrorised any new additions to the tank, causing all sorts of dramas.
You use a mixture of LED and T5 lighting — what’s your thinking behind that? Is LED on its own not up to the job yet?
Ooooh that’s a juicy one. Are LEDs up to the job ? By themselves? Yes, they are. The fact is, a photon of light is a photon of light whatever the source. It's how's it's delivered, spread and the number of units used that's very often the issue for sole use of LED lighting.
I could harp on about metal halide lighting and T5 tubes supplementing one another in recent history, for years and years — and why did we do this? I'd say to level out the point sources of light and reduce shadowing. It's either that, or you need to really cover the surface well with LEDs to provide a very even cast, just as you would with metal halide and T5 use. Let’s also remember that many folks doubted the efficiency of T5s as the sole source of light, when they first came out.
I'm particularly interested in the new E5 T5 high powered LEDs that have just entered the market. These are LEDs but are well diffused and will even outshine those PAR monster LEDs from America. I'm sure that E5s will bring further debate to the reefkeeping community and I will certainly experiment on finding the best solution for the system I can create around its needs; no trends, just what works best. Lighting can always be improved, it's tough trying to replicate sunlight and the way it works.
What degree of remote control do you have over the system? What software do you use for things like lighting?
I use the AI platform for the Hydra 52 LEDs, and Apex is fitted for temperature control and monitoring , but very little else. I am more of an 'analogue' man and prefer cranky timer switches for their simplicity and reliability.
Tell us something you do that would make other reefkeepers frown.
You should see me with the food! But it's only PO4 media that’s needed to put the additional phosphates from my heavy feeding right.
Which brands do you trust the most?
Eheim, Tunze, Deltec, Schego, AquaIlluminations, Sera. D-D H2O Ocean, Red Sea.
What would you say has been the best innovation in marine keeping?
The black gold — RowaPhos! Before this, there was nothing like it, and now there are a hundred and one imitations. Some of them are getting close, but Rowa is Rowa and it has helped me grow the huge numbers of coral frags that adorn many reef aquariums around the UK .
You have lots of small pumps running on this system. What’s the benefit of many small pumps over a couple of bigger beasts?
I prefer the idea of micro flow patterns and plenty of surface water movement to disperse the light rays coming from the LEDs, so that I don't get hotspots. I have a couple of big beasts
too, for laminar flow.
I know the set-up is ‘migrating’ to a new home next door, so how long has the tank got left in it? How much of the livestock are you hoping to reclaim?
By the time this article gets published it’s pretty fair to say that I will start chopping it about. The best way to get the new garden growing properly is with 'new shoots' rather than 'trees', as the frags will find their new flow patterns and light. I hope to be able to reclaim pretty much
all of it, but there will also be plenty of frags available for customers, so it has its plus points.
It is getting tired and overgrown and would need a good coppicing to rejuvenate some growth, even if there wasn't a new tank on the horizon.
Meet the aquarist
Name: Paul Hughes.
Profession: LFS owner for my sins.
Time in the hobby: Earliest fishkeeping memories from six years old.
Most tanks kept at any time: Loads — can’t remember but it borders on ridiculous when I think back to my tropical days.
Favourite fish: Too many to mention, but one group that I love includes the following species Anampses lennardi, Anampses meleagrides, Anampses femininus. They always float my boat.
Favourite corals: Cyphastrea sp. and the chalice coral groups.
Purple tang, Zebrasoma xanthurum
Yellow tang, Zebrasoma flavescens
Convict tang, Acanthurus triostegus
Scopas tang, Zebrasoma scopas
Goldrim tang, Acanthurus japonicas
Golden anthias, Pseudanthias aurulentus
Randall’s anthias, Pseudanthias randalli
Yellow-back anthias, Pseudanthias evansi
Purple queen anthias, Mirolabrichthys tuka
Yellow tail tamarin, Anampses meleagrides
Spotted mandarin, Synchiropus picturatus
Silver belly wrasse, Halichoeres trispilus
Hoeven’s wrasse, Halichoeres melanurus
Dusky wrasse, Halichoeres marginatus
Ghost cardinal, Apogon leptacanthus
Common clownfish, Amphiprion ocellaris
Acropora, including A. gomezi, humilis, florida, nana, carduus, horrida and hyacinthus.
Dimensions: 205 x 65 x 80cm/82 x 26 x 32in.
Lighting: A mixture of five AI Hydra 52 LEDs, plus two 39W T5 D-D Razor Lights. System cranks up through a dawn period, and closes in a dusk period, giving 12–13 hours of lighting daily. Evenings involve the use of UV, violet and royal blue light settings to encourage coral fluorescing.
Temperature control: Two 500W titanium heaters keep things warm, while dual fans are on standby for the event of overheating.
Filtration: The tank utilises much of the Berlin method, with heavy reliance on good circulation and live rock to convert pollutants — roughly 140kg of live rock is used in Paul’s set up. Circulation comes from a mixture of eight Tunze stream pumps, combined with a Tunze wave box. Phosphates are controlled with a sump-based PO4 reactor, while occasional carbon use and floating Polyfilters help to extract anything else undesirable. Limited mechanical filtration occurs at the point of exit on the PO4 reactor, where a filter sock is attached.
Maintenance regime: Five daily fish feeds, using a mix of frozen (Mysis, red plankton, brine shrimp) and dry foods. Corals receive a mixture of Polyp Lab Reef Roids and Boost, Goniopower from Two Little Fishes, and Red Sea’s Reef Energy. Inside the tank, the glass is wiped down daily, while a 25% water change occurs fortnightly. RowaPhos is changed every six weeks; Kalkwasser roughly every three-to-four weeks.
You don’t have to be a lifelong hobbyist to put together a great tank. We meet a relative newcomer who has a passion — and a skill — for putting together gorgeous aquascapes.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL; PHOTOGRAPHY: GEORGE FARMER
Ryan Thang To was a name I’d never heard prior to the UKAPS Aquascaping Experience back in March 2016. On that day, not only did I see his work firsthand, I even got to judge it.
Ryan was one of ten qualifiers to the UKAPS hardscaping challenge being held that day — a competition to see who could create the best ‘dry’ aquascape, without water or plants. Even early on, I lingered a little too long over his design, a manzanita wood and slate concept piece that got better every time I passed by.
Come the results, Ryan scored a gracious fifth place against some fierce and incredible high-end competitors. As I recall, I ranked him higher than that, but the weight of judging diluted my own generous score back down.
Soon after, Ryan and I hooked up on social media. I heaped compliments his way, and sent out feelers for other tanks he might have had in the house. The images that came back showed early promise. There was nothing complete at that time, nothing that warranted a journey down to his home in Milton Keynes, so we went radio silent for a while.
Cue three weeks before writing this. Ryan messages me back out of nowhere with one of the finest small ‘scapes I’ve seen in years, and a couple of calls later I’m set. With George Farmer in tow for his aquascape photography skills, I headed down for a morning of strong Chinese tea, a conservatory/greenhouse filled with Asian vegetables, and a bustling bedroom vying to be a gallery of aquaria rather than a living space.
Ryan’s tanks are good — very good. But one stands out above all others. Two-feet long, combining the soft green hues of carpeting plants with the shocking blue and red of tetra, his main ‘scape stole the show for the day. We photographed it senseless, George and I both vying for the perfect shot and clambering over each other.
I was so enamoured with it that just hours later my heart was torn apart. In true aquascaper style, Ryan allowed this tank to be king for a day. No sooner than we’d packed away our lenses and departed back to the office, he’d stripped the tank bare, fish rehoused, plants repatriated.
The space left behind now awaits a tank twice as long, maybe twice as optimistic to replace it.
I doubt this will be the last time we visit Ryan Thang To…
Meet the aquarist
Name: Ryan Thang To.
Occupation: Nail technician.
Favourite fish: Discus, Symphysodon discus.
Most spent on a fish: £100.
Favourite plant: Anubias and Bucephalandra.
Time in the hobby: Three years.
How did you get into fishkeeping?
We had fish tanks when I was a little boy, but I never got involved — I never did any water changes or maintenance chores, my dad did those. Then, three years ago I was browsing Youtube when I found a video about the Fluval Edge aquarium from Hagen, and that alone was all I needed to get me hooked. I didn't start aquascaping until a year after that, when I found the work of Takashi Amano.
What are the most tanks you’ve had running at once?
At one point I had seven tanks up and running at the same time in my room. There were discus, a wide mix of everyday tropical species, and even Malawi cichlids in there.
How small was the smallest aquascape you’ve ever put together?
That would have to be my 20 l/4.4 gal tank. It’s not realistic to aquascape that size easily, but it was a fun tank to put together.
What did you have in your first ever tank?
Ha, it was filled with bright yellow gravel, Cabomba and Vallisneria spiralis, and it had a huge treasure chest in the middle. It was quite a classic!
What’s your approach to aquascaping? Do you use high energy or low energy tanks? Or do you do something totally different?
I would recommend going for low tech, low energy tanks to start with. Many people like myself find that when you attempt your first high energy tank with something like a lush Hemianthus callitrichoides carpet, you just drive in to trouble, inviting an algae strike which causes the whole layout to fail. A low energy tank can look just as nice as a high tech one, and requires less maintenance. From there you can work your way up as and when you build up more confidence and gain more experience. Personally, I like to have both low tech and high. Mix things up and experiment, or else you risk becoming bored.
What have been the most successful plants you’ve worked with?
Oh boy, definitely my Hemianthus callitrichoides 'Cuba'. It’s a pain to grow, can fail easily, and is expensive if you mess up with it, but amazing once it’s formed a full carpet.
And the least successful?
For me, the least successful plants would be any red plants really. I can grow them but never got the intensity of colour that some other aquascapers achieve. I will get there one day, I’m sure.
What fertilisers do you favour?
I use the Tropica range of liquids, as well as the Estimative Index (EI) approach to mixing up my own liquids from powdered fertilisers.
How long does it normally take for a tank to look the way you want it to, after you have set it up?
That depends largely on the layout and what it is for. If I want a tank to grow in quickly I’ll subject it to intense, high lighting, heavy fertilisers and strong CO2. Normally that will get a tank completed from between three to six months.
Who do you consider to be influential aquascapers?
I’ve only met a few aquascapers, but I’d say that like so many, Takashi Amano would be my main influence. His archive of videos, as well as his books, give me ideas and aspirations all the time, and keeps me motivated to always try harder.
What size is the Cardinal tetra tank?
That tank is an ADA 60P, 65 l/14 gal made with low-iron, high-clarity Optiwhite glass.
What have you used in the Cardinal tetra tank for decoration?
I’ve used small twigs of Redmoor root wood to give the illusion of a tree root reaching across, and I’ve built up the rest of the display with ADA aqua soil and rocks I collected from Poland – I have no idea what these rocks are called. There are just the two species of plants in here: Dwarf hairgrass, Eleocharis parvula, and Micranthemum sp. ‘Monte Carlo’.
What was the inspiration behind the design of that tank?
Over the last two years I’ve always constructed wood-only aquascapes, so this time I thought I’d try something different. The inspiration for me here came from just finding the rocks. As soon as I had them, I had to find out what I could do with them and also discover how cool they could look underwater.
What lighting have you used?
It’s a Chihiro Aquasky LED running up to 72W of power consumption. I keep it running over the tank for seven hours a day.
Do you use carbon dioxide on this tank? I don’t see a diffuser anywhere.
I do, and I diffuse it straight into my canister filter.
Do you have any preference regarding filtration?
I’m a big Eheim fan for my filters.
I notice you use IKEA cabinets for your tanks — what do you do to strengthen them?
I use MDF wooden panes wrapped in vinyl. One full panel goes on to the back (inside the cabinet) and I also add a couple of legs inside to give it all extra support.
How much would you say it costs to put together a good aquascape like yours?
If you have cash, you can easily chalk up a shopping list in excess of £1000. But if you prefer to save some money buy a secondhand tank and stand and concentrate the core of your spending on your plants and hardscape.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of become an aquascaper?
Do your research and don’t be afraid to start experimenting. Try your hand at different layouts and look at other peoples ’scapes to draw inspiration. And never be afraid to try again and again after you fail — success is never guaranteed in aquascaping!
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).
Visiting the exceptional Seahorse Aquariums Ltd in Dublin, Nathan Hill chanced upon this superb shop display.
The brainchild of Seahorse Aquariums staff member, Darren Dalton, this unheated ADA Optiwhite 90 x 45 x 45cm/36 x 18 x 18" was a delightful in-store find.
Not only did it show all the allure and promise of a bedding-in aquascape, but Darren had taken the unusual move of including the grossly underrated Rainbow Shiner, Notropis chromosus, as its centrepiece fish. Look closely and you’ll spot other species here too. Cleaning duties are taken care of by three Amano shrimp, Caridina multidentata, as well as three unidentified Otocinclus.
Despite the tank being unheated, the environment stays warm at 23°C/73.4°C courtesy of ambient factors. The wood used is simple bogwood; three pieces have been attached with cable ties to create the shape seen here. A thick layer of Christmas moss is coated over it to give that drooping, woodland effect.
With some help from Aquascaping legend Peter Kirwan, the 'scape was sculpted with this central hardscape in mind. Towards the back corner, Vallisneria provides height, while the mid ground is seeded with Lilaeopsis brasiliensis.
In the foreground, whisps of Eleocharis sp. 'mini' grow, with a brace of Cryptocoryne lucens sat behind them. The finishing, dark touches are brought by the Anubias nana tied to the lower sections of the wood. Hardscape rocks are the very affordable Dragon stone.
Lighting is T5 fluorescent provided by 4 x 29w tubes in an ATI Sunpower unit, and filtration, hidden in the cabinet beneath, is courtesy of 2 x JBL e1500 canister filters. Note that one side is connected up to glassware but the other has bespoke stainless steel outlet and spraybar attached — a very nice touch that is becoming increasingly popular. A connected CO2 unit delivers gas to a level of 30ppm at all times, and a mixture of ADA’s Brighty K as well as Brighty Step 2 provides fertilisation.
However, if you want to see this aquarium in the flesh you might struggle. Not long after we saw it during a previous Shoptour of Ireland, a customer was clearly equally taken and purchased the whole tank as seen — lock, stock and barrel.
The cost to recreate Darren’s 'scape
ADA 90 x 45 x 45cm/35.4 x 17.7 x 17.7" Optiwhite — £509.99
ATI Sunpower 4 x 39w — £369.95
Spray bars and outlets — £380 approx
Bogwood — £50 approx
2 x JBL e1500 filter — around £300 for both
JBL 601 CO2 unit — around £190
Dragon stone — £30 approx.
Total hardware cost excluding plants — Around £1829.94.
Take a look at some of our other inspirational aquariums:
Why not take out a subscription to Practical Fishkeeping magazine? See our latest subscription offer.
Don't forget that PFK is now available to download on the iPad/iPhone.