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!
Rare catfish, a scratch built fish house, and a holotype preserved in acetone – just a few things you’ll find in one of the UK’s top fish collections.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL AND MARK WALTERS
Meet the fishkeeper
Name: Mark Walters.
Occupation: Project manager.
Time keeping fish: 35 years.
Number of tanks: 40.
Most spent on a fish: £195 each for Hypancistrus zebra.
Mark Walters is a name recognised by anyone immersed in the aquarium hobby. He’s Chairman of the Catfish Study Group (CSG), and among his many breeding accolades you’ll find rare Scleromystax and Loricariids.
While there’s no such thing as a bad reader visit, we just know that some are going to truly shine, and as well as being an exceptional fishkeeper, Mark also has a wonderful openness and lucidity that’s as rare as it is charming.
So, without any further amble from me, here’s more of the man, the method, and indeed the fish behind the CSG’s top spot…
As hobbyists go, you’ve got quite the pedigree with an M.Sc. in Aquatic Biology. Was that something that came before the hobby, or was it a result of existing fish love?
I kept various pets as a youngster and always had a keen interest in the natural world, but it was a surprise Christmas present of a three-foot tank from my parents that really took the hobby off. Not an empty tank and equipment from a pet shop – a fully stocked aquarium from an ad in the local press, which was carried half-filled up the stairs and into my bedroom for Christmas morning!
I spent the next few months learning about the fish in the tank and regularly discovering new ones as they emerged as fry from the substrate! After this I was hooked and at 13 I was working in my first job at a local fish shop, had joined an aquarium society and took a much greater interest in science at school. This led to a more serious academic pursuit through degrees at University and my first ‘real’ job as a Fisheries Scientist.
Of all the fish you could have gotten involved with, why catfish? And why Scleromystax and suckermouths in particular?
I remember as a young fishkeeper absorbing as much information as I could, mainly through very old aquatic books and bundles of aquatic magazines picked up at aquatic club sales. I also subscribed to PFK in the early 80s and recall being mesmerised by an article by a well-known north western aquarist who had kept and bred the bearded cory we now know as Scleromystax barbatus. Back in the day, they were unavailable to the average fishkeeper and it wasn’t until the mid ’90s during a resurgence in my fishkeeping that I picked up a group. They definitely were the catalyst for my love of catfish, and managing to spawn them just increased my desire to find out more about Corydoradinae and other cats.
Joining the Catfish Study Group (CSG) in 2005 opened the next chapter in my fishkeeping life and species became available that I’d only read about, through their availability at club auctions from experienced breeders. I quickly started collecting groups of Corydoras, which seemed to respond to my care and before long had spawned a few dozen species. During this time I realised that there were plenty more species of my beloved Scleromystax and started to collect groups through auctions and specialist shops. Of the 13 known species, I’ve kept nine and bred eight. I still have barbatus in my tanks plus a very special species — CW038, which I first wrote about in PFK back in 2008.
My move to Loricariidae came about through the CSG breeders award programme, and my desire to breed more and more species. After knocking off 50-odd cory species I needed to move onto different genera to get the necessary points, so I bred a few woodcats and moved to suckermouth catfish. I got as far as I could with the breeders award programme but haven’t really stopped and have now bred over 20 species of suckermouth catfish from nine genera. I still keep plenty of corys though!
Scleromystax are beautiful – why don’t we see more of them available in stores?
Many of the most desirable Scleromystax originate from critically threatened habitats in south west Brazil. Some may even be extinct now. Imports of CW038, C112, C113, and CW042 haven’t been seen for over ten years. It is reported that the occurrence of S. barbatus is now very restricted due to pollution and habitat destruction, which makes them scarce and expensive when imported. It’s important that hobbyists continue to breed some of these species, and make them more available; it’s equally important for shops to support local breeders and not rely on wild caught fish as the sole source of such desirable species.
Where do you source yours?
My groups of Scleromystax come from a variety of sources, including other hobbyists in the UK and abroad, as well as specialist retailers.
What’s the trick to spawning them?
Typically, Scleromystax enjoy cooler waters than most tropical fish. In captivity, tank temperatures tend to creep back up again, especially in a fish house, so the best trigger for spawning is a large water change with cooler water, simulating a rainy season. Good food is also important, with plenty of live or frozen foods in their diet. Most of my breeding fish have their own species tanks, reducing competition from other species and minimising stress on the fish I want to breed.
Which other cats should more people be breeding?
Lots of the fish we’re used to seeing in shops are becoming more restricted due to export bans from their native countries. Species we may not see imported from the wild in the future include Leopard frog plecos, Peckoltia compta; Zebra plecos, Hypancistrus zebra, and many of the black and white striped Loricariidae of the Xingu and Tapajos Rivers of Brazil. These are reasonably easy to breed and demand will be high in the future.
There are also a few Corydoras and, of course, Scleromystax that people could try to maintain — one beautiful cory is the recently described C. eversi, named after famed German aquarist Hans Georg Evers. Hans brought the first specimens into Europe over ten years ago, and all the fish available originate from this import. It’s unlikely the fish remains in the wild but it’s great that it has been described to science and is still in existence in aquariums, at least.
What are the material and intellectual challenges of catfish keeping?
For me, the greatest challenge is finding time to devote to fish breeding. I have a busy job, a young family, and other outside commitments. I also devote a lot of time to the Catfish Study Group as Chairman, Convention Manager and a host of other responsibilities. It’s important to me to share the knowledge, spread the hobby as wide as possible and bring new people into the fishkeeping family, especially young people. My hobby gave me a fantastic grounding in science and DIY and eventually led to a career. I hope others can experience the rewards.
And what are those rewards?
With so many catfish to choose from, I’ve been lucky enough to breed a few ‘world-firsts’ and written loads of articles for the CSG Journal and other publications, which gives me a lot of kudos. The main rewards though are the fantastic people in the hobby, many of whom I regard as close friends. Through social media, the hobby transcends international borders and social conventions, such that hobbyists can communicate directly with professional ichthyologists around the world, sharing their experiences and learning from each other.
What’s the fish you want but can’t get?
There are a couple of Scleromystax species, which although reasonably common haven’t been imported yet. Similarly there are a few Corydoras species which seem to only find their way to Japan.
What’s the most difficult fish you’ve ever spawned successfully?
I managed to breed one of the cactus plec species a few years ago and was successful in raising a few hundred youngsters from five or six spawnings. The experience gave me the chance to work out the best way to raise the fry, and some of the pitfalls of working with quite an aggressive species of Loricariid. Pseudacanthicus have quite serious dentition and the male will routinely rough-up the female during spawning and even youngsters will bite chunks out of each other during their raising!
What’s the rarest?
I came across a pair of Scleromystax at Pier Aquatics in Wigan back in 2008. They had been imported with a bigger group, but the rest hadn’t survived. I kept them and recorded their development and brought them along to a CSG Convention where they were identified as a new species — CW042. These were the only known examples of the species imported. Unfortunately, straight after their first spawning, the male died and the eggs failed. The species hasn’t been seen since.
Where do you think the greatest breeding advances are being made?
The future of some species probably rests with commercial fish farms in South East Asia, rather than amateur fish tanks. Literally thousands of Zebra plecs are now being produced every week in Indonesia, for export around the world. The same fish farms have expanded to breed other rare plecos including Hypancistrus L174. It was good to meet up with some of the biggest commercial zebra producers, when I went to the L-Welse event in Germany in 2015, it changed my perception of South East Asian aquatic fish production.
What do you think the best conservation approaches are for wild fish?
I’m afraid it’s probably too late for many species impacted by habitat destruction, pollution and hydro-electric dams. The best we can do is maintain what we have in the best environments possible, and try to breed them.
What are the greatest perils for an aspiring breeder?
Many people start fish breeding thinking they will make a fortune, then drop out of the hobby after a year when they realise it’s not so easy! I probably make about enough to pay the electricity bills, from sales of my baby fish. I’m never going to retire on the proceeds!
All fish are different, we know, but what are your bare essentials for successful catfish breeding?
My top tips are single species tanks, strong flow, the correct temperature, the best food and patience. Many of my fish have been sat in their tanks for years without any obvious signs of spawning, but they often surprise you when you least expect it!
What’s the plan for all these Spatuloricaria fry you’re rearing?
I was lucky enough to have these amazing giant whiptails spawn for me, on two occasions now. Most recently over 400 eggs were successfully brooded by the male, through to hatching. The trouble is they will take a good year before they are big enough to transport, let alone move to other fishkeepers’ tanks, with the added complication that they are extremely skittish. I may just end up with a 100 gal tank full of giant whiptails!
If you weren’t keeping catfish, what would be your next choice?
I’d actually like to keep more livebearing fish, as dither fish in my tanks. The trouble is I use only rainwater during water changes which makes my water too soft for most. That’s why I have a few chalk pebbles in most of my tanks to prevent pH crashes. Having said that, I have a plague of Endlers livebearers through most of my tank systems, which act as useful canaries in case water conditions are less than ideal.
How much maintenance does your fish house require? Are you a daily, weekly or monthly kind of aquarist?
I’m a ‘do as much as I can’ kind of aquarist. If I have an easy month, I will keep up regular water changes and my fish will reward me with spawns. If I have a hectic month, then the water changes go on hold and my fish suffer a ‘dry’ season!
The worst times for me are if we go away on holiday — fry don’t get fed, eggs don’t get harvested and I spend most of my time on the beach fretting about my sump tanks running dry!
Being the chairman of the Catfish Study Group, running a fish house and working a full time job must make some demands on your personal life. How do you juggle the fish world/rest of the world balance?
Fishkeeping is important to me, but not at the expense of my family. I’ve seen lots of aquarists for whom the hobby has tipped too far in one direction and their home lives have suffered with terrible consequences. I used to go to fish shows most weekends and spend a couple of hours a night in the fish house but as my kids grew up and work pressure increased I eased off some of those activities and automated some of the fish house chores. The increase in use of social media has actually made the CSG management much easier in recent years, although as Chairman, Convention Manager and Auctioneer at club events there is still plenty of demand on my time. Thankfully, I have a great committee at the CSG who assist with the running of the club, producing a world-class Journal and the best Catfish Convention in the world (in my biased opinion)!
Talk us through the filtration in your fish house.
In recent years I’ve actually reduced the number of tanks in my fish house from 50-odd down to 30-odd, but the volume of water has increased! The consequence is three centralised systems, each filtered through a trickle filter and sump which pumps water back to the tanks within that system. It helps reduce water change time, keeps tanks more balanced and reduces power consumption. The disadvantage is the increased potential for disease to spread through each system, although I’ve also installed UV sterilisers to kill any nasties.
Do you need to alter your water chemistry for the fish you keep?
I used to test my water weekly. I can’t remember the last time I checked, or even where the nearest thermometer is! I assume from the rainwater changes, copious bogwood and associated brown water, that my fish are swimming in perfect Amazonian conditions!
What’s the deal with the preserved fish on the shelf?
Actually, it started with the death of the Scleromystax CW042 I mentioned earlier. Being the only known specimen, I thought it my duty to preserve it, in case I met a Corydoradinae scientist who might like to study it. I did actually take a DNA sample for sequencing which has been used to assign the species in the Corydoradinae ‘tree’, so its death wasn’t in total vain! To preserve it I needed to buy some acetone, so a beauty technician friend got me 5 l of nail polish remover (which is basically acetone). Of course I didn’t need that much, but since have preserved interesting specimens using jars from a popular brand of coffee!
What’s currently at the top of your fish literature reading list?
The most thumbed book on my desk is Ingo Seidel’s Back to Nature guide to L-Catfishes. It’s a must-have for any keeper of plecos.
Are you a lumper or a splitter?
Catfish present some of the most interesting families of vertebrates on the planet for evolutionary biologists, which means we are lucky to see lots of scientific research and descriptions of our favourite fish. It’s the subtle differences between seemingly similar fish which add an extra dimension to the hobby once you’ve worked out the difference between a Corydoras napoensis and a Corydoras bilineatus.
Corys are a case in point, with research due to split the group into many more genera, based on relatively subtle morphology. I’m all for it!
Do you try to replicate seasonality?
Only in so much as it gets a bit colder and darker in my fish house during winter! I should try even harder to trigger some of my fish to spawn, but I don’t have the time, or enough rainwater!
Biggest fishy disaster?
I had a bad case of white spot through one of my centralised systems a few years ago which wiped out some of my favourite fish and knocked back my breeding efforts by about four years. Since then, I’ve installed UV and rigorously quarantine new fish. Plus I now know how to treat whitespot!
Best homemade piece of kit you’ve ever made?
I’m really pleased with my automatic top-up system on my sumps. After drilling the glass, I installed mini cistern-filling devices to each tank linked to a header tank — the same as a ball-cock in a toilet cistern. It has made holidays slightly more bearable!
At a guess, how much do you think your fish house cost?
I only really paid for the construction of the building and insulation materials,
which cost around £6k. After that it was salvaged wood for stands, DIY fibreglassing of walls and ceiling, second hand tanks and DIY plumbing.
Tell me three bits of essential fish house kit you’d not want to be without.
Drinks crate – doubles as a stool and a seat; freezer – I keep all my dried foods in the freezer, keeping them fresh, plus all manner of frozen mussels, shrimps, runner beans etc. Radio – tuned into Radio 5 Live so I can listen to the match while doing my water changes!
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.
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!
Meet a fishkeeper who, despite working full time in an aquatic shop, still finds time and energy for 23 tanks at home. Welcome to Sean Evans' amazing collection.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY: GEORGE FARMER
Meet the Aquarist
Name: Sean Evans.
Occupation: Works at Wharf Aquatics, Notts.
Number of tanks: 23 at the moment, but it varies.
Favourite fish: Bichirs (Polypterus).
Plans for the future? Extending the fish house to add a tropical pond at one end for my largest catfish.
From your wide selection of fish and inverts you clearly have a passion for fishkeeping. How did it all start?
I’ve always been fascinated by animals and wildlife in general, so it probably traces back to my childhood, dipping my net in rivers and ponds to catch minnows and sticklebacks, or newts and other pond life. One of my earliest memories of tropical fish is seeing a tank of Neon tetras, glowing like bright jewels in an aquarium. When I got my first tropical aquarium, I did lots of reading about all the wonderful fish that were available, and pretty soon, one tank just wasn’t enough…
You work for a well-known aquatic retailer. How do you remain motivated to maintain your fish room after a hard day in the “office”?
I think if you have a real love for the hobby, being around fish and aquariums at work doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of having your own aquariums. If you have a lot of tanks, then clearly some dedication is required, and you have to be prepared to put the time in, but as long as you enjoy your hobby, then it shouldn’t become a chore. I’ve always thought that anyone that works in aquatic retail should keep fish at home, and their experience would clearly benefit from doing so. On the other hand, many hobbyists would probably learn a lot from a spell working in a good aquatic shop, and understand the trade better. I always think that shops, fishkeepers and fish clubs, etc., should have a closer relationship than is sometimes the case.
Your knowledge of all things fish-related is incredible. What’s your academic background and have you always been in the aquatic trade?
I haven’t always been in the aquatic trade and I was a hobbyist for a while before I was somehow seduced into it being my job too! I spent nearly 15 years as a biologist and research scientist in various technical and research posts, gaining a degree and doctorate along the way — the biology background comes in very useful in understanding the finer points of water chemistry, fish health, etc. Ultimately, I changed my career direction and my hobby became my vocation as well — it’s probably not a step everyone should consider, I’ve seen some lose interest in the hobby when it becomes their job, but for me it just intensified my interest and broadened my experience!
With all those varieties of fish you keep you must go through a lot of foods. What does a regular feeding session consist of?
With such a wide variety of fish, every feeding session will involve several different foods. I thaw frozen foods most days, things like bloodworm, brine shrimp, Mysis, Daphnia, Cyclops for smaller fish and mussel, prawn or whitebait for larger predators. I have a wide variety of flake, granular, tablet, wafer, pellet and freeze-dried foods that are all rotated along with the frozen and occasional live foods — it would be very rare for my fish to eat the same food two days running!
Have you bred many species?
I’ve bred quite a few species over the years, although not always by making a specific effort — I would say that if fish are happy in their environment they will often breed without any specific intervention.
Successes include several Malawi, Tanganyikan and West African cichlids, a few species of Corydoras catfish (my favourites were C. panda and adolfoi), a few species of barbs and rainbowfish, lots of different Caridina/Neocaridina shrimp.
The challenging part is often raising very tiny fry, and the key is to be prepared with the right foods, plus lots of water changes to keep the water quality top notch and the fry growing.
I notice you have a knack for aquascaping and planted tanks! What’s your best advice?
With so many tanks running, many of them are functional and geared towards an ideal environment for the inhabitants, rather than intended to look pretty, but it’s nice to get creative now and then!
Personally, I don’t aquascape tanks specifically to photograph them or enter competitions, so I would say it depends what your goal is. If you are keen on the aquascaping side of the hobby, or may even want to enter competitions, then research and planning is key, so that you have a clear vision at the start of what you want to achieve, and also patience is essential.
What does your wife think about your fishkeeping?
Luckily my wife is fine with the time my hobby takes up and often visits aquatic shops and events with me. When we moved house the last time, we had all the usual list of things you want from a new house, plus it had to have space for an even larger fish house — it takes an understanding wife to give that priority!
What species would you most like to keep but haven’t yet?
I have been lucky enough to have kept an awful lot of different species, and with so many tanks running I’ve kept most of my favourites, but there is always something new that I’d like to keep — it’s one of the things that make this hobby so absorbing — there are more fish available and potentially different set-ups to try than anyone could get through in a lifetime!
It changes all the time — sometimes I’ve returned to keeping some of my old favourites, sometimes I’m inspired to keep something new by a magazine article, conversation with another fishkeeper, or by seeing a new species come through the trade.
I’d like to keep more species of mudskipper if I had room for additional part-land set-ups.
Do you have any plans for developing your fish house?
With so many tanks, there is always some sort of change going on. For example, at the moment I’m splitting some of my shrimp into different tanks based on some colour mutations that have occurred. In the longer term, I’m planning on extending the fish house to make it even larger, and adding a tropical pond at one end for my largest catfish.
Do you have a favourite fish?
One of my favourite groups of fish has always been the ancient Bichirs (Polypterus), but for sheer entertainment value it would have to be mudskippers. Their comical antics as they skip, climb, jump and roll (yes, roll!) about on land add an extra dimension other fish just can’t match! With the smaller species it’s possible to hold your hand in the tank with food on it and have the fish leap onto it to feed.”
Sean’s fish list
(All tank sizes length x width x height)
254 x 92 x 61cm/8ft 4in x 3 x 2ft
Sailfin marbled catfish, Leiarius pictus
Ripsaw catfish, Oxydoras niger
This tank has twin weirs draining to a 122 x 61 x 46cm/48 x 24 x 18in four-chamber sump with twin Eheim return pumps.
254 x 75 x 61cm /8ft 4in x 2.5 x 2ft
12 Imperial barbs, Dawkinsia rohani
14 Red scissortail rasboras, Rasbora caudimaculata
9 Kubotai loaches, Botia kubotai
12 Red line torpedo barbs, Sahyadria denisonii
25 Melanotaenia nigrans
Borneo red finned silver shark, Cyclocheilichthys janthochir.
244 x 75 x 38cm/96 x 30 x 15in
Polypterus endlicheri endlicheri
2 Polypterus bichir bichir
3 Polypterus bichir lapradei
2 Polypterus palmas buettikoferi
4 Polypterus palmas polli
2 Polypterus retropinnis
152 x 61 x 66cm/60 x 24 x 26in
Wolf cichlid, adult male.
92 x 61 x 61cm/36 x 24 x 24in
Planted tank with two Channa sp. ‘Fire & Ice’ snakeheads.
Fluval Osaka 260 l/57 gal planted tank with waterfall
9 Fishnet flying fox, Crossocheilus reticulata
5 Dwarf chain loach, Ambastaia sidthimunki
10 Drapefin barbs, Oreichthys crenuchoides
20 Taiwanese tiger shrimp
This tank has an Exo Terra ‘Monsoon’ rain system that automatically sprays RO water over the emergent plant growth every few hours.
183 x 46 x 38cm/72 x 18 x 15in (subdivided)
Channa sp. ‘Laos flameback’ snakehead
Channa sp. ‘Fire & Ice’ snakehead
Red-eye puffer, Carinotetraodon lorteti
Zebra Nerite snail.
153 x 46 x 38cm/60 x 18 x 15in
Group of Asian dusky-gilled mudskippers, Periophthamlus variabilis.
122 x 46 x 38cm/48 x 18 x 15in
4 Polypterus endlicheri endlicheri
5 Polypterus ansorgii.
92 x 61 x 38cm/36 x 24 x 15in
Alligator snapping turtle.
107 x 50 x 35cm/42 x 20 x 14in
3 Polypterus mokelembembe
122 x 38 x 33cm/48 x 15 x 13in
8 African moon tetras, Bathyaethiops breuseghemi
3 Brycinus longipinnis (obtained as ‘contaminants’ in B. breuseghemi)
8 Phenacogrammus sp. “Lukeni River”
6 Orange track tiger Nerite snails.
92 x 46 x 35cm/36 x 18 x 14in
3 Polypterus bichir lapradei ‘Koliba’
3 Polypterus palmas buettikoferi.
92 x 30 x 46cm/36 x 12 x 18in
Spanish ribbed newts, Pleurodeles waltl.
61 x 30 x 46cm/24 x 12 x 18in
Pair of Snakehead Betta, B. channoides
Zebra red-eye puffer, Carinotetraodon salivator.
76 x 46 x 25cm/30 x 18 x 10in
Giant mudskipper, Periophthalmus schlosseri (‘contaminant’ obtained with P. variabilis).
61 x 30 x 30cm/24 x 12 x 12in
Shrimp breeding tank
Viet Noi black and white shrimp, Caridina sp.
Yellow rabbit snails, Tylomelania sp.
Horned Nerite snails.
61 x 30 x 30cm/24 x 12 x 12in
Shrimp breeding tank
Viet Noi black and white shrimp Caridina sp., selected for red colour and extra white
Sulawesi purple laced shrimp.
61 x 30 x 30cm/24 x 12 x 12in
Shrimp breeding tank
Leopard shrimp, Caridina rubropunctata.
61 x 30 x 30cm/24 x 12 x 12in
Quarantine (has Imperial barb fry in it at the moment).
66 x 30 x 25cm/26 x 12 x 10in river rapids
6 Panda loach, Yaoshania/Protomyzon pachychilus
Pair of Stiphodon percnopterygionus gobies
Horned Nerite snails.
61 x 30 x 30cm/24 x 12 x 12in
Shrimp breeding tank
Black sakura shrimp.
Arcadia 35/8 gal Arc Tank
Shrimp breeding tank
Viet Noi black and white shrimp
Caridina sp., selected line of Golden white bee shrimp.
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).
Nathan Hill meets a fishkeeper who has strayed from the usual selections of fish in favour of a biotope from Africa — a continent that’s woefully under-represented in the hobby.
Name: Adam Walding.
Years keeping fish: Five.
Favourite fish: Probably my Alestopetersius brichardi.
Most paid for a fish: The Alestopetersius, at £20 each.
Dream tank: If I had to choose one it’d be a lot like this but bigger and with more Alestiid species.
Adam Walding is an aquarist who has brought a chunk of deepest Africa into his home in Northants. A self confessed fan of the old continent, he’s put together a beast of a tank that goes beyond being just a big volume with big fish. Instead, he’s created a shoal-laden, natural-feeling layout with canopies and undergrowth. This is the forested side of Africa we see all too infrequently in UK circles.
Adam came to my attention after I mislabelled a fish in an earlier magazine. It turns out that while I was scrabbling around photo archives the world over, he had much of what I needed, all sat within an hour’s drive from my office. After I’d been suitably chastised, I asked if he’d be keen on letting me take a closer look at his project.
Flash forward a few weeks, and I’m stood in front of a 180cm/6ft window that takes me directly to the Congo. Adam’s Aqua One Aquience Classic 1800R, at 180 x 60 x 66cm, and holding 600 l/132 gal of water, is not the token small set-up I’d envisaged. Sagging under the weight of a wall of Bolbitis, and with region-correct fish streaking in and out of every crevice, I’m pleasantly surprised to see the alternative African scene is very alive, albeit on a small scale, in the British hobby.
PFK: Adam, for you, what’s the appeal of an African tank?
AW: I wanted to do something different, something a little esoteric. I’d noticed a deficit of African fish in the trade, particularly tetras, and my interest grew from there. I can remember seeing in the tetra sections of fishkeeping books that the Congo tetra was the “exception”, and it got me thinking that it couldn’t have been the only one of its kind from Africa.
PFK: How long has this set-up been running for? And what did you have before this?
AW: This set-up has been running since October 25, 2013. Before that I had a Rio 125 with west African fish, a 15 l/3.3 gal shrimp tank and a Fluval Edge I’d converted to a marine tank, with a clip-on twin T5 light.
PFK: What hardware does it have running on it? What filter media are you using?
AW: Hardware is just the standard for the Aquience, with eight T5 tubes producing a total of 260W of power (rather than four long tubes for whatever reasons), two Aquis 1250R external canister filters and 450W power of heating. I use 50/50 pink and white tubes. It’s not likely to be enough for demanding plants, I did once try Eleocharis parvula but that slowly died.
PFK: What maintenance does the tank need, and how often?
AW: I wring out or change filter floss once a week, clean the rest of the media every couple of months, staggering each filter a week apart so that any bacterial losses are minimised. After decor, the tank holds something closer to 500 l/111 gal so I change 125 l a week, normally 25 l or 50 l every day or other day. I find I can remove more detritus this way.
PFK: What spawning successes have you had so far?
AW: Something did spawn in the aquarium a couple of nights ago, the eggs were minuscule and quickly eaten. I think it may have been the Alestopetersius nigropterus, as there was no sign of a bubble nest.
In terms of deliberate spawning, I have bred a pair of my Microctenopoma ansorgii in a separate 40 l tank that sits neatly in the cupboard of the main aquarium.
PFK: What care did you need to give breeding fish? Did you condition them, or move them or anything?
AW: When I wanted to breed the Microctenopoma I couldn’t find a lot of information online, but I did know it would be similar to Betta in that the male would build a bubble nest and that soft water was required. I introduced the largest female to the tank first, and conditioned her with a lot of frozen food for a week before adding the male, whom she promptly attacked.
Given that he was about three times the size of her, that quickly subsided and I noticed a small bubble nest three days later, and then a larger one with eggs in it five days later. I removed the female immediately and then I removed the male when the eggs started
All of this took place in heavily stained acidic water — next time I will try it in slightly harder water.
PFK: You say that pH is around the mid-six mark, with a KH of 2. How do you keep the water like this? Are you using RO for it?
AW: Yes I am, and I use JBL’s Aquadur to remineralise it before changing some.
PFK: Are your fish all biotope specific? Do they originate from the same region, or is there a bit of creative license involved?
AW: I like to be accurate where possible, but some of these fish only have a small geographical range compared to others. It’s easy with the Xenomystus nigri knifefish and Pantodon buchholzi butterflies because their natural range is huge, but it’s much smaller with the Garra congoensis and Alestopeterius nigropterus. Those two I could perhaps be taking some license with, but my A. nigropterus came from Lukeni river, when according to IUCN they are only found in Lac Mai N’dombe. They may not even be nigropterus!
PFK: You made your own backing for this tank. What did you use to do that? How did it come together, and did it take long?
AW: I made that with two-foot squares of egg crate and expanding foam originally intended for pond use. I added some rocks and wood to it before it all set, and then when it had set I applied a couple of coats of Gorilla Glue and paving sand. It took about a week, as I only had room to make one square at a time before fixing it in the aquarium and starting the next.
PFK: What substrate have you used?
AW: It’s the same paving sand I used for the background, thoroughly washed first, although it wasn’t too dusty. Lafarge was the brand.
PFK: What plant species have you used? How have some of these been fastened on to the decor?
AW: I have various Anubias, I think all are varieties of A. barteri. There’s a lot of Bolbitis in there, some Nymphaea, a Crinum calamistratum and some Hygrophila polysperma — there’s that creative license!
Some of the Anubias were tied down where necessary but I just wedged the Bolbitis in crevices on the background, given there was nothing to really tie it to. That was nearly two years ago and the background is now almost completely hidden.
PFK: What interplay between the fish species have you seen? Are any of them ever hostile towards each other?
AW: The different species ignore each other, but the tetras are happy to shoal together. Sometimes there is some aggression from the knifefish toward the tetras but it’s far from the constant chasing and torn fins that we fishkeepers dread. I think it might be the shininess of the tetras that annoys it when half the lights are off — it never does it when both lights are either fully on or off, so I minimise that time.
PFK: What foods are you using, and how often? Do you have a set routine? What’s the trickiest fish to feed, and why?
AW: I use Tetra Pro colour and Pro algae, and generic bloodworm and brine shrimp, normally flakes in the afternoon or early evening, and frozen food later in the evening. It depends
when I get home from work. When the tetras were smaller I used Hikari micro pellets (and still do for young Microctenopoma) but the larger they got the less interest they showed in them.
Some of the tetras are the fussiest fish, especially the newest ones. The Garra are definitely the greediest, even taking food from the surface. I give the knifefish half a prawn once or twice a week, being careful to drop it right in front of him before one of the Garra grabs it.
PFK: What has been the fastest growing of the fish you’ve added?
AW: The Garra I think, which figures given the way they eat.
PFK: What’s been the biggest surprise you’ve had in setting up this tank?
AW: The Microctenopoma have not been anything like as shy as I was led to believe, even swimming up to a net and pecking it at.
PFK: Are there any fish you want to add but can’t source?
AW: Another Alestiid has caught my eye — Brachypetersius gabonensis. I’d also like to
keep more fish from the Alestopetersius genus and to learn if my A. nigropterus really are what they claim to be.
PFK: Are there any fish you regret adding?
AW: I’ve six Synodontis nigriventris which stay completely hidden apart from feeding time, but they do make sure that any food that lands on the substrate isn’t wasted.
PFK: What should the new fishkeeper be aware of when setting up an African
AW: I think a good grasp of the nitrogen cycle and some mature media would be a good idea. Touch wood I’ve had no pollution spikes in the tank since it was set up, but these wild
caught fish are very delicate; I’ve had a few die in transport on a journey that was less than an hour. Quarantine is a good idea too, a cheap source of RO water and a willingness to travel if you want rare species. Facebook groups can be good for “I’ve seen such and such here”.
PFK: If you could start again and change anything, what would it be?
AW: I initially had an area of JBL’s Manado substrate for growing the Hygrophila, before realising it’d grow anywhere. There are Malaysian trumpet snails in the tank and for some reason I thought it’d stay put. It didn’t, and despite my efforts there is still some in there, sitting atop the sand mocking me.
Adam's set-up at a glance
The stock in Adam’s tank is made up of...
21 Alestopetersius nigropterus
Nine Alestopetersius brichardi
Nine Microctenopoma ansorgii
Six Synodontis nigriventris
Two Pantodon buchholzi
Two Garra congoensis
One Xenomystus nigri
Why cram a tank with all the brightest fish you can find? We visit a reader who uses subtlety to create an intoxicating set-up.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
Nick Ridout is a man who makes the simple look divine. He believes that what you can save in setting up can be reinvested in quality fish. He also has a gift for making authentic looking layouts with minimal fuss.
A common mistake for newcomers, as well as quite a few old hands, is just to keep adding things to a tank in the hope it’ll improve it. If a tank is lacking that certain ‘pizazz’ then it’s easy to assume that a handful of extra fish or decor will fix it.
But aquarists might end up with a medley of confused themes. All too often, having too much going on in a tank can be its downfall.
That’s not an issue to Wiltshire based Nick. He learnt long ago to keep his decor choice narrow, and his fish selection tight. Resourcefulness is his gift, picking up on wood that most of us wouldn’t even notice, and making the most of it.
Nick was introduced to me by a friend, who flagged some of his images online. As a man who sifts through a lot of aquarium photos, what I saw impressed me on two levels. Firstly, it just looked so damned natural. Secondly, the dashes of colour I saw swimming about were a firm personal favourite — Coral red pencilfish, Nannostomus mortenthaleri. I steeled myself for a seven-hour round road trip and called up the photographer.
It was a journey worth making. As settings go, Nick’s fish house couldn’t be better sited. Our arrival was marked by the clucks and whinnies of chickens and horses greeting us to an idyllic landscape; a welcome reprieve from our long haul on the road. I even saw my first bee of the year.
But we hadn’t come to discuss feathers or hair; we were here for fins. After a quick overview of the terrain, we went into the glowing mouth of Nick’s fish house — a 15-tank, man-made paradise of catfish and other South American delights. Sat there in the middle, beaming from a shelf and sandwiched between two other tanks was the raison d’etre for my excursion — the pencilfish tank.
A perfect community
If I call it a pencilfish tank alone then I do it an injustice. There’s a mixture of species living inside, made up from a blend of some lesser seen, to some so common that they border on the mundane. But don’t think the mundane is a bad thing. Here, their presence is used to full effect in adding a lurking, wilderness feel to Nick’s display. They’re the surprise element — a wildcard that work a million times better than I ever expected.
Starting with the biggest, there are Nick’s eight Guianacara cichlids, which he purchased from Tropical Amazonas. He calls them Guianacara sp. ‘Red spot’, and unravelling the true identity is a little shakier. My own money is on the fish being Guianacara sphenozona ‘Rio Sipaliwini’, but I’m sure there are others who’d argue a different name. Guianacara is a small genus of fish, and unique to the Guiana Shield of South America. As an area only recently undergoing taxonomic exploration, it’s one of the new discovery hotspots of Latin America.
Staying on the bottom of the tank, the cichlids are joined by a shoal of seven Skunk corys, Corydoras arcuatus. With beige base colours and bold, black markings, they perfectly accompany the larger fish, and fit excellently into the shadowy theme.
Higher up, almost cryptic as they lurk in root tangles are Nick’s 30 Head and tail light tetra, Hemigrammus ocellifer. Despite usually being a tank filler, these turn out to be one of the star attractions, and though they are easily overlooked as 'drab' when sat in stores, here the piercing beacon bright eyes — the very eyes that give them the alternative name of Beacon tetra — cut through the dense network of the wood in a way that adds a sense of mystery and urgency. The tiny flashes are almost exigent for your attention. The genius of adding them is for their price and hardiness. Because they are cheap and resilient, they’re a safe foundation for tanks like this, and a little money can be used to fill a big void.
Throw in a good measure of peacefulness in a community, and suddenly I’m looking at Beacons in a whole new (head and tail) light.
Still, even the Beacons' charms can’t match the brazenly ostentatious colours of the Coral red pencils. Nannostomus mortenthaleri bring fieriness to the aquarium, and a dozen of them patrol the wood, picking at morsels and periodically flaring at each other in a show of authority. Of all the fish here, they rank as the most pugnacious (and to call a pencilfish pugnacious is a desperate move). Though they chase each other and resolve territorial disputes between themselves, they remain oblivious to their tank mates.
As a fish selection goes, this has to be the most harmonious tank I’ve seen in a long while. All credit goes to Nick for creating such a peaceful visual feast.
Roots of success
"I had no inspiration as such," Nick says, as I stand hypnotised by the display. "Just a desire to put a tank together that had a meaning of scale. By that I mean nothing in the tank was to look out of place.
"The Guianacara were to be my main focus point. I did as much research as humanly possible as to what their natural habitat would be like. Leaf matter, light flow and thin twigs/branches were among the things on my list to achieve for this tank. I’ve always wanted to use tree roots in a tank and this was my perfect excuse."
The tree roots play a major role in the aquarium’s visual success, and even Nick concedes that they’ve been the making of the tank. He’s a firm believer in using locally foraged wood, and all of his set-ups incorporate something that has been gathered within a tight radius.
The decor for the Guinacara display cost him around £10, and a four-hour walk through nearby woodlands. While on a group scavenge with friends he stumbled across an Oak tree that had fallen and lay drying out for a good eight months. Nick has a background in carpentry, so assessing the dryness and suitability of the wood was straightforward.
"Use what’s around you," he says. "But get permission before you go foraging, and do your research on trees. Not all of them can be used in tanks, and it’s only hardwoods that you want to try."
He’s picky about which woods to use, too. "I avoid apple or cherry wood, because it doesn’t have that South American aesthetic," he says.
Usually when using wood like this, Nick will cut the piece he wants to shape, and put it to one side for three or four months. Aside the Oak roots, he also used some local sandstone, and leaves in this layout — again collected from the local woods.
The sand came at a cost of pennies. "The sand’s been working well," he says, "and I bought a ton of it for work for £45. It’s just general sand from a local builder’s merchant."
He has an unorthodox way of adding the sand that works for him and helps avoid clouding. Once he’s washed it, he’ll put it into an old soft drink bottle, submerge it and let it fill with tank water, and then gently pour the sand out close to the base, just like he’s pouring a liquid.
"Don’t think that a nice tank has to cost the earth," he says. "The decor in this set up has cost me no more than £10. The cost of the fish is a different story..."
How it came together
I ask him how he would class his creation. There are strong elements of biotope, but the fish selection seems at odds with that.
"I wanted the set up to be a biotope tank to begin with,” he says. "But with time, the tank just needed that something else. I took my time in researching fish but again I had to add fish that suited the layout best — in my eyes anyway."
The proportions are large enough at 120 x 45 x 30cm/48 x 15 x 12in, but perhaps it’s the density of decor that makes it appear smaller. Equipment is basic, and Nick uses a bog standard, off the shelf Eheim 2026 external canister with basic Eheim foam and sintered glass media. Shop online for a secondhand model, and you might find one around the £75 mark. Heating is provided by a single (well hidden) 200W Sera heater that will set you back around £20.
A curious factor adding a sense of scale is the way that Nick has restricted the light. In absence of live plants, Nick can go for atmospheric illumination over high intensity, and he’s opted for a 90cm/3ft Arcadia LED, giving a 15cm/6in gloomier gradient at each end of the tank. Combined with a little surface movement, the lights create a rippling effect that our photographs fail to convey. Know that the lighting is pleasing on the eye.
Setting up was easy enough, once hardscape had been sourced. "I had the filter running on another tank for months beforehand to help with the set up," Nick says. "I used 60% of the water from another tank to help start it off, with 40% new water added. This was the left for a week or so while I put the finishing touches to the tank. Each species was then bought over a period of four months or so."
Water chemistry is understandably soft and acidic, though Nick has avoided adding heavy tannins that discolour the water. Using rainwater collected in butts, his weekly water changes of 40% keep the water at an acidic pH6.4, with a TDS reading somewhere between 150–190ppm.
On the back of these conditions, the fish have even been through a little breeding activity. "The Guianacara have spawned three or four times now," Nick says, "but I think someone within the tank is eating the eggs." To date, not one of these has made it to adulthood.
Asked about what he’d change if starting afresh, Nick has just a few minor amendments. "The tank would be bigger," he says, "and it would have a lot more roots in it. I’d probably change the rocks and add some floating plants too.
"And what don’t I like about the set-up? That it’s not in my front room at home so I can just sit and stare at it."
As I finally pull myself away from it, leaving his stunning, standard tetras looking at their absolute peak, I confess that I know how he feels. I’m upset it’s not in my front room, either.
For Richard Hardwick, the freshwater stingray has no equal — and the same can probably be said for his superb collection of these oddball fish, at least in the UK.
WORDS: SEAN EVANS
Richard Hardwick lives and breathes fishkeeping. He has also worked in the aquatic trade for many years.
Like many long-term dedicated fishkeepers, Richard has found himself drawn to particular groups of fish that have become his favourites. For him, it’s definitely the more unusual oddball fish, and freshwater stingrays in particular. He says he’s not massively influenced by colour — it’s just a bonus. For him, it’s all about unusual fish and their character.
In common with a number of other fishkeepers who’ve found themselves deeply hooked on this hobby, Richard has created a separate fish house to accommodate his collection. He rebuilt a larger fish house some years ago now, and then expanded it again to accommodate even wider tanks to house more of his beloved stingrays.
Richard’s fish house certainly has the ‘wow’ factor. The expanded space is now 7m/22ft long and 3m/10ft wide. The majority of the tanks are 90cm/36in wide front to back, over 60cm/24in high and from 2.5m/8.5ft up to 3.6m/12ft long.
Richard built the tanks himself, with the help of his friend Paul, who also designed the built-in multi-chamber filters. These have settlement chambers, foam prefilters and plenty of biomedia, in addition to baskets of coral gravel to help with pH buffering. They are all air-powered, via a Hitachi Spencer Turbine air blower, which Richard says is a very reliable piece of kit and, at only 150W to power all the filters plus additional aeration, is an economical option too.
The room is space-heated by a Delonghi 2.5 kW oil-filled radiator, supplemented in the winter by twin radiators on the house central heating circuit. Importantly, the room is very well insulated, something Richard believes must not be skimped on when creating a fish house.
The decor in the tanks is kept relatively simple to give the rays plenty of space, but Richard doesn’t like to see bare tanks, so many feature beech branches that he’s collected himself, or redmoor wood. Many of these pieces are suspended from the surface, reaching down into the tank, but leaving plenty of clear floor space. For substrate, Richard often recommends B.D. aquarium sand, but finds that finer substrates get drawn into the settlement chamber with the type of filter he uses. For this reason, many tanks contain smooth, inert gravel of around 4mm diameter, which he says is just the right size to allow the rays their natural burrowing and feeding behaviours.
Any enthusiastic fishkeeper would be amazed at Richard’s fish house, but a stingray enthusiast will be absolutely mesmerised. As you move from tank to tank, wide-eyed as you try to take in the amazing complexity of their stunning patterns, Richard explains the differences between the species and their different pattern morphs — but it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the previous one each time. It’s like being at some fabulous living art gallery full of masterpieces, where you don’t know what to look at first.
Four decades of fishkeeping
Richard’s journey to this point involves a long history of fishkeeping spanning more than 40 years. He remembers fishing with a net in local brooks and streams, catching fish such as Bullheads (Miller’s thumb), Sticklebacks and Stone loach, and bringing them home to be housed in pretty much any container that would hold water!
His earliest memory of having tropical fish was his parents being given a secondhand gold-colour-framed Juwel tank, about 120cm/4ft long with Siamese Fighters, Neons, gouramis and so on. Although his parents weren’t into fishkeeping themselves, they encouraged and supported Richard’s interest.
He took great interest in these initial fish, but it wasn’t enough! He liked the more unusual fish, and on a trip to London, his parents brought back an Elephantnose for him. In retrospect, at age eight, he feels he was too young to know how to keep such a fish, and it didn’t live as long as it should have. Of course, you couldn’t simply type the name of a fish into Google back then and access the information we have now!
Richard’s 'magnificent obsession' (as his parents referred to it) continued, and his vast experience and endless enthusiasm for fishkeeping has become well known.
Mention a particular species that you like and he’s reaching for a piece of paper and digging a pen out of his pocket to sketch its head shape and fins ‘that extend like this…’, as he enthuses about what he likes about that particular fish.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Richard that his favourite fish are the freshwater stingrays of South America. However, there are many other species that he has a soft spot for, especially catfish and oddballs. His favourite catfish is Leiarius pictus, not just for its stunning pattern (especially in juveniles), but also its presence and character, as well as its graceful movement.
One very large predatory catfish that Richard owned for some time was a magnificent Heterobranchus bidorsalis. This very rare African catfish was acquired around 22 years ago, and became known as ‘Billy’ to Richard’s family. Billy eventually went to live with Richard’s friend Paul in a tropical pond for a while before becoming the star of Wharf Aquatics’ 7000 l/1555 gal display tank.
Another favourite is the L25 Scarlet plec, specifically those originating from Sao Felix, the so-called seven-pointers with red on the rays of every fin. He’s also a big fan of Dorad catfish.
Richard has kept a huge variety of oddball fish, including arowanas, Datnioides tiger fish, knifefish, bichirs, gars, snakeheads, Hoplias wolf fish, spiny eels and many more — if you can think of an oddball fish, there’s a pretty good chance Richard has kept it at some stage. The primitive lungfish are another favourite: he’s kept South American lungfish and three of the four African species, and he would like to keep an Australian lungfish given the chance.
Hooked on rays
Richard’s first experience of keeping rays came about more than 30 years ago, when he acquired a Potamotrygon hystrix ray. The shop owner knew nothing about how it should be kept, and with no information around on their captive care, he initially found keeping them very difficult.
It would have been easy to assume that these fish were simply 'hard to keep', but Richard came to realise that a big part of the solution was simply to change more water more frequently. While some aquarium fish might be fine with a water change every three to four weeks, this just doesn’t work with rays.
When asked what fascinates him about rays in particular, there is a pause before he answers — and you can see the enthusiasm well up in him as he considers everything he admires about these fish. "They simply have no equal," he says.
"They’re not like any other fish, there’s nothing even similar. Their patterns are so diverse, and they all have different mannerisms. They are a real character fish, a pet, and their movement is just poetry in motion."
It’s fair to say that Richard has become a nationally (and with Internet forums, internationally) recognised authority on stingrays. Under his moniker ‘aquaman45’, he’s now found it easier to interact with ray keepers worldwide.
Many fishkeepers aspire to breeding their favourite fish, especially if they keep something a little more unusual, where there is often little or no information available about how to breed them. This was certainly the case with rays. Richard has always found his rays fascinating subjects, but breeding them took things to a whole new level.
He says he only realised one of his rays was gravid for the first time when a single pup appeared in the tank! The female concerned was a wild P. hystrix ray, and a large specimen for a hystrix, so on that first occasion, he didn’t notice the bulge in her body, or the movement within the ray that is characteristic of the later stages. He remembers going into his fish house and doing a double-take when he saw the recently born stingray pup moving up and down the glass! He recalls what a fantastic feeling it was, and it encouraged him to
make a more conscious effort to breed his other rays.
His next success had its origins in a pair of rays that he obtained from a hobbyist in Leicester some 22 years ago. He had expected them to be a pair of normal P. motoro, but they turned out to be a particular locality of Marble motoro imported from Venezuela, rather than the more usual Colombian imports. He feels very lucky to have acquired them as they are almost never imported from Venezuela.
This pair is still breeding today, and he has the F1 and F2 (first and second generation from wild) offspring from them.
Richard describes how F1 rays often have better, cleaner, crisper patterns than wild rays, but despite some theories, he admits that neither he nor other ray keepers that he’s spoken to are entirely sure why. This phenomenon is especially noticeable in 'black' rays: captive-bred P13 leopoldi rays, for example, tend to have larger, clearer spots than their wild counterparts.
He’s also bred P. hystrix on three occasions. Strictly speaking, these hystrix from the Rio Negro in Brazil are Potamotrygon sp. cf. hystrix, also known as Cururu rays; the original hystrix was described from Argentina and is a much less striking ray.
Breeding success has also been realised with his superb Pearl rays from the Tapajós, P12 henlei rays from the Rio Tocantins in Brazil, Triple-A Marble motoros, mini Marble motoros, and what Richard says is his most striking creation to date, a Triple-A Marble cross mini Marble hybrid. He hopes to have P13 leopoldi pups soon.
Many of these rays change dramatically from juveniles to adults. Richard says this is most dramatic in his Pearl rays. He has some that are now seven to eight years old and their pattern is still evolving. The change is also quite dramatic in P. henlei.
Many dedicated fishkeepers find themselves travelling longer distances to acquire the fish they really want to keep, and on one occasion, Richard travelled outside the UK, across the channel to France, to meet a ray keeper from Belgium.
He made this journey with his friend Steve, and on the way back they were stopped by armed customs officials, who were somewhat curious about two large tubs, humming with their attached battery-operated air pumps, in the back of the car. The customs officers started to remove parts of his friend’s car, and Richard says they were somewhat concerned about the possible extent of the search when the customs officers donned gloves. When they were informed of the contents of the large tubs, they were intrigued to see the rays. Luckily, once the officers were satisfied there was nothing fishy going on (so to speak), they were allowed to continue their homeward journey.
Richard acknowledges not just the encouragement of his parents in pursuing his hobby, but also the support of his wife. As a family man with three children, he knows that when a hobby becomes almost an obsession, you have to find a balance. Looking after all his rays and other fish takes a lot of hard work, and he remembers occasions when he’s got up at 4am to get his maintenance done so it doesn’t eat into his day off with his family. When hearing about his fish collection and maintenance schedule, customers at Wharf Aquatics often ask 'Are you married?', surprised that he can also fit in a family life!
So, what’s next for Richard? "I don’t have room for any more rays at the moment, but I’m very happy with what I have now,” he says. “I plan to further improve the patterns on the rays I’m currently breeding." Given the superb quality of those he already has, that’s certainly something to anticipate!
Meet the aquarist
Name: Richard Hardwick.
Profession: Tropical fish manager at Wharf Aquatics.
Favourite fish: South American stingrays.
Fish he’d like to keep: Australian lungfish, Neoceratodus forsteri.
Least successful fish: African arowana, Heterotis niloticus. Newly imported juveniles are notoriously delicate and very hard to get feeding.
Most tanks running at once: Up to 30.
Favourite equipment: Hitachi Spencer Turbine air blower.
Favourite fish food: Hikari Sinking Carnivore, Cichlid Gold and Massivore pellets.
Most spent on a fish: Too much!
Richard's top tips for keeping rays
Realise the importance of large, regular water changes. It’s something of a myth that rays are hard to keep — it’s more about hard work and dedication and particularly sticking to those frequent water changes. If this is something you’re not prepared to do, or work or family commitments don’t allow for it, then rays are not the right fish for you.
Get the right advice when buying rays. Research both their needs and also where you intend to buy them. Rays are not as forgiving as many other fish when it comes to poor water quality, and by the time a novice keeper realises something is wrong, it’s often too late.
Size is everything. Don’t try to keep rays in tanks that are too small — they need lots of space.
Good water quality is essential. Any tank that rays are added to must be already biologically mature, as rays will not tolerate even low levels of ammonia and nitrite.
Be wise about tank mates. Many potential ray keepers ask what they can keep with them. Rays are fascinating enough in their own right, but if you are new to keeping rays, then you need to focus on the husbandry aspects of keeping the rays first and foremost, and additional tank mates can complicate this. However, it is possible to keep other fish with rays, as long as the needs of the rays are not compromised.
Smaller rays like P. hystrix and P. scobina can be kept with disc characins (such as Silver dollars) and South American eartheaters. If you have an enormous tank, bigger rays can be kept with large fish that swim in the upper areas, such as Asian arowana, Datnioides tiger fish, Florida gars and Peacock bass.
Richard’s full collection of stingrays and other fish
Potamotrygon sp. cf. hystrix
Potamotrygon sp. "Marble motoro"
Potamotrygon sp. "Mini Marble motoro"
Potamotrygon sp. "Pearl ray"
Potamotrygon henlei (P12)
Potamotrygon leopoldi (P13)
Potamotrygon sp. "Itaituba" (P14)
Mantilla ray x P. henlei P12 (hybrid).
Black band Myleus, Myleus schomburgkii, "Wide bar"
Red hooks, Myleus rubripinnis
Large Myleus species (unidentified)
Metynnis sp. "White"
Giant Brycon, Brycon melanopterus
Fire eel, Mastacembelus erythrotaenia
Show us your tanks!
Do you have a stunning or particularly interesting set-up? Get in touch with Nathan Hill at email@example.com
If you want show grade guppies, passion and devotion trump a deep wallet. We visit a reader at the top of his game.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
Derrick’s pristine fish house, with its banks of spotless, sand-free uniform aquaria, is alive with flowing delta tails. His show-calibre guppies are perfectly refined and his layout, efficient and economical.
That’s the wonderful thing about Derrick’s fish: they’re not the domain of the rich and exclusive, as other aquatic niches can be. Instead, the hardcore guppy scene relies, at its very core, on a confederacy of enthusiasts. These are folks who nurture their fish, refining bloodlines over generations to create something impeccable. "The closest thing to it is rose growing," Derrick says. "It’s all about improving your strains."
In this game, patience is king, and only the testy aquarist is disadvantaged.
The club scene
Derrick is one of the founding members of Fancy Guppies UK, and his club membership and interaction is integral to his fishy success. As well as being surrounded by keepers of equally respectable guppies, the thrill and demands of putting his fish to the scrutiny of show judges is enough to ensure Derrick keeps his standards peaked at all times.
The club is as obsessed with showing guppies as it is with honing them, and pragmatism comes second only to ambition. Here, there are fishkeepers who travel far in pursuit of their passion. Derrick has been as far afield as Germany and Italy to show his own, though other members have stretched their legs further and flashed their fish all over the globe.
Some aquarists are on the fence about the club scene, but as Derrick points out, it’s high time that any old misconceptions are torn down.
Anyone can join a club like Fancy Guppies, and all are cordially invited. There’s no entry test or prior aptitude required, and you’re not expected to be a breeder, expert or otherwise. Whether you’ve just picked up your first fish, or if you’re a leading conservationist and breeding pioneer, within a club setting all are equal. You needn’t be nervous about joining if you’re young either.
There’s no ageism involved in the fish club scene; frequently, the most fervent aquarists are the youngest there.
Acquiring quality fish motivates some in the club world, and there’s no shame in that. Who wouldn’t want the best fish they could access, after all?
There’s a distinct difference between show calibre and store calibre guppies, and most clubbers keep the two worlds separate. "I’d never mix the two," Derrick says, "because they each carry pathogens that affect the other."
This obvious point is often overlooked, but it follows that fish bred for generation after generation on farms will be exposed to different pathogens to those in a home breeder’s set-up.
Worse still, some farms use treatments that build the immunities of some diseases, creating a stew of potential different ailments. This all mounts up to make treatment difficult and wipe outs rapid when they occur.
It also follows that a home breeder, with a small amount of stock and heaps of time to lavish on individuals, will have a pristine output. With invested effort comes quality, but to get the good stuff, you really need to be 'in' the scene.
Guppy keeping has a cosmopolitan side about it, and Derrick tells of fish coming in from all around the world. The club stock has its origins in America, Taiwan, Germany, Belgium, France, Malaysia and Italy, and meets can be as much about trading these diverse fish as showing them. Members will swap or sell fish between themselves. A clutch of fry, if birthed during a show, are rounded up and sold off at around £5 a bag. For a pic ‘n’ mix selection of what could be the sires of future prizewinners, that’s not so shabby.
"You don’t need to show fish if you’re at a show day," Derrick says when I allude to just rocking up to one of his events.
"If you wanted to enter a fish into a little show, you’d want to email in advance, but even then you can just turn up on the day as a visitor."
It’s true; anyone can show fish, with the one caveat that you’ve bred it yourself. What isn’t done is the underhand tactic of just buying a fish and bringing it along to be graded. In such a situation, the aquarist is only cheating him or herself and gaining nothing. The reward is in getting recognition for a fish you’ve bred for yourself and raised from fry. And, scanning your way through the fruits of Derrick’s own labours, you can see why he’s so proud of what he does.
Derrick’s fish house
"I wrote it all down," Derrick says, "because I was tired of doing the calculations every time I wanted to treat." He hands me his comprehensive fish house records. Not only has he listed everything running in the fish house, but he also has copies of the breeding records, as well as the labels he uses on individual tanks.
The fish house is not only smart, but the layout is staggeringly simple. The filtration is more technologically primitive than the most basic canister, yet way more efficient.
Derrick has 57 tanks in his fish house, made up from a mix of 30 60 x 30 x 30cm/24 x 12 x 12in and 27 45 x 30 x 30cm/18 x 12 x 12in. He’s gone so far as to calculate the internal 'fill' capacity of them, taking into account the fact that the water doesn’t reach all the way to the tops of his aquaria. To save space, each is arranged 'end on' with his home constructed wooden racks, and each has a uniform background colour courtesy of blue self-adhesive vinyl.
The automated system
If that number of tanks sounds like a lot of water changing to you, then you’re both right and wrong. Each tank gets a 10% change daily, but the process is almost entirely automated and doesn’t involve as much as holding a hose. Derrick’s water change system involves a 450 l/100 gal storage canister supplied by tapwater passed through an HMA filter.
When filled, all he needs to do is turn on a timer switch, and that fires up a Hailea HX8890 pump, which feeds the racks of aquaria through fitted rigid piping. As the tanks fill, the water overflows through drilled outlets behind the filter in each tank, washing away to waste drainage that runs under the fish room. To find the drains under the fish house, Derrick drafted in a plumber who used a pair of water divination rods to find the location and direction of the flow.
You can chuckle, but it worked, and saved him a lot of hassle tearing up the floor.
Once a week, Derrick gets in each tank with a syphon as well, but given that each has a bare base, this isn’t an arduous task.
Filtration comes in the form of home-made Hamburg filters. These simple devices involve inserting a wide slab of foam into the back of each tank and running an air uplift behind and over the top of it, almost in the style of the undergravel filters of old. The uplift pulls a weak flow of water across the whole surface of the foam, leading to massive mechanical and biological activity. In some tanks, the Hamburgs also conceal hidden K1 filters made from bottles, media and an airline, to boost the tanks’ already large biological action.
Derrick makes his own uplifts using conduit, some conduit coupling and a couple of sealing rings. He chooses conduit plastic, as it’s easy to bend, as opposed to rigid piping that needs joints and elbows.
The room is kept at a constant temperature with a fan convector that sits at one end of the room, rather than having heaters in individual tanks and using an inexpensive greenhouse thermometer, Derrick can monitor what it’s up to. The heater taps into the household combi boiler, making it more cost effective than using a standalone heater.
Despite being a closed room of tropical tanks, there’s no condensation or signs of rot anywhere, in no small part due to the moisture-sucking workhorse that is Derrick’s B and Q dehumidifier. Combined with the anti mould paint and stain used throughout the room’s construction, feisty young fungal spores stand little chance of getting any hyphae down.
The tidy lighting came as the result of a little research, eventually being secured from a supplier in Hong Kong, trading as 724 Light. Each of the six banks has a timed supply, arranged to come on at staggered intervals. This way, Derrick avoids shocks to his stock that would occur if the room went from pitch black to supernova bright.
Something all aquarists should strive to copy is the net soak and rinse system. Each rack of tanks is furnished at its toes with two small tubs: one with a water and chloramine mix, the other just with fresh water. Derrick uses the chloramine as a disinfectant to stop potential cross contamination between tanks in a rack, but he is quick to observe that the nets, when kept this way, do need a rinse before they can be used.
Fish house factfile
Water volume: 2,275 l/500 gal.
Racks of tanks: Six.
Volume changed daily: 225 l/50 gal.
Hours of light daily: 12.
Approximate wattage of lighting: 333W.
Artemia hatching bottles: Three.
Breeding out the bad
Though Derrick uses a breeding trap made from coarse mesh to separate females when birthing young, some breeders try to remove the cannibalistic bloodline from their stock. By monitoring their fish as they give birth, they can select to breed from those who show indifference to their offspring.
By keeping and breeding from these, instead of from those females that indulge a little culinary infanticide, breeders hope to pass on the 'non fry-eating' genes to future generations.
Taking fish to a show
To show a guppy seriously, one thing you’ll need is a specially made tank of specific dimensions.
Almost all those in the UK are provided by one man in the Midlands called Brian Chittenden, and the tanks are frequently on sale at club meets and events.
For showing a guppy, the tank needs to be 17.8 x 17.8 x 10.2cm/7 x 7 x 4in, with a black base and no gravel or decor.
When taking a fish to a show, you’ll need to bring your own water, and it’s worth investing in a specially constructed polybox to keep the fish up to temperature during transit.
Derrick’s own insulated transporter is constructed from a plastic box into which polystyrene was positioned to shroud the tanks, before the space behind it was filled with expanding foam. For his efforts, he now has a snug carry case, which will fit three show tanks at once.
Something that Derrick keeps hold of is a collection of old Ferrero Rocher tubs, which get up-cycled into containers that are just the right size for moving and acclimating any fish between tanks.
Common name: Guppy.
Scientific name: Poecilia reticulata (Poe-eh-sill-ee-ah ret-ick-you-lah-tah).
Size: Females to 6cm/2.5in body length, males smaller with larger fins.
Origin: Started in upper South America, especially Venezuela, now feral populations are found globally. Considered a pest in many countries.
Habitat: Everything from streams to lakes, puddles to ponds, rivers to estuaries. If it’s wet, a guppy will live in it.
Temperament: Entirely peaceful, but always looking to breed. Can harass other species with its amorous attentions.
Ease of keeping: The easiest tropical fish in existence.
Tank size: 45cm/18in upwards.
Temperature: Usually kept between 18-28°C/ 64-82°F.
Water chemistry: Base to alkaline, medium to hard water, pH 6.8-8.6, 5-20°H.
Special notes: Never house with known fin nippers that can attack the fins. Keep more females than males in mixed sex tanks to avoid excess harassment. Find a source and stick to it to avoid disease woes.
Meet the aquarist
Fishkeeper: Derrick Clayton.
Time in hobby: 55 years.
Other fish bred: Angelfish, Tiger barbs.
Derrick's tips for success
1. Reduce, re-use, recycle: Derrick makes his own Artemia hatching kits using old plastic pop bottles.
2. Old detergent packaging makes for superb net sterilising and rinsing tubs. Derrick uses chloramine for this job.
3. For showing guppies, you’ll need bare tanks of 17.8 x 17.8 x 10.2cm/7 x 7 x 4in with a black base.
4. The secret part to facilitate Derrick’s Artemia hatcheries: a simple screw on cap with a 6mm fitting from eBay.
Over to you...
Keeping guppies is a doddle, and if you’re reading PFK, the chances are you’ve already dabbled in them. A basic guppy breeding set-up could consist of:
- 45 x 30 x 30cm/18 x 12 x 12in glass tank
- Algarde biofoam/Boyu sponge filter
- All Pond Solutions 90 lph air pump
- 25W heater
- Breeding trap
- ZM fry food/Interpet Liquifry
Approximate start price: £75-£85.
Join the club!
Want to know more about getting stuck into the guppy scene? Visit Fancy Guppies UK to find more information. Membership costs £10 annually, and can be purchased online.
Nathan Hill hooks up with a Hungarian reader of Practical Fishkeeping and fish house owner to pore over just what it takes to breed a better class of fish.
If I might crudely stereotype, there are three things I love about Hungarian aquarists. The first is their well-oiled generosity when it comes to breaking out bottles of wine and good food. The second is their sheer resourcefulness and ability to put together a magnificent aquatic project on a budget of airline and shrapnel. The last is their natural inclination to breed whichever fish they keep.
My visit to Gabor Horvath’s hillside-perched, South Wales property gave me a chance to experience all of these things in just a few hours, from his fry-peppered, economic fish house, to hearty home cooking and fish discussions over glasses of Hungarian red. Gabor is a long-term fishkeeper and recalled fond memories of his first dabblings — Bitterling when he was just six years old — before leading up to his present fascination with all things aquatic.
With 42 years on this earth, no less than 36 have involved at least one aquarium. Now settled and with roots firmly anchored, he has one tank for every year of his life, sequestered away in a purpose-built fish house sat at the base of his garden, ringed with puddles and pools of cultured live foods.
He’s owned this fish house for six years, starting small in a shed that came with his home and eventually stretching and rebuilding, doubling his tank numbers for little extra cost. His first fish house was enough to fit one man and a brace of tanks, but this soon became too claustrophobic for Gabor. By simply cutting off the front fascia of his shed, placing down extended floors and walls, and reconnecting the front again, he now boasts something with standing space for several plus plenty of room to increase his breeding projects.
Gabor gained the breeding bug after some initial disappointments. Early on in his hobby, fish would go through the motions but he could never get past the fry hatching stage. That all changed when he had a more devoted attempt with some Acara, the species of which he has clean forgotten over time. Once he had reassured himself that he really could raise fry to adulthood, he wanted to do nothing more.
Gabor’s current exploits are entirely freshwater. When he first moved to the UK, he spent a year working at the Blue Reef public aquarium in Portsmouth but the salty aspect of aquatics didn’t quite get under his skin the same way that his beloved tropical had.
His stocking choices might come as a surprise to some, but Gabor stands by them. Where some aquarists have a fondness for the obscure or fish with high monetary value, Gabor prefers to work with fish that some of us might consider more mainstream. Instead of rare loricariids or endangered cichlids, his tastes lean towards the egg scatterers of the world: the tetra and the danio, the Betta and the goby. That’s not to say that what he breeds is bland. The fish he has are distinctly pretty; his bright Emperors, Coffee bean tetra and Zebra danio are a step above the usual, farmed domestic strains.
Gabor sources his fish from Hungary, where he has a spider’s web of contacts in both the hobby and the trade. His danios, for example, are of the pure-strain research kind, procured for him by someone who would normally be testing for genetic diseases.
His fish are all F1, that is to say first generation tank bred. He swerves around wild fish as not being entirely necessary, at least not for his purposes, and considers many of these F1 strains to be stronger, cleaner specimens from a breeder’s perspective.
Gabor has more recently developed a leaning towards the numerous shrimp strains, too. Of his 42 tanks, 20 are set up for shrimp alone and he has dabbled with various crossbreeding and line breeding projects. He suspects that he may be one of the first to have successfully crossed Green shrimp with Indian tigers and has the pictures to prove it.
So successful is Gabor’s shrimp breeding, that on occasion he’s even been asked to provide stock for retailers: a task that he has previously filled with surplus shrimp of his own but is reluctant to increase his turnover of. He tells me of concerns that when a hobbyist takes too much of a plunge on the production side and starts to become commercial, it’s easy to start losing the passionate element of the hobby. And Gabor is so very passionate about what he does.
He’s also extensively travelled. Being on first name terms with Far Eastern fish farmers, he often gets the chance to peruse exporter’s facilities whenever his work takes him to Singapore. In fact, this is where much of his shrimp stock comes from, imported from the Far East (via Hungary), and so he often finds himself with access to new and interesting strains.
He’s no stranger to dipping a fishing rod either and has tales to tell of his Singaporean exploits. Whenever there, he always ensures that he has access to fishing equipment, and a gallery of images show him clutching at prize pacu, four-foot Clarias catfish, thickset snakeheads and even fat-bellied cichlids that are plump and ripe from an easy life in the warm, ornamentals-tinged rivers.
When not breeding one of many fish, or rather any number of fish at once, Gabor even finds the time to contribute to Hungarian publication Akvárium Magazin, where he frequently shares his ever filling pool of knowledge with others. And, it has to be said that his wife makes one killer Goulash, if you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself invited into his home!
All the ingredients of home
Building everything up on a budget was key to Gabor’s fish house plans. The building itself is straightforward enough and follows the format of fish houses everywhere. Simply take a shed, line the inside of it with bubble wrap, then line that with an inch of polystyrene and you’re pretty much there. Gabor notes that the order is important. Initially he had bubble wrap on the inside but found that it was prone to being smothered with condensation, so he turned everything around.
However, there are some lovely extra touches that any aquarist would be wise to learn from. Keeping the fish house warm is no issue, and he opts for a simple 1kw blower style heater to keep the room at a constant temperature. This results in a little thermal layering, which helps Gabor to condition fish. In the height of summer, the problem is quite the inverse — keeping things cool.
To that end, Gabor has installed air conditioning plugs that he can open as needed. These large holes in the wall consist of rigid piping that can be attached to blowers, but in winter they are filled with bungs made up of a mixture of 5cm of Kingspan, bubble wrap and polystyrene.
The floor has been tweaked too, and Gabor excitedly shows me plugholes that can be lifted out, leading straight into a drainage system directly under the building. Rather than labour his spine with endless, tedious bucket lifts, he can simply run hoses down through these plugholes when water changing.
Gabor is blessed with silky soft Welsh tapwater, and given his choices of livestock he has to do little to it in order to use it. So, unlike some aquarists, he doesn’t need to store drums of RO around the place like teetering, water-filled menhirs. With a hardness of just 2°KH and 5°GH, and a stable 7.4pH, the only thing he needs do is add some coral gravel to those tanks where fish like things a little harder.
With undetectable nitrate and phosphate levels, he notes that his tank levels drop after each water change, and seeing as he never allows nitrate to creep up over 20ppm in the first place, he finds himself with conditions that those of us elsewhere in the country should envy. He even concedes that he doesn’t need to use dechlorinator with the water that he uses.
The tanks are the fruits of both clever buying and trawling of Freecycle. Occasionally, Gabor will invest in an old, battered eBay aquarium, but the core of his project stems from Freecycle. A few aquaria hail from retailers upgrading their own kit, and some he has even deliberately bought or rehomed with broken panes or bases that he then replaces himself.
These are sat on wooden frames of Gabor’s own design. He tells me that his choice of wood is simple; he can’t work with metal. Constructed with simple crossbeam designs, he’s never had issues with so much as a wobble.
Filtration for the systems comes in the form of home-made foam and bio filters, mainly created from old drinks bottles. By cutting them in half, filling the bottom of the bottle with gravel and then pushing the conical bottle tops into this, with an airline creating an uplift through the centre, Gabor can then pad out the edges with foam, creating an extremely economical yet functional system.
The filters are powered via two small Koi blowers, each with the ability to step in to cover the other should one fail. With an intricate set of one-way valves and gang taps, Gabor has the security that in the event of a pump fail, his stock will still receive ample air supply. The blowers are in turn cooled by a fan, which helps circulate the heat they produce around the room.
Breeding the Hungarian way
A typical breeding strategy for Gabor is as follows: Females are separated and placed into one of the bottom row aquaria. Because of the thermal layering of the room, base tanks ride at around 21-22°C/69.8-71.6°F, while the top tanks sit at 26-27°C/78.8-80.6°F. In the cooler water, Gabor conditions the fish with plenty of frozen Cyclops, Daphnia, bloodworm, Tubifex and Artemia until they are fat with eggs.
Males and females are introduced together in hot, top row aquaria with a mesh grid (actually a mesh for protecting trees) on the base.
Breeding normally occurs within a day or two, with the eggs dropping through the mesh. Gabor leaves the fish for an extra day to ensure that all the eggs are laid before removing the adults to a separate tank. Once the fish hatch out, Gabor monitors their yolk sacs and starts to feed a mixture of egg yolk powder, Liquifry and JBL Artemia fluid.
As the fish grow, he moves on to feeding freshly hatched Artemia nauplii as well as microworms. In the case of large fry, the early feeding arrangement may be skipped. Given the density of tiny younglings scattered about in various tanks, I’d say it’s an approach that’s serving Gabor well!
One trick of Gabor’s is to keep a handful of very young shrimps in any of his fry tanks.
His reasoning, as he explains to me, is that he has found the shrimplets to be much more susceptible to drops in water quality and/or pH than his fry, so by observing their wellbeing, he can get a very early warning about deteriorating conditions before they can upset the fish!
One thing that’s hard to avoid is the growth of numerous terrestrial plants, leering like Triffids wherever you are in Gabor’s fish house. He explains to me that this is Epipremnum aureum, or the Golden Pothos plant, and upon inspection, its roots can be seen in many tanks.
Though not aquatic, if kept this way the plant hauls nutrients out of the water, helping to explain Gabor’s perpetually low nitrate readings.
Feeding an army
As well as relying on many brands of dried food, such as Tetra, King British, Spirulina flakes, algae wafers and so on, Gabor loves to have his own live food cultures at all times.
A single small pond vat sits in the garden, bustling with bulbous and red Daphnia, and vats of wastewater beside the fish house have colonised with mosquito larvae. As well as these larger bits, Gabor also keeps a rotational culture of Artemia nauplii on the go for fry, with one hatch at 24hr and the other at 48hr timescales.
Paramecium cultures sit in a small tank on the windowsill, wallowing in their bright green, sunlight fuelled home.
There are even twin batches of Banana worms and microworms on the go at all times.
Secret to success
Shrimp are sat everywhere in Gabor’s fish house, displaying some fabulous colours courtesy of clever selective breeding.
Part of the secret of his success with these delicate little beasts is put down to the choice of food used. As well as various proprietary foods, Gabor likes to harvest nettles and dandelion, as well as using spinach, Swiss chard, lettuce, green pea, cucumber and courgette. To make things extra palatable, Gabor skins his courgette and after slicing, he microwaves it for 40 seconds or so. I was dubious about how much they’d enjoy this, but upon dropping a slither into a tank, his shrimp descended like a plague of starved locusts from the dark recesses and gorged themselves like little shelled pigs.
As well as good food, Gabor puts faith into his substrates and filtration. Large, gently simmering foam filters provide much biofilm nourishment and the addition of Ebi Gold Shrimp Substrate, as well as a clutch of Catappa and oak leaves, seems to stimulate breeding.
I noted a high volume of Ramshorn snails in each tank, which Gabor explained help to feed the young shrimplets who love to graze on their nutritious, slimy tracks. Live and learn!
What’s Gabor keeping and breeding?
The range of fish and shrimp found here is pretty huge, but among the noteworthy faces you will spot are:
Kitty tetra, Hyphressobrycon heliacus
Imperial blue rainbow tetra, Hyphessobrycon sp.
Coffee bean tetra, Hyphessobrycon takassae
Emperor tetra, Nematobrycon palmeri
Serpae tetra, Hyphessobrycon eques
Congo tetra, Phenacogrammus interruptus
Zebra and Leopard Danio, Danio rerio
Vietnamese minnow, Tanichthys micagemmae
Red throat killi, Epiplatys dageti
Fighting fish, Betta splendens
True flying fox, Epalzeorhynchos kalopterus
Golden dwarf cichlid, Nannacara anomala
Peacock goby, Tateurndina ocellicauda
Crystal red shrimp
Crystal black shrimp
Golden bee shrimp
Taiwan bee shrimp (King kong, Panda, Blue panda, Blue bolt)
Black tiger orange eyes
Fire red/painted red cherry
Blue rili and jelly
Tiger shrimp and Tibee (tiger x CBS)
Blue tiger shrimp
Last but not least, a culture of White tail cobra guppies that Gabor collected from a feral population in Singapore!
Having geared for a trip into Scotland, Nathan Hill couldn't pass up the opportunity to interview a man with a mission to find out all he can about catfish.
Julian Dignall is one of those lifelong hoarders of all things fishy, owning a glut of journals, papers, out-of-print books, trinkets (like the one pictured below) livestock and so much more — all legacy of true immersion in aquatics and collecting tours around the world.
Known online simply as Jools, he’s the man behind the Planet Catfish website, among others, and has invested vast amounts of time to bring his vision of global catfish appreciation to life.
Speaking candidly to the man at his Scottish home, it soon becomes clear that the real driver behind Planet catfish is the craving for knowledge. Julian is passionate about all the fish in his possession, as well as those that are not.
The Planet Catfish project was born way back in 1996 from a desire to collate all silurid knowledge into one place, and it’s apparent that Julian is not averse to digging in and absorbing some of that himself.
If his thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm for livestock seems relentless, then his fish room is the physical proof of this passion. Here is a man with a dedicated 30 tanks — and it feels that, given the chance, he’d have many more.
Unusually for a fish fancier, Julian prides himself on keeping fish for all of their natural lives, and in some cases afterwards, too.
He’s not a whimsical snatcher of new species, keeping them for a few months before moving on to something else. He goes out of his way for something special and maintains a lifelong bond. As such, there are some very established fish at the Dignall home, like the 13 year old Brochis, collected in person from the Amazon.
He opts for individual filtering of tanks, some with external canisters, some with internals and some with multiple internals — especially where fish are uncannily filthy and live in an environment close to sawdust. Thermofilters are favoured for larger tanks, but given the insulated nature of this purpose-built aquatic arena, it’s hard to imagine them firing up often.
The fish room was built in 2007. Progress was laborious, with jobs as the painting of the backs and sides of tanks taking several days. You soon note that there isn’t a single tank with less than three sides obscured, giving comfort to these generally secretive and shy fish.
Julian also explains that the bases of each tank are blackened out, given their stacking arrangement, to prevent the algae forming on the bases, underneath the sand or rounded gravel substrates, where bubbles of gases are formed and creating potential pollution problems.
Maintenance of this lot takes around 20 minutes daily, including a rotational waterchanging system, cleaning of filters and feeding. Upstairs, there’s an aerated water tank to prepare mains water for aquarium use. With hard plumbing in place, Julian has a water supply as and when he needs it to make everything more time efficient.
Why this love of catfish?
I wanted to find out why Julian loves catfish so much, so pressed him for those reasons — and was pleasantly surprised.
Like an extension of the Planet Catfish website, this fish room is geared to knowledge, and that’s what Julian wants from his collecting exploits.
He has gone further than most lay aquarists in tracking down the objects of his affection in the wild and he has undertaken four collecting trips to South America, two to North America, two to Africa and one to India. So, clearly, when he browses for livestock his horizons stretch far beyond the local fish store.
Julian feels there is still so much we don’t know about catfish and he’s embarked on a crusade to fill in the gaps — and not just out of curiosity.
As he explains, there’s an onus on fishkeepers to learn all they can about their fish, especially where previously unseen species are concerned. Such knowledge is owed, not just to each other but more importantly to the fish as well.
Julian is so dedicated to his crusade that he’s never strayed from the freshwater hobby.
Marines are not for him, nor will there be any likelihood of any turning his head. He feels the freshwater side of the hobby, especially catfish, is simply too vast to be able to collect all we want.
Favourites of the fish house
All of Julian’s fish are delightful, but some stand head and shoulders above the rest. There are undescribed species, lone representatives of bycatch, breeding projects and fish few human eyes have seen.
If you like obscure, this is the place to visit…
Catfish are clearly legion, though there's a surprising gathering of non-silurid forms too. Betta macrostoma are here, as well as Cryptoheros cichlid strains and Pseudocrenilabrus.
Gracing Julian’s office there’s even a community-esque display with a host of Mystus catfish, Sewellia loaches, home spawned Pethia and one of the finest and best-behaved Red- tailed black sharks in the land!
However, I came for the specialities and here's what I really found myself coveting...
Neosilurus ater (above)
Julian calls them the ‘kangaroos of the fish world’. Eel-tailed catfish are instant eye magnets and capable of hitting 45cm/18” or so, although the individuals he keeps are just over 20cm/8”.
The best way to describe these magnificent critters is to think of the front half of a Giraffe catfish with the rear half of a tadpole and a knifefish. Snuffling about underneath rainbowfish, these were my favourites of the day – and one of Julian’s self-confessed great loves.
Australasian by origin, they tend not to appear in the UK shops that often, although their care isn’t so difficult. Acidic waters of around 6.5 to 7.5pH, temperatures between 20- 27°C/68-81°F, and a diet of meaty foods and insects will keep them on top form.
They’re safe too, not even bothering to eat smaller fishes.
The Golden vampire plec has to be sought out, but when visible at Julian’s fish room it’s a sight to behold.
Apparently a smaller fish, only recorded as reaching a shade over 10cm/4” and with liking for warmer waters at 26-29°C/79-84°F, these territorial cats are the domain of the real ‘fishionado’. Adult sizes remain a contentious issue, as congeners do grow somewhat larger.
They have a meatier palate than most, but will fit in nicely in that hot-house South American tank you might be planning. Yummy.
Peckoltia snethlageae – L141
Another charming L- number you need to work hard to see, this white-seamed treat with uncertain taxonomic destination is real eye candy if maybe an acquired taste.
Pretty unfussy as regards specific water requirements and even temperature, they’re forgiving fish that should find a home in more tanks than they do. They don’t even reach 15cm/6” fully grown.
Here’s a driftwood catfish you’ll not have come across before, unless you’re Julian, and I was delighted to lay eyes on one for the first time!
This adorable species is exclusively an insect feeder, retaining those whiskers in crevices either side of the face until ready to feed, which it then does directly from the surface as it snatches at fallen and unsuspecting swimming bugs.
Being a crepuscular hunter it’s not out much, but when it is it’s a real reward. Watch this space for possible future imports.
As far as we know it reaches around 7.5cm/3” and adores wedging itself into wooden crevices. Beyond that, information is more vague.
Another near unknown species, and likely to be the only examples here in the UK, this woodcat is best thought as being part Tatia and part Liosomadoras.
The genera was only described within the last two years and represents a perfect example of how some catfish keeping can be real 'seat of the pants' stuff when we don’t have more information to go on.
Either way, they’re charming in their own right and a fish we should all look forward to eventually seeing in our stores.
A better range than many stores!
Spread across Julian’s 30 aquaria are a selection of fishes that any hobbyist would love to access to — retailers take note!
Fish hail from all around the world here, and every tank has another exciting project. I was fascinated to see a spawning set up for Synodontis nigriventris involving a bare tank, some moss, and egg crate.
African cats make appearances around the room, with a tank of Pareutropius buffei sat alongside Synodontis membranaceous, and even the cutest dwarf Giraffe catfish.
Some of the fish here have been picked up as by-catch of other imports, such as fascinating undescribed Ageneiosus catfish, that feast on insects and play possum for defence.
Even the more day-to-day fish are thrilling. A tank housing a community of fish is home to some of the nicest Corydoras robineae you’ll see, hunkered down with Corydoras pantanalensis.
And it’s not all about catfish making up Julian’s vast assortment of fish. Look closely and you’ll not only find some exquisite anabantids, but cichlid treats like the colourful Cryptoheros panamensis.
Meet a reader who has created a highly attractive community aquarium using artificial plants.
WORDS: BOB MEHEN
Fishkeeper: Johannah Moorhouse.
Occupation: Store manager at Maidenhead Aquatics, Blackpool.
Time in the hobby: Over six years.
Number of tanks: Two — the featured tank and a 30 l in the kitchen, with golden White Cloud Mountain minnows and Golden ring Sewellia.
What attracted you to the hobby?
A friend introduced me to the hobby, and after seeing his tank I just wanted my own. I set up an African cichlid aquarium as my first tank. It was fantastic, being able to design and create a home for the fish I liked, then look after them.
Since then I’ve joined Maidenhead Aquatics. Making my hobby my job was the best thing I’ve done. I love caring for the fish, and taking home my favourites when possible. They’re something to watch other than TV, and can be far more entertaining. Even my kitten sits and watches the fish swimming around.
How would you describe your aquarium?
To some people I’ve described it as a 'Sydeco utopia', in reference to the plastic plants I’ve used. It’s fully planted with Sydeco plastic and Aquamanta silk plants, interspersed with rockwork and bogwood. I’ve tried to imitate a non-biotope planted aquarium with the low maintenance of fake plants. The tank is a 340 l AquaOak, with an Aquamanta EFX 400 filter.
I’m not sure how I’d describe it, really. It’s simple, and natural looking. I wanted to make it look as realistic as possible as I’ve never been one for ornaments. I wanted something beautiful without the time requirements of a real fully planted aquarium.
What’s your favourite fish?
It’s a toss up between two, both of which I have. I’ve always loved Zebra Otocinclus and Blue phantom plecs. It’s so hard to pick just one, but I’d probably tilt towards the Zebras.
What’s the easiest fish you’ve kept?
My golden White Clouds in my little tank. They keep to themselves and I’ve never had any problems with them, or the tank in general, in the year it’s been set up.
What are the benefits of plastic plants over real?
Lower maintenance. I don’t need to dose fertiliser or use special substrates, or inject carbon dioxide, or worry about the lighting being bright enough or the right spectrum.
The tank also stays the same — I don’t have to prune it, or worry about my catfish digging things up. Cleaning is easier as I can remove plants, clean them, clean the gravel and replace them without damaging the roots or with the hassle of replanting them into a full aquarium.
My current stock
24 Cardinal tetra
24 Emperor tetra
2 Zebra Otocinclus
6 Corydoras adolfoi
L128 Blue phantom plec
Caridina sp. shrimp
What would you like to keep next?
I’d really like discus, but I think they might end up my most challenging fish so far.
I’m tempted to do a nano aquascape and just keep shrimp. I’d want to plant it with Hemianthus callitrichoides and do a fully carpeted aquarium with just a few well-placed rocks as hardscape. I also love Anubias on bogwood and I’d like to incorporate that in some way.
My advice for beginners
Take your time. You’re creating an environment more than you are anything else. Unlike other pets, you are in control of every aspect of your fishes’ world, especially the water they live in.
People who experience problems are those who rush and try to skip steps. It’s difficult, and I have to hold myself back sometimes because I’ll want to take a beautiful fish home.
You must ensure you’ve given your tank time to establish itself properly for what you’re wanting to do next.
Things I wish I’d known
The importance of testing water, especially when a tank is new or small, as changes can happen fast. In the beginning, when I first started, I lost fish because I missed things that regular water testing would have picked up on, like nitrite or nitrate spikes after adding new fish.
It was only when I started working in the industry, witnessing the number of problems people experienced that could have been avoided with testing, that I began thinking seriously about my own water chemistry issues.
This lovely planted aquascape really draws the eye. Meet its creator...
WORDS: BOB MEHEN
Fishkeeper: Jon Friend.
Whereabouts? North London.
Time in the hobby: Three years.
Number of tanks: One and half (I’ve yet to fill the other one with water!)
What attracted you to the hobby?
A colleague had kept fish for a number of years and the idea appealed to me after seeing his tank, so I saved a bit of money and that was it. It was when I was scouring the Internet and saw a plethora of stunning planted tanks that I really got hooked.
How would you describe your tanks?
Hi tech, plant heavy jungle-ish style. I love the shapes Manzanita wood gives you, and always have a tendency to keep plenty of wood and the planting to suit, while trying to keep the overall appearance simple. Having the sandy path helps keep the scape feeling spacious while adding to its depth. I've always liked the idea of a simple Iwagumi layout, but tend to end up with a huge mishmash of plants. This is my second attempt at aquascaping and I'm still adapting it as I go along. The back left side will soon be switched up to better match the larger plants on the right side.
What’s your favourite fish?
Angelfish, Pterophyllum sp. They have great character and in large shoals in an even larger planted tank would be ideal.
What’s the most challenging fish you’ve kept?
I had a second tank years ago, in which I kept a couple of Figure eight puffers. Not having acquired the relevant knowledge, they proved difficult for me to successfully keep.
And the easiest?
Peppered corys, Corydoras paleatus. They were some of the first fish I kept as they were given to me. They unfortunately bore the brunt of my first fumbles into the hobby but always managed to survive.
Any favourite plants?
Hemianthus callitrichoides 'Cuba', because it is a difficult plant to grow properly, but so rewarding when you do, especially when you get it pearling! Hydrocotyle tripartite too, I just really like the bush like effect you can create with regular pruning and its ease to grow.
Cardinal tetras, Paracheirodon axelrodi
Six Otocinclus sp.
Three Siamese algae eaters, Crossocheilus sp.
Eight hatchetfish, Carnegiella marthae
Countless Red cherry shrimp
Which fish would you like to keep next?
I would love a large group of Altum angels, Pterophyllum altum or Discus. Apart from the fact that they're some of the most spectacular fres water tropicals, it would mean a massive planted tank too!
Which plants would you most like to keep?
I've not had much success with hairgrass. This current set-up is the second time I've tried to incorporate it (having purposely left it out due it dying off and becoming a trap to any other plant cuttings) and still not much luck this time around.
What would be your dream aquarium?
A 180 x 50 x 70cm deep/72 x 20 x 28in deep Optiwhite braceless tank. I'd have it all plumbed in so water changes would be automated, not to mention auto-dosing. The ’scape would consist of loads of wood, moss, caves and cliffs; a 'classic' nature aquarium with lots of Altum angels!
My advice for beginners
Read, read and read. I sold my Fluval Roma 90 before I went travelling for half a year. It was then over a year before I set up this one. I spent so much time researching different methods, equipment, manufacturers, products, design ideas, plants, fish, you name it! For me personally, that was just as fun as keeping the fish and putting water in the tank. Patience really is key if you want your tank to look like those done by George Farmer or Takashi Amano.
Buy good quality. I personally don't think I have 'saved' any money in setting up my tank as it was all new equipment with a bespoke tank and cabinet, however I know that the hardware I have bought will last me until I win the lottery and have my huge dream tank!
Buy a small pump to do you water changes for you; so much easier and tidier than pouring buckets of water into the tank.
Things I wish I’d known
I wish I’d known about planted tanks and Takashi Amano sooner. That and how much time and money I would willingly pump into the hobby!
This natural-looking, open-topped tank with its emergent plant growth is just fantastic!
WORDS: BOB MEHEN
Fishkeeper: Tom Black (forum name BigTom).
Occupation: PhD student, LFS assistant and occasional photographer.
Time in the hobby:
I often had tanks as a kid but got back into the hobby about nine years ago.
Number of tanks: Currently just one large display tank and three 'nano' cubes, mainly used for growing on plants and fry.
What attracted you to the hobby?
I grew up in the Pacific and spent a lot of time snorkelling coral reefs, so it’s pretty much always been an interest.
How would you describe your tanks?
Low tech, open topped, semi-naturalistic planted tanks with a high plant biomass and/or plenty of emergent or riparian growth. My current display aquarium is a loose Venezuelan biotope, which is relatively bare in terms of submerged plants as I wanted to emphasise the hardscape, but previous incarnations have been absolute jungles.
What’s your favourite fish?
Probably Liquorice gouramis Parosphromenus sp. They’re just the most beautiful, intimate and rewarding fish to watch go about their business.
What’s the most challenging fish you’ve kept?
Recently the Iguanadectes gave me trouble, as they’re the first fish that I’ve had problems with jumping out of the open topped tank. Some tactically placed corner covers seem to have done the trick however — or perhaps they just needed to settle in a bit. Either way they’ve now stopped, which is a relief.
And the easiest?
I find most fish to be fairly straightforward as long as you give them vaguely appropriate water parameters and housing — and lots of plants! I was surprised at how easy Armoured sticklebacks, Indostomus paradoxus, were to keep; they fed almost entirely on natural micro-fauna in their little nano tank and periodically produced fry without any input from me at all.
What is your favourite plant?
I love Microsorum pteropus 'Trident' — very undemanding, bright green under any light and adds brilliant texture to a tank. Hydrocotyle tripartita is another favourite, as are my newly acquired Bucephelandra. I must also mention being a huge fan of pretty much anything that can be grown as a floating or riparian plant as they do wonders for water quality and are the key to my ultra low-tech approach to fishkeeping.
Which fish would you like to keep next?
Green darter characins, Ammocryptocharax elegans — they only crop up rarely but I’m desperately after some for my Venezuelan biotope. Also, Parosphromenus again! I never quite got them to breed when I kept them previously, so there’s an itch there that still needs scratching.
Which plants would you most like to keep?
Ludwigia sediodes; I tried it last year and it did well for a while but failed to over-winter. It’s such a stunning floating plant that I’m not willing to admit defeat just yet.
What would be your idea of a dream aquarium?
Something massive! There’s something really special about large aquaria, when you get to a certain size you find that different fish really utilise different areas of the tank and the overall impression somehow shifts from being 'fish soup' to feeling like a real, structured habitat. I think from 500 l/110 gal upwards you really see this, but not if you fill the tank with massive fish. It’s all about big groups of small fish for me.
My current fish
Bandit cichlids, Guianacara sp. — adult pair and numerous offspring.
Five Orinoco eartheaters, Biotodoma wavrini.
Three Lyre-tail checkerboard cichlids, Dicrossus filamentosus.
Ten Spotted headstanders, Chilodus punctatus.
Four twig plecs, Farlowella sp.
50 Green neon tetras, Paracheirodon simulans.
15 Hockey stick pencilfish, Nannostomus eques, plus juveniles.
12 Dwarf suckermouths, Otocinclus sp.
Ten G reen line lizard tetras, Iguanadectes spilurus.
My advice for beginners
- Get loads of plants right from the start. Look after your plants and they’ll look after your fish for you.
- Save money. Collect your own hardscape. The countryside is littered with brilliant pieces of wood, dead leaves and rocks. Remember you need to exercise a little care in selecting appropriate material and please respect both the countryside and the rights of the landowners.
- Save time. Again, grow plants. With a large biomass of healthy plants you’ll spend far less time fussing about water quality, fish health or algae.
Things I wish I’d known
You can easily save money on equipment and hardscape, but don’t skimp on quality flora and fauna. I once wiped out about 300 shrimp after buying cheap pesticide-covered plants from the Far East — never again.
Prepare to pay good money for healthy stock and you’ll be much less likely to run into problems.
Strong plant growth and colourful discus combine to make this set-up a real feast for the eyes.
WORDS: BOB MEHEN
Fishkeeper: Abdul Mufti (Medicman).
Whereabouts? London, UK.
Time in the hobby: Almost two years.
Number of tanks: Two... at the moment, with a possible third in development!
What attracted you to the hobby?
My mother-in-law kept goldfish and tropicals for many years, so when I got married, to make our new home feel a bit more familiar for her, I purchased a 100 l/22 gal tank.
I’d assumed my wife and mother-in-law had good experience with fishkeeping and thought it would be fairly straightforward: boy was I wrong! I had little to no knowledge of fishkeeping let alone the nitrogen cycle. Our first foray into the hobby ended in disaster to say the least with several deceased fish as a result of poor advice and lack of research.
How would you describe your tanks?
I have a 250 l/55 gal planted discus tank — a challenge and a nightmare simply for the fact that it houses some of the most "delicate" fish I’ve ever had and also the first time I’ve kept discus. It’s also been a bit nerve wracking because of the CO2 and fertiliser levels I need to keep for the plants.
The other tank is a 150/33 gal planted set-up — a mishmash of random fish that have been left over from previous community attempts. These are the ones that survived ammonia and nitrite spikes at the start of the tank’s life and ones I don’t want to part with just yet!
What’s your favourite fish?
It’s a tie up between discus and German blue Rams; absolutely stunning colours and behaviour. I find the varying colourations of discus very intriguing.
What’s the most challenging fish you’ve kept?
Discus. They need specific water parameters, so it’s always a challenge keeping on top of nitrates as well as good and frequent gravel vacs.
And the easiest?
Guppies. They’re one of those fish that just keep giving… literally! We started a tank off with two females and one male. We ended up with 10 males and 25 females and had to sell off quite a few!
What’s your favourite plant?
This is a difficult one to say! For a long while it’s been Hemianthus callitrichoides because of its 'pearling', the lime-green colour and the dense carpet it forms, and Pogostemon stellata because of its colouration and the way it forms its leaves. Definitely one I’ll be using more of in future 'scapes.
250 l/55 gal aquarium:
- Six juvenile discus, Symphysodon sp.
- Two golden Rams and two German blue Rams, Mikrogeophagus ramirezi
- Six Cardinal tetras, Paracheirodon axelrodi
- Six Otos, Otocinclus sp.
- Two juvenile bristlenose catfish, Ancistrus sp.
- 20 Amano shrimp, Caridina multidentata.
150 l/33 gal planted aquarium:
- Nine Pentazona barbs, Desmopuntius pentazona.
- Six Dwarf blue rainbowfish, Melanotaenia praecox.
- Two bristlenose catfish, Ancistrus sp.
Which fish would you most like to keep next?
Jack Dempseys, Rocio octofasciata, and killifish; again it’s a colour thing!
We like a lively looking tank, so without overcrowding on guppies we want to try interesting and 'out-there' fish that aren’t very common.
Which plant would you most like to keep?
Phoenix moss, Fissidens fontanus. I absolutely love the effect this gives on driftwood when it’s used as a canopy. I’ve yet to get my hands on any for our upcoming attempt at true aquascaping.
What would be your dream aquarium?
It really feels like I’ve already got it with my discus tank but I would really love to get a larger tank and scape that for them. Alternatively, a large marine tank is definitely something the wife and I have been pining for. Potentially something we may do when we move house!
My advice for beginners
Do your research and don’t always trust advice from your LFS (unless they stop you from buying something!) Some of them will just tell you what you want to hear. Make sure you join a good and supportive forum, (like PFK).
Save time and back-ache during water changes on larger tanks by investing in a return pump, a large plastic container (at least 50% your tank’s volume or close to what you’re going to change), a tap garden hose connector, an inline shut-off valve and a long extension! (All of this cost me around £50 to put together). I’m no longer lifting buckets or bottles to do my water changes and rather than the hour it used to take me, it now takes a mere 15 minutes.
Read as many reviews on products as you can — make sure you try to get the assistants to demonstrate them, if they want your custom they’ll oblige. Use EI dosing for fertilisers — it’s far cheaper than premixed stuff and it will last a lot longer too!
Things I wish I’d known
How addictive and expensive it can be! I’ve certainly spent more than I’d like to admit in both time and money on these tanks in the past two years. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed them a lot though!
Also that you’re better off investing in quality first, rather than trying to go for the cheapest option; Buy quality, buy once. Buy cheap, buy twice.
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.
We meet a reader with tanks on Amazonian and Mexican themes.
WORDS: BOB MEHEN
Fishkeeper: Darren Stanley.
Whereabout: West Midlands.
Time in the hobby: 30 years.
Number of tanks: Two.
What attracted you to the hobby? My parents had a tropical tank when I was a small child and I have been fascinated by all things aquatic ever since.
How many tanks do you have?
At the moment, I have two. The tank in my lounge is a 2m x 61 x 61cm/7 x 2 x 2ft Amazon tank. I also have a 120cm/48in Mexican biotope tank in my bedroom.
How would you describe them?
When I set up a tank, I am only interested in fish that live together in nature. I never choose hybrids or man-made colour morphs. I find them off-putting. I try to create something as close to nature as possible. My tanks are informal and a bit wild, but I never see plants growing in the wild in perfect symmetry or in regimental rows, so I don’t want this in my aquariums.
What are your favourite fish?
I find it extremely difficult to name one fish, but it would have to be a member of the Thorichthys family or perhaps one of the Veija/Paratheraps species. I have also grown very fond of P. scalare and Geophagus species of late.
What are the most challenging fish you’ve kept?
Convict cichlids: they are the most aggressive species I have kept, even though they are quite small for a Central American cichlid. When they decide to breed, they defend their territory against anything, regardless of size.
And the easiest?
Ironically, most Central American cichlids are easy despite their bad reputation! All they require is more tank space than most people provide them with. Some Thorichthys are a bit trickier and can suffer with bloat but most are as hard as nails.
What are your favourite plants? Moss. I love mosses in tanks. They give a natural, lived in look I find very appealing. I would love to have the Mexican lily….
In the 4ft tank
12 Heller’s cichlid, Thorichthys helleri, ‘Laguna Catazaja’
8 Green swordtail, Xiphophorus helleri.
In the 7ft tank
15 Common angelfish, Pterophyllum scalare
25 Bleeding heart tetra, Hyphessobrycon erythrostigma
20 False penguin tetra, Thayeria boehlkei
4 Bolivian ram, Mikrogeophagus altispinosus
2 Patanal eartheater, Satanoperca pappaterra
8 Emerald catfish, Brochis splendens
4 Bristlenose catfish, Ancistrus temminckii
4 Clown plec, Panaqolus maccus
4 Hoplo catfish, Megalechis thoracata.
Which fish would you like to keep?
Satanoperca daemon — this is a beautiful and fairly peaceful cichlid that can be kept in groups. In a large tank with a sandy substrate and overhanging branches, a group of adults looks magnificent. Also, Thorichthys socolofi. This is one of the Thorichthys species I’ve yet to keep and I’d like eventually to have kept and bred them all.
What would be your dream aquarium?
A 13 x 3 x 3 foot tank furnished with sand and large river rocks with over hanging branches. The fish would be a group of 15 Firemouth cichlid, Thorichthys meeki, 15 Heller’s cichlid, Thorichthys helleri, and a pair of large Vieja bifasciatus and for the upper layers around 100 Green swordtail, Xiphophorus helleri. Alternatively, I would go for a large group of Geophagus in an Amazon style tank. I am most drawn towards cichlids like ‘Geos’ and Thorichthys because in the wild they live in colonies. It’s the interaction between colonies I find most interesting as pecking orders and hierarchies are formed.
Darren’s advice for beginners
Resist buying fish that grow too big for your aquarium. Fish like Oscars or Jaguar cichlids may live OK in a four-foot tank but they won't thrive. It’s a scale thing too. Fish of a certain size can look out of scale to their aquascape. Choose something that fits your tank and looks to scale in its surroundings. I believe this is one of the most important factors when trying to create an aesthetically pleasing biotope. One more thing; avoid buying dyed fish. It’s immoral, wrong and cruel.
Use pond products for your tanks, as you get a lot more for your money. Grow your own live food like Daphnia in outside water butts.
If you have a large aquarium it's much quicker to remove all the decor if you need to catch a fish.
Things I wish I’d known
Every tank I buy will never be big enough. It’s best to buy the biggest tank you can afford or accommodate from the start.