Jack Heathcote has found fame as being the owner of the the UK's largest private freshwater aquarium - but that's only part of the story. Jack has a number of spectacular achievements tucked away in his other set-ups. Nathan Hill discovers his secrets to success with shy Elephant noses and the most finicky of angelfish.
Jack Heathcote isn’t known for being conventional. He runs the largest privately owned tank in the UK (unfortunately, soon to be stripped, due to huge electricity costs), and everyone is usually so taken up by this that they fail to appreciate just how amazing some of his other achievements are.
Upstairs, away from his famed, behemoth display, are two other tanks that are spectacular in their own right. Both of these tanks are home-made by Jack and both are instant eye-catchers.
The first tank that grabs me is his Altum angelfish aquarium. For those who aren’t familiar, Altums are the statuesque, sensitive cousins of the 'standard' scalare-type angels. At first glance, the casual observer might not be able to tell them apart, but put the two species side by side and the differences are huge. Altums are considerably deeper fish with a sterner, more serious look about them. Altum, in Latin, translates directly as 'tall'.
Altums are also notoriously hard fish to keep happy. Given their height — reaching up to some 30cm/12" tip-to-tip through anal and dorsal fins — they are precluded from all but the deepest of tanks. They also tend to be incredibly fickle when it comes to their chemistry demands. Hard, alkaline water is not their friend.
Jack has gotten around the height issue by making a tank of his own to fit them. Made from 15mm glass, the tank is an altitudinous 98cm/39" from top to bottom, reaching 38cm/15" from front to back, and with a length across the front face of 85cm/34", presenting the image of a slightly rectangular tower of water teeming with fish.
Jack has what he calls a semi braceless design to his aquaria. Instead of having rims atop the panes, he prefers to make a 3mm indentation in his top edges and place a thin 3mm glass bracer into these divots, making for an unimposing finish.
Despite the size of his tank and its 300 l/66 gal-plus capacity, Jack admits that his first effort with the fish was a disaster. Like many keepers, he made the mistake of thinking their requirements akin to standard angels, and he kept them in standard temperature water of 25-26°C/77-79°F, sourced straight from the tap. Eventually, the fish weakened, developed diseases and died off.
Lesson learned, Jack wanted another stab but chose to research more thoroughly before his second attempt. This time the tank was filled with water from an RO unit that he invested in, heated to 30°C/86°F and new fish sourced. In the event, he found three different suppliers of Altums around the country and ran a high mileage road trip to collect them all in one go. He added all the Altums to the tank at once, where they have been fine ever since.
Fitting tank mates
It’s not just Altums in the tank, either. Alongside them lives a shoal of Cardinal tetra, though Jack suspects that the angels have picked some of the smaller individuals off as they’ve grown.
Six Lyretail checkerboard cichlids, Dicrossus filamentosus, dominate the lower middle layers, endlessly displaying to each other, flaring fins and flashing colours. With their predilection for warmer, acidic water, both they and the Cardinals fit in beautifully.
The base of the tank looks initially to be only inhabited by Corydoras schwartzi, of which four rummage among the light silver sand. But, it transpires that Jack also has something of a closet fetish for L-numbers and on getting closer, a tail-tip or snout can be seen jutting from most of the wooden décor. Among the ranks live Hypancistrus inspector, Baryancistrus sp. L142, Peckoltia compta, Panaqolus albivermis and Hemiancistrus subviridis. You’ll also find Hemiancistrus sp. L128, Peckoltia vittata, Hypancistrus sp. L260, Ancistrus ranunculus and an unidentified Chaetostoma.
It takes just a couple of wafers to bring all of these cats out into a swirling ball of hungry, as Jack shows me. The fish are very aware of the procedures leading up to feeding time, and even going to the opposite corner of the room brings out the first inquisitive Altum faces.
By the time Jack has taken their food tub to the mantelpiece and turned his back to the tank, all 11 angels are sat expectant just below the water’s surface, lips poking through surface tension in anticipation. He says they’re getting wise to his antics, and if he turns around holding a different object such as a glass instead of food, the Altums lose interest immediately and sulk.
Jack wanted his angel tank uncluttered and so he drilled the left-hand pane, just away from the bottom, and installed a couple of rigid tank connectors for his inflow and outflow. With more drilling through the wall, he managed to hide his canister filter, a 2,000lph Sunsun model, in a kitchen cabinet in the next room. Here, he has foregone the supplied media and instead uses a mixture of alfagrog — his media of choice — combined with some fine filter floss. This keeps things biologically active without requiring too much intervention, and Jack has to clean the filter out only around every four months.
The tank receives a fortnightly 60% water change and is refilled with a combination of RO water with a little water from the hot tap to add some hardness back to it. Do the fish mind a little hot water going in? Going by the delicate nature of the fish, and that some like the Dicrossus filamentosus frequently go through the motions of spawning, it would seem not.
Given the placement of the pipes, Jack had some issues with getting enough turnover for oxygenation needs, and even pointing the return nozzle directly up did not give the flow that he needed. So, the display is supplemented by a (gorgeous) classic Hy Flo model B piston air pump that delivers a constant stream of bubbles up the full height of one side.
Lastly, the lighting that cuts through the slightly tannin stained tea-tones of the tank is Jack’s own design. By taking two non-aquatic, low wattage spotlights and placing them into a curved metal holder of his own making, the tank makes for a spectacular evening feature.
Jack's angel tank inhabitants
Altum angelfish, Pterophyllum altum
Size: These fish reach a total length of 18cm/7", with height in excess of 30cm/12".
Water parameters: Soft, acidic water of 4.8 to 6.0pH, hardness 1-5°GH.
Difficulty: Difficult to very difficult to keep.
Lyretail checkerboard cichlid, Dicrossus filamentosus
Size: This cichlid reaches a total length of around 4.5cm/2".
Water parameters: Soft, acidic water of 4.5 to 7.0pH and hardness 5-8GH.
Difficulty: Provided pH values are met, they are easy enough fish to keep.
Cardinal tetra, Paracheirodon axelrodi
Size: Total length 3.5cm/2".
Water parameters: Copes with levels as low as 3.35pH, but prefers 5.5 to 6.0pH. Hardness below 6GH.
Temperature: Tolerates as low as 20°C/68°F for a short while, ideally kept at 28°C/83°F.
Difficulty: Moderately easy at low pH values.
Schwartz’s cory, Corydoras schwartzi
Size: total length 7cm/3".
Water parameters: Soft, near to neutral water, with 6.5 to 7.5pH. Hardness below 15GH.
Difficulty: A tough little fish that is easy to keep provided it obtains plenty of food and isn’t left out at mealtimes.
Jack's elephant nose tank
As a stark opposite to the South American biotope feel of the Altum aquarium, Jack’s bedroom-based 152 x 60 x 90cm/60 x 24 x 36" aquarium has a distinctly community feel about it, albeit the most unusual community I’ve ever laid eyes upon.
Depending on what kind of keeper you are, one of many fish could catch your interest first. Perhaps a shoal of nine Mylossoma duriventre disc characins, a rare find outside of books, will excite you most. Or maybe it will be the clustered ball of fat Elephant nose mormyrids that will astound you with their impeccable health.
This larger tank, holding over 800 l/176 gal of water, seems to turn classical fishkeeping wisdom on its head. Rules are broken, or perhaps rewritten, and the eclectic mixture of fishes all live in harmonious balance despite the muddled heritages.
The stocking is all over the place. As well as the 18 Elephant nose and the disc characins, there are also two large Black ghost knifefish hugging close to 25cm/10" each, as well as two Giant pikeheads, a single Red tailed black shark, four Pantodon butterflyfish as well as a brace of huge Blue lobsters, Cherax quadricarinatus. Lastly, two rescued Motoro stingrays glide about or get prodded by inquisitive Elephant trunks as they nestle under the sand.
The stingrays were rescued from Jack’s gigantic main aquarium, where breeding activity is frequent. They’ve been in this tank for about two months and are growing fast. Jack points out a behaviour they’ve picked up for leisure that involves playing with water flow. At one end of the set-up, he has a twin 6,000 lph flowpump pointed directly upwards to improve turnover. The stingrays have taken to paragliding in this flow, hovering for hours at a time with the current lifting them up, and they seem to relish experimentation with the currents.
Two clear anomalies to the tank are the Pikeheads and Elephants, both of which can be notoriously difficult feeders. I have blogged in the past about the reasons why Elephant noses should not be kept, and nearly every book on Pikeheads almost gleefully reports that nobody manages to wean them on to dead foods.
In Jack’s tank, both species scoff down flake food before my eyes. The Elephants form a loose cluster, egging each other on to feed, while the Pikeheads charge face-first into the throng to get their share. It is quite the spectacle.
Even better, Jack pulls out a handful of frozen bloodworm and putting it into his clenched fist and submerging it into the water brings a renewed bout of interest with Elephants probing their faces in to the gaps between his fingers.
The fish in this tank wolf down a mixture of bloodworm, mussel, Artemia, goldfish and Koi sticks as well as tropical flake as though it was manna from heaven, and watching them, I’m forced to admit that I was very wrong. Elephant noses can indeed be perfect for the aquarium, assuming it’s big enough for them and they’re kept in a decent sized shoal. The only thing Jack observes is that their growth rate is imperceptibly slow. Despite always having full bellies, they never seem to gain much in the way of extra length.
I’m also inclined to wonder just how much an abundance of cover helps to keep the fish calm. Jack isn’t shy to adding piles of branches taken from his garden, and the thick tangle of hardscape seems to relax the Elephants and paradoxically makes them bolder in the open. There are no plants, but the nooks and crannies are many.
Another aspect that has me excited, despite Jack’s apparent indifference to it, is the frequency with which his Lobsters breed. For Jack, it’s almost something of a chore having to whip the females out just as the eggs they carry are hatching out and placing them into a separate smaller tank. Here, he has several broods on the go at any one time, cursing the way they keep climbing into the workings of the alfagrog-filled internal canister filter, over and over again.
It’s another of Jack’s self-build systems, and he has incorporated a drilled base with an inlet and outlet linked up directly to a Sunsun canister filter that sits directly beneath it. Heating sits inside the tank, with 300w of heaterstat laid flat behind décor and out of sight. Jack has opted to use domestic household lighting, as he doesn’t have plants dependent on the output, and has a rail of four Next Generation coolwhite LEDs attached to the ceiling above. As an extra touch, the switch for the lights is located at the head of Jack’s bed for that late night convenience.
Despite the shock and awe effect of Jack’s glorified swimming pool downstairs, I have to admit that the tank that stands out the most to me is this one. It is so anomalous, yet so incredibly successful that I feel the urge to drag people over to his house and demand explanations.
How does Jack keep these difficult fish so easily? He doesn’t know himself. It would just appear that where some gardeners have green fingers, Jack has instead developed 'scaly fingers' and he manages to impart some kind of hunger and tranquility in everything that he keeps. Perhaps it’s the size of his tanks, as nothing here is small-scale.
Whatever it is, I look forward to visiting any future projects to see what other untankable fish he has tamed for the life domestic.
Jack's Elephant tank inhabitants
Black ghost knifefish, Apteronotus albifrons
Size: 50cm/20" or more.
Water parameters: Tolerant between 6.0 and 8.0pH and hardness below 18GH.
Difficulty: Only hard to house when it reaches an adult size. Small specimens are active feeders and hardy enough. Easy in big tanks.
Size: Total length 25cm/10".
Water parameters: Tolerant to a wide range, 5.0 to 7.8pH and hardness below 20GH.
Difficulty: A skittish fish that requires a big tank and enough space to dash around without harming itself. Moderately difficult.
Peter’s elephant nose, Gnathonemus petersii
Size: Total length 35cm/14", typically much smaller in aquaria.
Water parameters: Wide ranging, 6.0 to 8.0pH, and hardness below 20GH.
Difficulty: Incredibly hard to keep successfully for any duration. Requires shoals of at least six or more, often refuses to feed or does so reluctantly. Must have fine sand substrate to probe around in. For the extreme specialist fishkeepers only.
Giant pikehead, Luciocephalus pulcher
Size: Total length 20cm/8".
Water parameters: Usually kept way too alkaline. Keep acidic and soft, between 4.0 and 6.0pH, with hardness below 10GH.
Difficulty: Often impossible to feed on anything but live food, the fish usually starves to death. Incredibly difficult to sustain for any prolonged period.
Meet the aquarist
Name: Jack Heathcote
Time in the hobby: 35 years.
Favourite fish: Ocean sunfish, Mola mola.
Number of tanks: Seven.
Most paid for a fish: £480 for a Tiger stingray.