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 protected]