Scott's six-foot Malawi set-up is filled with colour and activity.
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.
Having plenty of rockwork has resulted in more natural behaviour among the fish.
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.
Metriaclima fainzilberi (top) and Metriaclima callainos (bottom).
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.
The set-up includes two huge 40kg rocks.
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.
Metriaclima callainos ‘Nkhata bay’.
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 is hoping to go diving in Lake Malawi, but until then he has the next best thing...
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.”
Metriaclima sp. ‘Msobo Magunga’.
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.