THE SPICE OF LIFE
We revisit the star of one of this year’s most popular PFK reader visits.
Steven Baker became a Practical Fishkeeping pin-up only a couple of months back with his outstanding ‘Wall of Life’ aquarium. But there’s more to his hobby than just his spectacular Borneo aquarium/ paludarium/biotope hybrid.
When we visited, he had no fewer than five tanks on the go, and we’ve chosen to pick up where we left off, chewing the fat over African cichlids, peaceful pufferfish and rescued Fighters.
As there was too much to fit in before, here’s the rest of the story of the man behind Cambridge Aquatics, and the coveted Wall of Life that sent so many readers wild with envy!
PFK: What was your first aquarium experience?
SB: The lady that cut my hair as a child worked from home, and her husband was an inspirational fishkeeper. He had a huge reef tank in the hallway, maybe five or six feet long and two-and-a-half deep. I was about six then, and it was amazing, even by today’s standards. Then there was a 6ft deep Koi pond in a planted conservatory that led out into the garden.
I later worked for that couple, Mike and Ester, through my college years in their aquatics shop.
PFK: When did you get your first aquarium, and what was in it?
SB: I asked for a tank for my 10th birthday. I enjoyed fishing with my dad and I liked seeing fish at the garden centre so...
My parents bought me a 90 l John Allen tank with a tin lid and an iron frame stand, complete with undergravel filter and air pump. After receiving incorrect advice my six Neon tetras died. But with correct advice from Mike, I went on to keep a group of Zebra danios, Danio
rerio, for many years. They shared their tank with three black Angelfish, Peppered corys, and some Harlequin rasboras.
My dad did all the maintenance chores initially and slowly taught me to take over. The tank eventually got upgraded to a Juwel aquarium, but a few years later it made a reappearance as a second tank in my bedroom with rainbowfish.
PFK: How did you get addicted? What was the buzz for you? SB: I think I got addicted from the off. I’ve
I got addicted from the off. I’ve never been without a tank since my first one.
never been without a tank since my first, and my fishkeeping was greatly improved and invigorated after three years of fisheries studies at Brooksby College.
The buzz? I don’t know why I chose fishkeeping specifically, but the more I look into it the more I find. It’s an endless study — a fully enclosed environment that includes all forms of science and gives me complete control.
While I struggle with technology and maths, science and nature makes sense to me. Plus, I don’t have a particularly broad knowledge, so I guess I wanted to know a lot about one thing and I just kept enjoying the study of fish. I love their environments and their lives within those environments.
PFK: You work with fish as well. What does a typical fish-job day entail? And how do you balance your work fish life with your home fish life?
SB: At work, I concentrate mainly on livestock. So, it’s water changing, settling new arrivals, and general health care for tanks and tanks of tropical fish — and plants. That’s the day job.
Balance my life? No, not me. I currently work a seven-day week of fish tanks and ponds, and then I go home and feed and maintain my five home tanks and hop on to social media to talk about fish, or draw up designs for pond for work projects. That’s not a man with a balanced life, that’s a man with an extremely understanding wife! It can usefully be justified as my livelihood and it’s what pays the bills, which is a very good excuse for my unreasonably excessive fishkeeping.
PFK: What’s Cambridge Aquatics? How did that all come about? SB: Cambridge Aquatics is my plan for the future. It was founded by myself and my good friend Tai Strietman. We do large projects together, but as he’ll be off to Brazil soon to study his degree in ichthyology, Cambridge Aquatics is mine to nurture and expand. Currently I offer home pond and tank care — services such as designing and building systems, renovating old ones, cleaning and maintaining, and health care. It’s a business that’s still in its building stage, but I plan much more for the future.
PFK: You’re currently running two Tanganyikan tanks — the multi-species mix and the shellie set-up. What’s the appeal of the lake fish? Why do you think Tanganyika set-ups are having such a resurgence right now?
SB: I’d wanted a Tanganyikan set up for years, but I love planted aquaria. It wasn’t until I was running five tanks at once that I thought one without plants would be acceptable. I worried I’d get bored without the constant tweaking
and grooming required by plants, but three years down the line I’m still happy with it.
The social interactions and the hierarchy are both obvious and interesting. A Tanganyikan tank becomes much more enthralling when you read in depth about the Lake. I’d always assumed that the vast lake would be totally stable and experience little in the way of change, but when I started reading Pierre Brichard’s book ‘Cichlids of Lake Tanganyika’ I realised how wrong I was. The different habitats around the shores, influenced by incoming rivers and various rock types really inspired me. Plus, the age of the lake and the evolution status of the fish fascinates me.
(Feature ed’s note: Lake Tanganyika has its earliest roots as far back as a possible 12
million years). It’s as much about the stories behind the fish as it is the fish itself for me.
I think a resurgence is likely just down to trends. Like clothing fashion, some fish just fall in and out of favour. Seeing as Tanganyikans have been out of fashion for some time, that now makes them something different to keep. They are very rewarding fish, so I hope more people do start to keep them.
PFK: How do you keep water chemistry right for them? Aren’t Tanganyikan fish real alkaline fans? SB: Really alkaline, yes! In the highly-oxygenated waters in the centre of the lake where Cyphotilapia frontosa reside a ph as high as 9.2 can be registered. Most fish in the lake sit around the mid-8ph range. They’re highly sensitive to acidosis so it’s important to maintain a strong buffering capacity in the water. Due to a lack of plants soaking up organic compounds, I opt to use RO water on my Tanganyika tanks. I mineralise it with Seachem’s Tanganyika Buffer, Cichlid Lake Salt and Cichlid Trace.
PFK: Even though they’re from a similar region of the world, how does the behaviour differ between Tanganyikan and Malawi fish? Yours look pretty chilled together, but most Malawi tanks I see are war zones.
SB: I think there is much more diversity from Lake Tanganyika, and more in the way of specialised niche-filling fish. While there’s an abundance of species from Lake Malawi, many of them overlap habitats and lifestyles (especially the ones commonly kept), so there is more competition, and subsequently aggression.
The stock in my tank has been chosen to avoid fish which are too similar. They are very territorial and I’ve allowed for them the space to put up their boundaries, and it all works nicely — as you say, chilled even.
The real problems arise when people try to mix fish from other habitats, particularly fish that don’t understand territorial boundaries.
PFK: Have you had any breeding activity from either of your Tanganyikan set-ups? SB: I’ve had batches of Neolamprologus leleupi, Julidochromis marlieri,
Neolamprologus multifasciatus and Lamprologus brichardi in the main tank. I saved the batch of N. leleupi as I had a spare tank to move the fry and the parents into. They are very easy to rear, accepting frozen and dried foods with no hesitation. The parents were F1 fish and the fry were great in terms of
colour and health, and free of deformities. The fry all went to auction at an East Anglia Cichlid Group event.
The L. brichardi put too much pressure on the tank, breeding every four to five weeks. It was amazing to see 5mm-long fry herding and caring for a younger generation of 3mm fry but they were so (over)productive that they had to be moved on.
PFK: What decor have you opted for in your Tanganyikan tanks? How do you go about deciding whether something is safe to use or not?
SB: I haven’t aimed for an accurate recreation, as Lake Tanganyika contains boulders the size of a typical family car, and underwater cliff faces!
I settled for a natural feel with some impact, but mostly a layout that provides nooks and crannies for territorial strongholds and places to dart away from conflict.
Because hardness in water isn’t an issue with Tanganyikan fish, there’s less to worry about with rocks. I’ve had large pieces of wood in Tanganyikan set-ups, but this does mean keeping a close eye on KH and ph values, and not letting them drop.
I like to think the rounded, weather worn cobbles I’ve used are similar looking to what could be found in the lake, even if the size is vastly different. The question is, can you tell which single rock is fake? (Feature ed’s note: Nope!)
PFK: What hardware have you got running on it?
SB: I’m not particularly loyal to brands and I’m not a tech fan. If it works, is efficient and reliable, then I like it.
I happen to have a lot of Fluval. The tank is a Fluval Roma 240 and also the FX6 filter upgrade and the Sky LED lighting upgrade. I have my favourite heater, a 300W Hydor external unit, a Hydor 5400 lph powerhead (which comes on twice a day for five minutes to lift any settled waste). I also use a very old Rena air pump and a very small Interpet LED as a dawn/dusk light.
The only brand I stay loyal to with this tank is Northfin foods. I’ve used these for a full year at least and I’m very impressed.
PFK: What shells have you used in the shell dweller tank?
SB: I desperately wanted to use Neothauma shells from the lake, but the price was too high. I’ve settled with giant land snail shells instead. The fish are happy with them and I can live with them.
PFK: You’ve converted one of your cabinets into a foldaway table — talk me through how it works.
SB: When you’re offered a nice tank at a good price you don’t leave without it! The ideal position for this tank already had a dining table in place, but I didn’t want to lose that and so I thought of a way to have both.
The cabinet doors are held together by two thin lengths of wood with hinges running along the top, and carry two hinged legs. All straightforward stuff, but quite effective. Now I can sit and eat while looking into Lake Tanganyika.
PFK: As well as your feature tanks, you’ve got a planted community running. How did that come about, and what’s in there?
SB: Most of the fish are from a previous, more focused tank which contained fish from the Guyana shield area.
Other fish have come by similar means and from friends’ tanks. The more obvious inhabitants are two Amazon puffers, Colomesus asellus, Nannostomus
marginatus pencil fish, and some Characidium darter tetras.
Some other fish take a fair bit of finding in a heavily planted tank, such as a Leopard frog catfish, and an Amblydoras hancockii.
As the fish were a mixture, I didn’t hesitate in mixing the plants. When running well targeted tanks it’s nice to have a ‘play’ tank to be free with.
PFK: Do you ever get issues with the puffers nipping at things?
SB: The puffers are curious and dog-like. With each new fish addition, I can expect one nip of the newcomer’s dorsal fin — and that’s it. I’ve not had them do any further damage; either they realise their tank mates aren’t food or their tank mates suddenly wise up to it and stay out of the way.
PFK: How helpful is the carbon dioxide for
plant growth? Do you use other fertilisers with it? What’s your plant growing routine?
SB: Realistically, this set-up is thrown together, with a donated tank and equipment from my deep, dark cupboard of fishy bits. It’s low energy — I’m not really trying with the plants here but I still think the carbon dioxide system makes a big difference.
This tank gets daily doses of 5ml JBL Ferropol, 2.5ml Seachem Nitrogen and 0.5ml Seachem Trace.
Very rarely I’ll dose with phosphorus but mostly my tapwater provides all the phosphate I need.
PFK: Your last tank with the Fighter has a totally different feel to the rest. What’s the intention in there?
SB: The Fighter’s a temporary resident, which is here to gain some body weight and vitality since his previous keeper lost interest.
This was my first attempt at a paludarium and the waterfall seemed a nice idea to see, hear and to keep humidity as high as possible. Eventually, when the Fighter is rehomed, the set-up will be home to some Painted reed frogs.
PFK: How many hours a week does it take to maintain all these tanks?
SB: Around four hours per week. The large Tanganyikan tank takes up the most time with frequent water changes but being over-filtered with an FX6 allows a long time between filter cleaning. The other tanks take less time and attention each.
The plant growth in the puffers’ tank soak up lots of fish waste and compete well against algae, so a basic fortnightly water change and a filter clean monthly is sufficient and the two small tanks are massively understocked, so maintenance is minimised.
PFK: What was the silliest aquarium mistake you ever made?
SB: Taking sick fish home because I hoped that my tank conditions would help them come round, but in the event they wiped out a full tank. That was quite some time ago now and it’s a mistake I learnt from very quickly. It still hurts 15 years later and I miss the Lampeyes, Procatopus similis, I lost in that incident.
PFK: What has been your proudest fishkeeping moment? SB: Seeing my words and my Borneo biotope in the July edition of PFK.
PFK: Do you name your fish?
SB: Only three of my fish have nicknames. There’s Big puff and Little puff — I don’t think I need to explain who they are. Then my female Amblydoras hancockii is known as Catwoman.
I’ve named some of my other stand out fish in the past, like Mr and Mrs Monster, which were a pair of Bristlenoses. And the fish I miss the most is my Mastacembelus ‘eel’. As they are not truly eels, she got the name of ‘Izzy-aneel-ornot’!
Steven’s larger Tanganyikan set-up.
Below: Shell dwellers only need a small set-up.
Right: Steven’s converted Fluval aquarium cabinet.
Neolamprologus brevis shell dweller.
Colomesus asellus, aka ‘Big Puff’. Characidium fasciatum. Nannostomus marginatus. The Betta is a temporary feature...
Neolamprologus leleupi. Steven’s planted community. Aspidoras cats roam Steven’s community.