THE SPICE OF LIFE

We re­visit the star of one of this year’s most pop­u­lar PFK reader vis­its.

Practical Fishkeeping (UK) - - Welcome - WORDS: STEVEN BAKER, FOREWORD AND PHO­TOS: NATHAN HILL

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.

Lam­pro­lo­gus kendali.

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.

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