Hobbyist Gallery - Travis Simonson

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Travis Simonson Email: travis@simonson.us Englewood, Colorado, United States

First off, I would like to thank you guys for being my inspiration.  Second, I would like to apologize for sending you so many pictures.  I am an avid African cichlid keeper and never even suspected that I could keep plants in a tank with these fellows until I found your site.  In the last year since I found your site I feel like I’ve made some serious inroads into keeping African cichlids with plants.  Thank you so much for showing me that convention was wrong.  Here are the details of my tank:

Tank Size: 125 Gallons

Species Selection:           Malawian Mbuna Exclusively

                                    Labidochromis caeruleus “Lion’s Cove”

                                    Labeotropheus fuelleborni

                                    Pseudotropheus acei “Luwala Reef” Yellow Fin

                                    Pseudotropheus demasoni “Pombo Rocks”

                                    Pseudotropheus elongatus “Usisya”, Wild-caught F0

Lighting: 440 Watts (mixed Actinic420, 10000K, and 6700K compact fluorescent)
Filtration: Two Rena Filstar XP3 Canister Filters with Cell-Pore BioMedia
CO2: Pressurized with AB AquaMedic Reactor 1000 and Milwaukee pH Controller
UV Sterilizer: Aqua 25w Sterilizer
Heaters: Two 300w Hydor In-line Heaters

pH: 7.2 (CO2 controller-moderated from 8.2 pH)
KH: 12-14 dKH
GH: 16-18 dGH
NO3: ~15 ppm
PO4: ~1.5 ppm

Ammonia: 0 ppm

Nitrites: 0 ppm

CO2: 25-30 ppm

Temperature: 79 F

I perform weekly 50% water changes and fertilize with potassium nitrate, mono-potassium phosphate, potassium sulfate, Plantex CSM+B, chelated iron, and glutaraldehyde.  I buffer the water using sodium bicarbonate.  Starting pH is 8.2 but drops to 7.2-7.3 after CO2 supplementation.  I have done extensive testing to evaluate the effects of this lowered pH on my Mbuna and they show no ill signs.  Their coloration is still brilliant, they take food extremely well, and all species are breeding like rabbits J  I have several generations of fry that I have raised from my initial stock and have never lost a fish to disease or illness.

The substrate is a mixture of Caribsea’s Cichlid Sand (a carbonate-buffered sand substrate) and Caribsea’s Eco-Complete (a nutrient-supplemented planted-tank substrate).  My tank is decorated with a form of rock known as “lace rock” that is found in the American Southwest.  It is extremely porous and shot-through with many small holes that provide perfect cover for fry and small fish.  I have used the lace rock to provide traditional cave-like cover for my fish.

Plants kept run the gamut of species that can be kept with or without CO2 supplementation: Echinodorus x barthii, Pogostemon stellata “Fine- and Broad-leaf”, Elatine triandra, Riccia fluitans, Glossostigma elatinoides, Blyxa japonica, Lilaeopsis brasiliensis, Isoetes japonica, Ludwigia glandulosa, Myriophyllum mattogrossense “Green”, Cyperus helferi, Ammania sp. “Bonsai”, Rotala macrandra, Limnophila aromatica, Limnophila sessiliflora, Pogostemon helferi (“Downoi”), Cryptocoryne wendtii “Green Gecko”, Cryptocoryne wendtii “Mi Oya”, Cryptocoryne crispatula var “Balanciaga”, Anubias barteri v. nana, Anubias barteri v. nana “Petite”, Microsorum pteropus “Philippine”, Microsorum pteropus “Windelov”, Micranthemum umbrosum, Hydrocotyle verticellata “Dwarf Form”, Sagittaria weatherbiana, Ranunculus papulentus, Nuphar japonicum var Formosa and many others.

I understand that this is a very non-traditional style of Malawian cichlid tank.  I’ve found that my mbuna adapt extremely well to the planted environment.  The additional cover provided by the plants has allowed me to keep breeding groups of every species in a community environment and successfully raise fry of every species to maturity in the same tank, even with predatory males hunting them.  The success of the fry only reinforces my desire to keep my mbuna with plants.  It is simply the most fascinating thing I have ever done.

MCH Verdict

I always believed that a tank should be as closely decorated as possible to the original habitat of the fishes that are kept in there and I still do. I can't blame the owner though for being inspired by George's planted Mbuna tank, especially when he has done such an extremely well job and that you have to conclude that both plants and fish thrive in there! On a comical note you could say that the fish are maybe overwhelmed by their beautiful habitat so that they leave the plants untouched? The regular water changes and strict maintenance sound top-notch. The first rate technical equipment that's installed completely out of sight is also very neat. The selection of Mbuna in the tank is also very nice with even some wildcaught species. An additional plus is that there is no overcrowding with still a lower aggression level as there never have been losses among the fishes. All in all this tank is very attractive, well decorated and maintained, so a big bravo for that but I still find the presence of Mbuna in a planted tank a bit bizarre.

I do NOT like this tank! As plain and simple as this, and here comes why: This is (in my personal opinion) just a "living picture" which was set up (while spending a lot of money!) just because of the owner's simple desire to show "others" - possibly by displaying it in the living room - what he could come up with... period! If your aim is (and it  should be) to learn about nature/ fishes/ and their interactions (I guess this is not the owner's main target) this tank means almost nothing ... The tank is nice to look at (indeed) but looks (especially if you have seen the real lake Malawi) completely unnatural - a fake. This tank is NOT (and kept like this it will never be ...) a "downsized" (considering the necessary small size of any tank) part of Lake Malawi... What I meam is: - My amazonian tank has a "muddy water", many bogwood, while plants are reduced to the very minimum. Sometimes I even add dry leaves in it (to mimic those fallen from the forest canopy and for catfishes to chew...) - My Madagascan tanks are set up with bogwoods and rocks and plants are kept to "zero" by the intruders (my long time kept giants I can't put elsewhere: which is a perfect example of the limited space any tank will offer you ...). Otherwise I would have some plants in it but, nonetheless, it looks similar to other Mad tanks. This is NOT the case for this M'buna tank ... None of the many Malawi tanks I have set up ever resembled "that" tank while this holds true for 99% of the Malawi cichlid tanks seen all over the world (this must mean something, I think). It is definitely not a problem of wrong or inadequate "technical equipment" (the tank keeper looks like having in use absolutely up-to-date apparel). It is a problem of giving the wrong "feeling". That tank "says", to me, almost nothing ... when looking at it my mind "tells" me to look (in it) for characins, small amazonian cichlids/catfishes and the alike... A Malawi tank (and everybody has the opportunity to built astonishing Malawi set-ups) is - and should be - something completely different. Those two M'buna males fighting on the "green carpet" are - to say so! - rather freaky !!! Anyway, there are some things in this tank which are perfectly handled: fish compatibility, total bio-load, maintenance schedule, adequate support equipment as well as an obvious good care the owner takes of his livestock. These things have to be taken into account, too. However, because of all those things I don't like in this tank, I am forced to give it an overall (very) low rating.

This tank is indeed controversial in every sense of the word. Take judging it or instance. There is no question that it is one of the most beautiful tanks I have seen housing mbuna. There is no doubt that it is the kind of tank everybody would like to have at home and shows the decorative value of a well kept tank. However, in this site, we have to examine more than that. In terms of accurate recreation of the natural biotope it should score really low. Those thriving plants have nothing to do with the murky, sandy substrate of Lake Malawi, whereas the rocks (one of the key elements in the Lake, especially for m'buna) are not the key element in the tank. Then comes the question.. will those plants last ? The answer is obviously yes, since the tank is almost a year old therefore this would show already. This can be seen in one of the photos which shows intense photosynthesis. Will the fish appreciate this "alien" environment? Obviously yes, since we can see them in top notch condition, there are even fry carrying females in there while the very strong light is indeed part of their natural biotope (unlike planted Discus tanks for example). Next step is to see the water parameters. Although not "optimal" for the fish kept in it, on close inspection, only the pH is a bit out of range, although still on the alkaline side. So, the tank is not really out of the acceptable criteria, is it? Spending some more time we can see that even the rocks are there to provide the necessary hiding places although the fish will obviously use the dense vegetation, too. This combination may, in fact, result in a higher survival rate as compared to the classic sand / rock combination. Do I sound as being a bit biased? It may be because I really am. I like this tank, I appreciate the time, effort and almost continuous maintenance it needs, I see that both parts of it thrive in it - which means carefully taking all parameters into account - so I would like it to score higher. On the other hand, some points will have to be deducted, I know that and I am sorry, but the purpose of this gallery is also to "educate" people on what is more appropriate for their fish. Thus, although I like it a lot (after all, it was this site that posted a report about an m'buna fully planted tank for the first time, 7 years ago), I think that the overall rating will (and should) finally put it closer to the "baseline". . 

Overall rating by MCH :  77/100

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