The Aquatic Gardner - Jan 2004
Kids and the Hobby
Nothing succeeds like success; few things can turn a young mind off a delightful hobby like fishkeeping as failure. Woe betide any person who lets an animal, especially one with a name, expire to the great beyond.
This is however, how I obtained my first fishtank. My bother got one for his birthday. Within 3 weeks it was a cloudy mess with a few floaters; he gave it to me. It seemed like an innocuous act how could he possibly know what would become of that? But I digress...
So, what's needed for a kids first fishtank has to be pretty foolproof, and it has to hold their interest. Hopefully it'll spark more than that but your mileage may vary on this point. And, why yes, I just happen to have a recipe. But wait! There's more!
Like many aquarists characterized by (non-fish) friends and family as "a little odd" for having so many fishtanks, I have a long suffering wife who is not exactly "a fish person", that is to say she doesn't really find them interesting. I can't really say she actually likes them. In fact I'm reasonably certain she'd be quite happier if I collected stamps or something that wasn't a) web and b) eats. None the less, this recipe I'm talking about here is not only fairly foolproof but it won my wife over. She now has a tank and there is no mistaking that it's her tank, her fish, her plants and "oh no you can get that thing out of there I like it the way it is just tank thank you my dear husband". So I claim is has decent "curb appeal".
The tank I have in mind here, suitable for wives and kids both, is fairly simple. Now, you can probably change things in this recipe and it would probably work just find as long as you keep the same general theme, but what I'm really doing here is describing a setup that actually works - this tank has been going for almost a decade now with nothing other than very minor routine maintenance.
So what is this magic formula? Easy, Crytpcorynes, Endlers and play box sand.
Are you off your nut, Sexton? Impossible to find livebearers, plants known for being finicky and melting down and a substrate every aquarium book says never to use?
Yup. Works for me.
As of this writing it is unclear if Endlers livebearers are just a race, or population of guppies or do they perhaps differ from guppies enough that it's reasonable to conclude they are not guppies but another as yes undescribed species. Other than a different (and fairly consistent) color patterning and a difference in the gonopodium there really isn't much difference between them and guppies. If it were up to me, and with what I know right not I'd say they're just a race of guppies and not a distinct species. If we look at some closely allied cousins of these live bearing tooth carps by hopping the viviparous fence over to the egg laying tooth carps - the killifish - it's easy to find fish that are the same species but look very very different. Take for example Fp. gardneri. It's not hard to find two very dissimilar fish within the gardneri species complex.
But, kids and wives (doesn't have to be a wife, I'm just saving time here by not typing "non-fishkeeping otherwise disinterested significant other") won't care as to their funny charges taxonomic status, what they will care about is they're amazingly cool. They're rare, odd for a livebearer to be sure, and for no good reason, they breed like... well, I was going to say rabbits, but rabbits are slow by comparison, lets just say their nickname of "Endless Livebearers" is not at all misplaced. Add to this the fact they're active fish that are not shy, they eat anything, will live in any water that can even marginally support life and have the cachet that you may never see them in a pet shop. Other than the fact they may be a bit tricky to obtain they really are the ideal beginners fish and will forgive sins that, say, a molly wouldn't.
Finding some, since they are very very seldom sold in pet shops is a bit of an issue, but one the net can help with. They're available from the usual fish oriented online auction services and there's an Endlers breeders registry at: http://www.bertmartucci.com/endlers/cgi-bin/yabb/YaBB.cgi but it appears not to be working at the moment. Hopefully by press time it will be. At any rate it's not really too hard to find Endlers, they're some in every major American city and you don't really get a pair of these fish to start you usually get a "starter culture", usually a nets worth dragged casually through a crowded tank. Typically this might br two mature males, just under an inch long, a female and 4 or 5 juveniles or various sizes.
As long as you feed them and change the water regularly (10-30% weekly) they'll be fine just about forever, and they'll eat just about anything. The only thing you have to be careful of with Endlers is overcrowding and this sneaks up on you very craftily as they quietly reproduce like, well, Endlers and in only a matter of a few months you will have many more fish than your tank can safely handle. For this reason I'd suggest a 20 or preferably 30 gallon tank to start out with; these are available cheaply used and so they don't need to be budget breakers. You will have no problems getting rid of extra Endlers, just look what you had to go through to obtain some in the first place.
I use two large sponge filters, kind that have a cylinder of foam around a plastic frame. Driven by air, they seem to do the job just fine. I do move quite a bit of air though them though.
Illumination is fluorescent and there are many options available to you there. For the past few years I've used those screw in fluorescent "bulbs" made to replace incandescent lights. They work. Now, anybody that knows anything about lighting for plant growth can tell you how wrong these thigns are for aquarium lighting. And while it's true almost any other fluorescent setup would be better, allow me to repeat: they work. The nice thing about them is you can take an old hood meant to hold incandescent lights and screw a couple of these babies in and you're off to the races. Use the largest wattage ones you can find, I'm using a pair of 23W "bulbs" and am happy with them. Expensive a few years back, these things have come down a lot and high cost is no longer really a barrier to having an aquarium lit with fluorescents.
If you're getting the drift here that budget is a consideration for tanks for kids you're right. While it would be nice to be the parent of the next Rosario LaCorte, there's a roughly equal chance the whole thing just won't work out and they really want a hamster. Or a hermit crap. Or tree frogs, or a dog... Oh that this were only theoretical for me; I have a young daughter who seems destined to be a zoo keeper.
For substrate I've latched onto something that is not only very cheap but seems to work better than anything I've tried so far: fine beach sand. Now, I have friends that go dig it up from lake beds but, high rolling big spender that I am I actuall pay the four dollars for a 100 pound bag of kids play box sand.
You have to deal with this stuff outdoors, the silica dust is gives off is not fit for man nor beast, you want to get this stuff wet as soon as possible and you'll need to wash it well - it makes a heck of a mess if you don't wash all the fine dust out, enough to clog a diatom filter a couple of times till you get it all out. If you do it in small batches it goes a little easier, but yes this is the worst part of this whole setup; it is a bit of a pig of a job. But the stuff really does work well.
Now, at the bottom of the aquarium, under all this sand I put a half inch of well composted cow manure and peat moss in equal proportions, some steel wool and some red potters clay. Sounds disgusting doesn't it? But, plants roots expect to find these things and while it's true that plain old rust isn't usable by plants, under anaerobic conditions rust will be converted to a form that is usable by plants. You have to seal this gunk in really well though, so you'll put 4 or 5" of well washed fine beach sand on top of it and then slowly fill the tank. It will probably go all cloudy almost immediately because of the dust still in the sand - you simply can't get it all and at this point I like to use a diatom filter to clear it up for he first 24 hours. Remember all that money you saved by buying a used tank, cheap fluorescents and cheaper sand? Well done! Now go buy a diatom filter. You won't use it often but when you do it can turns a heartbroken child's cloudy disastrous over fed mess into a crystal clean healthy tank again in, literally minutes.
I'm not sure why I settled on Cryptocoryne as the plant of choice for this setup, I suppose it was the culmination of many years of trying various plants and coming to the conclusion that nothing else seemed to work as well as a stand of a single species of Cryptocoryne. I couldn't tell you what specie it is - I bought it was "versicolor" from a fellow hobbyist who bought it at an auction under that name. He and I both knew there's no such species of course. It's probably a wendtii form and what I'd recommend is finding a local hobbyist (or in this age of superhighways and V10 passenger vans, local can mean 100 mile or more) that grows a lot of plants and see if you can get a dozen pieces of what they consider to be their fastest growing crypt. Resist the urge to have more than one plants species, you're keeping this tank simple and when a fast growing crypt takes over a tank it really is fairly breathtaking.
it's going to take a while to grow out to fill up the tank, say 6 months, but the effect will be worth it. And who knows what this will inspire in the mind of an inquisitive child?