Living with a Cichlid Maniac

An Article by Christine Hatzidakis

A couple of months ago, George (my husband) came to me with a splendid new idea. He said : “Hey darling, why don’t you write an article about your experience ? Your own view on fish keeping as an indirect experience”. To me two things were apparent from the first time. First, he had to do an update for MCH, it was obviously his turn to update his section and he was out of ideas for a new article. Second, this was the chance of a lifetime. Write down what I really think, in my own words, and being asked by him to do so. This is enough to fill you with inspiration, as if I needed any.

To start this story, I will confess it. It was my fault. Yes, believe it or not, it was my fault. He (George, I mean) was just doing his research things, when I came up with the disastrous idea to buy a goldfish for our son, Johnny. At first, there were no signs of what was to follow. I asked him to help us with the daily water changes and he happily did so. This should warn me ! He is not the kind of man to deal with these things and seem to enjoy it at the same time. The goldfish developed some bacterial infections and I started treating them, losing one fish after the other until I finally managed to save one. Then came the first sign.. George came by smiling and suggested that now I saved it we should get a better home for this poor guy and forget the fish bowl. Nothing special, just a small aquarium with the very basics. I asked him to come to the petshop with me since he knew more about the technical aspects.. Can you imagine that ? I had to ask him to come with me in a petshop with tanks.. Another age, like centuries ago. He came with me, and that was the point it all started. After discussing it with the petshop owner, it became clear that yes, we would buy a tank, a filter, some information leaflets, an air pump, a fluorescent tube and a heater. At that time, I didn’t realize the meaning of getting a heater since it was goldfish we were keeping.. silly me ! He also asked the very basics about cycling the tank and he left smiling, carrying the 80 liter (20 gallon) tank. He ensured me that no matter what the lady in the shop said, he would further investigate the matter in the internet.  

The day after, the tank was already setup (heater in place !) and George was spending half the day downloading and printing and the other half reading the printouts. He came to me every now and then with questions like “Did you know this ?” or statements like “we must not do this mistake, I will take care of that”. Thanks God it was a weekend so he had to wait for a couple of days. We then got back to the shop where he discussed some things with the owner, only this time he was not asking questions but rather making his points. After 15 minutes he came back with two bags holding 3 Tiger barbs and one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen.. Then came the red blood parrots, the blue botias, the firemouth cichlids and many more… Still, things were under control. Water changes were still measured in buckets and, although on a weekly basis, I never saw a spill of water on my carpets. After some months, the fish were growing, the plants were thriving and there were no losses, all of these factors preparing us for the next step..

At that point we visited a friend who had an 800 liter planted tank. This was the second mistake. George expressed his admiration and congratulated the owner while being very skeptic. A month later he came in my office, sat down and said  “You can’t have a variety in this small tank”. Well, he seemed right and the truth is that I was also impressed by the 800 liter tank so, why not try something bigger ? It would be a nice addition in our living room and George seemed to be quite good at it. After a couple of months, a 500 liter tank was in place. Two kiss gouramis were used for the cycling process while the old tank was moved to another spot waiting for the cycling to complete. After getting the fish in his new tank, he transferred the old one in our office where we added some new goldfish to keep company to our survivor. In the meantime, George decided (probably influenced by the 800 liter planted tank) to try the same. Of course, we invested in new lighting (6 fluorescent tubes in place) more fish (Tiger barbs are schooling fish and do better when they are 12 or more), while some new additions (carbon dioxide injection) were classified as “essential”. Of course, two months later it was obvious that the original 500 g cylinder which came with the kit was too small so we exchanged it with a 2.5 Kg one. When this was empty it was obvious (to George) that he needed two cylinders so one would always stay filled as a back up unit. The plants were thriving but there were no more buckets.. Now he used hoses for the water changes, while I observed the first spills on my carpets and – naturally – expressed my opposition to this ! George looked at me with a smile and just said “I will take care of it”. Yes, he did.. Next week I found my carpets rolled and transferred to the other side of the living room, while a smiling George was now spilling on the floor.

Things went like that for some time. He was keeping the tank population low, just in case he run across “that” fish which would shake him. As long as this didn’t happen he could still be described as a hobbyist. A serious hobbyist perhaps but not the African cichlid aficionados he was to become later. One day at the petshop the meeting I was afraid of, took place. A shining blue fish and its female were swimming in a small tank among other fish. After some minutes we knew it was called “electric blue hap” and it was an African cichlid. That was it. When we got back home he added the fish in the tank and, after making sure the fish was OK, he rushed to the computer.. More downloads, thousands of pages, and tens of books started to appear on his office while the biochemistry books were arranged in higher shelves in his library. Studying, asking questions, experimenting with the water and salts, checking tens of parameters daily.. Even his vocabulary and way of expression changed from normal to “fishy”. No matter what the issue was, in the end we were talking about fish (at best) or African Rift lake cichlids (at worst). We didn’t dare ask him to fix an electric outlet; the next moment he was talking about changing the electric board to make sure his tank would be on a separate circuit. The transformation from a fish hobbyist to a cichlid maniac was evident to everybody but him.

The moment that actually sealed this change was a Sunday morning several months later, when the electric blues spawned. George spent the whole day in front of the tank, not talking to anybody, just encouraging his pal (the male). He then subscribed to some lists for help and ordered more books. Actually he was complaining that there are no more Malawi titles to buy and read.. In one of those lists he found a guy who lived relatively close (in Italy) with whom he spent more time than us. This guy was supposed to be a guru in Malawi cichlids so he soon became his “alter ego”. When the female finally released, George used to check the raising tank at least twenty times daily. He started some crazy things (feeding 8 times daily, 90% water changes every other day) to ensure prompt growth. I am sure those fish were really happy (even enjoying themselves with his odd behavior) !!

Soon after we witnessed two more milestones which were just the “cherry on the cake”. The first was that he decided to start his own “fishy” site (which finally became the MCH you know after a couple of years). After some months, he proposed to his Italian friend to join forces. At that time I learned that his friend was called Francesco and that he was almost at the same stage as far as the progress of this disease is concerned. Months later, they spent more and more time on this site while he always came to us whenever he received a good comment about their site. Then came the awards (which we had to review as a family and learn the accompanying comments by heart, while some of them ended on the walls next to the tank – just to remind us that this was a “serious” thing). Then came an Italian lady who joined their site.. More time there, more comments, more awards, more papers on the wall.. And of course, less George !

And then came the “space” issue.. The fish seemed crowded in the 500 liter tank so.. “So what?” I replied. I will confess one thing. This was a brilliant example of a family fight, equivalent to World War II in many aspects. It had all the elements. Strategy (being sweet when you have to but firm when the hot issues were on the table), negotiations (what if this goes there and this here?), spying (using our son to find out what the other side was up to), economic sanctions (you are not building anything in this house if we don’t change the bathroom first).. you get the story. While I was desperately trying to avoid losing the war, George was already discussing with Andreas (yes, the guy who appears in MCH) the plans for the new tank. It was always referred to as a “future plan” but I should have known better. This was probably for my ears only. And then, one day (just before Christmas I must add) I found some people carrying a huge metal construction, which they placed in the middle of our living room. It took me 10 minutes to get my voice back but then I was out of control. A 3.2 meter metal construction in my beautiful living room !! Not even painted !! Just bare metal. After expressing (in a progressively less calm way) my opposition I retreated to my headquarters to think of it. Well, at least I would get my bathroom fixed. Little did I know that this metal thing would stay there for one more month driving me crazy every time I saw it. Eventually I decided I had to do something radical about it. So I went out to a special shop and asked about anti-corrosion paints and some other things related to metal constructions and marble. Yes, our floor is made of black marble so I knew I had to be prepared.

Therefore I painted the whole metal thing myself with anti-corrosion paint and then with a black coat so it would become less visible, since is was Christmas time. I even decorated it in Christmas fashion. Then suddenly, one day Andreas and another guy came by and started to construct the tank with George. I must confess they did their best not to make any damages in the house but still, those 3 meter pieces of thick glass and all the other stuff needed for the tank were much more than I had expected. I asked them if there was a possibility to have the New Year Eve without all this mess around and the answer was a “Yes” followed by a “probably”. That last word really killed me. Of course, they stopped for the New Year Eve and resumed work with the new year. In the meantime George was like an animal in a cage, waiting for the moment his beloved cichlids would swim in a “decent” place.

After this was finished, a new problem came up. To me, the words “aquarium” and “problem” are synonyms. If you say “big” aquarium, it simply means a “big” problem. The problem (this time) was the decoration issue. What kind of sand, what kind and size of rocks, how many of them and the alike. It didn’t take us long to catch the drift. George, Johnny and I went to the seaside (enjoying the snow flakes since it was a really cold January) to collect sand and rocks. We were collecting them, examining them, matching them by color, size and shape, packed them and we finally froze while washing them in the open ! There are still rocks and sands stored in our house – just in case we need to set up an emergency tank. You see, even hospital or raising tanks have to be fully aquascaped !

This is a never ending story. It never stopped, not till now and will probably never will. Every now and then there is a new, unexpected issue that may spoil our days (and nights !). I can ensure you that from the very first moment an African cichlid came in our home until now, I always feel like being in the middle of a “cichlid storm”. You simply never know when the next “cichlid” hurricane will hit you. You just have to be prepared and assume it can happen anytime ! Which means that I never feel bored in my home. Thanks God I have not only one but two cichlid maniacs.

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 Note: This article appeared in FAMA, May 2001 issue.


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