John Carlin interview

PictureJohn Carlin – producer and host of Fincasters YouTube channel.

If you’ve ever conducted a Web search for anything, you understand how serendipitous it can be. I unintentionally stumble across new and exciting information all the time when I’m searching for various things. It’s the same when I’m looking on YouTube for a video of some kind. In fact, serendipity is what’s responsible for this interview.

I don’t recall exactly what I was looking for, but several months ago I came across this great YouTube channel called Fincasters. Described as “…your video fish fix,” the channel is where excellent video production meets various aspects of the aquarium hobby. Who could ask for more? Covering marine and freshwater, videos range from the installation of monster aquariums to coral propagation to cichlid species spotlights.

Meet John Carlin, the man who produces and hosts Fincasters. I reached out to John a few weeks ago about appearing on the blog, and he graciously agreed.  

The Cichlid Stage: How would you best describe Fincasters if you were soliciting new viewers?

I would call it a video magazine.  If you think of the topics you see in various aquarium magazines, then you know what you might find on my channel and on my website. I will touch on anything from planted aquariums, to reefs, to profiles of interesting and rare species of fish, to interviews with some of the people who really drive the hobby.  I also have a section called “Tentacles” where I talk about how the aquarium hobby touches the environment.  A negative example would be invasive species, where people release their fish back into the environment (e.g., Snakeheads, Lionfish).  Positive examples would be aquarium companies helping re-build coral reefs and supporting organizations like the Coral Restoration Foundation and Project Piaba.

My blog at is emerging.  It’s often more timely than some of the videos and reflects my successes, failures, and of course my thoughts.

TCS: What was the motivation or impetus for you to start Fincasters?

As you may know, my full time job is being a television news anchor.  My entire career, which started in 1983, has been shooting, editing and writing video stories for television.  I’ve also been a fish geek since I was about 7 years old, catching sunfish from the river and trying to keep them in a bucket or an aquarium.  As an adult, my son Ben and I became customers at the local reef shop, and when it came on the market, we bought it.  Eventually we sold it, keeping the maintenance side of the business.  Today Carlin Aquarium Systems is Ben’s full time job, and the business is still growing.  Our largest account is Center in the Square, where we maintain a reef system that is pushing 8,000 gallons, a 400 gallon seahorse aquarium, twin floor-to-ceiling jellyfish cylinders, and a 400 gallon Amazon predator tank.  We also raise and sell corals in the system and return 100-percent of the profits to the general fund of Center in the Square.  Those who are interested should check out

With the advent of YouTube, Fincasters emerged as a natural combination of my two passions.  I try to take the story telling techniques I learned in television and bring that to a YouTube audience. 

TCS: Most people have no idea how much effort is required to produce quality videos like yours. Tell the readers what all goes into producing Fincasts, as you call them.

I appreciate you noticing this.  I couldn’t do it unless I really enjoyed it.  It takes about 8 hours to produce a single Fincast.  Sometimes it’s less, but not often.  I spend a lot of time shooting video and sometimes working on still photography.  My recent Fincast on red cherry shrimp included some still shots I really liked, but I probably spent three hours just shooting, uploading and post producing the stills.   I’m always comparing my work on Fincasters to what we do at the TV station, where the equipment is top of the line and the staff is incredible. 

Sometimes it’s hard to measure up.  I have to find a level of quality that I can live with when it comes to the video, editing, and hosting. I feel like can’t just throw something out there and be happy with it. On the other hand, it’s mostly a hobby, and I have to save some time for the actual care of the aquariums, and – my wife points out – the rest of my life.

There’s a quality/quantity equation to take into consideration.  I see lots of videos that are hand held, no special lighting or audio — with someone talking the viewer through a set up, demonstration or showing off a rare fish, and they get lots of views and plenty of “thumbs up.”  Many of these are very watchable and enjoyable.  That’s just not my style.  And honestly — I enjoy pushing the production values and sharing my information in my own way.

TCS: How do you decide the focus or subject of your Fincasts?

Usually, it’s what interests me at the moment.  If I’m on a reefing kick, then you’ll see the latest on whatever I’m adding or subtracting from my 120g reef.  Viewers seem to really like fish profiles, so I’m always looking to share information on any new fish.  Of course, I’m always looking for an excuse to bring another new fish into one of my systems.  I also have a soft spot for planted tanks, and cichlids.  I just set up a desktop jellyfish tank, so that was the topic for the last week of February.   I can tell you that my analytics suggest cichlids are the most popular with viewers.  I tend to go back and forth with respect to African vs. New World cichlids.  Right now I’m more inclined to be keeping South American cichlids.

I’m also an opportunist.  So if I go to a trade show or consumer show and someone is showing something really interesting, like a $20,000 angelfish, or a rare coral, I’ll do an interview and use the opportunity to video or photograph the fish.  Those videos are typically quite popular.

I’ve also enjoyed doing interviews with people like Rick Biro.  He grows cichlids on a farm in Florida for wholesale now, but years ago he was one of the first people to bring African cichlids to the United States.  He even named a number of them – Kenyi, VC-10, Zebra etc.  Not only does he know everything you can imagine about the various species but he has fascinating stories about traveling to Africa — (in one case not knowing he was in a dangerous area because of hippos.) finding these fish for the hobby, developing the contacts, and bringing them to the U.S.  At the end of the day, I’m still a reporter and I love it when I find someone with a good story.  

PictureNeolamprologus tretocephalus. Photo courtesy of John Carlin.

TCS: Fincasters now has well over 100 episodes. What are a couple of your favorites and why?

I tend to prefer the Fincasts that deal with livestock as opposed to equipment.  A lot of people enjoy tinkering with filtration and other hard goods.  My joy comes from sharing the behaviors and habitats of the fish and inverts.  Of course, you need the right equipment and products to create those environments – so it’s always a means to an end. Having said that, videos about unique fish like the Tanganyikan Goby Cichlid or the Black Widow Frontosa are good examples.  Because aquarium space at home is always at a premium, I tend to prefer dwarf cichlids to the larger ones, so segments on Leleupi cichlids or the Dwarf Flag Acara are good ones.  On the marine side, the Pinnatus batfish video is cool, and I really like the video of the walking dendro, which is a coral that lives on a worm that pulls it around the bottom of the aquarium.

TCS: You’ve shot many episodes of cichlids, what are some of your favorite cichlids and why?

I really like discus, but they don’t like me.  More specifically, they don’t like my water.  Same for Apistogrammas.   They don’t do well long term in my aquariums, and my schedule (ok — and my personality) doesn’t permit me to stay focused on additives the way I need to be. I’m intrigued by the water parameters I’ve been able to establish with the AquaVitro Aquasolum substrate in my new freshwater shrimp tank.  There may be more discus in my future.  My current favorite cichlids are the Gold Rams and Geophagus that live in the 55g in my office.


Planted shrimp tank with Aquasolum substrate. Photo courtesy of John Carlin.

PictureNeolamprologus tetracanthus. Photo courtesy of John Carlin.

TCS: Describe the various aquariums you currently have, including those in your fish room if you still have it. 

I currently have a 55g planted aquarium with CO2 injection that has a mixture of cichlids, plecos, loaches, rummy nose tetras, and Australian threadfin rainbows in addition to a cool farlowella cat that I’ve had for several years.  The Geophagus and a single discus are the stars of that tank. 
I also have a 55g planted freshwater shrimp tank, with neocaridina species such as red cherry shrimp.  I’m anxious to do more with this aquarium, as I’m new to shrimp keeping.  It’s way more engaging than I expected.
My fish room is losing a battle with my wife who wants the space for storage.  (Sound familiar?)  Right now it houses only a 20g long with a few odd cichlids.  At one point it had five aquariums ranging from 10 to 29 gallons, with various species of fish and a quarantine tank.

My 120g reef occupies a great deal of time and money.  I really enjoy the marine side of the hobby and invest a lot of time in the fish and corals in that aquarium.  And I just added a 2-gallon jellyfish cylinder to my office – which is pretty cool.

In addition, there is a Figure Eight puffer 20g high tank on my desk at the tv station.  I’m pretty sure I’m the only news anchor in America who can claim that.

PictureDwarf Flag Acara. Photo courtesy of John Carlin.

TCS: Describe your ultimate cichlid aquarium set up?

It would be a tank 6-8 feet long, 240 gallons — planted, and big driftwood — with discus and schools of South American tetras.  Big schools of rummy nose and probably cardinal tetras.  There would be several pairs of dwarf cichlids occupying other parts of the aquarium.  Apistos, Dwarf Flag Acaras, maybe Rams. There would be a school of cory catfish as well.  Not sure what species, but a school for sure.  I’ve never had a tank where I could make the cory cats school the way I have read that they do.   I really like to have a balance in my tanks with the appropriate fish in all parts of the water column.  I always need a few oddball, niche fish as well like the farlowella catfish or something you only notice in the aquarium occasionally.

TCS: Tell the readers about your next cichlid focused Fincast.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be setting up an aquarium for either discus, apistogrammas, or both.  As I mentioned above, with the Aquasolum substrate – which creates, soft, acidic water conditions  (pH about 6.8 and a KH of 0-2 and GH 1- 4 with my tap water) – I may be able to do a low tech planted tank that would make these fish happy.  I’m also looking at a 75g option for one of our clients that would be all male Peacocks/Aulonocara with lots of Texas holy rock.  This tank has the potential to be a showstopper.  The set up of this tank would make an excellent Fincast.

TCS: Would you welcome suggestions from the readers on what to cover in a future Fincast? If so, how should they get in touch with you?

I always welcome thoughts of any kind from readers or viewers.  They can respond with comments to any of my videos, follow me on Instagram (Fincasters), Facebook (Fincasters), Twitter @fincasters, or send me an email at

I’m always open to suggestions and ideas.  My only real constraint is space in my aquariums.
I’m interested in finding a way to add more tank tours to the website.  I know people have great tanks, and more and more hobbyists are able to do basic video editing.  Good cell phone video/stills are usually enough to give viewers a tour.   What does the blogosphere think? 

Never enough Texas holey rock

Those of you who keep Rift Lake cichlids, especially mbuna from Malawi or any number of Tanganyikans, know that Texas holey rock are awesome rocks. In my opinion, you can never have enough, simply because each rock is unique and, together, they offer so many creative cave building possibilities. 

Texas holey rock. Photo courtesy of the author.

Above is a photo of the 7 pieces I bought from my LFS today. Both of my current tanks contain a lot of this rock, which I believe, from a decorating flexibility perspective, provides the most options, especially if you’re trying to maximize caves. 

Everyone has their own preference for rock size, shape, etc. Personally, I like the smaller rocks because they 1) provide more stacking options, 2) they’re easier to handle/clean, and 3) they’re less likely to cause a major problem in the tank if they tumble. 

Altolamprologus calvus “black”


Dominant male A. calvus. Photo courtesy of the author.
Altolamprologus calvus are not overly aggressive cichlids, though male-to-male aggression is common. In my 75g tank I have three calvus – two males and a female. I purchased them together as juveniles when they were the same size and was thus unable to sex them at the time. Now that they’re sub-adults, their genders are more apparent.


75g Tanganyikan tank, recently re-scaped with Texas holy rock. Photo courtesy of the author.
Typically, two males in a 75g is probably dicey. However, because cichlids have individual personalities, it is always possible that you can own docile specimens of a species not known to be docile.Pictured above is my dominant male. Needless to say, I would consider him the tank boss. The dome-shaped structure that he’s facing is a ceramic cichlid cave, which he calls home and serves as the center of his territory. You can just make out the entrance on the right side. This cave is up against the glass on the left-side of the tank (see full tank photo above). He doesn’t venture very far from the cave. In fact, he never goes farther than the center of the tank and always remains to the left of the foreground plant in the full tank photo.

The sub-dominant male in the tank doesn’t really have a territory, even though there is another identical cave near the center of the tank. He’s pictured below and is almost a carbon copy of the dominant male. He’s usually hovering around the rocks in the center.  The two males don’t pay much attention to each other and there is definitely little chasing. They just simply stay apart. ​


Sub-dominant male A. calvus “black”. Photo courtesy of the author.
The lone female (pictured below) doesn’t get much attention from either male. In fact, the dominant male is less tolerant of her than the sub-dominant male. She and the sub-dominant male co-exist pretty peacefully in the right half of the tank. She’ll occasionally venture over to the left, but she usually stays on the back-side of the rock work where she’s less visible to the dominant male. You can barely see her in the full tank photo – she’s just to the left of the Hagen digital heater toward the rear of the tank. Notice her lighter color when compared to the two males.


Female A. calvus “black”. Photo courtesy of the author.

Please don’t disrespect the hobby

I’m generally loathe to get on a soap-box and share my frustrations but I’m going to here. In the interest of honesty and candor, let me say that there are many amateur fish keepers out there who keep cichlids….but shouldn’t. Over the years, I’ve learned, and continue to learn, a lot about these fish, the industry, the hobby, etc. Of the many things I’ve learned, one disturbing fact is that there are too many amateur aquarists who behave badly with respect to keeping these wonderful fish.

I’ve seen way too many tanks that contain multiple species of cichlids which are grossly incompatible or, worse, grow way too large for the tank they’re in. Often times the former is on purpose. Sure, any hobby can involve people that disrespect it. There are fish keepers who think it’s cool to have a contest where they plop a bunch of incompatible cichlids into a tank just to see which is the nastiest. That’s not what the hobby is about, and managing your tank this way disrespects these living creatures, not to mention the hobby itself. Please don’t keep these fish if your intent is to watch one fish destroy another.


An overcrowded cichlid tank. Photo from
If you’re keeping a handful of Oscars in a 55 gallon, please understand that you’re depriving a beautiful cichlid species of a legitimate life. Sure, Oscars are cute when they’re juvenile size. So are juvenile elephants, cows, horses, etc. You wouldn’t confine any of them to a 10′ x 10′ shed, so why confine a fish (or several) that can reach a foot or more in length to a tank that’s only 4′ x 1′? I’m not picking on Oscars because there are many other cichlid species to which this applies. Oscars are just highly popular. Serious aquarists place considerable value on the lives of their fish. Purposely keeping big fish in small tanks disqualifies you from being a serious aquarist. ​

Fish room envy

lIf you have a fish room, consider yourself fortunate. Us cichlidophiles always wish we had more room because, let’s face it, we always need one more tank, right?

Sadly, I do not really have a room dedicated to fish tanks. My tanks have to share space with things like, you know, beds, sofas, desks, armoires, etc. I’m lucky that my wife is patient enough with my cichlid obsession to allow me to maintain two show tanks. She has also allowed me to commandeer a walk-in closet, affectionately referred to as “the fish closet,” pictured below.

The closet doesn’t actually contain any running tanks, but it does store all of my equipment and supplies. It also holds my breeding and quarantine tanks, for quick and easy access.


Fish closet photo courtesy of the author.

Some time ago, I posted about being a JIC (Just In Case) person. Because I maintain that philosophy with respect to fish keeping supplies, my fish closet stays packed. It’s hard to tell in the photo, but the closet currently holds one 40g breeder (with pine stand), two 20g longs, three 10g, and a 5.5 gallon tank (Ahhh, the magic of nesting!). That’s all in addition to countless filters (some still brand new), numerous water and air pumps, light fixtures, filter supplies, rocks, shells, hoses, spare parts, etc.

Authoritative information sources, Part 2

PictureImage of the January 2016 cover of Cichlid News.

As a follow-up to the previous post, another good source of cichlid information is Cichlid News. Published quarterly by a company called Aquatic Promotions of Miami Florida, the periodical is dedicated exclusively to cichlids. Each issue contains profiles of as many as four genus and species along with a What’s New Across the World section that highlights specific African and New World species. Also in each issue is a directory of cichlid dealers around the country.

Authors include a who’s who of cichlid experts such as Ad Konings, Paul Loiselle, Eric Hanneman, Laif DeMason, Ron Coleman, Lee Newman, Uwe Werner, Juan Miguel Artigas Azas, and Patrick Tawil just to name a few. Edited by Wayne Leibel, a cichlid expert himself, each issue is also jam packed with excellent color photos. ​

Visit the site and subscribe. Available in print and digital formats, the magazine is a great addition to your library. Back issues are also available.

Authoritative information sources


Image from

Educating yourself about cichlids (e.g., their morphology, taxonomy, ecology) is not overly complicated. Plenty of resources are available, including books, magazines, websites, and even social media. The key to good information is the source. Don’t underestimate this. With an abundance of inaccurate/bad information easily available, it can be difficult to distinguish the good from the bad.

If you really want to dig into the authoritative information about cichlids, consider primary sources such as scholarly publications. Simply go to Google Scholar and enter a search term or terms. Sure, there are other online search tools, but Google Scholar is better than most, especially if you learn how to use it.

Many scholarly research papers are freely available online. Yes, most of these are heavily laden with scientific terms because that’s what they are, science publications. However, you don’t have to read the whole paper. Skip to the results/discussion/conclusion sections. Typically, the results of the research are understandable by the lay person. Furthermore, the results have been vetted by other researchers, generally ensuring that what you read is accurate. ​If you want to take it a step farther, dictate the context by contacting the author(s) directly. The affiliations of scholarly article authors are nearly always included on the title page of the article. If the affiliation is an academic institution, which it is most of the time, visit the institution’s website and search for the author’s name in the directory. E-mail addresses for professors and researchers are typically accessible.  If you have a specific question, especially related to their published research, ask them.  In fact, many scholars love to communicate with the public, and you would be surprised how many will respond to your inquiry.

Repurposing again

Want to get that fry food directly to the bottom of the tank without it going over all over the place? Want to be more precise filling those test tubes from the API test kits? Need to get a small blast of water in that crevice of your filter that you can’t reach with a brush when doing your routine maintenance?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, pictured below is something that will accomplish the task.


5 ml liquid dispensing syringe photo courtesy of the author.
Liquid dispensing syringes like this are easy to find and serve multiple purposes. You can pick them up at your local pharmacy, medical supply store, or purchase online. I have more than a dozen of them and use them all of the time. I’m sure you can find ways to use them too.

Diet variety


Photo courtesy of the author.

It should go without saying that the health of your fish is a product of multiple variables – genetics, physical environment, diet, age, etc. As an aquarist, you have control over some of these. One of the variables that’s easiest to control is the fishes’ diet. After all, the aquarium is a closed environment, and food must be introduced into it – unless your fish feed on each other or something else that grows in the tank.

There are plenty of food options available. Providing a laundry list of what cichlid foods are best isn’t the point of this post.  What I will say is that variety is beneficial.

My Tanganyikan food pantry consists of 15 different dry foods, from which I generally feed them a three food combination each day. Mathematically, this means I could feed them a different combination once a day for 455 consecutive days before they eat the same three foods together.

Send me a line…..or two


Animated GIF from
Just a quick note to the readers out there. If you like the blog, tell your friends and tell me too. Let me know what you think. I’m always interested in hearing from fellow cichlidophiles. Don’t be shy! Just go to my Contact page and send me a line or two. Tell me what you like, or don’t like, about the blog. I’m always interested in hearing from others. I’ve met a lot of great aquarists, and many who share my passion for cichlids, simply through e-mail.