Many of you already know today’s interviewee, Pam Chin. She’s no stranger to the cichlid community. In fact, she’s probably already forgotten more about cichlids than many of us will ever know.
Among her many accolades, which you can read about in the two previous interviews I’ve done with her (see the Interviews section of the blog or enter “Pam Chin” in the search box above), you can add the distinction of being the only person to have now done three interviews with The Cichlid Stage.
I won’t use space here going through all the things Pam has done as a cichlid aquarist. Instead, we’re going to focus on her latest visit to and explorations of Lake Tanganyika. We’ll also do a revisit of her fish house. You read that right. She doesn’t have a fish room, but rather a fish house.
Note: All photos courtesy of Pam Chin unless otherwise noted (she also holds the copyright to these).
Let’s get started!
It’s been a couple of years since you were at the lake. What were some of the most notable changes that you noticed?
The water level of the lake is the highest that I have ever seen it. I thought it was high two years ago, but it has gone up even more. The water usually does go up every year during the rainy season but by the time we get there in September or October the water has already gone back down. However, over the last few years, it has not gone down. I was really shocked when I got to the Mahale National Park. Not only was the water high, but lots of evidence that there had been some violent storms. At Kasiha where we stay in the National Park, the once huge beach was gone. Many dead trees and signs of the water flooding back more than 300’ from the shoreline. They had a pier, so you could tie up your boat, but it had been completely ripped out and half underwater. I know first-hand this is a big lake and I have been on it with big waves, but I have never seen this kind of damage.
Sadly, too much has been built too close to the shoreline, so do you move or do you hope the water will recede at some point. We know the water level has gone up and down relentlessly over the years, but usually we are talking over a period of 100 years, and we talk inches not feet. I had no idea it could rise that fast.
The typical shoreline of the lake is quite rocky, perfect habitat for the Julidochromis genus, one of your favorites. Talk about some of the julie species that you encountered in the lake and perhaps discuss how different their environment is in the lake from what us hobbyists typically provide in our home tanks.
They are one of my favorites for sure and, sadly, I don’t see them very often. They are a bit spooky, and I have a tendency to scare them, because I don’t see them until I am on top of them, and then they are diving into the rocks. Usually if you back up and wait a little bit, the spooked fish will come back out, but not Juli’s. I have waited and waited for that darn fish but they never come back out.
I think my most memorable encounter was with Julidochromis ornatus at Kasakalawe in Zambia. This is the collection point for the classic J. ornatus that first came into the hobby in the 80’s. They are absolutely beautiful with clear, distinct horizontal stripes and a nice yellow hue. The substrate there is quite different. It is almost like round river rocks, with sand and gravel in between. They were easy to observe between these smaller rocks because they couldn’t really get away. I only saw individuals, and all about the same size, so impossible to try and sex them. When you see a fish in the wild that you have kept in your aquarium, it is pretty amazing.
Julidochromis dickfeldi, J. marlieri, and J. transcriptus are found in the rocky habitats, while Julidochromis regani and J. ornatus are found in the rocks but with sand and sediment nearby. They prefer to spawn on the roof of a cave or crevice and sometimes these “caves” are deep within the rocks. All of which is easy to recreate in the aquarium.
I actually think hobbyists do pretty good with the Juli’s. It is easy to bury a flowerpot in a pile of rocks, and your all set. They do well in smaller aquariums, and they will raise their own fry. That is a big plus, especially if you are just starting to venture into breeding cichlids. For me, the joy is watching them raise their fry, and when you start getting offspring that are different ages, grazing on the rocks, it is really the best ever!
You’ve been a big fan of the Julidochromis genus for some time. Anything new about them you want to talk about or maybe any new genera or species you’ve developed a keen interest in?
Just when I think I have a handle on the Juli’s, I have come to realize that there are far more questions than answers. Below are a few updates and interesting tidbits about Julidochromis.
It isn’t new news, but I was shocked 15 years ago when I first learned that J. transcriptus and J. ornatus are likely the same fish and likewise with J. marlieri and J. regani. One reason is because J. transcriptus and J. ornatus are not found together anywhere and neither are J. marlieri and J. regani. This is usually the first argument for a new species to be described, the new species and the old species are both found at the same site. But, come on, 15 years later and we still don’t know for sure?
We are coming off a period of time when any fish that looked a little bit different, we would think it is a separate species. Lately that is not used as often as it was in the past. Don’t feel bad if you struggle telling some of these Juli’s apart. The scientists are struggling too!
And then there is Julidochromis sp. Kombe. Julidochromis sp. transcriptus Gombe is now Julidochromis sp. Kombe. Apparently, we have been spelling Gombe wrong all these years. And we still can’t tell the difference between transcriptus and ornatus.
This poor Julie has had many names, and fish keepers have wrestled with knowing the differences between the typical Julidochromis transcriptus Bemba and this Julidochromis from Kombe and, unfortunately for the hobby, there are some mixes/crosses going around. So be aware and do your research before you buy.
At one point it was believed to be a dwarf marlieri, one reason was the stripe below the eye. One of the defining marks of J. marlieri and J. regani is the facial stripe below the eye. Note that with transcriptus and ornatus the stripe is through the bottom of the eye but not below the eye. Also, hobbyists have reported that the stripe below the eye of J. sp. Kombe is not always present on their offspring, just another point of confusion. The latest info seems to tell us that it is possibly a natural hybrid of J. ornatus and J. marlieri.
One more interesting point about facial markings. J. sp. Kombe was also used in an experiment in an aquarium. Offered digital pictures of different Juli’s, it was found to recognize conspecifics by their cheek markings. It also showed cheek marking recognition regardless of the pattern on the fish – vertical stripes, horizontal stripes, or both together. I have long said, only the Juli’s need to know who is whom! But it seems as though the cheek markings may be an important indication.
Julidochromis sp. Kombe still remains popular in the hobby, but we should not keep it with other Juli’s until they get this all sorted out.
Scientists call Juli’s “thick lip slender cichlids,” and those lips are a big clue to what they eat. They appear to have extra flesh around the lips, and several Juli’s use these lips to crush little bugs and shrimps as they feed across the rocks. As hobbyists, we have long known that Juli’s graze on the sponges in the Lake from the studies of their gut contents. However, it seems that with some Juli species it is more than casual grazing. For example, studies have shown that Julidochromis marlieri are actually seeking out the sponges, and it has been recorded that 80% of its feeding was from sponges, not only ingesting whatever goodies were stuck on the sponge but including the sponge itself. And they must have been doing this for quite a while to acquire the lips to do it. But, perhaps not as long as Chalinochromis.
Chalinochromis and Julidochromis are more closely related than you think. Did you know that the one of the main differences between the two genera are warts on the lips? Chalinochromis also have fleshy lips and they have “warts” on their lips, so they can more easily grab and hold on to bugs, shrimps, and sponges. In addition, with these specialized lips they are able break the tough skin of the sponges. Chalinochromis and Julidochromis have found a special niche since sponges are lake wide. Apparently, there are very few fish that graze and eat the sponges, so some Juli’s and Chalinochromis have taken advantage of that.
Sadly, I do not know which sponges they eat and I don’t know much about the sponges themselves, but I have observed rich looking green sponges on the rocks. I have also seen very thin, light green, paper like sponges, in between rocks. I find it all quite interesting. Many have tried to transfer some of these sponges to their tanks, but no one that I know of has been successful. I thought it would be neat to have a Lake Tanganyika Loofah for the shower, but when removed from the water it dries out and dissolves into dust.
Now and then we will see Juli’s form trios in the aquarium, but in the wild it seems there are a variety of different breeding scenarios. Sometimes (1) male with (2) females and sometimes (1) female with (2) males. We know that in some Juli’s, J. regani and J. marlieri, the female is typically larger than the males. However, when it comes to actual fry care it is the smaller member of the twosome or trio who is responsible for the brood, whether they are a male or a female. Occasionally, there may be a fourth member of the breeding group, that provides help with fry rearing. J. ornatus and J. transcriptus typically spawn every two weeks, while J. regani, J. marlieri, and J. dickfeldi spawn every 4 – 5 weeks.
Some cave spawners bring their small fry out in the open to feed before they are left on their own, as in kicked out of the nest. Juli’s never kick their fry out. They leave on their own. Some don’t leave and they may push them to the sides of the cave but they are never abandoned. It is one of the biggest joys in keeping Juli’s, to see a pair with multiple generations of fry.
Just keep in mind that Juli’s can be difficult to tell apart. Think of yourself as a fish judge and as you look at the fish you want to buy, compare the dorsal pattern, tail pattern and the cheek marking it should be the same on all the fish. Also considering the uncertainty and the confusion with ID’s, it is always best to not mix Juli’s.
The pandemic not-withstanding, can you describe the expenses and logistics required for making a trip to the lake?
There is just no easy way to Lake Tanganyika. For me, getting there and back is just part of the journey. It is impossible to tell you exactly how it will go, as you can never predict what might happen as you travel in a third world country. Actually, it goes by fast when you are headed to the lake. You are excited to see your friends, see the lake, and before you know it, you are there. The trip home seems a little slower. You will be tired and sad that it is over, but you will easily sleep on the plane.
This last trip we were able to fly closer to the lake than ever before. We flew into Mpanda, and it is about a 4 – 5-hour drive to Kipili versus the prior trip, when we flew into Mbeya with 10+ hour drive to the lake. So that was nice, and with this route you get to drive right through Katavi National Park. There are lots of interesting land animals to see, so it was a shorter car drive with a bonus of an animal safari. Win win!
Airfare: This is going to be determined by where you fly from. I fly from the West Coast of the U.S., so it seems like I always end up paying more. I am old, and so I am not going to take the cheapest flight there is and fly through some sketchy country or sit in the last row of the plane. I prefer to fly to Europe, either London or Amsterdam, and then fly south to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania where we typically meet up with everyone and head to the lake together. My airfare ticket for the last trip was $1,800.00, round trip from Sacramento, CA to Dar es Salaam. I have paid less and I have paid more, but the best airfare deals are when you can commit six months or more in advance.
Cichlid Safari: We like to go through Lake Shore Lodge in Kipili. It is only one of a few lodges that can provide the support needed to travel on the lake for two weeks. They can fill the dive tanks, provide a wonderful boat, and provide a crew and cook. This cost will include your round-trip plane ride inside Africa, from Dar es Salaam, inland to Mbeya or Mpanda, the car transportation to the lake, three meals a day, lodging (tent when on the lake, Banda when at the lodge), cost of the boat, crew & fuel. Everything you need except for drinks. This is going to run about $3,500 – $5,000, depending on how many people go. The cost of the boat and fuel are fixed, so if less people go, the cost per person goes up. Always best to budget $5,000. You will also need money for bar bill, tips, souvenirs, and emergencies.
Most trips are pre-planned so you have two full weeks (14 Days) at the lake, but you will need to add 5 – 6 days for travel, you will need a minimum of about 20-21 days off, more if you need recovery time. And more if you want to add on an animal safari at another park, or bird safari etc., which is totally doable.
When I first started going to Africa, I would tell my boss that it was once in a lifetime opportunity, and it really was for me. So that is a good talking point for your first couple of trips, but after that you must get more creative.
Covid wise, on this last trip I had to get a PCR test to travel and enter Tanzania. Once I arrived in Tanzania, I had to take a fast Covid test. Then on the return, it really depends on the country you are trying to go to. And for the U.S., it was required to have a fast Covid test. You could get this test and the paperwork needed to travel at the airport, which is good, because if you have to get a PCR test in Africa, that can be quite challenging. All of the people I traveled with were fully vaccinated. We were basically in a bubble with our boat crew, we camped 14 nights and stayed the rest of the time at the lodge.
Flights inside of Africa and departure flights out of Africa were not available every day, so a little more difficult to coordinate but doable. I ended up (poor me!) spending a few more days at the lake because my return flight was not available daily. My return flight from Mpanda landed in Dar around noon, and my flight out of Dar to Amsterdam was at midnight, a 12-hour wait. However, they have just remodeled the airport and it is very nice. They actually have inside seating now. At the old terminal, you were not even allowed inside until two hours before your flight, because there is just no room.
I have really enjoyed visiting Lake Tanganyika over the years and Malawi too. It is so much fun to see the fish and to hang out with people who are as crazy about them as I am. I have proven that you don’t have to be scientist, diver, or even a photographer to chase cichlids in their natural habitat.
Let’s revisit your fish house. When I interviewed you six years ago, you described the house and how you and Gary set it up for fish keeping. What are some changes you’ve made since then (infrastructure, number of tanks)?
I would say the biggest change has been in the East room. We wanted some larger tanks; they are less work (Ha ha!). Gary figured out that he could pull out this freestanding rack of (18) 60-gallon tanks and we could replace them with (8) 125-gallon tanks. I was all in! It took a couple months to gather up everything we needed.
Of course, the tanks arrived first, and we had to take all the furniture out of the Fish Lounge to make room for the new tanks. The plan was (8) 125’s = (4) back-to-back. We needed (2) stands that bolted together and then bolted to the cement floor.
The only way this was going to work was if we moved the first set of (4) tanks into the space and then build the stand. It was the only way we could get the tanks around the corner since this prior stand was in the middle of two other racks. Once the first stand was built and the tanks moved on to it, then we moved in the rest of the tanks into the space and built the next stand. It was tight, but it all worked out great. Gary went a little heavy duty on this stand, but I will never have to worry about it or replace it. It’s going to last forever.
Once we got the tanks in place and Gary was working on the filters, lights, sand etc., I realized that I have no castles for these tanks. I was having a panic attack when Gary suggested that I just take (1) castle out of all the other tanks, and there would be plenty. Whew, that worked!
The very latest change is new chairs for the Fish Lounge. Finally, we found some nice swivel chairs and we have a 360-degree view of all our favorite projects in the lounge. Life is good!!
You and Gary are quite successful cichlid breeders. With so many tanks, it’s assumed you have a significant number of spawns on a regular basis. I didn’t ask this previously, but how do you manage so many species and the plethora of offspring?
Gary is so amazing when it comes to care and breeding of fish. I am just along for the ride. When Gary realized how much fun it was to breed fish, he was working with Angels and on a pretty massive scale. I think that really gave us a lot of experience on how to artificially hatch eggs, feed, handle, sort, cull, sell, etc. We had a deal going with a wholesaler who would take all we could bring him. We have not bred anything on that kind of scale since then. We learned how much work that was! Fish are supposed to be fun!
We realized early on that we were into the fish for the fish and not the money. We have always taken most of our fry to club meetings. We also like to sell or trade fish with other hobbyists. If we do get run over with fry, we still have connections with wholesalers who will take them for us.
A successful cichlid related initiative that you’ve been instrumental in is the Ask Pam cichlid forum at The Cichlid Room Companion. Talk a little about it – how did it start, how much effort does it take on your part, etc.?
A long time ago when Gary and I first joined fish clubs we lived for the monthly publications. Who didn’t? We were lucky we had our local club in Sacramento as well as a regional cichlid club in San Jose, CA. It was a 300-mile round trip, and we went to the monthly meeting religiously.
The Pacific Coast Cichlid Association (PCCA) put out the Cichlidae Communiqué. It was published every other month and it had original articles, photo’s etc. It was really a nice publication. Many of the clubs had amazing publications in those days. They were more than just a “bulletin” and contained valuable information with firsthand experiences on all these new fish that were coming in at the time. All clubs were always asking for articles. The PCCA also had a Breeders Award Program, and if you turned in an article on a fish you bred, you got so many points. Anything for points, right? I wrote a few BAP articles, kind of like a book report, because that was about all I thought I could do.
Kurt Zadnik was the editor of the Cichlidae Communiqué at the time, and he was always on the hunt for original content. He showed me that if I could verbally talk about a subject then I should be able to write it down; like I am talking. I have people tell me all the time that I write like I am talking to them and so I guess it works! Anyway, Kurt is the one that gave me the confidence to write. But I really struggled with what to write about. I could never come up with a topic. Once again Kurt came to the rescue and said, “let’s do a question-and-answer column.”
In the early 90’s, Ask Pam started in the Cichlidae Communiqué. We came up with a few questions for the first couple issues, but after that I always had enough questions. The concept was that if I didn’t know the answer to your question, I would research it, or find someone who could help answer it. It was when African cichlids were coming in left and right for the first time, and South American and Central Americans were already popular.
I loved it! I really enjoyed the research, and it really helped me become more knowledgeable and a better fish keeper, as well as a better writer. I think I had close to 40+ installments of Ask Pam that had been published over 7 years when I met Juan Miguel Artigas Azas at an ACA convention in the late 90’s. He was just getting the Cichlid Room Companion (CRC) going and before the weekend was over, he told me he had read my column and asked me if he could use Ask Pam for CRC. I was like wait, what? You want my column? I had no plans for it, he wanted to use what I had already written, and I didn’t even have to do anything. I was thrilled with the idea.
At the same time, forums were really popular, and Juan Miguel figured out how to set up Ask Pam in that forum format. I was the only person who could reply, which I loved. When you see 50 people trying to answer a question, the original poster is usually overwhelmed. Not to say that my answer is better than anyone else’s, but it was always my hope to help educate and inform by giving current and experienced advice. And focus on the actual topic.
Ask Pam in the Cichlidae Communiqué also continued, and I ended up with about 127 installments, the last one was in 2016. Ask Pam is still on CRC but, as you and your readers know, forums are not nearly as popular as they once were. I only get a handful of questions each year now. But I do think the questions and info that are there are still good sources for beginners to gain knowledge about specific cichlids. Meanwhile, most people now know that I am on Facebook and will send me a private message with questions or they have found my email address and will send a question. I always answer to the best of my knowledge. It’s been a lot of fun over the years, and I have really had a good time with it. [NOTE: You can also see videos of Pam’s trips to Lake Tanganyika on her YouTube channel.]
One of the best things to come from Ask Pam has been my friendship with Juan Miguel. He is incredible and, to be part of CRC, the best of the best on cichlids, it is one of my proudest accomplishments. Then to top it off, like the icing on the cake, to have had the opportunity to travel with him; that has been so amazing. I can say I have seen the world with Juan Miguel, and we have had such good times. He is very dear friend.
This is your third interview for The Cichlid Stage. It’s been almost three years exactly since the last one. Other than the obvious impacts of the pandemic, what are some changes to the hobby – good and bad – that you’ve noticed or are noticing?
I was amazed, glad and sad, at the reaction clubs had to the pandemic and not being able to meet in person. It all happened so fast. Some clubs didn’t miss a beat, while others truly struggled. My local club in Sacramento was one of the lucky ones, that started up right away with virtual meetings. I would say today the club is stronger and larger. However, my regional cichlid club decided to wait it out, and I have to think that has really hurt the club. No meetings for two years and minimal contact from the club. They are trying to start back up in a new location. I hope it works out.
As a speaker it was wonderful. I had at least one talk per month, and it was tons of fun to share my stories with cichlidiots all over the world. It is a little strange, kind of like talking to yourself, or giving the program to yourself. No response to my bad jokes! Lol. I did miss the social aspect after the talk. When I closed my computer, I realized I was all by myself.
Each club is different, and some are stronger than others, but it is always good to gather with people who have the same interest as yourself.
Thank you for the questions Scott, it is great to catch up with you and The Cichlid Stage again!