Willem Heijns, shooting underwater video at Xiloá, Lake Nicaragua. Photo by Ad Konings.
World renowned in the Central American cichlid circuit, Willem Heinjs, from the Netherlands, over the years has been a prolific author and a key figure in the Netherlands organized hobby. Willems talents include being a wonderful aquarist and photographer, producing beautiful photographs and videos both at his home cichlidarium and the natural habitats. Willem has made several trips to México, Belize and Nicaragua, looking for his beloved cichlids, from some of his visits to Nicaragua Willem produced probably the nicest video produced underwater in the crater lakes, showing for the first time unique cichlid behaviors. We are honored Willem has agreed to reply some questions for the Cichlid Room Companion.
Willem, would you tell us about your involvement in the cichlid hobby?
I'm not an aquarist who started as a young kid with sticklebacks or guppies. I only started after I got married with my wife Rita. Come to think of it, that’s over 35 years ago now. She brought home a tiny tank she had kept at the office. My first thought was: "I'm not going to look after these fish, let her do it". But then suddenly the Black Mollies that were in there had fry. That got to me; I succumbed. From that moment on the tanks increased in size and number. At some point in time the first cichlid came along. it was the Firemouth, Thorichthys meeki. Gradually the other fish disappeared (meeki’s doing mostly) and were replaced by other cichlids. Almost all of them were from Central America, although some South-american species came and went as well. In 1989 I made my first collecting trip to Central America. Ever since my tanks are filled with cichlids I got from those trips.
What is your current interest in cichlids?
My last trips having been to Nicaragua, right now my tanks are stuffed with Nicaraguan cichlids. From the crater lakes I took several varieties of Amphilophus species, some of which have been described as new (from Laguna Xiloá) or are in the process of being described. I have visited 8 of these crater lakes, which gives me a good possibility to study the similarities and differences between them, including the (evolutionary) relationships of the cichlid species. Currently I keep all cichlid species that occur in Laguna Xiloá except one: the thick lipped Amphilophus. But that one is rarely seen, even in the lake.
Tell us about your Cichlidarium
Central-american cichlids tend to get very big. I had known that for a long time, but a few years ago I had the opportunity to build new tanks, big tanks. So I decided to create a new fishroom (now called the "Cichlidarium") with tanks big enough to house even the largest Central-american cichlid, Parachromis dovii. The Cichlidarium holds 5 tanks: two 4.25 m. (14-footers) (on top of each other, can you imagine?), one 3.00 m (10-footer), one 2.13 m (7-footer) and one 0.90 m (3-footer). A total of well over 7.000 liters of water. The combination of strong powerfilters, weekly water changes and a relatively low density of fish keeps the tanks clean and clear.
I have learnt a lot with this set-up. For one, I must conclude that Parachromis dovii is not suitable as an aquarium fish. That may sound strange, but in my experience they will eventually kill any fish in their tank. With the exception of their own mate. Once they are on their own, they get shy and show themselves only when they have fry.
On the positive side I found that Amphilophus species are much more sociable than their reputation holds. In the 3.00 m (10-footer) I have kept Amphilophus xiloaensis for three years. A group of twelve grew to adult size without any problems. At one point in time I had four pairs with free swimming fry simultaneously. A very impressive sight!
I believe that big tanks give their inhabitants much more opportunity to show their natural behaviour. But we must not forget that it is still captivity. Though that should not keep us from trying to get as close as possible to what these wonderful fishes really need.
Why the cichlids of Central America? What do you find so attractive in them?
Well, it was pure coincidence. As I said, the first cichlid I kept was a Firemouth. It was given to me by a colleague at work. Somehow I felt I should not mix species from different parts of the world, so the next one I got was a pair of Jack Dempsey. They were also fascinating, especially their breeding behaviour. Since then I never had any reason to change to another part of the world.
Another reason probably is that I believe Central-american cichlids require a bit more from their keepers. If you see them in a shop they usually don't show much of their beauty. Then if you get them home and take very good care of them, they will reward you with their colours and spectacular behaviour. A challenge I really like.
And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, I took up an interest in the origin of Central America. This relatively young part of our planet has a complicated geologic history, posing some compelling questions about the freshwater fishes that now occupy the lakes and rivers. How did they get there? And how did they evolve? It gives me much pleasure and satisfaction to study these questions and learn more about the Central-american cichlids and their origin.
Do you have a favourite cichlid? Why is that species of so much interest?
A difficult question! I don't think I have a favourite cichlid. But when it comes to experience there are a few I will never forget. Tomocichla tuba, for instance. I first kept this species in 1984. That was the same year my friend Don Danko from Ohio came to visit me. Together we were witness to the very first spawning of this then enigmatic species. The pair had laid their eggs on a solitary rock close to the front of the tank. I was eager to save the brood so we decided to take the spawn (rock and all) out of the tank. We cleared a passage from the living room to a room upstairs where I had some more tanks. Then I took the rock out of the water, raced up the stairs and put it in the other tank. None of the eggs were lost. They are adhesive, you know. The eggs hatched after four days, just in time for Don to take some of the wrigglers home. He managed to raise them. So did I and the species had a short lived popularity in the Netherlands. Eventually they disappeared, but I am very happy to recently have brought back a few from Nicaragua. I will try again.
Another one that springs to mind is Paratheraps synspilus. Again back in the 80’s I was lucky enough to have a group of Vieja maculicauda on loan from the Rotterdam Zoo. I bred them and spread the young around in the Dutch cichlid scene. But my act had not gone unnoticed. A guy from Berlin (Germany) called and asked for some fry. Since he was willing to drive all the way from Berlin to my house (well over 800 km) to pick them up I didn't ask any money for them. All I said was: maybe you can bring me some interesting fish. And he did. He took the trip and gave me a beautiful adult pair of synspilus. I set up a tank for them and it wasn't long before they started courting. They cleaned a rock and behaved like a pair should. On a glorious day they spawned. Big clutch of eggs on the rock. But they kept on courting. The next day the eggs had gone. That happens a lot on first spawnings. No sweat. But the day after that I saw a new plaque of eggs on the rock. That was way too quick. As you probably have guessed, the eggs were laid by the other fish, the one I had assumed to be the male. So I had two females. Now where do you get a male of a species that was hardly known to the hobby in those days? I could but call the guy in Berlin. He indeed had a spare male, but no opportunity to come to the Netherlands again. Neither had I to go to Berlin. Then suddenly good fortune joined me. A friend of mine had to go to Berlin on a business trip. He was kind enough to take a styrofoam box with him and pick up the male. So he did and I had many successful spawnings of Paratherpas synspilus. Sometimes you get you fish in funny ways.
Can you tell us something about the cichlid hobby in the Netherlands?
Shortly after I started with cichlids I went to a meeting of my local aquarium club for a talk on cichlids. This talk was given by an man who turned out to be one of the founders of the Dutch Cichlid Association (the NVC). I can still remember how surprised I was to hear of a club that dealt only with cichlids. I joined on the spot. That was in 1976. A year later I joined the Board on which I am still serving, currently as president.
The Netherlands has several thousands of cichlid hobbyists (I guess), about a thousand of which are members of the NVC. A comparatively high number considering the population of our country. We publish a bimonthly journal called "Cichlidae". Many world renowned authors have written articles for this journal.
About five times a year we meet to have a workshop about some aspect of the hobby, be it water quality, fish disease or whatever. These workshops are conducted by members. Once a year we have our big event: the National Cichlid Day. On this event two speakers are invited to give a talk. Past speakers have been Ad Konings, Jay Stauffer, Wolfgang Staeck and Heinz Büscher, to name but a few. Members as well as non-members can buy and sell hobby related items, including cichlids of course. A top-year would yield over 2,000 visitors.
Of course we also exploit a website. This is a fairly new endeavour, but I believe it will be a very important way of achieving the goal of the NVC: to spread the knowledge of the family Cichlidae. The forum of the website has become a popular item with almost 900 registered participants.
Those trips to Central America and the wonderful video of the Nicaraguan crater lakes, would you tell us something about its creation?
Over the years I have made many trips to México, Belize and Nicaragua, most of them with you and Ad. At first I was happy to just snorkel and watch the fish while you guys took the pictures and afterwards take some cichlids home. Then on one trip I took my video camera just to shoot some footage for the family at home. Ad brought his camera too, which happened to have an underwater housing. So I was able to shoot video below the water surface. I was thrilled! After having experienced the ups and downs of taking video while snorkelling (follow a cichlid into deeper water without paying attention and you'll find out!) I ended up buying my own underwater housing and getting a divers’ license. Thus fully equipped we went to Nicaragua to visit the crater lakes. I dove in eight of them and gathered many hours of video. But what to do with all that material? I decided that I wanted to make a DVD that maybe I could sell. Ad and I agreed to add some of his wonderful underwater pictures to it. Then I started to work on the film. Getting all those hours down to a mere 60 minutes of final film was a hell of a job. The biggest problem was to decide what to leave out. And then of course writing a scenario. Is there a story to tell? In which order should the clips go? After the planning phase the work started. I spent many hours at the computer. Editing. Adding comments (in four languages). Adding music. Oh, here’s another problem. After I had finished adding the music, I realized it had to be royalty free if I were to sell the DVD. And it wasn't. So I had to go and find royalty free music that would fit the film. Finally I found some. In New Zealand! All and all it took me two years to complete the DVD. But I'm proud of it./p>
Any new video in the works?
Actually, yes. I have a lot of footage from the snorkel years. Most of it is from Mexican rivers with some material from Belize. Right now I am selecting the best parts of it, upgrading the footage to an acceptable level. That will take a while. I still have to decide on the format. It will not be a continuous film. More likely it will be a collection of clips (and pictures) showing the cichlid species I've observed both in the wild and in the aquarium. I might even add information on their specific history, relationships, ranges, etc. Sort of an encyclopedia. But I'm not sure yet. Please allow plenty of time.
What have cichlids brought to your life?
Ever since I started keeping cichlids my interest in and fascination for the natural world has been on the increase. It’s a great planet we live on. Let’s do our utmost to preserve it. After all, what if we won't be able to go and look for cichlids in the wild anymore? Watching those beautiful fishes in my Cichlidarium is next to that. It gives me daily joy and pleasure.
Would you tell us about your other interests, what do you do for living?
Well, as you might have guessed, I am what they call "a senior citizen". Next year I'll turn 60. I have spent my career in the financial world, working for a bank. I will probably retire sometime next year. Having said that: more time for cichlids coming up! But it’s not just cichlids. It’s also the family (I'm a proud grandfather of two grandchildren) and my second hobby: Scotland and it’s whiskies. My wife and I travel to Scotland at least once a year to spend time with our friends there and collect a few more bottles of this heavenly drink. Explains my avatar on your forum, Juan Miguel.
Any final thoughts?
I just want to say thank you for inviting me for this interview. It is a privilege to become a part of your famous Cichlid Room Companion website. I wish you all the best with it. Thanks again!
Willem Heijns, snorkeling at Río Sasha, Nicaragua. Photo by Ad Konings.