Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fishyguy Shares his Fishy World

by Malotz Quodala

May 5, 2011 – episode #30
Guest: Angel Martin L. Ampil

Khrysta and I went to the dzUP studio last Thursday to interview a fish expert tabula rasa as that was the first time we were to tackle a “fishy” topic in the program. I had no idea our freewheeling, fishy discussion with Angel Ampil, aka the Fishyguy himself, would take me on a trip down memory lane.

From the get go, as we walked to the media center from Plaridel Hall before the broadcast, Angel enthusiastically began sharing his fascination for fish that all began when he was four years old. His parents gifted him with a five-gallon tank that had three black mollies, a piece of white coral, an aquatic plant (elodea densa), and white sand. Angel was never without the company of fish since. His “fond memories of swimming in the pond with my siblings, having fun catching the goldfish,” – that's what spurred the personal reminiscence.

My mind raced back to when, as children, we (my siblings and I) took it upon ourselves to clean the fishpond my father had built in the garden. The pond was beneath a huge tree, it had nice rock arrangements with plants and all, we invariably ended up “bathing” and playing right there until our hands and feet went white and wrinkled. I remember treading very cautiously around the fishes, seeing how fragile they were … and, in truth, also being fearful of risking a spanking from the elders in case anything bad would happen to them. Ah, to be so innocently free of cares ... Back then, we also had a piece of the sea in the living room aquarium and I remember being mesmerized, transfixed at the languid movements ... the fishes tirelessly gliding, swimming up and down, hiding in rocks now, showing up again … then I would wonder what went on in the minds of the fishes while locking eyes with humans (believing in my child's heart of hearts even then that fishes do have minds). Then that child's brief attention span would eventually lead to the other beautiful animals at home, the dogs ... all fourteen of them at one time … the cats, pigeons, chickens, colorful birds, and oh, yes, even pigs.

But not Angel. It has always been exclusively the world of fishes for him. His interest grew from black mollies to other species, thanks to his backyard-breeder Lolo Delfin who gifted him with jarsful of various kinds for his birthdays all through his childhood years. As he turned adolescent, his fascination turned as well into a serious hobby, and that's when he began meeting up with people of like interest and negotiating fish-keeping alongside school work, then later, professional life.

Finding himself so wanting to share more widely what had by then turned into an expertise, he became Khrysta's fellow columnist for the magazine Animal Scene in 2002. “Fishyguy” is the main character in his column, Aqua Basics, where he continues to share his “fish discoveries” with readers to this day. In time, Angel set up shop and established his “ivory tower” "Fishyguy's Fishplace" selling fish by word of mouth and the internet.

Today, aside from being the Marketing Manager for Creatives Asia and Manager of the Magsaysay Group of Companies Global Process, he is also the president and founding member of the Philippine Cichlid Association, a founding member of the Betta Club Philippines, a corporate member of the Philippine Arowana and Luo Han Society and the former president of the Aquarium Science Association of the Philippines. From innocent fascination to fishy passion … Angel has certainly come a long way.

In fact, even without an aquarium in front of us, he could skillfully, gently guide us into the world of fish-keeping and the art and science of it. “Decorating a tank is my form of canvas,” he said. “Using the same rocks and driftwood, I can decorate a tank differently from the way other people do in ways they can't seem to imagine. I am able to find the best angle for a piece of rock when I set it down the tank.”

New Tank Syndrome

During the on-air interview, Angel explained the uniqueness of keeping fish vis-a-vis other pets at home. Whereas a cat's eating area is separate from its litter box, he began, “The fish is kept in, say, an aquarium, where all its life-activities are performed. So you find there the fish, its uneaten food, and poop -- all at once in one confined environment.” Understanding this well and managing the conditions for the fish greatly increases one's chances of successful fish-keeping, he said.

He went on to inform us of the “new tank syndrome.” Technically referred to as the nitrogen cycle, this is a process by which nitrogen-fixing bacteria are allowed to do their work in the tank as well as in the filter media. The process is necessary not only to prepare the new aquarium to be fish-ready, but for the purpose of maintaining a healthy environment to preserve fish life in the long term. More specifically, it consists in the conversion of ammonia to nitrites, then of nitrites to nitrates.

To better understand this, he pictured for us a new aquarium set-up, i.e., still without fish, or water, or filter. First off, he said, tap water has to be dechlorinated, either through the introduction of drops of anti-chlorine agent, or through the pasingaw method, by which tap water is allowed to sit for a couple of days or so, to neutralize chlorine which is toxic to fish.

After dechlorination, water and filter can now be placed -- with just a few fishes -- into the aquarium, where very little feeding must be done … just enough to enable fish to urinate and defecate. With the filter now working, fish waste, plant (if there be any), and uneaten food will eventually decompose. With the help of some bacteria, the decomposed matter will break down into ammonia ... then after some time, ammonia is broken down into nitrites. Subsequently, with the passage of a little more time, the nitrites further break down and become nitrates. It's the latter compound that supports the growth of beneficial bacteria. The production and establishment of good bacteria colonies in the aquarium and filter will then create a healthy environment for the fish. Having achieved this, one can then begin to add in a few more fish at a time.

Angel gave a caveat about the toxic nature of ammonia and nitrites for the fish. For the start- up stage, or for a period of three weeks, more or less, he recommended changing about twenty percent of the water once every week, carefully retaining the rest of the water in the tank for the cycle to follow its course. Additionally he advised that when cleaning the aquarium or any decor, it should be the same water from the tank that must be used, as tap water will kill the good bacteria. When the good bacteria die, the new tank syndrome must have to begin all over again, with all the painstaking thoughfulness and patience crucial to the endeavor.

Angel's Aquariums; Fish Collection

Angel owns 200 aquariums. He and his friends produced video clips showing the following:

the Fishyguy hand-feeding a fresh water stingray (potamotrygon) at this site -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Npm6rEcLEVQ;
doctor fish or garra rufa nibbling on his leg at --
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9Kac3CSl_M; and
a wolf fish (hoplias malabaricus) eating goldfish at --

Watching him hand-feeding the stingray reminds one of world-famous Steve Irwin who died in 2006 of a shocking accident with a stingray. Angel reminded us that according to experts, stingrays are docile creatures; they do not attack except in self-defense. Their attack mechanism is located near the base of the tail. Angel underscored how critical it was to know fishes and their respective behavior, noting that Irwin was known for his wide expertise on crocodiles but not on stingrays.

Cichlid or hoplarchus psittacus is a species of fish endemic to the blackwater rivers in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. Angel in fact has a video recording of a cichlid couple laying eggs, another clip showing the couple incubating eggs, and still another showing them watching by while the fry swim happily around them. That made me wonder in amazement, that a huge fish -- with a mouth much, much bigger than the teeny-weeny fry in its midst -- does not gobble them up, given its natural tendency to eat anything smaller than its mouth. Mother instinct, perhaps?

The garra rufa is a fish species that nibbles on dead skin, the kind that is employed in spas for pedicure and exfoliating. It brings to mind a certain resort in Laguna where, in naturally flowing warm spring water, hundreds of fish romp, play and co-exist with people, who go there for the swim, or the experience of fish nibbling on their legs and feet, believing in its therapeutic value.

Other moving pictures show Angel hand-feeding an eel and another showing him releasing a five-foot electric eel. Some others show lou hans (or flower horns), arowanas, even the popular clownfish we know better as Nemo. The following link shows pictures of fishes in his collection: http://s46.photobucket.com/home/AngelAmpil/index.

Asked whether fish exhibit any kind of personality, Angel said: “Some do, like the gold fish, the oscar, and flower horn – they display some kind of 'pet attitude.' They tend to perform and seek the attention of their owner. They bond well with their owners.” Some fish actually show signs of recognition, he added.

Robbie William's cover of "La Mer" or "Beyond the Sea" playing in the background was all that was needed to conjure a world of wonderful visuals. And that was exactly what Kwentuhang Pets Atbp interns Jen Ocampo and Ron Rollorata did after one break during the program. Khrysta, it turns out, had asked them to play this theme song from "Finding Nemo.”

Even Beyond Passion … Fish is his Life

Angel considers himself pretty much an active part of a fish-keeping circle he fondly refers to as family, saying, “I have always shared my thoughts and passion to anyone willing to learn more about fish-keeping.”

His passion for fish-keeping, he said, is expressed in many ways. “Breeding a rare fish, for example, brings me a certain sense of accomplishment. Keeping a rare, never before-kept fish gives me a lot of pride.”

To those eyeing to take up the hobby, he has this to say: “Never enter it half-hearted … You must like the hobby a lot, for after all, your aquarium should last you at least ten years … Do your research via books, magazines, the internet … Ask friends, fish clubs … Attend fish forums, etc.” As regards concerns that fish-keeping might be a “high-maintenance” project, he says, “I always tell people to keep fish within their means. There are so many kinds (to choose from), there surely is one you can afford and keep.”

He admits chores like tank cleaning can be very tiring, yet, “Most times, I find it relaxing, de-stressing even.” And surely, that is not a duty we can imagine him shirking from now, is it?

Actually, what Angel said is simply consistent with what we notice KPA guests declare in the program time and again – i.e., that having pets, animal companions or “wards” is not like a walk in the park … but a serious responsibility one cannot just drop when the going gets tough or which one can afford to ignore just because it “ain't no fun no more.” Animal companions are much like children ... they totally depend on their compassionate, loving, informed and constant caregiver for their existence, survival … and, decidedly, their blossoming even.

But as Angel says, caring for them can be relaxing, de-stressing … and oh, the joy they bring … now, that is truly immeasureable.

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