Interview with Heiko Bleher in Russia

Perhaps the most famous aquarist and traveller Heiko Bleher gave an exclusive interview to the organizers of Biotope Aquarium Design Contest.
To date, Mr. Bleher discovered more than 6,000 species of freshwater and brackish-water fish. Annually he makes expeditions to the wildest and most remote regions of the Earth. He makes reports all around the world. This is the second time he visited Russia being invited by Unitex group of companies, and he agreed to answer our questions.
Interviewer: Oleg Labutov, author of the idea and the organizer of the Biotope Aquarium Design Contests 2011, 2012 and 2013.
O.L.: - Good afternoon, Mr. Bleher! We have a great opportunity to ask you several questions. You are very popular in the world. We would like more people in Russia to know about you, as you are a great source of knowledge for aquarists. What were your impressions of the event, which was held in St. Petersburg at ZooSphere exhibition (final of Biotope Aquarium Design Contest 2012), and of what is happening here in Moscow (Days of High Aquaristic 2012)?
H.B.: - Well, you know I have said it already before that I think what you have done in St. Petersburg was a very good and very well coordinated biotope contest, and I think by doing this you have helped the aquarium hobby tremendously. Because I have been doing this for a long time in other parts of the world: to promote biotope correct aquarium. And I want to add that we have now two completely different ways of making aquarium, which have become more and more popular over the last 10-12 years. One of them is the aquascape, and one of them is the biotope aquarium. And one has to see the difference, because the biotope aquarium is made for fishes, for the community of fishes that live together. And the aquascape is made for people, not for fishes, because the aquascape is to make people happy, so it is made exceptionally for the beautiful underwater garden. These are two completely different identities. And I think both are good, but naturally for the aquarium and for the aquarium hobby and for the love and correct maintenance and keeping of fishes nature like or nature correct, the biotope aquarium has and must prevail. Because people will see a completely different environment, they will suddenly see behaviour of fishes, completely different.
Heiko Bleher in St. Petersburg during the final of Biotope Aquarium Design Contest 2012
O.L.: - How would you rate the level of aquaristic in Russia, its features?
H.B.: - I think the aquarium hobby in Russia actually over the past few years is growing very much. People have more interest, what I see that is more dedication to this hobby, and there is also more diversification. Because I remember the first time when I came to Russia before they stopped. The hobby was very poor; it only existed from fishes which they had been breeding here in Russia. There was no import of fishes. And since they opened up you have a much bigger variety of fishes be found in Russia, and also aquarium plants. And this naturally helps the hobby to grow. And I have seen especially over the past 10 years it's growing constantly in Russia, maybe more than in other parts of the world. And that's very good.
O.L.: - You said that you were surprised by a large number of women setting up aquariums in Russia. Are there any other features of the Russian aquaristic that you have noticed?
H.B.: - Well, I want to underline this once more, I think it's fantastic, it's very nice, and I don't know actually any country where so many women are engaged in this hobby as you have here. And this was in particular for me a surprise in St. Petersburg that out of 10 finalists, selected from the 57 participants, there were 6 women. I think that's very good. In most other countries in the world unfortunately the hobby is still done by men.
I was also happily surprised, because just a week before St. Petersburg I have done the international biotope aquarium contest in Athens, Greece, very successful. And they have also made the final with 10 contestants, who had to set up a biotope exactly where it was in the world, which small river or creek they have represented with fishes that live there. But what you have done is even better than the people in Greece, because you had beautiful layout, the people had to engage themselves to bring a photo of the biotope, which I have done already many years ago, but I had not seen it done by other people. This was very nice, and they made very good biotope descriptions. I think that was very good and had good impression.
This is so important, I think, especially for the hobby. Simply because I have noticed it since the year 2000, I have constructed biotope stand with 9 aquariums and 10,000 litres, which I have shown in many parts of Europe, mainly in Belgium, Germany, and now in Italy, and each one has a detail biotope description of the biotope. People come and read it even in detail. It is not that people just walk into my biotope stand, and just look at the tank and walk out. No, they read information; they want to know about this area of the world. So they get an education of maybe some small island or tiny creek, what lives there, they get information of how many species live on a very small area, and what is the surrounding. So this is very good for information. And actually I can see more and more people want to have such an authentic small biotope in their own home.
Heiko Bleher in search of new species of fishes in the Amazon River
O.L.: - Which one of your expeditions do you remember the most? Maybe there was something special?
H.B.: - Every freshwater habitat on this planet. But if you are asking directly like this, there are two destinations which I do every single year at least once or more times. I have been doing Amazon, remotest areas since I can remember. I have actually this last September completed almost now every single affluent of the Amazon River research. The one is missing which I will do September 1 next year. But since 1974 I also do every year New Guinea, Australasia. So these are two points where I go simply because I know in these areas are still remote unexplored places where I can find new species to introduce into the hobby and naturally for the registration of species for this planet, for future generations.
O.L.: - Where would you recommend Russian aquarists to go?
H.B.: - I think it is really important in the first place before it's really too late to visit the Amazon. You should come with me. I will not take more than 2 or 3 people in each of my trips. But I do it every year, 2, 3 maximum 5 Amazon expeditions. I think this is the first thing one should visit at least once. And naturally you have your own places in Russia. I was just invited next week to Ukraine; although it's already cold time of the year, but I will do some research in some small rivers of the Ukraine. This is just to give you an example that the interest should not be limited to tropical areas. There are also freshwater areas in temperate and cold zones. And sometimes they are very interesting. You can see that in your biotope aquarium contest in St. Petersburg, the first prize went to the temperate biotope, they are beautiful, also.
O.L.: - Once again, how to pronounce your name: Bley-er or Bley-her? There are a lot of arguments about this in Russia.
H.B.: - Well, the correct pronunciation would be Hai-koo Pley-her. But it's a very old German name, the first and also my family name. And it actually goes to very old times. I was able to trace it back to 1412. This is the most part I could go back. In the recent 100 years or so very few people use this name. Except for Heiko Blessin which I always call Heiko the Second (laughs).
Meeting Heiko Bleher during InterZoo 2012 in Nuremberg, Germany
O.L.: - Do you have a hobby that does not belong to the aquaristic?
H.B.: - Well, I do not know if you can call it a hobby, but naturally I like very much photography. I don't know I made 6-7 million photos around the world. I like very much to do underwater research in freshwater habitats by watching nature, watching the behaviour of animals, and naturally fishes. I love to swim. I swim a lot all the time whenever I can in the jungles in every river. You know I write very much. I have more than 1,000 articles, I write books. I do a lot of things, but I cannot say when I have a vacation I do particular hobby. No. I play tennis and soccer, but it's not a hobby.
O.L.: - What would you say to the aquarists of Russia?
H.B.: - I want to say to the aquarists of Russia that they should really do, if ever possible, biotope correct aquariums to have a small tiny piece of nature in their home, which they can be proud of. And whenever they do or want to acquire an aquarium and decorate it, they should always think fish.
November 16, 2012, Moscow, the State Darwin Museum