Juan Miguel Artigas Azas,
Cichlid Room Companion

Interview with: Heiko Bleher, Jul-2010

By , 2010. image

Classification: People and associations.

" Heiko Bleher, from Germany (Now living in Milan, Italy) is without a doubt one of the most influential figures in today's freshwater aquarium hobby, who has literally lived immersed in aquatic explorations during his entire life. Son of Amanda Flora Hilda Bleher, an important figure in what freshwater aquatic life was concerned during the first part of the 20th century, Heiko, an aquarist himself, has continued a family tradition of exploration, collection and worldwide distribution of aquatic life, discovering countless fish species for the aquarium hobby and science. He has also participated in the publishing of some of the most beautiful freshwater aquarium life journals and books ever published. He has agreed to give this interview for the Cichlid Room Companion, something for which we feel very distinguished "

Heiko Bleher, from Germany (Now living in Milan, Italy) is without a doubt one of the most influential figures in today's freshwater aquarium hobby, who has literally lived immersed in aquatic explorations during his entire life. Son of Amanda Flora Hilda Bleher, an important figure in what freshwater aquatic life was concerned during the first part of the 20th century, Heiko, an aquarist himself, has continued a family tradition of exploration, collection and worldwide distribution of aquatic life, discovering countless fish species for the aquarium hobby and science. He has also participated in the publishing of some of the most beautiful freshwater aquarium life journals and books ever published. Heiko has agreed to give us this interview for the Cichlid Room Companion, something for which we feel very distinguished.

Heiko, it is well known that your grandfather Adolf Kiel and then your mother Amanda, famous people concerning their extensive lifetime work on aquatic plants, have definitely influenced your life and career direction. You were part of your mother's expeditions as young as four years old! Would you share with us some first memories of these years? What was your feeling then for such exotic trips, that at a young age must have impressed you so much, with a life so different than other kids regularly experience? What were the conditions you lived during those early trips?

Juan, thank you very much for asking me for this interview. And let me tell you, I am surprised – very much though – how many things you know about me already. You did your homework well and that alone is an honour.

Yes my grandfather certainly is still today considered (at least by some) as the "Father of Aquarium Plants" and many say he is the one who initiated the so called "modern aquarium hobby", as before 1887 there were almost exclusively round glass bowls with a goldfish swimming in circles..." But mind you, he also had a very large aquarium fish culture, a breeding nursery with 32 green houses – this already back in 1900, and what was surely the world largest in what aquarium plants and fish culture is concerned. Some of the many fish and plant species he sold during the turn of the 19th Century are amazing and one can see them in some of the first German Aquarium magazines printed. In my volume 1 of Bleher's Discus, on page 53, I show one of his price lists from that time. And yes, my mother Amanda Flora Hilda Bleher (nee Kiel), who was the only child of four (from two of my grandfathers marriages), stepped in his footsteps. She was born 1910 and went out collecting throughout Europe at the age of 14 (like me, I also started to collect alone with 14), much more extensively than her father. Always trying to find new plants and fishes, but also reptiles, amphibians and even larger animals. She actually wrote a beautiful book about parts of her life and her two largest expeditions and discoveries, called Iténez - River of Hope, which she presented to me before she passed away in 1991, and I was only recently able to edit it.

And you are also correct in writing about my first jungle experience in Equatorial Africa with the age of four. I am the youngest of her four children and that is why I was the privileged to be taken. I am for a few years already writing up my biography with the title "My first 50 years" and you will probably not believe it, but it is a fact that I am recalling almost every single detail of my very first jungle experience. It is amazing how everything comes back ... Every time I go back to the jungle, no matter where in the world, were they are still untouched (nearly rare to find today), I recall those very first days in the remote wilderness of West Africa, like it is under my skin ... But to tell you here about these first experiences of mine would take a long time, that is why I am writing those up in detail.

Collecting Hemigrammus bleheri Collecting Hemigrammus bleheri, end of 1964 (Heiko is the white one in front), Rio Jufaris, Rio Negro Basin, Brazil.

And then how your interest for fish and aquatic life was born? Can you tell us of some early experiences that imprinted on you?

You will probably not believe this, but it was very interesting – for me at least. We had already lived with so called cannibals, Indians of the Cabixí tribe (everyone of its members is extinct long ago) for month' and I had Lontra, a young fish otter Indians had killed their mother and I kept the baby and grew it up, sleeping in my hammock every single night. And this Lontra went out fishing every day, and exactly at high noon carrying to my feet piranhas it had hunted for lunch, as it knew precisely that they are the best tasting fish (in the world). This Lontra was the most amazing and intelligent animal I have ever come across. My mother had spend while still in Germany a small fortune for me to learn to swim with a private teacher and I never did it, but my Lontra did. I learned from Lontra, how to swim and how to appreciate fishes and it made me aware of my first "discovery" at the age of eight. It was the Wimpel Piranha (Catoprion species still un-described, the late Jacques Géry, a dear friend and one of the greatest ichthyologist this world has ever seen, unfortunately passed away before he finally wanted to describe it ...). My Lontra showed it to me underwater, once I was swimming almost like my pet animal, but even the Lontra was unable to catch it. It is one of the most magnificent, majestic and elegant swimming freshwater fish on Earth. I can only compare with the true Pterophyllum altum from the Atabapo and possibly the Symphysodon species. And it lives only in the Iténez, the river we lived on with the Indians for six months (without being eaten, like four missionaries weeks earlier). The Iténez is one of the most pristine freshwater rivers I know, with over 60 aquarium plants species my mother discovered there and the countless fishes we found: (Almost all were described later by people who wanted to give credit to others – as it goes in life. For aquarists just to name a few: Corydoras haraldschultzi, C. sterbai, C. guapore, C. geryi, C. marmore, C. noelkempffi, several characoids and cichlids, ie Crenicara latruncularium, several Apistogramma species, etc.).

The river my mother went back to 30 times (and me even more) makes border with Brazil and the Brazilians call it Rio Guaporé. Unfortunately with over 200 million heads of cattle now in Mato Grosso and Rondonia (on the Brazilian side of it) and now similar quantity on the Bolivian side of it, this once crystal clear fantastic river as I learned to see and live with it, is almost history ... Yes it was the Lontra and living like Indians, going out to hunt with the Cabixí, naked and barefoot as those with the age of eight and nine, was something I will never forget and this experience taught me almost everything in life. I cannot go naked now (or rarely) as I have usually a native or some friends with me on my yearly jungle trips, but barefoot I still do hunt and collect all my fishes, it is the best, the most natural and fastest way. And so far I was always able to catch more species than anyone else. Like last November/December: I collected 500 different fish species in less than 10 days along the Brazilian/Colombian/Venezuelan border – all of them myself barefoot, with no other help except for Natasha, who always holds the seine on one end, when I use the large net in bigger habitats.

Hemigrammus bleheri Photo of the Brilliant Rummy nose tetra, Hemigrammus bleheri, one of the most sold aquarium fishes today - because it is one of the best schooling fishes there is for aquaria. I made these photo for one of my lectures, showing which was the fish of each decade since I started to collect in 1953, showing one of my preferred discoveries and contribution to science and the hobby. This was in the decade 1962-1972. In the decade before the Wimpel piranha was my preferred discovery. But the latter is still not described.

Were your siblings also with you on those early trips? Any of them pursued a career in aquatic life? What do they do?

On my mothers two South America expeditions my brother and my two sisters were with us, also in the early days in many parts of Europe and North Africa (but not in Equatorial Guinea). When we moved finally for good to Brazil at the end of 1958, soon after that my two sisters left, one got married in Argentina (where she still lives) and my eldest sister moved to New Zealand (living now most of the time in Italy, married to an Italian). But none of my sisters had really an interest in fishes, my elder sister in the early days was in plants. My elder brother Michael runs, since our mother passed away in 1991, our company in Brazil Flora Bleher, near Rio, but today only manufacturing dry goods for the aquarium hobby and selling it throughout Brazil. He stopped, after ours mothers dead, with exports and most of the plant business my mother was carrying on after I transferred Aquarium Rio to Germany in September of 1967.

Collecting in the upper Rio Paraguai Collecting in the upper Rio Paraguai, Brazil in 1967. With my friend Antonio we collected for two weeks and had 400 such built floating containers filled with fishes, in each one the quantity for one box. In the morning before departure when we wanted to pack them, all 40 containers were empty, piranhas had eaten the plastic mesh and most of the fishes, the rest escaped. After redoing the floating containers with wired mesh so no piranha could eat it, we collected again day and night for two consecutive weeks and had them filled again with rare and new species. On the day of departure in each single container was a single fat Ctenolucius or a fat Acestrorhynchus species. They had jumped into the containers and eaten almost all fishes (except the catfishes), but were to fat to jump out... Than we built tops for each container (see in the back of the photo) and finally the fishes caught for the third time survived and I could ship them.

Ross Socolof had a pleased and happy look when he talked about you, even in his late years, he related you worked at Gulf Fish Farms, which he built into the largest fish farm in the world and then sold to the aquarium fish tycoon Herbert Axelrod. Could you share some insights of your relationship with Ross and what was for you to work with him in those days?

Yes you recall very well. Ross was like a father to me (which I hardly had, since my mother divorced our father in 1947 when I was barely three years old). We had a very close and really unique relationship, he appreciated very much my work and I did appreciate him highly as well. To me he was one (if not the) driving force in the US-Fish Industry. He said to me, when I had made up my mind to leave Gulf Fish Farms in 1965 (I had gone back to Brazil collecting in between, end of 1964), and never wanted to work for anyone else for the rest of my life (after the Axelrod-experience I have had in Florida – I am sorry Juan, but Herbert R. Axelrod was NEVER an aquarium fish tycoon, Ross was): "Heiko before you came Hank Hansen was the best freshwater fish breeder in America, but let me tell you, you have beat Hank, I have never seen anyone breeding fishes like you do ... but do not tell Hank ..." This was about the greatest honour I received in my life, not all the trophies or awards, nominations or fellowships, whatever, can match Ross's words, I appreciated that more than anything else.

Everyone should read Ross's only book: Confessions of a Tropical Fish Addict. And for more details for our work together and his contribution please read my inmemorium (with several unique photos, never published before)

Juan the only thing you got wrong, Gulf Fish Farms at the time was not the largest in the world, that was Hartz Mountains Fish Farm, also in Florida, but Gulf was probably one of, if not, the best.

Heiko collecting the sawfish TFH claimed that in 50 plus years of history I was the only person on their cover ever. This was with my biggest discovery in the 20th Century, the freshwater saw fish (Pristis leichhardti or a new species, still working on it). I found it by night diving as it burrows during daytime, in a very remote lake in northern Australia. Twice I brought specimens back, these were very adventures trips, some of it in two TFH issues at the time and international press around the world, even NYC times. Guiness declared it as the largest freshwater discovery of the Century in its 1987 edition. But the cover photo is not the fish I discovered, this is a photo Hans J. Mayland took while with me on an expedition in the Darién, Panama when I found the big green Caquetaia umbriferum. In the same upper river I discovered also freshwater sawfishes, but possibly they spawn up river but than go back to the sea.

I remember reading your worldwide collecting histories month after month in Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine back in the 1980s. You then had a good and prolific relationship with Herbert Axelrod. Then all of a sudden no more of your articles in T.F.H. What is it that happened?

I hope you liked them. The relationship with Herbert Axelrod was ALWAYS one sided (a one way street), which I realized unfortunately much to late, although my mother had said to me: "Heiko, this man will hurt you one day very badly, you do not deserve this, be careful, do not trust him.." but unfortunately I did. For your information, I was NEVER paid for all these articles, and not for over 7,000 photos he received from me and from other photographers, who had trusted me and whose pictures I handed over to him believing he would handle them correctly. And there are three dates in my life I will never for get until I die:

  1. July 19th, 1988;
  2. September 17th, 1988, and
  3. June 7th, 1989.

The very short story is (I have about 14 giant files filled with it, still today); I had given him the idea in 1984 to do a freshwater fish book about all fishes known or coming into the hobby, each one from its continent for the trade. Such a book had never been done before. And he said I should do it. But these were just words. Sometime in 1985 I received a parcel and opening it up in it was DR AXELORD'S ATLAS – Freshwater Aquarium fishes, and he called me the next day: "Well what do you think about it? Is that what you wanted to do? See how fast I did it!" and my answer was: "No Herbert, and besides from what I saw over 70% of the names below the photos are wrong, do not represent the fish shown". (Many of the photos were from my collection and besides the names of the locations were wrong. Later on another occasion he told me that he was not interested in what is written below the photo, it will change anyhow, people are stupid and what sells are only the nice photos...). "So, this is a start, you can now do it better". And I worked for three year accumulating excellent photos, everyone with correct location of collection, most of them from myself, but around 3,000 or so also from other photographers. I worked for three years, almost day and night when I was not on expeditions or selling fishes around the globe and then he wanted to print, my book, in late 1988 and I was to go to New Jersey to take all the photos so he could get them ready. I had over 7,000 in my bag and Dieter Vogt, previous editor of DATZ magazine came with me. I arrived on the 14th of July. I had worked for three years without a single penny being paid even for my trip over to the US to deliver the photos and having for three years travelled the world to get all the detailed and correct information of habitat, collecting, taking water parameters, etc., almost monthly, I asked Herbert that I merit to be the senior author, as he will do only the printing ... and that must have driven him mad (or he was all his life – but that I realized to late). We drew up an agreement, but he changed it every day and he asked me while I was there to work with Warren Burgess in the meanwhile on the Catfish Atlas (which I did, helping him with 1,200 of my photos, correcting wrong names and locations, sometimes even in the wrong continent, and with the 4 missing catfish families he did not have...). I had to leave the 19th, because I had already my next trip to Zaire bought and had to connect in Frankfurt to Kinshasa. While the Taxi for JFK was already waiting in front of his office he presented me the agreement which I had hardly time to read and I remember as of today, that all copyrights of all photos go to TFH forever, which I told him I don't mind my photos but not those of other photographers and he just said "Don't worry, we can change anything you want" and that was to be the error of my life.

When I came back from Africa on September 17th I found a Telex (no e-mails at the time) in my office with the words: "Heiko your book will be too expensive, the retail price will be $100 and no one will ever buy such an expensive TFH book, it will never sell. So you better do it on your own, or with Hans (Baensch) or anyone, I cannot do it. Your photos will have to go to the Catfish Atlas and the Dr Axelrod's Atlas and I will produce every year new a Atlas, giving out every year 500 new photos and then it will always sell ..." I was shocked. I had worked for nothing and he had all the photos. I wrote back to ask him to at least pay the photographers (which up to this date he has, as far as I know, only paid to a few of them, I paid nearly 200,000 German Marks = about $100,000 for photos that he, TFH, used but never me, except for the AFC, who used some of my colour separations without asking permission from the authors, although I had it in writing from the AFC secretary that they would do so but never did – I really got sc....d ...). Herbert answered not to worry. I asked him every month, we even had a meeting in Florida in March 1989 and he said he will pay. And then our next encounter was at the 1st Aquarama 1989 (which I coordinated), where I presented flyers of my new book, Blehers Fishes which I wanted to bring out, as I had worked so hard for it, and still had the colour separations, and had pre-sold 21,000 copies in four languages. He could not believe his eyes when he saw it and on June 7th (seven days after Aquarama's end), I received a constraining order from the Trenton, New Jersey, Court, against selling my book, as Dr Axelrod has sworn under oath that, a) I had stolen out of his pocket $50,000, b) because I had free access to his publishing house, I had stolen all his designs (like to put 8 pictures on a page...) and his ideas, and c) that I was doing the book he had planned already to do all his life and there was no market for two. And he did send the constraining order to everyone of my future distributors.

The rest is history. In the following years I lost all my savings, my pension, 7 houses, just to mention a few of the items. The only thing he was unable to take from me was my will to survive and to continue my work, the things he had never done, only written (lies) about his doings ... Ross, who knew the story in every detail, as well as Marshall Myers, Rolf C. Hagen, Allen Levey and many others (except the aquarists), tried to help and said "Heiko sooner or later it will catch up with him...", which definitely was the case – only for me too late. I still have not printed that book until today, for what I was sued for ... But enough, just a short inside of the "Fish Tycoon".

Fish boxes We had travelled to this remote place in Mato Grosso with a VW-van from Rio (2500 km), bringing all the boxes, material for floats, fishing gear, oxygen, etc. and made shade in the heat for the boxes. With the van the boxes were carried to the Cuiabá airport and shipped to my Aquarium in Rio. For the next 10plus years I did this every single month, even when I had my Aquarium Rio moved to Frankfurt, Germany - throughout South America, monthly.

After leaving Gulf Fish Farms, you founded your own fish collecting and distribution business in Rio de Janeiro, Aquarium Rio. Famous in those days for offering the rarest of the aquarium fish, many times never seen before, what was your experience with Aquarium Rio, what happened to it?

Yes, I opened Aquarium Rio in Rio, with the money I had saved in the USA, during the 2 years of work and collected and opened holding places across Brazil. Travelling monthly and bringing back species the (aquarium) world had never seen before. For two years I exported mainly to Europe, but hardly anyone paid me, claiming them DOA (Dead On Arrival) all the time and after two years of bringing back fishes from the most remote collecting stations and spending all my money on research and travels I was broke. Lufthansa, who saw in my doing a potential business (no one had exported fishes by air directly form Brazil before) gave me a free ticket and I flew to Frankfurt. Asked my father (who had married again and had the best running restaurant in Frankfurt) for a 1,000 Marks loan ($500) to buy aquariums, and I asked my mother's oldest customer, who had several green houses empty, to rent them to me. Every single month I travelled to South America, collected my own fishes, and brought them back to Frankfurt, quarantined them and delivered them with an old van across Europe to wholesalers only. Fish against cash, and that worked. After I had sold all the fishes from my 400 aquariums, I washed and prepared them and flew back into the South American jungles... often with a wild jaguar, a caiman or an anaconda in my handbag, something unthinkable today.

But this way it worked and it did very well. Everyone wanted my fishes, mortality of DOAs was below 2% per year (mostly 1.3-1.7% every year), people where happy and Aquarium Rio grew and became world famous. I shipped my new discoveries and introductions to 86 countries and became by the 1970s the largest shipper of fishes out of any European airport. Every airline wanted my cargo.

I did this for 30 years exactly out of Frankfurt. By 1977 I had built the most modern fish quarantine and export facility worldwide (copied afterwards around the globe and published in many books, even TFH). My travels expanded all over the world to find new species, from 1974 on, next to several Amazon expedition I did yearly at least one to New Guinea (Australasia) and was able to introduce almost every rainbow-fish and blue eye in the hobby living today, most of the freshwater gobies and so much more. I went several times every year to Africa, collecting in every country (except Capo Verde islands), 37 times in Central Africa alone. I think most of the West and Central African dwarfs came into the hobby by me, also some of the new species described since the 1970s, but not only cichlids.

I travelled so much, monthly, that I needed a manager, although I had an excellent team of three Morocco guys I had trained from their childhood, the best fish keepers I ever saw. And one day Ulrich Glaser came to my door, without employment and asked for a job. Well I trusted him (the error of my life, my mother always told me and Natasha keeps telling me), with all my finances and lost. And he opened up a competition with my money.

In 1997, as I had planned, I closed Aquarium Rio after 30 years in Germany and moved to Italy, where it is much warmer, and for me it is by far the best country in the world to live in – in every sense. I had decided anyhow to close after 30 years as I had already been publishing and I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to more research, more collecting and discovery, more trips, which I did and am doing.

Heiko with a chartered aircraft Checking the rear of an chartered aircraft (I had done my pilot license for one-engine planes a few years before that in order to fly the jungles, was of great help) and getting ready to collect in the Tapurucuara region (today also called Santa Isabel Rio Negro region).

In 1992 you created one of the most beautiful magazines ever published on aquatic life, the quarterly Aqua Geõgraphia, what happened to it? Are you still investing in publishing?

Congratulations Juan, again, I can see do your homework well. Very few realize how Aqua Geõgraphia is written correctly. That shows how good you are and often how superficial people can be. Thanks.

Yes you noticed well, there were two reasons for starting this quarterly magazine:

1. I wanted to give information about the aquatic world, but above and below water, as no one had done before (and I had the material and the people, friends from around the world which did never publish, or hardly did, before). Not even NG (National Geographic) or GEO (with the later I had almost a fight that is why Geõgraphia to not confuse with GEO).

2. As magazines are mainly published because of the adverts they have (most people do not know, or do not realize this, just look carefully, one example: TFH September 2007 in front of me, had 144 page of which about 84 are filled with adverts, and this goes with everyone else, that is why I stopped my 20 year long NG subscription), I wanted to do a reader friendly magazine limiting each issue to 12 advert pages - max, and have 100 plus pages editorials, which I did.

For many years I had support from good people from the industry mainly, but when 9/11 came everyone stopped, except for 3, and I could not print it anymore. I still did a 24th issue, 4 in 1 combined, a yearly issue, but I had only 12 adverts, and this was a very elaborated and beautiful issue.

We are still selling some of the back copies (to be seen on our website), and as you say, everyone loved it and we have still almost daily requests for new issues.

But as you write we finally have started just now, to do another yearly issue, for which we were able to get 12 advert pages, it has the same size as Aqua Geõgraphia, but it is called DISCUSBOOK01, maybe misleading, as there are only 3 articles on new discus discoveries and/or interviews in it, the other 7 articles are completely different. We believe it is very beautiful and everyone who saw the "0" issue loved it, I send you the cover and two of the articles, but only first pages, just to give an idea to your the readers. It comes out in August.

I have been so far unable to do another Aqua Geõgraphia in English, but the Russian loved it so much. This coming January, 2011, one of the largest russian publishers will bring out monthly issues of Aqua Geõgraphia distributing 100,000 copies each month, and the first 10 are already finished. So maybe we have a chance to get it also into other languages again in the future. (They claim it is better than NG and have made it similar but with an orange frame and a little bigger than NG, but very nicely done – maybe they succeed).

You know we are publishing very regular, every 15th of January, 15th of April, 15th of July and 15th of October each year Aqua, International Journal of Ichthyology, maybe the only one in the world in full colours, as this was also my aim since 1994, to do one of the best scientific ichthyological journals around, something Copeia only started last year (after more than 100 years of existance) to do, at least on the cover. But scientists have to pay, in Aqua no one has to pay anything, I have always sponsored it.

Country traveling in Cameroon This is was what was left from a rent-a-car I had hired to Douala to do research, mainly for Uli Schliewen, collecting all the nine cichlid species later described from Lake Bermin in Cameroon. Some, specially the red one, T. snyderae Stiassny et al., 1992, which I think is still in the hobby. They (Melanie and Uli) described in 1992 the new species T. bakossiorum, T. bythobates, T. flava, T. gutturosa, T. imbriferna, T. spongotroktis, and T. thysi. Only one person had been to this hard to access lake before and only T. bemini Thys van den Audenaerde, 1972, had been described. These are amazing cichlids. This was the occasion when the driver from the rent a car company, who had given up to drive these roads, screemed after I managed to get alive across the falling down (into tan abiss) bridge " Rambo is chicken shit against you ...".

Bleher Discus - Volumen 1, is probably the most extensive treatment on discus ever. How did you come to the idea of the book? Is there a volume 2 planned?

And not only on Discus, at INPA (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisa da Ámazonia) they claim it has more information on the Amazon than anyone has written before. That is why someone they did a translation into Portuguese.

The idea of doing such a large book came from a very similar point of view as the one I have for magazines: People very often (or better yet publishers) print only (or mainly) with the intention to make money (except for scientific magazines). The information given in popular publications is secondary (or, for some even, of no importance). After I had seen possibly 1,000 popular (and even some scientific) titles with the name DISCUS or Symphysodon on the cover, I noticed people wrote about them in their natural habitat, food, environment, Amazonia, without even having been there (most of these authors never saw them in the nature), or some of them just once or twice but then they claimed to know all about them, and I just had enough of that. In addition seeing all these wrong names in the web (some still continue to use them, as you know).

And this was at the time when I just had accomplished my 330th Amazon field trip, where I always look for Discus (next to all other fishes), even since our first expedition in 1953-1955, and researched them, their stomach, guts, environment, water parameters (no one took as many parameters), its real (Amazon) history (researched in Museums around the world) and those of the Indian tribes (I visited and in part lived with 75 of them). Also seeing that hardly anyone tells you what is really happening with the environment, the deforestation and what the status of each river is, hardly anyone really tells you the truth. So I thought it is about time to write and publish my own book with my extensive photographic material (maybe 2.5 million slides of Amazonia alone, which I am slowly scanning them all and lately naturally taking digital pictures), and I tell the world what I saw. Everything in the book I have lived or are experimented facts. If people like them or not (I know some in Brazil and elsewhere do not as the truth is not always nice or welcome ...).

And you know, when Natasha and I were invited to THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON FRESHWATER: 3-7 DECEMBER 2001, which took place in Bonn, Germany in 2001 with 126 participating nations, copies of my article BRAZIL THE WORLD'S GREATES BIODIVERSITY IN DANGER, which I had researched and published in AG vol. 21, were in almost at everybody's hand. That made me also think: people do read (if they do something about it is another matter).

I am answering to you so late, because I had 3 articles to finish this weekend and parts of Bleher's Discus volume 2. I am working on it every night and it is as much work (or more) than volume 1. It is very hard, because I interviewed over 600 breeders from about 80 countries and I am giving all they details they communicated to me. From the very first breeders (in 1934) until now (2010), what and how they bred - into the last detail. I had 30plus years experience with Schmidt-Focke living near by Aquarium Rio, and I am bringing his unpublished manuscript for the first time in history. I have just about every breeding form, every recently new discovered wild form (with exact locations), every Discus and fish championship around the globe in it with details of judging (even NADA 2010), new judging systems, a big chapter on maintenance, treatments, feeds, aquarium decoration, lights, filters, Amazonas today (with the latest 2010 facts) and also the future, both in nature and fishes in aquaria.

It will be like volume 1, possibly bigger but for sure it will come out this year. And, as with volume 1, if I wanted to make money I would have made out volume 1 in at least 10 books, and should make out of volume 2 probably 12 books. But I am no money-making publisher, I just want to give correct information and that the people who buy it get their monies worth. I want it to be for generations to come (hopefully), to see what once was here in this crazy world. And hopefully bring nature and natural fishes closer to people. Who does it these days?

testing the Heikomobil This is also why in 1986 I had decided to have a vehicle which can cross almost everything, on Unimog basis Mercedes Benz helped to develop a vehicle which can not only cross rivers (up to 3.5 m depth), but also climb and have individual drive on each wheel. It took two years of planning and one year construction while the upper elements were built with NASA shuttle material for the first time used in a vehicle. In the meanwhile I did nearly 150 000 km fish collecting with it across Africa, the Balkan, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and through the entire Central Asian region.

What is the fish discovery you feel more proud of? Why? Would you tell us a bit of the history?

That Juan, is a very difficult question. I can see the beauty in each one of the fishes I collect, the uniqueness it has. I see when it is a mimicry (there are so many, hardly known) and what special features it has. Naturally I could say I am proud of the beauties I discovered or re-discovered, or if you want I was the first to collect them alive and introduce them into what I see as the most beautiful and educational hobby in the world, such as Pterophyllum altum, or some of the rainbowfishes like Melanotaenia boesemani or M. preacox, both species sold by the millions every year and giving joy to as many people around the globe, all from a very few specimens I collected (and I would be a millionaire if I would only receive a penny for each sold ...). I could also be proud of the joy the Rummy nose tetra is giving to millions, or I should be proud of the millions of people who today enjoy the so called Red Spotted Green Discus, which all of those bred today around the world and being Grand Champions in may Discus competitions, come from the few red spotted discus (S. aequifasciatus) I collected in the Coari region and Schmidt-Focke bred them, and from there Aquarium Rio shipped them around the world (but details about this in volume 2).

I could be proud of all these thousands fishes I have brought back alive or dead (still working on the list to the last detail, but so far I only registered the first 4,000), those I have been able to introduce or not, have been described or not, but to tell you really what I feel: I am proud of more than anything in a new discovery (or even one already known from preserved specimens only), when I discover its biology. The biology of freshwater fishes (brackish in some cases as well), is so incredible fascinating if one really goes into it, it is unmatched. And I could write here and now for weeks none-stop on the amazing biology of certain freshwater fishes which I found around the globe. I am sure you have also seen such amazing behaviour and biology of fishes in México on your trips. We look at it and usually I discovery something extraordinary, but in reality we are very ignorant to understand nature and why.

I am proud when I find out that a trichomycterid I collected has an organ like an antenna which it can hide, withdraw (completely inside into its body), or eject when needed, or that a mormyrid (ie Petrocephalus bovei) or a characoid (ie Crenuchus spilurus) has an infrared organ only (or maybe only) used at night, which I discovered during night collecting by watching them for hours in complete darkness. These and so many other unique and extreme intelligent behaviours evolution gave them to survive I could tell you now. Many such things I discovered as the first man and that made me proud, specially when I find out that no scientist who worked on the species group has seen or noticed it.

Did you see the beautiful videos Natasha made from the neck-bending Salamander fish? This unique creature – naturally it was known already, but hardly studied alive and never been filmed with its behaviour before. Have a look under our Video section. It is just amazing.

It makes me proud when I enter a tormenting waterfall (which not so many do) and find that a species has adapted its entire life to live under such a extreme condition and that it has been able to adapt through (probably) millions of years of evolution, to survive only in such habitat, also to live from what grows only there. (There is also a video of that form last December Colombian Apaporis exploration.)

It makes me naturally also proud when I am able to discover a new species and when I can contribute to the human knowledge of biodiversity with this species, so we maybe one day will have an almost complete record of the freshwater fish fauna (which we are far from it, especially the miniature fishes, very little is know of those - but I am working on it every day). Such things make me happy and make my day, not specifically the name it is given.

Across America And with my Porsche Turbo 300 (had it for 16 years, no more), I crossed the entire America researching every creek and river I came across, I made also research on all of the pupfishes in the South even in northern México (never published it).

You were in recent years withhold for some days by Brazilian authorities after trying to get some preserved fish out of this very tightly regulated country. What was that happened? Did you break the Brazilian law?

Juan, I really do not want to get into this for the tenth-thousand times. I explained exactly what happened on my website (if people believe or not, that is their problem, but those are the facts), for everyone to read in my site and some world-wide comments.

I just want to tell what I found out recently, besides the fact that there is a law that contradicts every law, and under the Lei Ambiental of Brazil there is no restriction and no prohibition for any material, which is not to be used genetically, and my fishes were al preserved in formaldehyde, which can never be of use for any genetic purpose. And all three accusations by the Policia Federal (which everyone can read, on my site, also the paragraphs) are strictly for having genetic material, which I never had). Those fishes in formaldehyde were to be identified, in order to determine if they were from a new location for a known species, or if it were a new species with its correct location. And these were mostly addressed for Brazilian ichthyologists to know more about the Amazonian biodiversity (hardly any one is working on, or do not have the funds), and nothing else. Two of the three accusations can never hold because it is written down on each bag, the location and can be verified easily, and the third can also not stand, because of the Lei Ambiental of Brazil. But the PF does not care about that and the judge never called us to listen to our arguments. We have never ever, until today, been able to be heard.

I found out, that we were black mailed by some students, or wan-to-be important guys in INPA. Natasha and I were in 2007 again in the Lake Aiapuá region (lower Purus), because I had found the year before, for the first time in history, a real new Paracheirodon species (the 4th one, and first one south of the Amazon River), with an amazing biology, different from all other 3 known species – very different. And at the same time in this remote village, was a group of two (or three) people they said from INPA, doing questions to the local Indigenous people, really ridiculous questions for weeks. Like: why do they fish the fish, why do they eat the fish, how many fish they eat, per week, month, etc. What species they eat – I cannot tell you what insane questions to a handful of people living there all their lives, for generations doing the same things. I did not mind, talked to them and (unfortunately) told them about my previous discovery and that it is very interesting and unique in evolution what biodiversity is concerned and should be studied, also by INPA. These two guys went to the president of the village, to tell him, he should deny our research (certainly because they were jealous as I had discovered such a unique fish here). Because in the Amazon, I do not care where you go, the native people, if caboclos, or the local Indian tribe, you always MUST ask for permission. That is never to forget and I have done it all my life. The vice president of that village knew me already and also that I made Aiapuá, as so many other Amazon regions as well as quatic regions around the globe, popular for tourism, for caboclos or indigenous to start collecting my discoveries (Hudson is just doing it for the Aiapuá community, as I found new discus variants there as well and they can have a better income for their families now). And he granted me the permission to study, which made them very angry, and possibly because I told them of the none sense they are doing their, just spending tax money for ridiculous questions. They were no scientists, just no body. Now, because my name and that of my family is very well known in the Amazon and Brazil, for more than 60 years as the pioneer family for the aquarium hobby and endless discoveries in Brazil, with this they had a "famous" prey to make "them look famous" ... And in the media lies were published without end (ask Natasha what they said in the TV), coming from those guys and the corrupt PF. To the media they have hardly shown the few preserved fishes and never the locations of collecting - they never told the media the facts.

I just hope one day the judge will pronounce himself, and ask us. So far no trial, no request, no nothing has happened, just in the air is the accusation of the PF. That is it.

Fishy man das I think that this fishy man das not only come from three generations, it is in the family for centuries, at least it is what I think, and specially when I saw these well preserved mosaics in Atica from the 3rd and 4th century AD.

Tell us about your family, any kids planned to continue your aquatic research dynasty?

Yes, July 20th, in a few days, is Amanda Flora due. Natasha is in her final days, I think Amanda will come before the 20th (as I could also not stay in exactly 9 month, can never hold still and waste time, this was the worst thing in prison, I had nothing to do for 3.5 days and 3.5 nights, what a waste of time, a tooth brush was a weapon, a pencil was a weapon – none I was allowed to have ...).

I have made up my mind on my last birthday (65th), that we should have one to follow up our work, as none of my nephews is interested (I have 10). And I am very happy it is a girl. Not only because women were the only ones on all my field trips (in February was my 854th - see my website) that stood their "man", they were the only ones to go with me all the way, as Natasha is doing now, as my mother did and hopefully Amanda Flora will do. That is also why we are giving her my mothers name, she should be proud of her grandmother. What my mother did for the aquarium hobby and the scientific world, what she did with her four small children in the deepest jungle of South America, I do not think any woman has done anything similar in history.

Natasha And since I meet my better half in 1999 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, we are a perfect team everywhere I go Natasha comes along and while I catch all the fishes she photographs each one, takes day and night chemical water parameters and help me very much. That is how like last November/December in less than 10 days I collected and she photographed over 500 different fish species of which so far it looks like 10% is new to science and the hobby. Only during the next few month she will not be able to, as we expect Amanda Flora to follow my work, or that of her Grandmother.

What are your ideas on how to promote the interest in aquatic life in young people?

We must help young people to understand that there is more to learn from nature than from anything else. Nature has always been our prime teacher, practically everything we have on this planet comes from nature. I learned from two years in the jungle more than from eight years in school - that is why I was promoted (after coming back from the jungle), and from than on the best in my school until the end.

Biotope aquariums is what I am promoting for years now, authentic - or as close as possible to nature - is what is needed. I have shown on exhibitions sponsored by Hagen, Tetra and others, that I can decorate an aquarium the biotope as I saw it in nature with the same environment, fishes and plants (if they were there) and proved that fishes will immediately start to spawn - feel at home. I still do not understand why so few are doing it. They do the most fantastic aquascape aquarium, which have nothing to do with nature, and do not place the fishes according to nature.

If I place the community which lives together in an aquarium and give an environment they know (if wild or tank breed, it is in their genes, except for mutants), they feel immediately at home. Have a look at my videos (mostly done by Natasha). The tanks are still not clear and all fishes spawn. The loach from southern China was sitting at my friends place for one year in a naked aquarium, I gave then the correct home and they started to play and spawn within two hours time (see southern China Video). The very same has happened with the Nicaragua biotope film. (Even if not all cichlids are from Nicaragua, but neighbour countries, they still know each other, their community). I proved that with piranhas which can live happily in a large community tank, If the mates are those which the piranhas knows, and vice versa. Unfortunately these are things not much followed by the industry and not by most of the (aquarium) enthusiasts.

This is the word we have to spread and teach to every youngster, to have a natural - easy to take care - authentic (or close to) biotope aquarium and they will enjoy it more than any computer game, or TV, I promise.

Natasha Natasha and Heiko in a boat in the Upper Aracá, Rio Negro basin (2007).

With your energy, there must be hundreds of projects for the future, would you share some with us?

Yes, so far I have at least another 200 destinations on my agenda, mostly never researched before, because this has always been my case. For example: Felipe Cantera is a great guy and I appreciate very much what he does. But I would not go back to Uruguay, I have done it long before he was there, and specially not now when everyone goes. I do not go to aquarist places or those explored by tourists. I only go, each time, to places where no one went before, or where scientists have only collected preserved specimens and we do not know, or hardly know, their real colours. I only go back to a place I have been, when I have discovered a new species (or a colourful one), but brought back only a male (or female), otherwise I have never gone back to the same place twice.

Some of the countries I have projects to go can be seen on my website under future expeditions. I will every year go back to the Amazon region, to still untouched places before it is to late. (And mind you: those fishes sitting in formaldehyde in Manaus now at the PF are from areas no one every went, some are sensational new discoveries which will root now, without science to be able to see, and no scientist will every go to such remote palces as it is too expensive or too much hardship.) And I am underlining too late, as deforestation and habitat destruction is going on at a speed never seen in history before. Just a few days ago the illegal logging law was lifted, now everyone who does it, is, according to the new Brazilian forest law, forgiven ... And I will go back to Australia each year, as well as parts of Africa, all places no one researched before.

One can also see under PROJECTS some of the others I still want to do, and think I will. Today I feel as strong as when I was 20, or even better, and I still do things no one I know does (freshwater-fish-wise). And with some luck and Natasha's and Amanda's help we should still be able to bring a lot of joy to humanity in the future. This year is the only one I had cut back on trips, doing only nine, but next year again many more.

Any final thoughts?

Think fish!

Thanks Heiko


Artigas Azas, Juan Miguel. (Jul 11, 2010). "Interview with: Heiko Bleher, Jul-2010". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on May 24, 2024, from: