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Setting Up Our African Cichlid Aquarium

Updated on April 11, 2014

Beginning our African Cichlid Adventure

When we first started setting up our African cichlid aquarium, my husband and I did a lot of research. We weren't sure at first what fish we wanted, but as we started to collect images of ideal fish, we were drawn over and over again to African cichlids (specifically, from the rift lake region). With their beautiful color, fierce attitude, and intelligence, that's what we settled on.

We invested in a 32 gallon fish tank, and began the process of selecting rocks, substrate, and plants. We were on our way!

Below I outline some of the choices we made, and how they've worked out for us. It's been two years, and the tank is still doing great!

All photos taken by author.

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Above are a few of our beautiful African cichlids. They are intelligent, colorful, and friendly fish, and we love having them around!

Our Aquarium - A beautiful addition to our home

I was so excited to pick out a new aquarium- but which one to choose? We wanted to display our aquarium prominently in our family room area, so I searched for one that would match our brown sofa and black wood coffee table and TV stand.

This stand, shown below, was what we ended up going with. We especially love the bow front- I can't recommend it enough! It's elegant, and makes the aquarium a gorgeous decoration and conversation topic in our home.

Aqueon 06450 Classic Pine Bow 16 Front Aquarium Stand, Black
Aqueon 06450 Classic Pine Bow 16 Front Aquarium Stand, Black

This is the bow-front aquarium we picked out. I love the hidden latch in the front that opens up for convenient storage underneath. Ours is in dark brown, though the black is also nice.


Our Aquarium Setup

My husband and I put a great deal of time and effort into setting up our aquarium. Below, check out what we chose for our tank's substrate and plants.

The Scoop on Substrate - What we use in the bottom of our aquarium

Gravel, sand, rocks, broken shells- there are lots of options for the substrate (bottom layer) of the aquarium. While our former aquarium had gravel, we went a different direction for our African cichlid aquarium.

First, our water is hard and basic, but not basic enough for the fish we wanted to have. So we needed a substrate the would be helpful in making our water more basic. In reading about fish preferences, we found that Lake Malawi cichlids generally have a sandy substrate in their home environment. As very active fish, they like to dig and move sand to create their perfect atmosphere. Lastly, we had never had sand before, so we wanted to try it out. We found aragonite- a special sand that also helps keep the pH higher.

One word of caution, though- it is different to clean gravel versus sand. You have to be more careful when using a siphon to clean it, so if you're a lazy cleaner this wouldn't be the substrate for you.

Plant Life - True or false?

Luke and I debated about whether or not to have real plants in the new aquarium. In the end, we decided on fake plants, for the sake of our budget. It's nice to have plants that you know will always look nice and won't need to be replaced or trimmed.

However, we have had real plants in the past. I especially like bamboo, because it is a low maintenance plant and the leaves are gorgeous. There are many different varieties of bamboo, and you can even purchase plants that are woven and grow in braids or spirals.

Jardin Plastic Aquarium Oval Leaf Plant Decoration, 20-Inch, Green
Jardin Plastic Aquarium Oval Leaf Plant Decoration, 20-Inch, Green

This is similar to one of the plants in our aquarium. We love how they curl upwards!

Jardin Plastic Emulational Decorative Long Leaf Plant for Aquarium, 20cm, Green
Jardin Plastic Emulational Decorative Long Leaf Plant for Aquarium, 20cm, Green

I love the long leaf plant décor. This would be useful to cover any plastic tubing from a heater or filter.


Our Friendly Fish Family - The Unexpected Guests

Without trying to, we ended up successfully mating our cichlids! Our fairy cichlid recently hatched out a school of fry, and they are so adorable! You can see them in the above picture.

Luke was able to hook up a small box to the top of the aquarium, keeping them safe while they grow. Pretty soon though, we'll have to move them so that they don't start fighting too much.

Selecting a Breeder Box - The best fit for your tank

When we found out that the fairy cichlid was carrying around babies, we made a quick trip to the store to buy a breeder box that she'd be safe in. We knew the other cichlids were hoping for a chance for some live sushi, so we had to act fast.

Below are some breeder boxes. If you're ever interested in breeding fish, or if you have a male and female of a similar species in the same tank, I'd highly recommend having one of these on hand. We weren't expecting to have fry, but this box worked great for us when we did!

These boxes are also excellent to have on hand in case you get a sick fish that you'd want to quarantine, or if one of your fish is getting too aggressive and needs a "time out."

Finnex External Refugium/Breeder Hang-On Box/Air Pump and Air Tubes, 1-Gallon
Finnex External Refugium/Breeder Hang-On Box/Air Pump and Air Tubes, 1-Gallon

This breeding box has an air pump and air tubes connected with it, and can hang OUTSIDE of the aquarium, saving you precious room on the inside! It's also ideal for quarantining a fish.

Marina Hang-On Breeding Box, Medium
Marina Hang-On Breeding Box, Medium

This a simple breeding box that will get the job done well.


Some other African Cichlid Aquariums

This is a beautiful video of an African cichlid tank that someone uploaded to YouTube. The colors are gorgeous! Maybe this would be a nice next-step for us when the 36 gallon aquarium feels too small.

This YouTube video is an excellent demonstration of how gorgeous the colors of African cichlids are. This tank is quite a bit bigger than ours, and as such holds many more fish. Check it out! It's a very relaxing video.

Aquarium Anecdotes - Have you had an aquarium? What have been your fishy experiences?

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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I remember of a fish couple, their faces coming so close like kissing, maybe they were actually kissing, can't recall so perfectly now (can fish actually kiss each other?)

    • Elyn MacInnis profile image

      Elyn MacInnis 

      5 years ago from Shanghai, China

      What I remember from our tank when I was a child was our cat trying to eat them! This makes having fish easier than I remember. I love that your fish had babies and they survived.

    • Wayne Rasku profile image

      Wayne Rasku 

      5 years ago

      Excellent lens about cichlids. Discus are my favorite kind of cichlid, but I have never had them - they are supposedly difficult to keep, but they are beautiful. We had an angel that lasted so long it almost outgrew the little 10 gal tank. Aquariums are definitely fun and entertaining.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      What a great lens about aquarium fish. I have goldfish, and I see I could do some things to make their lives even better. Thank you! - My blessing tool isn't working, and I hope to see more quality lenses by you. :)

    • MusicMadness LM profile image

      MusicMadness LM 

      5 years ago

      I used to have cichlids for quite a while, just like the yellow ones in your pictures. But it's been years since I had an aquarium setup. I would really like to setup a new tank . . . . maybe a saltwater one. That would be cool.

    • LisaAuch1 profile image

      Lisa Auch 

      5 years ago from Scotland

      Beautiful and congrats on your additions! My husband has 3 angel fish, we call them the 3 amigos, as they spend all day just swimming about in a trio! they are lovely though

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 

      5 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      Beautiful fish and lens, blessed. If you ever get to scuba off the coast of Thailand you see fish like this in their natural habitat and it is one of the most amazing things I ever did!

    • verymary profile image


      5 years ago from Chicago area

      My son just asked for one ... something about tilapia?? I told him our 2 cats are enough for now, but maybe in the future. Love the lens! *blessed*

    • Magda2012 profile image


      5 years ago

      This is something my husband will like too :) we plan to buy an aquarium soon.

    • jcortright profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      @iamraincrystal: They definitely require maintenance! I should do a lens about that sometime soon...

    • iamraincrystal profile image

      Rosyel Sawali 

      5 years ago from Manila Philippines

      Lovely! So good to hear you are enjoying your aquarium. I find it rather difficult to maintain. ^_^

    • jcortright profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      @maryseena: That definitely happens in our aquarium, too. They are aggressive fish, that's for sure!

    • maryseena profile image


      5 years ago

      Unfortunately my cichlids were always fighting and biting off each other's fins. It was too stressful for my kids, so I had to switch to Mollies and guppies who gave birth to several generations in my aquarium.

    • jcortright profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      @nicksanders lm: My husband and I constantly disagree about moors! I hate them, but he loves them. Definitely a matter of personal preference, but the diversity of fish is what makes aquariums great!

    • nicksanders lm profile image

      nicksanders lm 

      5 years ago

      I've had a few in the past but only the different types of goldfish (Black Moors etc; I guess I love their strange looking eyes and weird colors.) I agree with you on going for artificial plants: The live ones tend to be too much maintenance for me (and they die too often!)


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