Updated: Apr 9, 2019
You've seen their pictures and they've caught your eye, and in your research you've found that there's a lot of info out there by people who have never seen an #altumangelfish in real life. I figure it's time to share some firsthand experience to help people ease into caring for these fish. I decided to take the leap about in April 2016 and acquired 12 wildcaught pterophyllum altum. About a year later I aquired another ten #F1altums. It's been a rollercoaster of a ride, and this is what I've learned not to do, in order to do things right.
These are not beginner's fish
For this article, we're going to focus on #wildcaughtaltums. These angelfish are in a difficulty class of their own. It's not that they are hard to keep, the just have a lot of peculiarities that you need to know in order to keep them happy and healthy. These are high-stress, high-strung fish with a strong flight-drive that are not used to being kept in a little box. After nearly two years in captivity, mostly spent in a 180 gallon aquarium, mine still haven't totally settled into domestic life.
No surprises. Ever.
Have you ever seen a fish batter itself to death on the side of an aquarium? The idea itself is morbid, but this is a really common way for altum angelfish to die. When faced with a frightening scenario, they choose to flee, fast and far. In their flight, they bump into each other, further perpetuating the problem and creating more pandamonium in your aquarium. In order to reduce their line of sight and give them a sense of their space, I've painted the sides and back of my #altumaquarium. These fish don't know what glass is, and in their blind fear they just see an exit route that doesn't really exist. You try running headfirst into a brick wall and seeing how that turns out...your altums won't fare any better.
Light is the enemy
When that #aquariumlight flicks on in the morning at full intensity, it's one hell of a surprise for your poor fish who were just sleeping in total darkness (see paragraph above). Get an #LEDlight with a 24 hour automated cycle. I use Finnex lights. They're bright enough for plants, even when placed on a 30" deep aquarium, and I use a 48" long light to illuminate my 72" wild altum tank.
Side lighting, like a lamp in your room, can cause shadows to be cast into the tank when you cross in front of it, which creates issues as well.
Avoid streaks of light crossing the aquarium (car lights through a window), and flashes of light from a TV. Most of all, turn off your flash when taking a photo of these fish and avoid waving your bright phone screen around!
Avoid sharp aquarium decorations
Decorating your aquarium is an art form in itself, but in this case, it's function over fashion. When fleeing, altum angelfish are not looking to see what's in front of them. It's a blind panic to get away. Ensure that whatever #decorations you use in your tank don't have sharp edges to gouge your fish as they pass. That piece of driftwood might look great, but it could be your undoing.
Altum angelfish also like overhead coverage. Give them a few spots with either floating plants or roots they can hide under, and that will quickly become their favourite spot.
Tank mates are important
Angelfish have a tendency to become fixated on something and go into a weird hypnotic trance. Altums are particularly prone to it. #Tankmates that provide constant motion and distraction play a huge role in the safety of your altum angels. Large rainbow fish or congo tetras are good tank mates. They aren't aggressive, thrive in the same water conditions, and provide your skittish altums some piece of mind, thinking that if those fish are out and swimming, then it must be safe for everyone.
You need to be very careful with who you choose to mix with your altum angelfish. I used to have 12 wild altums, until one got a little peckish and decided to taste one of his tank mates. About 9 months into raising this group, I lost an altum when he tried swallowing an #ottocinclus catfish. It was truly hearbreaking as I had planned to remove the school of catfish that same weekend. Don't let this happen to you.
One of the most frightening asepcts of this fish were the pristine #waterconditions that Google was telling me they needed to be kept in. I had a better chance of losing 50 lbs and becoming a super model than attaining what the internet was telling me these fish required. Zero nitrates! Ok...how? Zero water hardness! Ummm....what about ph crash? A stable 5.0ph level! But...that would shut down biological bacteria..,and, uh, how...when I need to have 0 water hardness and can't buffer the water!?!?!? Ok. Take a breath.
For the first 6 months I had the altums, they were kept in a 110 gallon aquarium, in tap water, getting a 40% water change every 2 weeks. Nitrate was around 20-30ppm. Ph was around 7. Hardness was off the charts, and guess what? The fish were happy. Now, my wild altum angelfish are kept in a 180 gallon aquarium of buffered RO at 6.3 Ph, a TDS reading of 110-130ppm, and nitrates are at 10-20ppm as I prep them for breeding. Water temperature is 86F and they are #waterchanged weekly with 55 gallons of buffered RO water kept at 80F. My biggest regret? Not keeping them in tap water longer, as it would have made water changes a whole lot easier and cheaper.
I've had these fish in nitrates as high as 80ppm, and they didn't explode and cause a nuclear winter like the internet was telling me they would. This was caused by a faulty test kit telling me the water was clean, and I caught it by reading the signs that the fish were giving me.
The way I buffer and condition the water is through a combination of Discuss Buffer and Neutral Regulator (both by Seachem). It holds the Ph nice and stable vs. other products I've tried. You'll need more Discuss Buffer than regulator for the mix, and as an added perk it also dechlorinates water.
Disease. Aww Crap.
Know your #diseases. Altum angelfish are prone to stress related diseases, so you really need to be versed on the topic. My altums have only become sick once, but in that instance I could have lost them all. I had improperly introduced twelve #corydoras catfish into my aquarium, and they infected my altums with columnaris. The altums had just become comfortable in the tank, and I made the call to medicate the whole aquarium rather than move them to a hospital tank. I had to assume that all of the altums and all of the cory cats were sick, and I didn't have a #hospitaltank big enough for all of them. FYI, medicating a 110 gallon aquarium to eliminate columnaris costs just upwards of $400 over a span of two weeks. That sucked.
You need to be able to quickly identify columnaris, lymphocystis, body rot, fin rot, ich, cottonmouth, and the three errors I purposely put in this particular sentence. Know the signs of a distressed fish, know what is a disease vs. an unhappy fish, and ensure that you're monitoring for improvement. API Fungus Cure is a great product to have on hand, and it's what worked to solve my issue. The tetracyclene in the mix is a time-proven solution for bacterial infections. On the flipside, you'll never see me saying good things about Melafix or Pimafix.
F1 Altum angelfish for the win
Altum angelfish are beautiful fish that should only be cared for by advanced aquariusts. If given the choice, choose aquarium bred fish. It's said that for every wild altum you see in a fish store, ten have died to get there due to how sensitive they are in transport. F1 altums are the way to go. You get a stronger fish and you help to conserve the wild populations of this incredible species.
Leave a comment, a question, or even a contradiction down below and we can learn together.
Andrei Vexler is an aquarist with over 20 years in the fish hobby. Having run a fish room with over 700 freshwater and saltwater aquariums, Andrei found his passion in South American cichlids, particularly altum angelfish. Growing and wholesaling angels to the GTA and surrounding area, he shares his years of experience in his blog for advanced aquarists.