Raleigh Aquarium Society Workshop

February 22nd, 2012

This past weekend, I spoke at the Raleigh Aquarium Society’s annual workshop and auction, along with a lineup of several other fantastic speakers. We had a little bit of everything with talks about Barbs, planted aquariums, West-African fish, collecting in Cameroon, large-scale fish farms, Central American cichlids, and even labyrinth fish. Many of the speakers were the same folks you read in the popular aquarium magazines, so it was a treat to be able to learn from other experts in the hobby.

I was also treated to some great activities in Raleigh by local members. Neil Frank invited me over to see his fish room, which consists of three wonderful planted aquariums. Neil is a long-time planted aquarist, and has lots of interesting things going on in his tanks.
Neil's Aquarium

In the tank above, he has a breeding colony of Melanotaenia praecox rainbowfish, that were buzzing all throughout the tank. I was blown away by the red sword plant in the 90G aquarium below. This old narrow-leaf sword was a single plant, but took up a foot in circumference. The contrast against the greenery surrounding it was even better in person.

Neil's Aquarium

He had another 90G next to this one (shown below) that had an oddball cultivar of Java Fern where every leaf was complemented by two smaller leaves at it’s base, making it look like the fleur de lis.

Neil's Aquarium

All of Neil’s aquariums had sumps, which allowed him to hide most of his equipment, aside from the built-in overflow boxes. I’m seriously considering a sump for my rimless tank now, as I didn’t realize that sumps allow you to keep a constant water level in the tank. Rimless tanks are a pain to refill water lost to evaporation through the week otherwise.


Outside of the conference, I also got an invitation to tour the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Many of the exhibits at this museum feature fish and other fauna that are native to North Carolina. My absolute favorite exhibit was one featuring Blackbanded Sunfish, which are one of the most striking native fish you’ll find.

Black-Banded Sunfish

A close second-favorite exhibit was one featuring native Kanawha darters and Redlip Shiner. The shiner were incredibly active, zooming around the tank, while the darters pretty much hung out on the logs.

Kanawha Darter

This tank was in a wide-open area, so I bet these fish weren’t displaying their top coloration. I’d love to see how red the shiner would get in a nicely planted aquarium after feeding some quality food for several weeks.

Redlip Shiner

After a great time at the workshop on Saturday, Sunday was an all-day auction. I wasn’t able to stay for most of the auction, but there were at least 500-600 items for sale on 10+ tables. They did a fantastic job of dividing up the auction items into categories like south american cichlids and plants so that you could target a specific table for items that you might want to bid on later. All-in-all, it was a great weekend! Thank you to the Raleigh Aquarium Society for inviting me down to such a wonderful event. I had a truly wonderful time meeting and hanging out with everyone, and highly recommend the event to any aquarist.

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AGA 2010 – Day 2 Speakers

November 14th, 2010

On Saturday, the Aquatic Gardener’s Association’s convention continued with a great line-up of speakers.

Jason Baliban – Photography & Aquascaping Contest Preparation

AGA 2010: Jason Baliban

Jason Baliban had the unlucky spot of having to wake and speak first thing in the morning to groggy attendees about photography. Nevertheless, he did a wonderful job discussing both beginner and advanced topics. Jason gave several tips for shooting aquariums using point-and-shoot cameras: turn off the flash, use manual settings, try the different built-in white-balance modes, try different zoom levels, etc. For me, I was very interested in some of Baliban’s more advanced photography methods.

Jason Baliban's Strobe Setup

He used several slides to demonstrate how he’s used photographic strobes to light his aquascapes, rather than simply piling lots of aquarium lights over a tank. This is a little bit of an expensive way to do it, but if you already used strobes for portrait or product photography, they’re a great way to get a tremendous amount of light over the tank. There were lots of questions from the audience during Jason’s talk, so he didn’t get to spend too much time on his advanced Photoshop tips, but he did show a tip where he added a small amount of blue light to the surface of one of his aquascapes to give the water a slightly cooler, crisp look. I’m going to try that one of these days. I’ve seen much of his presentation before at the last Aquafest convention, but am always impressed by Baliban’s ability to evolve his technique and offer a few new tidbits of information.

Claus Christensen – How to Make the Plants Happy & Avoid Algae

AGA 2010: Claus Christensen

The second speaker was the world-renowned Claus Christensen, former Tropica executive, who is now spending most of his time traveling the world looking for new aquatic plants for the hobby. This sounds like somewhat of a dream job for many of us hobbyists, who enjoy exploring nature for possible aquarium plants. In this talk, Claus took us along on several of his trips to places like Brazil, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Thailand where he collected new plants, but also surveyed and recorded the conditions for several plants already in the hobby.

River in Claus' Talk

One of the main threads of his presentation was to emphasize that plants rarely grow in optimal conditions in nature, so there’s often little point in trying to 100% mimic those conditions in our aquariums. Instead, most plants grow where they do in nature because they just so happened to be able to survive, out-competing plants for that particular swath of a river or bank. In the analysis of his data, he noticed that the mineral content of most plants where plants are found vary greater in the nutrient content, yet often times the same plants exist in these varied conditions. He did find, however, that pH and kH readings seem to be the most important measurements for determining whether or not plants would be present. To demonstrate many of these points, Claus showed several plants with tremendous adaptability, but the Crinum in particular seems to tolerate a wide range of conditions in Thailand. He showed one locality that he visited on several trips, and in some cases the Crinum were several meters under muddy water, other times, they were nearly completely dried up, and everything in-between. Of course, the Crinum uses its onion bulb to sustain through the different times. Finally, at the end of his presentation he showed a new packaging method Tropica is employing. They will be selling tissue cultured plants, still in culture cups, directly to the stores.

Tropica Tissue Culture Product

The benefit of this distribution method are that the plants will be completely sterilized, thus lasting longer on the store shelves. Plus, they will be able to be packaged with growing information, pictures, and for U.S. buyer, will be easier to import to other countries.

Michael Kane – The Secret Lives of Amphibious Plants

AGA 2010: Mike Kane

Unfortunately, I missed most of Dr. Kane’s presentation, but the pieces I did catch were very interesting. Mike Kane is an assistant chair and professor at the University of Florida, specializing in tissue culture with a passion for aquatic plants. He led the tissue culture workshop on Friday afternoon at the convention. During his talk, he described some of the research he’s done on figuring out what triggers an aquatic plant to grow submersed verses aerial leaves. The presentation was definitely above my head in many places, but I gathered that a hormone called ABA is responsible for triggering the change in leaf form for the Myriophyllum plants he was testing. Overall, it was an very informative presentation.

Karen Randall – Modern Aquascaping Design

AGA 2010: Karen Randall

Karen Randall is a mainstay at the Aquatic Gardener’s Association, and gave another great presentation at this years convention. In her talk, Karen drew from her tremendous experience as an aquascaping judge to describe several tips for how to do well in an aquascaping contest. In the beginning, she described the important design principles of thirds and various ratios when setting up a scape. Then, she progressed to sight-lines, which should run in a variety of fashions through an aquascaping in order to guide the viewers eye to the focal point. Open space, pathways, and fish selection are also important things to consider. She warned folks from including too many gimmicks in their scapes, such as waterfalls, fake backdrops, statues/figurines, etc, which often detract from the overall impression of the aquascape. Karen finished her presentation by showing several aquascapes up on the screen, and asking the audience to give their feedback about things they liked and dislikes, as a teaching tool to demonstrate the principles she talked about earlier.

Ghazanfar Ghori – Cryptocoryne

AGA 2010: Ghazanfar Ghori

Ghazanfar Ghori is GWAPA member who was invited to be a speaker about Cryptcoryne, as he has gradually grown into a expert and master cultivator of rare crypts. Ghazanfar’s began his presentation by giving a brief background of the Cryptocoryne genus, which consists of 55 species, with only 8-9 being commercially cultivated in the hobby. He then proceeded to go through the various habitats that Crypts are found, including freshwater, hardwater, and blackwater areas. C. ciliata is the most widely distributed plant in the genus that has adapted to grow in a variety of conditions. After showing pictures of several species in their native habitats, Ghazanfar discussed keeping these plants in captivity. Primarily, he keeps his plants in emersed setups, which are merely aquariums filled with potted plants. The pots are filled with a 50/50 mix of sand and ADA Amazonia for his freshwater setup, while his blackwater tanks typically only use a moss substrate. Having seen Ghazanfar setup in person, I can vouch for his ability to successfully maintain and propagate these plants.

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AGA 2010 Contest Results

November 14th, 2010

After the banquet tonight, the Aquatic Gardener’s Association announced the winner’s of their aquascaping competition. I took quick shots of every winner, and am listing them below. Do you agree with the winners? You can view all of the entries on the AGA website.

2010 AGA Contest Results


2010 AGA Contest: Small Honorable Mention

2010 AGA Contest: Small 3rd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Small 2nd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Small 1st Place


2010 AGA Contest: Paludarium 3rd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Paludarium 2nd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Paludarium 1st Place


2010 AGA Contest: Medium Honorable Mention

2010 AGA Contest: Medium 3rd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Medium 2nd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Medium 1st Place


2010 AGA Contest: Biotope 3rd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Biotope 2nd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Biotope 1st Place


2010 AGA Contest: Large Honorable Mention

2010 AGA Contest: Large 3rd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Large 2nd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Large 1st Place


2010 AGA Contest: Extra Large 3rd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Extra Large 2nd Place

2010 AGA Contest: Extra Large 1st Place

2010 AGA Contest: Best of Show

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AGA 2010 – Day 1

November 13th, 2010

The first day of the Aquatic Gardener’s Association 2010 convention began with a field  trip to Florida Aquatic Nurseries (FAN).  FAN is the top supplier of aquatic plants in the United States, and have hundreds of plants under cultivation across two locations in south Florida. We began the tour strolling through several green houses filled to the brim with emersed aquarium plants. The largest plants in these greenhouses were often the sword plants, which were in full bloom.

FAN Greenhouse

Anubias and Cryptocoryne were the other two very prominent plants in the greenhouses. Outside, rows of cement ponds contained lots of submersed plants, many that were throwing up flower stalks in the Florida sun.

Cement ponds at FAN

One of the most impressive of these flowers for me was the Hydrotriche hottoniiflora, which had a beautiful cluster of yellow flowers on each stalk.

Hydrotriche hottoniiflora Flower

Another plant that was really neat to see was the Echinodorous sp. ‘Vesuvius’ fully emersed and flowering. After seeing it I think Vesuvius may be an even better paludarium plant than an aquarium plant. It’s quite unique looking! During the tour, we also learned about a new hairgrass FAN is hoping to soon put into production. This plant is about 4″ taller, but the leaves are a bit thicker than the other Eleocharis we have in the hobby, similar to how a Lilaeopsis looks.

Echinodorous sp. 'Vesuvius' Emersed

FAN also is a major player in the water lily market, winning international awards for the hybrids over the past few years.

Lily Flower

After touring through their two locations, FAN was kind enough to have the whole group there for lunch, during which they ran a slide-show presentation with more information about their award winning lilies.

Jeff Senske Hosting Iron Aquascaping Competition

Following lunch, many attendees signed up for a tissue culture workshop, which I hear was very informative. Since I have already done a similar workshop with GWAPA members, I decided to take the afternoon off. The convention activities resumed later in the evening with the Iron Aquascaper Competition, hosted by Jeff Senske and ADG. This year’s competition pitted Houston aquascaper, Luis Navarro against ADG’s own Frank Wazeter. Both contestants were required to use the materials at hand to aquascape an ADA 60-P aquarium.

Frank Places Driftwood

Frank started by setting up a driftwood hardscape, along with a bright sand foreground.

Luis Prepares

Luis, on the other hand, chose to plant his foreground, and use rocks as his hardscape. It’s always fascinating to watch other people aquascape, to pick up tricks from them. This was the first time that I saw someone use a paintbrush to level out the sand in the foreground. I’ll have to try that myself on my next scape.

Iron Aquascaper Competition

After about an hour, the two contestants finished their scaping, and began filling the aquariums with water.

Frank's Tank

Frank's Aquascape

In the end, Luis Navarro was the unanimous winner of the competition. Congrats Luis!

Luis' Tank

Luis' Winning Aquascape

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2010 AGA Convention: Register Now!

June 29th, 2010

2010 AGA Convention Banner

The Aquatic Gardener’s Association convention in November is now open for registration. There are a number of compelling reasons to go to this year’s convention:

Don’t miss the premiere U.S. planted aquarium event this year. Register today!

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Aquafest 2009 – Aquascaping Challenge!

October 19th, 2009

I haven’t posted in a long time, largely because I’ve been incredibly busy preparing for Aquafest 2009 in Laurel, MD. As president of GWAPA, one of the three clubs hosting the convention, there was plenty to do, but after a blur of a weekend, I think the convention was a success. Thanks to all of the sponsors, attendees, and volunteers who helped us pull it off! The main event that I was responsible for was the aquascaping challenge between Jason Baliban, our speaker, and Jeff Ucciardo, GWAPA’s vice president.

Aquascaping Challenge

We spent the hour prior to the event sorting a mass of materials into two equal piles so that Jeff and Jason would start on a completely level playing field. Above is some of the manzanita wood that we got from Manzanita.com to use in the scapes. Jason got off to a quick start, putting in the white pool filter sand, developing a hardscape, and topping it off with some Aquasoil.

Aquascaping Challenge

Jeff took a little bit of time to plan his scape, but was right behind Jason once he got his hardscape placed. Jason chose to extend the white sand all the way from front to back, while Jeff kept the sand confined to the foreground. Both competitors divided the tank into two mounds, one larger than the other.

Aquascaping Challenge

In the end, both Jason and Jeff finished before the hour was up, which is quite impressive given the amount of time I usually spend working on an aquascape. Below is Jason’s finished scape from the side. The judges liked the rockwork in his scape, as well as the use of manzanita to provide flow to the layout.

Jason Baliban's Scape

However, the judges thought he could have filled in the scape with more plants than he did, but recognized that it should fill in nicely once it grows in. The tanks themselves are very nice, being a first look at Aquarium Design Group’s own line of rimless aquariums. They are 24″x16″x16″ and Catalina Aquarium donated a pair of HO-T5 lights to go with them.

Jason Baliban's Scape

Jeff’s finished aquascape is below, and as you can see, he did a very nice job filling in the scape with plants from the get-go. The judges took off points for his hardscape saying that it got lost in the plants.

Jeff Ucciardo's Scape

They also wondered why he didn’t extend the white sand front to back between the two mounds. Ultimately, we ended up being able to exhibit two very nice scapes, especially considering that they were completed in an hours’ time frame. The judges gave a slight nod to Jason’s scape, but explained to the audience what they liked and disliked about each.

Jeff Ucciardo's Scape

Also, during the whole hour, I gave a mini presentation about Aquascaping in general. We wanted to avoid folks from getting bored while the planting was going on, so I fielded a number of questions keeping the competitors from having to. Our A/V team also did a great job projecting the two tanks live onto two large screens so that everyone could see what was going on. Overall, the event was a success!

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Aquafest 2009

September 2nd, 2009

On October 17th and 18th, three D.C. metropolitan area aquarium clubs, GWAPA, CCA, and PVAS, will host Aquafest 2009. Aquafest is a bi-yearly event in Laurel, MD where each club brings in an expert speaker to present on Saturday. In addition, GWAPA will give an aquascaping tutorial and competition and CCA is conducting a high-caliber fish show where some very prized fish will be on display. Top notch vendors will also be selling their goods and livestock. On Sunday, PVAS will conduct an all-day auction, which is open to the public, where just about anything fish, plant, or piece equipment imaginable will be for sale.

Registration for Saturdays lectures and events is only $15.

Don’t miss this opportunity to hear veteran fish-keeper Ken Davis talk about the fishes of Uruguay. Jason Baliban, an award winning aquascaper, will talk about aquascaping and photography, and participate in an aquascaping faceoff with local GWAPA talent. Randy Carey, expert breeder and author, will discuss barbs, danios, and rasboras.

Aquafest 2009 Banner

There will be something for everyone. You will get to mingle with some of the top breeders, aquascapers, and aquarium keepers in the region. Don’t wait to register, as space is limited. I hope to see you there!

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Houston Plant Fest (2009)

April 13th, 2009

This past weekend I flew down to Houston to attend Houston Plant Fest, a planted-aquarium weekend put on by the Nature Aquarium Society of Houston (NASH). The event kicked off on Thursday evening at Houston Aquarium Warehouse, a local fish store and importer who caters much of his store to the planted aquarium hobby.

Houston Aquarium Warehouse Tank

Daniel, the owner of the store, brings in many smaller fish which are perfect for an aquascape where you don’t want the fish to overpower the environment around it. I saw some of these Paraguayensis Tetras (Aphyocharax paraguayensis) and had to buy a small school for my 50G aquarium. It was simple enough to get them back home in my checked luggage without any loses.

Paraguayensis Tetra

On Friday morning, two vans arrived near our hotel at 5:00am to take us on a 3 hour trip to the San Macros River. The river runs through the middle of the college town, where huge stands of Hygrophila polysperma, eel grass, Hydrocotyle, Cabomba, Ludwigia repens, and Texas wild rice all live. It was bittersweet to see Texas wild rice in its own remaining habitat, as development along the water has brought it to endangered status. Clearly, we didn’t collect any of this.

San Macros River

In some areas of the river, Cryptocoryne beckettii is purported to grow, but we didn’t see any during our trip. As an introduced exotic, the local government has been very dedicated to trying to eradicate it so it does not further diminish the Texas wild rice population.

Fields of Cabomba

That evening, we all returned to Houston to gather at The Fish Gallery in town to eat and appreciate their beautiful gallery of aquariums. They also have a retail store attached to the gallery in which they tailor to the higher-end aquarist.

Fish Gallery

On Saturday, we all filed into Aquaruim Design Group’s gallery for an aquascaping presentation by Mike Senske. Mike and Jeff Senske are long time hobbyists, and are well known for their beautiful aquascapes in the ADA and AGA aquascaping competitions. ADG is one of the few stores in the U.S. that carries and distributes ADA aquariums and products, so the Houston folks are quite fortunate to have them in their backyard.

Mike Senske and Luis Navarro

Mike aquascaped an ADA 90P aquarium, which will now be displayed in their conference room. The scape was a wood-based scape using two beautiful pieces of driftwood that they found locally. They filled in the rest of the scape with plants easily available in stores. Overall, it was a good presentation.

Finished ADG Scape

From there, we went to one of the NASH member’s homes to enjoy some Texas-style BBQ, and just talked plants for the remainder of the evening. Sunday, we all had flights to catch. It was a great weekend spent with fellow hobbyists. These little excursions really help to keep the hobby fresh, and energize me to try different things in my aquariums. Thanks for a great weekend Houston!

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AGA 2008: Georgia Aquarium Field Trip

November 23rd, 2008

The 2008 Aquatic Gardener’s Association Convention started with a field trip to the Georgia Aquarium, which was conveniently just a few blocks away from the convention hotel. We all assembled in the lobby of the hotel, and created a mob of people filling the street toward the aquarium. It was a great way to meet up with folks that you haven’t seen since the last convention.

George Aquarium

The aquarium is rather new in Georgia, and that shows through in the cleanliness and general niceness of the tanks and facilities. The building has a central cafe/atrium area with wings heading off in different directions. We were first guided into their river wing because they had the planted aquarium staff there to answer any questions we had about those tanks.


The planted tanks that they had were nice tanks. They wouldn’t place highly in an aquascaping contest, but they’re well designed, and accomplish feats that most of us don’t usually attempt. By that, I mean that some of these tanks must have been 5-6 feet tall, and yet they still managed to adequately light them to the floor.

Planted Tank

In addition, I asked one of the staff how they trimmed their plants in such a deep tank, and they said that they literally put on a wetsuit, and dive into the tank. If it was such a rigmarole for me to trim my tanks, I don’t think they’d ever get attention!

Planted Tank

In addition to the planted tanks, they had a fair number of other freshwater tanks, including a large river tank with huge catfish, an African rift lake tank, a piranha tank, and several others. I would have liked to see more freshwater stuff at the aquarium, in comparison to the marine sections, but the things they had were nicely done.


One of the cooler attractions at the aquarium was their beluga whale pool. I counted four whales playfully swimming back and forth, clearly recognizing the humans on the other side of the glass. It’s always amazing to watch humongous creatures maneuver so gracefully and with such ease underwater.

Beluga Whale

And of course, they had a sea dragon exhibit. These odd-ball creatures don’t seem to move around much, but they’re fun to watch just due to their unique appearance.

Sea Dragon

I would be completely negligent if I didn’t show a picture of a guitarfish (below), for which this blog is *not* named after, but a coincidence that was nice to discover. Although they kind of look like a shark, they’re actually in the ray family, and cruise along the bottom searching for small crustaceans to eat.


The most impressive display at the Georgia Aquarium is their huge tank, which I believe is the largest aquarium in the world. They had large informational cards that you could take listing most of the species in the aquarium, so that you could find and identify the various fish in the tank. I could have sat in front of this glass all day long.

Huge Tank!

In fact, I believe that they several events in this room with the aquarium as a backdrop, and they even allow you to sleep over in some cases, where you can fall asleep watching the fishes. Obviously, there were countless other exhibits throughout the aquarium, but two of my favorites, which most public aquariums seem to have these days, were the eels/worms, and then the jellyfish below.


It’s just so neat to watch both of these creatures flow in the current, just waiting for food to come their way. The jellyfish, especially, are beautiful with the blue backdrop, and their orange and reddish colors.


I would recommend the Georgia Aquarium to anyone who’s in Atlanta and needs something to see. It’s definitely got a lot of offer, and is worth the price of admission. That huge tank is worth it by itself.

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AGA 2008: Banquet & Auction

November 20th, 2008

The informational part of 2008 Aquatic Gardener’s Association Convention wrapped up on Saturday evening with Karen Randall talking about her collecting trip to Thailand with aquatic plant author and expert, Christel Kasselman.

Bangkok Aquarium Market

When they first got to Thailand, they wanted to experience the huge market in Bangkok. They had heard stories about the size and quality of the aquarium-related stands setup there. After much walking, they finally came to some of the dealers, finding rack after rack of aquariums filled with aquatic plants. Karen said that they could pretty much locate any aquarium plant known to the hobby in that market, in addition to some new ones.

Exotic Java Fern (maybe)

Take for example this variegated fern shown above, which was purportedly a form of Java Fern. Unfortunately, with several weeks ahead of them, they weren’t confident they any plants bought in the market would survive to make it back to their homes. In addition to the plants, the markets had an amazing selection of other materials including rocks, wood, equipment, and even an insane variety of gravel. (shown below)

Gravel in Bangkok Market

I can only imagine what it must be like to walk through so many shops who really get it in terms of aquatic plants. From there, Karen and Christel traveled throughout the country, collecting various crypts and other plants trying and find something new. They did find some interesting stuff, which she promised we’ll hear more about soon.

2008 AGA Auction

The next day, Sunday, was an all-day auction. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a thousand bags of plants spread across 4-5 rows of tables. I took 30 bags of plants myself to sell, but only came home with four. There was pretty good variety present in the auction, and prices were all over the map. In the beginning, prices tend to be a little bit inflated, but as the day wore on, several folks got some really good deals. It’s interesting to see relatively well-known plants, such as Anubias barteri var. nana, go for high prices while lesser known new plants go for less than they’d sell for online. Every auction is different, however, and I had a great time chatting with folks, while occasionally placing a bid. After 4-5 hours, I was off to the airport, after enjoying a fantastic convention. I highly recommend that every aquatic plant enthusiast try to attend at least one of these conventions in the future.

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