A return to the basics...and beyond.


I've had a great fish geek "career"…I get to speak about geeky fish topics all over the world. It's cool, but you can'st really appreciate the whole thing until you've experienced one of those  “Oh, so you think the life of a fish geek speaker is glamorous?” -type weekends. The kind where you spend 14 hours traveling and 34 hours on the ground. Fun if you like airplanes and airports (which I do), but not really "glamorous!"  I love this stuff!

I recall an event I was at recently, which left a lasting impact on me. The event was awesome, but, like all of them, it was over far too quickly! You realize the value of information sharing in the hobby at these events. I’m always reminded of both the thirst for information that exists in the hobby, as well as the culture that surrounds it. The culture of sharing and teaching. Pretty darned cool. For new hobbyists, there is a lot of support out there if you want it. In forums, local clubs, fish stores...and even, blogs. It always hits home for me when people tell me how much they enjoyed my blog about “______” a few weeks back…people will sometimes even quote lines to me...woah. Causes me to realize the responsibility I have when discussing topics here.

Anyways, I shared the speaking bill on that particular weekend with a local hobbyist, who gave a great talk on the “Fundamentals of the Reef Aquarium.” At first, you’d think that the is the LAST thing you need to talk about to experienced reefers…Nothing could be further from the truth. Both the speaker and I were totally blown away by the total hunger for seemingly "basic" hobby information. After both of our presentations, the amount of questions we fielded on stuff that would be considered “primary” reef keeping- aquarium keeping- technique was overwhelmingly disproportionate to more advanced topics discussed in the talks.

We talked about this for a long time, and tried to get our heads around it all. Why would this be? I mean, we’re in the “Postmodern” era of aquarium keeping, where hobbyists are trying all sorts of advanced techniques and technology, and sharing via the internet. Hobbyists spend a collective fortune on the latest and greatest equipment: lighting technology, controllers, skimmers, pumps, etc. We are bombarded with lots of data on husbandry, fish breeding, coral care, setting up systems, etc. Information is everywhere. 

Well, maybe the information is everywhere, but I get this sneaking feeling that many hobbyists are not taking advantage of it. Why would reefers who have 200 gallon plus reef systems, with thousands of dollars in corals and equipment have detailed questions and even misperceptions about really basic stuff like alkalinity, water quality, and stocking? Stuff that they should have acquired as fledgling reefers, or during their planning phases in the hobby adventure. How could this be?

If we can't grasp this....

...then we'll never grasp this!

Well, I have a couple of thoughts and theories about why (Well, of course I do, right?)

The Internet has changed everything: “Okay, Fellman, sure- go ahead and blame the ‘net. Slap Twitter again while you’re at it…” No, hear me out on this. I think that the internet and all of the information access it provides has been culture-changing. However, some of the change in our hobby may not be for the better. There was a time when a beginner in the hobby went down to the LFS, had a conversation with the staff about starting a tank, and was sent home with some information and perhaps even cracked a book or two…BEFORE he or she even bought a tank. 

With the internet, this information is readily available, along with forums where a fledgling reefer can discuss the hobby with experienced hobbyists. However, there are also hundreds of “build threads”, advertisements, and online vendors (just like me) dangling all sorts of goodies in front of the neophyte. For just a few bucks, you can have all of this cool stuff delivered overnight right to your door! If you do it right, and if you can afford it, you’d be able to go from thinking about starting a tank on December 10th to a full-fledged, high-octane system with all of the latest expensive gear, plants, and fishes by Christmas! Maybe it’s a cultural shift brought about by the era of e-commerce. We have become accustomed to wanting something and getting it…fast. Why research it? I mean, there are products and equipment that can give you “professional results” with virtually "plug and play" setup. You can bypass all of that nonsense, like understanding the nitrogen cycle, or the concept of water quality management. We have live bacteria in a bottle, and electronic controllers to just set things up for us. Easy.

Perhaps even too easy? Have we simply decided, in this fast-paced era, to just bypass the “learning curve?” Are we as a culture and business so eager to get new hobbyists into the game that we are enabling them to bypass the “dues paying” part of the climb to hobby success? Should there be a “dues paying” time, anyways? Who has the right to dictate THAT? On the other hand, are we exposing aquarists to financial ruin, and most important- hapless animals to death- because the newbie wants the deepwater Haplochromis, and “should” be able to keep it because of his crazy filter, advanced  water pumps, and electronic controller monitoring the whole thing can help? This dovetails nicely with my next theory:

Why try to understand what the plants and fishes need? The equipment will take care of it, right? We’ve gotten to the point where no one wants to brew a cup of coffee anymore. We have the “K-Cup” to do that. Maybe we’re too busy? Think I’m overreacting? I don’t think so. I’ve been approached as a vendor numerous times to give “remedial aquarium keeping” lessons to people who have obscene amounts of money invested in tanks that would put mine to shame, equipment-wise. Problem was, they hadn’t a clue about keeping the animals they built their technological shrines for. I know many fellow vendors and LFS people have had the same experiences. Have we as a hobby and industry made the process of actually understanding the life forms that we keep secondary to simply acquiring them? Makes me shudder a bit.

And I'm not trying to take the "You guys have it so easy- I had to walk through 6 feet of snow..." mentality. It's not about "Newbies have to pay their dues! They don't have the RIGHT to success.." No- the point is- we owe it to our animals- and ourselves, to understand this stuff.

This is where the LFS will shine above all. Talking-to people who live, breathe, and sleep aquariums will help. Vendors online- same thing. Forums have a responsibility for perpetuating a responsible, educational culture. Too much is at stake. When the average person is in the hobby for only 18 months before throwing his/her arms up in frustration, something is wrong. Especially when we are selling millions of dollars of expensive equipment and livestock to the very people who are bailing out in droves. This isn’t just a fight to create more understanding and awareness..It’s literally a fight for survival of the hobby and art of aquarium keeping. Yup.

This is a “cultural shift”: Pure and simple…In a world where people are supposedly not able to retain more than 140 characters of information, and where there is a apparently an “algorithm” for pretty much everything, we simply have lost the ability to absorb information on things that are not considered “relevant” to our immediate goal. If the immediate goal is to have a great looking tank, apparently we don’t want to take the time to learn the groundwork that it takes to get there and to sustain a system on a long-term basis. It’s far more interesting- and apparently, immediately gratifying- to learn about what gear can get us where we want, and what fishes are available. We perpetuate this by well- dumbing everything down. We feature the superficial aspects of the hobby- how cool the tanks look, etc., while failing to get people to grasp the basics. You even see this in many of the “build threads” I alluded to previously. In many of these threads, you’ll see a detailed run down of the equipment, shots of the assembly, the “solutions” to the problems encountered along the way (usually more expensive equipment purchases). You’ll see pics of the finished tanks…

All very interesting and helpful, but the “weirdness” starts when, in the middle of the threads, you’ll see the “builder” asking about why he’s experiencing a massive algae outbreak, or why all of the Apistogramma, plants or coral frags he just added are dying in this brand new, state-of-the-art tank. Questions and ensuing discussions that make you wonder why this ill-informed, yet apparently well-healed individual went off on a 5-figure “joyride”, building a dream tank with an apparent complete ignorance of many of the hobby fundamentals. I’m often dumbfounded at the incredible lack of hobby basics many of these people show. Just because you’re a great DIY guy, and have disposable income to buy everything you see advertised on line for your 400 gallon tank, it doesn’t make you a knowledgeable or experienced aquarist. It just doesn’t.

Okay, I’m sounding very cynical. And perhaps I am. But the evidence is out there in abundance…and it’s kind of discouraging at times.

Look, I’m not trying to be the self-appointed guardian of the hobby. I’m not calling us out. I’m asking for us to look at this stuff realistically, however. No one has a right to tell anyone that what they are doing is not the right way, but we do have to instill upon the newbie the importance of understanding the basics.

Like many other vendors, I offer  products to people and don’t educate them on every single aspect of aquatic husbandry. It’s hard to do that. I do write lots of blogs and articles, and lecture all over the world, so I know I’m doing something to reach some people…but not enough. I need to do better. I probably need to write more about basic sort of stuff than I do about whatever the heck is on my mind? Dunno. I do know that we all need to tell hobbyists like it is, without sugar coating everything. There WILL be algae. There WILL be biofilms! LOL


I remember when I started Tannin Aquatics, I was determined to share my passion for using all sorts of botanicals and leaves to create what I feel are a profoundly different type of "natural aquarium" than the sanitized, polished, aquarium-as-a-canvas model that's been preferred to us over the past decade or so. I knew that there would be aquarists who didn't "get it"- aquarists who would focus on the perceived "negatives", like algae issues, maintenance, having to prepare everything before use, etc.

I KNEW that there would be people who might kill their tanks by adding lots of botanicals to their established systems without reading and following the instructions concerning preparation, pacing, and what to expect. I knew there would be people who would criticize the idea, talk negatively about the approach; generally scoff and downplay what they didn't know, understand, or do. It's human nature whenever you give people something a bit different to play with...They want to go from 0-100 in a day.

That's how it goes in the hobby sometimes. When you're trying new things, some people are really eager to get into them...but not all are eager to look before they leap. That's why reef aquariums are so...mysterious- to some people.


 There are dozens of posts and “build threads” on forums that DO provide great information to hobbyists, along with plenty of articles by experienced aquarists discussing any number of arcane and fascinating aquarium-related topics. Yet, for all of this, we see what appears to be a very superficial understanding of the hobby by so many aquarists. I feel sorry for these people, as well as the animals that are exposed to potentially fatal situations out of pure ignorance. These hobbyists also miss the joy that comes with understanding and applying something that they have learned.

We all make mistakes. Part of the hobby and the learning curve. Yet, when I see so many indications that hobbyists are just not grasping the basic information that they need to be successful, I feel a sense of disappointment. I feel like we- all of us who are experienced in this great hobby and industry- are letting down a whole generation of hobbyists. Yikes, I’m giving us a bit of a butt-kicking. Yeah. I think we need to sit down with prospective hobbyist and who them that learning about the basics is actually FUN. It’s actually really cool stuff that will make their hobby experience way more fulfilling and interesting.

How does this get solved?

Well, it starts with mentoring. It starts with getting people excited not only at the end result- owning a “slice of the bottom”- it starts with getting people excited about the journey to get there, and learning about how we can make the animals under our care thrive. It’s not just about the latest gadgets- it’s about the latest information on fundamental care of animals. 

It starts by us once and for all embracing the local fish store and the people who work there. Sure, there are the stories of ignorant personnel and such- but these are truly the exceptions rather than the rule- yet they have somehow seeped into our collective consciousness and contaminated forever our view of the local fish store. Most give invaluable, free hands-on advice. Most attempt to instill a passion that goes beyond just shilling products, as is unfairly leveled upon them. Enough is enough.  We cannot keep tagging the LFS as the primary cause of hobby dissatisfaction and misinformation. The local store, as I’ve written about previously- is the first link to the wonders of the hobby, a cornerstone of hobby “culture”, and the owners and employees deserve our unwavering support. Like all of us- they deserve the occasional kick in the rear when they screw up. But that’s about it. 

It starts by continuing to emphasize basic care...Example: How many aquarists do you know who really embrace a quarantine protocol for any fish, plants and corals added to their tanks? How many aquarists do you know that would bend over backwards to buy a product that promises the benefits of quarantine without actually doing it? A lot, I'll bet...I mean, we'd all be tempted...but how many would really just jump on that because of the seemingly easier course? Human nature? I guess. 

As experienced aquarists, we need to support new hobbyists with not just the generosity that we’re famous for, but the incredible passion that we curate. We need to give them the good and the bad information. We need to impress upon them that running without learning how to walk first is a painful way to learn. Fishes, plants, and corals are not just “merchandise”, and the learning curve should not include exposing them to potentially fatal situations that could have been avoided had the neophyte hobbyist been properly instructed about their requirements from the get go. We need to let beginners know that part of the joy of the hobby is learning about this stuff first hand..by doing it.

In an era of instant gratification, it just seems that the aquarium hobby is a polar opposite. The vast majority of us get it, but there is a discouragingly large portion of the aquarium-keeping hobby that hasn't seemed to have grasped the concept just yet.

Let's do our best to help change that.

Stay enthusiastic. Stay helpful.

And, as always...

Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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