"Keep calm and tint on!"

Have you ever noticed that part of the "art" of knowing how to respond when something goes wrong in our aquariums is to know what is "right" in the first place?

Yeah, of course you do. However, it's important to think about things this way when working with our aquariums- in particular, our rather unusual blackwater, botanically-influenced ones. That way, when something DOES go awry, you don't have to panic and go off in dozens of directions...you simply "work the problem."

Yes, I'm invoking the old Apollo-era NASA Mission Control "mantra" about what do do when stuff goes wrong. 

Flight controllers needed to be the eyes and ears of the astronauts, not a distraction or deference to completing their missions, so the practice of not panicking and making knee-jerk decisions to relatively small problems kept them from becoming large, potentially devastating ones. 

This is directly applicable to what we do as tropical fish hobbyists. When something goes wrong, you don't want to be bouncing all over the place, doing a little of this and a little of that in a hasty "response" to whatever is happening in your aquarium. I see my fellow reef hobbyists doing this all the time: Anything which looks slightly different in the aquarium often results in the immediate conclusion that something is "wrong", and often, frantic, non-specific measures (like adding a little of "this" or adjusting "that") are taken because, as we all know, when something is wrong...you just have to do SOMETHING-anything- to fix it...fast!

Nope, really, it's best to step back, look at things objectively; for what they are, without getting emotional: "Hmm, white spots on the fishes. They're scratching. What could this be. What could have caused this? What is the optimum solution?"

Okay, that's a fairly common, clear cut one, usually. Most disease issues are.

The difficulty lies when something is "off" in your tank. Although I'm a big fan of regularly testing your basic water parameters, I am also a big fan of not freaking out every time something tests a bit off. Sure, ammonia and nitrite readings in an established tank are an "all hands on deck" moment, requiring immediate, often drastic actions. However, more subtle stuff, like slight fluctuations in pH, alkalinity, or varying nitrate levels require more thoughtful consideration.

Look at trends. That's the beauty of regular water testing and observation. You can spot trends in your aquarium. Once you know the normal "baseline" for your tank, deviations (good or bad) are easy to spot, and potential problems easier to ferret out. Understand what is normal for your tank on a variety of levels. Since blackwater, botanical-influenced aquariums are a bit new to many of us, it's important to understand them on more than just a basic level. 

Blackwater aquariums with soft, acidic water, require attention to alkalinity and pH. You need to make sure that your system remains stable within a range...sure, if you manage to keep rock-solid numbers, that's awesome, but for many of us, simply maintaining some degree of stability is enough to assure the overall health of our system.

You need to familiarize yourself with the other aspects of a blackwater, botanical influenced aquarium- stuff you do with other types of tanks already- yet taking into account some of the more unique attributes of these systems. A few of these items are:

*The color of the water- We've spoken many times about the tint of the water not really being indicative of the ph or alkalinity. However, it can give you some idea as to the "potency" of the botanicals you have in your system, and the amounts you should maintain to keep a given level of color. Remember, going slowly to get to the desired tim is not just an aesthetic consideration- you ARE influencing the water chemistry and boiled when adding materials such as leaves, and this should be taken into consideration at all times.

*The overall clarity of the water- this can vary based on the amount of dissolved materials, and some murkiness is not necessarilly indicative of problems, like bacterial blooms. Often times, it's simply a result of the botanical materials dissolving into the water. I've seen plenty of "murky" blackwater aquariums with rock-solid and healthy chemical parameters. Nonetheless, significant, sudden cloudiness should at least give you cause for further investigation as to what may be causing it.

*The smell- Most blackwater aquariums have an earthy, almost "aromatic" smell, caused by the influence of leaves and wood and such. If you start noticing a foul, rotten smell, it's a pretty good sign that something is off. Often times, these types of issues may be rectified with a simple water change and/or addition of some chemical filtration media, but finding out what the cause of this odor is can be very important.

Biofilms, somewhat murky water, algae, decomposing matter...they all go with the territory here. That's why we talk about this stuff repeatedly, and mention that this type of very natural-looking aquarium may not be for everyone.

And never, ever forget some of the basics of the blackwater, botanical-influenced aquarium. Among the most important are to go slowly when adding botanical materials to an already established aquarium. I can't tell you how many times I cringe when I hear hobbyists describe problems that have arisen in their tanks shortly after adding a large number of botanicals to an established tank! Fortunately, with decisive, calm, and appropriate actions, we've avoided some major tragedies thus far.

But they can happen. They will happen. Yet, they don't have to happen.

Remember- adding leaves and other botanical items to your tank influences the water chemistry and bioload. An influx of a large amount of biological material to an established aquarium can challenge the biological filtration, creating all sorts possible problems- ranging from depleted oxygen levels to ammonia spikes, as bacterial population struggle to adjust to the large amount of organics being added.

Going slowly is the single most important thing you can do when working with botanicals. Taking the time to prepare your botanicals for use, add them slowly and carefully, and to observe their influence on your aquarium's environmental parameters is absolutely critical.

And if something seems off? 

When you take a few minutes (or hours, as the case may be-if you have them) to "work the problem", rather than contribute to it by taking rushed, possibly detrimental "measures" to "solve" it, you're doing the best possible thing for your aquarium. Every time. Because even if you misdiagnose the problem, you're at least putting thought and consideration into it, rather than pure emotion and panic.

Again, you know this already. So even though these types of aquariums may be a bit unfamiliar to some of you, the practices and procedures by which we manage them are probably "old hat" to you.

Work the problem.

Just a quick thought on staying calm when starting your blackwater system...and reacting appropriately- even under the worst possible situations. Like you probably do already...

Until next time.

Keep calm and tint on!

Stay focused. Stay observant.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics.




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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