Eyes open- and hands wet...

If you’ve been in the hobby for more than a few years, you’ve definitely started noticing a trend about the way we do things. 

We have, in my opinion, developed a sort of dependency on technology. Ok, maybe not a dependency, but an excessive reliance on technology, and, for some fish geeks, particularly on the "reef" side of things, their ability to identify and interpret a problem that isn’t verified by one of their monitored parameters has, well- atrophied

What exactly do I mean? Well, over the years, I have had many hobbyists  who contact me because their aquarium is just not doing well- fishes aren’t feeding well, plants are not looking so hot, colors are off, etc., despite the presence of an advanced lighting system, controllers, high end reactors, etc. Some of these hobbyists will rattle off water parameters taken by either their controller or a test kits, and long-winded descriptions of the expensive equipment they have in place to run their tank, with more than just a little annoyance that, despite the alkalinity being “X”, or the pH reading “Y”, that things don’t look good. In fact, their is often a sense of bewilderment that there could even BE a problem, because seemingly, every contingency has been covered by their equipment and high-tech accessories.

The common thread in many of these complaints is that the aquarist, despite his reliance on advanced technology and a seemingly higher-than-average understanding of the water parameters ( or should I say, the numbers involved), has no real clue what’s going on. Rattling off pH, Dkh, phosphate and nitrate readings is cool, but if you don't know what they mean in real terms to your inhabitants, what's the point of monitoring them? Many times, the aquarist will downplay some seemingly innocuous system change, such as the fact that the makeup water, which was always RO/DI from a home system, was suddenly changed to the “better and less expensive” water purchased from the LFS or other source  last week, or that recent upgrade to “better” lighting should not have damaged his “high-light loving” plant. Rather, I’ll hear things like, “That shouldn't be a problem, because_______.”

Well, um- YEAH, it SHOULD be a problem. Change is good, but not always easy. Fishes have adapted over eons to inhabit some of the most stable environments on earth, the rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans of the world. I mean, why do you think the wild reefs and rivers are reacting so poorly to some of the recent mankind-inflicted changes upon them? These animals, despite their toughness, are not evolved to handle rapid changes to their environments all that well. They’ll demonstrate this by showing lots of overt signs of stress, trust me. 

When you change fish or plant foods, for example, it IS a big deal to your plants and fishes. Every manufacturer follow a more or-less standard “recipe”; however, each one also has proprietary formulations of things like trace elements, mineral additions, etc., or might use ingredients of varying purity or origin, all of which are perceptible to the animals or plants that utilize them. Something may be in a greeter or lesser concentration, which, despite being a relatively minor component, is a change that an animal must adapt to. Bran Flakes and Lucky Charms are both cereals, supposedly with “whole grains” in them. But trust me, your waist line will show wether you’ve been chowing on the Bran Flakes or the Lucky Charms for breakfast after a few weeks! Read the ingredients and look at the calories and sugar content of each…

“Light is light” is not an entirely accurate statement. When you switch from T5 to LED, for example, despite the fact that the LED system has advanced ability to control the color balance and intensity, the emitters focus light differently, perhaps concentrating it where it was not previously concentrated before. One of the best examples I can think of is the effects of sun when you go to the beach versus when you are out in the backyard. Sure, hanging out in your backyard you’ll get some sun, but it’s always different at the beach, with different atmospheric qualities, etc. that can result in you getting a deeper tan (or even a sunburn) when you lay out there versus push a lawnmower at home. 

A controller cannot monitor judgment. OR should I say, BAD judgement. Placing an Acara in the middle of your docile Tetra collection and then wondering why the Neons are getting whacked every night is not something that can be identified by your controller. Disease caused by not quarantining that new Pleco is not detectible on a test kit, iPhone app, or monitoring system. Overstocking, poor husbandry, and ineffective maintenance regimens cannot be detected directly by electronic equipment or testing. You’ll see things like declining pH and alkalinity, increasing phosphate or nitrate, but in the end, you’ll have to know how to interpret what these things mean. You’ll need to know the visual cues as well, such as increased algae growth, poor animal health, etc.

It’s great that we have all the technology at our fingertips. It’s not only progressive, it’s important. I’m not bashing technology, and I’m not downplaying water testing or having information at your fingertips. What I am concerned about is that, as hobbyists, we must not forget the powers of observation. We must not forget the “art” of aquarium keeping as we become more and more reliant on technology to monitor and control our aquariums.

Remember, probes need to be calibrated, and test kit reagents expire. There is no substitute for simply looking at your aquarium critically every day. Many very experienced aquarists are only half joking when they can tell you that they can take a quick glance at their tank and know that something is not right, or even a whiff of the tank to know their is a problem (trust me, you’ll never forget the smell of coral death, in a reef, for example…). This is borne of experience gained by observing their tank every day, not just staring at their iPhone display from their controller and assuming that everything is perfect because the numbers are “right.”

Don’t get me wrong. We need to use test kits and controllers to assist with operation and monitoring. We need information to know what’s going on in our tanks. The hobby has benefitted magnificently from the application of technology. What I’m asserting is that we cannot depend upon them to manage every aspect of our system. Remember, aquarium keeping is much an “art” as it is a science, and we can’t forget the “art”, or we might do so at the expense of our animals.

That’s precisely why the guys up in the control tower at your local airport have windows at their disposal in addition to their radar displays. There is just no replacement for visual assessment of a situation in most cases. Take their lead and use the technology as an assist, but RELY on your personal skills, honed by rigorous daily observation and understanding gained by intimately knowing your aquarium.

The need to become a “tank whisperer” and to develop the skills to “listen” to your aquarium has never been more relevant or useful. As technology improves and becomes more integrated into the daily routines of aquarium keeping, we as hobbyists must continue to develop the basic skills that you can only acquire by “getting your hands wet.”

Which makes my traditional sign-off more relevant than ever, doesn’t it?

As always, I implore you to…

Stay Wet,

Scott Fellman
Tannin Aquatics

Sanjay Ghataode
Sanjay Ghataode


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