A clear difference: Botanicals in "clear water" aquatic displays

We are so head-over-heels in love with the deeply tinted botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquariums, that we sometimes tend to forget that the vast majority of aquatic hobbyists not only have no idea about how this stuff works, but also may just not like-at least at the moment- the "aesthetics" of blackwater.

And, all joking aside- I get it.

Many hobbyists are looking for something a bit different to "scratch an itch", and the old/new idea of using botanicals in their "conventional" clear-water planted tanks sounds like just the ticket! 

Super cool!

A typical scenario for a hobbyist who recently discovered our brand/site/ideas is n immediate reaction that they either love the look of a blackwater aquarium and can't wait to start such a tank- or convert an existing tank...or, they like the idea of using botanical materials in their tank, but simply dislike the look of the tinted water...at least for now.

And inevitably, we'll get an email or PM asking about how to utilize botanicals for the look without the tint, wondering not only if it's possible, but if there is any "authenticity" to it, vis a vis nature.

And of course, the answer to both thoughts is YES!

First off, the vast majority of the world's freshwater ecosystems are "whitewater" environments, with little in the way of "tint" caused by decomposing materials like leaves, seed pods, etc. Now, that being said, many of these materials are present in whitewater streams, rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water, but the soils, surrounding geological conditions, and other physiological-chemical factors influencing the water don't add any real "tint" to it.

If we consider our tropical ecosystems, even South America, for inspiration- one only needs to look towards the  Rio Tapajos in Brazil. It's the fifth largest tributary of The Amazon, and accounts for about 6% of the water discharged into The Amazon (I didn't try to do the math, but it's a lot of freaking water!). 

Although the Tapajos has low levels of dissolved solids and relatively low conductivity like a blackwater rivers, yet the pH is not significantly acidic; rather, it's typically between 4.5-7.8. - quite a range, huh? This river is subject to seasonal inundation, which means that the water level increases dramatically (like 4-5 meters!) during the rainy season.

The Tapajos and other Amazonian "whitewater" systems are characterized by scientists as "carbonate waters", meaning that they have a richness in carbonates and calcium (relative to blackwaters). Typically, they also have a pH above 6.5, and higher electrical conductivity (redox) than blackwater systems. The lower part of the Tapajos is thought to be clear ("white") because there are no major currents present, and because the sediment material has been deposited in ages past.

The underlying dynamics of this is tied into geology, glacial periods, and a lot of stuff that's"way above my pay grade", as they say...Yet, suffice it to say, the heavy influence of leaves and podsol substrates that we see in blackwater habitats is not occurring in these interesting environments. Yes, you'll find some leaves and submerged branches and stuff- and even some aquatic plants!

Like many rivers, it encompasses a wide variety of habitats, ranging from near "whitewater rapids"-type conditions to slow-moving driftwood "snags", to mud/silt/sand bottom areas of modest water movement, and even areas with lots of rocks and aquatic plants. 

This interesting river is home to over 325 documented fish species, with more than 60 being endemic to the river itself! Many of them have only recently been discovered, and scientists think that there are probably hundreds more species residing in the river yet to be cataloged. Yeah, pretty rich fish diversity, right? As you might expect, the Characins seem to dominate the fish diversity spectrum, followed by the Loricariidae and Cichlids.

In fact, my beloved L134 Peckoltia compta "Leopard Frog" comes from "Brazil, Pará, Itaituba, Pimental, rio Tapajós downstream from the confluence with rio Jamanxim, 04°41'06''S 056°23'07''W."  

Of course, the Tapajos is just one of hundreds of possible "whitewater" rivers to replicate a part of in our aquariums. And they can all benefit from the humic substances which these materials impart into the water, even without the heavy tint. If you simply want to talk a more "generic" approach and utilize botanicals in an otherwise "non-tinted" aquarium, perhaps one of my little experiments from a few years back will provide some inspiration.

As one f those "I need to do it so I can show others it can be done" sort of things, I decided to "shift" one of my established blackwater/botanical-style aquariums to a "whitewater" botanical-style system...

You know, a sort of "proof of concept" sort of thing. 

I mean, it started out nice and tinted, with a lot of leaves and seed pods and stuff...

I realized that the tinted look wouldn't appeal to everyone, but the idea of using natural materials, such as seed pods, leaves, etc. just might appeal to a lot more people if they didn't have to "put up with" the color...so I started a transition.

And, through simple "adjustments" in husbandry and maintenance, I was able to transform this tinted paradise into a (gulp) sparkling, "crystal clear" aquarium in just a couple of weeks.

What did I do? 

Wait for it...

1) I utilized activated carbon in the filter.

2) I made water changes with non-tinted RO/DI water ( ie; water in which I did NOT steep a few leaves in the storage container.

3) I let the leaves and seed pods I used initially and added later soak a bit longer after the preparation process (like a week or so), to really liberate as many of the tannin as possible.

4) I utilized a wood type (Manzanita) not known for strong tannin leaching, and supplemented it with seed pods and other botanicals with harder external surfaces, less inclined to leach tint-producing tannin into the water over time in significant concentrations.

And that's really it. That's the super-secret, "magic formula" for having a "whitewater", botanical-style aquarium. 

Like, difficult, I know (sarcasm intended)

And of course, I'm absolutely not the only one that's done this.

Our friend Andrea Freel, an extremely talented, world-class aquascaper from Scotland, who's tanks have graced these pages many times, also has done this, to magnificent effect.

And of course, if you're into plants and not a fan of the tinted look, this is certainly a fantastic way to go. James Wilberschied is a planted tank enthusiast who happens to love the look of botanicals, and graced his lovely plated tank with a variety of our botanical materials, creating a fantastic, "accessible" and  entirely relatable 'scape that will no doubt influence many other hobbyists!

Really, with the amazing variety of natural materials available now, coupled with your insane talent and imagination, there really is almost no limit to what you can accomplish without "coloring up" the water.

So, regardless of if you're trying to play the biotope game, a high-concept 'scape, or augmenting the look of a "conventional" planted aquarium, you can achieve all sorts of cool looks- WITHOUT the tint. (Yes, I said it...) 

So, you sort of can have it both ways, really!


Stay inspired. Stay curious. Stay patient. Stay creative...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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