The power of Aquatic "Cross Training"

As you know (or maybe you don't!), I spent a good part of the last couple of decades in my hobby and business careers "embedded" in the reef aquarium world. Although I kept freshwater fish during that time, my main focus was everything "reef": Corals, inverts, fishes, systems, etc. I never took my feet out of the freshwater side, but it wasn't until I started Tannin in 2015 that I fell back in, full time, with my "first love"- freshwater!

And, like many of you who have "crossover" experience and skills, I realized that the decades honed in the rapidly evolving reef world gave me the "tools" I needed to "play" in the area of specialized freshwater aquariums. And, as you may or may not have surmised, my lifelong freshwater experience helped me find my way in the frenetic pace of the reef world. 

I have what I like to call  "aquatic cross training."

It's not that unusual, though...a great many of you do, too.

The more our customer base at Tannin grows and evolves, the more I see we're pulling in aquatic hobbyists from other disciplines, including reef tanks, frogs and herps, and planted tank people. I like to see Tannin's community as a sort of "melting pot", where ideas and influences from throughout the aquatic hobby-and around the world- are studied, considered, interpreted, and incorporated into our practice of blackwater and brackish botanical-method aquariums.

However, it wasn't always this way...It wasn't all that long ago that you could sense a real palpable division between freshwater and saltwater "culture" and practice. There was, in the words of many, a strange sort of elitism emanating from the saltwater side (particularly in the reef-keeping world), where freshwater was absurdly looked at by some snobs as "a beginner's world", or an "old person's game",  filled with brown fishes, cluttered fish rooms with disparate equipment, outdated thinking, and lack of progression.

I'd hear it at conferences and clubs all over the world, when I'd come to speak and get to visit the home of an accomplished reefer and see his aquarium, only to find out that he/she "used to keep Discus"- or whatever- and then they'd sheepishly show me their freshwater  tank, as if it were somehow a mark against their skill and honor or something. Weird. I hated that.

It's changed a lot now, which we'll get to soon.

And of course, the freshwater world, at least the people I was in contact with, had an equal amount of skepticism about the "snobby reefers." It was weird, too. And somehow, the myth was perpetuated that, in order to run a successful reef aquarium, you required some incredible skill set and mysterious knowledge, and a bottomless pocketbook in order to succeed.

It was ridiculous, really.  (of course, having a bottomless pocketbook IS kind of helpful, lol) Having long been a "straddler" of both freshwater and reef tanks, I would often challenge "snobby reef types" to set up and manage a full-on planted aquarium, Discus tank, African Rift Lake cichlid tank...or my fave...blackwater!

Fast forward few years...

Things are evolving rapidly on both sides of the "salinity line", new ideas are being expressed, and information exchange is coming at a rapid pace. More and more aquarists are doing both.

And an interesting thing that I've observed...and talked about at the last couple of reef clubs I spoke at": Historically, the aquairum hobby seems to go in cycles, where, in one world (reefing, for example), there might be a period of incredible innovation and progression, while the other side could be more "stagnant" at the  same moment, particularly from a "technique" standpoint.

The pendulum swings back and forth...Curiously, however, both hobbies seem to have reached a similar point at the same time. 

On a popular, mainstream level, in the reef world, the emphasis seems to be on collection of the rarest, most expensive corals and showing over-the-top "'Gram-worthy" tanks on social media.   It's EXACTLY what's been happening in the freshwater world. Many "hobbyists" seem to have forgotten the basics and the real joys and challenges of keeping freshwater and reef tanks, casting aside in pursuit of social media "influencer" status or YouTube fame. In a broad swath of the hobby, the space is filled by relatively inexperienced hobbyists, more eager to garner "likes" and followers than to share knowledge or discuss more fundamental, important  concepts, let alone, learn them for themselves. 

I'm being harsh, I know. That's the way I see it, and I know that this position won't make me popular in all areas of the aquarium world, but I believe that on a "macro level", it's true. In the reef world, very few reefers seem to be trying "new" stuff that doesn't involve a trendy "named coral" or expensive high-tech gadget. In the freshwater side, everyone seems all too happy to replicate someone else's award-winning aquascape, or to feature the latest new wood or rock. Even some brands are falling into this "vapidity trap."

Technique and mastery of fundamental concepts seem to be on the back burner in many areas of the aquarium world (at least, those that come across the loudest to the overall aquarium hobby), in favor of complex reef gear, "named" corals, sterile-looking macroalage tanks, reproducing the most "Amano-esque" aquascapes,  and overall trend-chasing ("negative space aquascape"- WTF is THAT?)...sad.

Look, I get it. Who am I to judge how YOU enjoy your hobby? 

All I know is that I'm about to start my first reef aquarium (ahem, a coral aquarium, really) in almost 10 years, and I'm gonna have FUN doing it! I'm humbly re-indoctrinating myself to the reef side of the hobby, laughing at my own foibles and now-meager knowledge. I'm going to share my experiences, focus on the technique, the learning, the mistakes, and the joys of keeping a reef tank. Sure, I'll be using some new, high tech gear- but it's for the purpose of keeping my corals in good health and growing them to their maximum potential- NOT just to collect Bluetooth-enabled gadgets!

But, yeah, I do have a certain confidence that you can get when you know you can execute well in the hobby. A confidence that has come from being well-rounded, humble, and eager to learn more. A confidence which comes from the ability to evaluate and understand the needs of your animals, and how to address them. A confidence from acknowledging that it's okay to admit that you DON'T know everything, and that you might just screw up...

Getting back into reefing will be incredible: Challenging, interesting, and growthful.

Yeah, this is where my "cross training" will serve me well.

The same fun experimentation, focus on the basics, and love of the "craft" which I apply to my botanical method aquariums will be installed into my reef tank. Sure, the equipment is different- the animals are different...indeed, my focus will be different- but the idea is the same: To provide conditions for the optimal health and growth of the organisms I care for.



And of course, all of this desire to learn and share comes with a dark side, too. 

Even with all of the wonderful possibilities of learning and experiencing both sides of the salinity line, so many people are falling into a trap. A trap which dumbs down the hobby on both sides by focusing on the most superficial aspects of stuff, and seems to keep people stuck in weird places.

When I see the hobby being affected by close-mindedness and tainted by hype and consumerism over technique and progression, I have to open my big mouth. Love your crazy corals. Love your brown fishes like I do. But learn about them in ways you haven't before. Grow a little. Share what you know- not just what you HAVE. Understand that there is more to a hobby than just acquiring stuff and trying to impress people with your material wealth. "Bling" is not talent, and doesn't help you nor the hobby progress, survive and prosper long term.

And, to would be "influencers" and "brand ambassadors": Many of you simply suck. Period. Your days are numbered, IMHO. Eventually, people are going to start realizing that you're not offering up anything of value. And your "sponsors" will notice, too. It's a matter of time. Get your shit together...Do something of substance. Simply trying to game the social media platforms for the sake of acquiring a "sponsorship" - making a "career" without actually bringing anything of substance to the table besides cute production and video editing skills is the biggest joke in the hobby, IMHO.

I can't believe that the smart people at many hobby brands just don't seem to realize that a high percentage of the people they're signing up as "brand ambassadors" are a bunch of shallow idiots who don't know shit about the hobby.  Ouch! "Damn, Fellman said the quiet part out loud!" Yeah, I did...because the hobby doesn't need more flashy vapid, cleverly-produced videos about NOTHING, with a token product shot, to get people educated and interested.

It doesn't. That's not how to get- and keep- people in the hobby for the long term. How this has even become a "thing" is almost beyond my ability to comprehend. And I'm not just some grumpy old guy.  (at least, I don't think so, lol). If you look at it more objectively than I just did in my "analysis" (not hard to do THAT!), I think you might actually agree with my thinking (but probably not the tone, lol)!

Do better, guys.

Think about how much more we would all benefit if hobbyists emphasize technique, and share just how you keep these amazing animals alive long-term, and reproduce them. Sharing the good, the bad, and all of the "boring" stuff in between (hint: it's NOT boring!)  It's being done in many areas already by a few really great people- but that's not what the majority of the aquarium world sees. They see the stupid crap on social media- cause there is too damn much of it.

This is just my opinion, of course...

Whew...rant over. For now. 

Back to the "cross training" part...

Progression is really important, and easy to share. And surprisingly easy to "import" from other parts of the hobby.

Playing with natural materials or planted aquariums is a prime "training ground" for venturing into the reef world, IMHO. Because you're getting used to the idea of creating and managing a miniature ecosystem, and learning about the complex relationships between various aquatic organisms.

In our own community, not a day goes by when we don't receive a pm or email from an aquarist somewhere in the world showing us a progressive new botanical method aquarium, or sharing one they've had set up for years...

And with more and more discussion on brackish-water aquariums and a fresh approach, I think we'll see even more aquarists showing an interest and elevating yet another niche in the freshwater hobby...bridging the "salinity gap" and emphasizing a collaborative, ultra inclusive mindset, way of thinking, and..."culture" that we hope will continue to set the standard for the way a global community within the aquarium world should be.

No elitism. No snobbishness. No exclusivity. 

Just fun. And learning...

Learn from each other...

If you're a lifelong freshwater hobbyist, just go for it and apply your skill set to a reef tank. You'll realize at once all of the cool stuff you bring to the table. If you're a hardcore reefer (and I know some of you do follow my stuff, because you tell me you do...), lower your guard just a bit, expand your thinking and skills and try a specialized freshwater system and bring YOUR set of talents along.

The potential breakthroughs from this "cross-pollination" are incredible.

Among progressive and talented reefers- which there are many- some are looking for new approaches. Some have confided in me that they miss the challenges of progressive work. They need to apply this thought to reef keeping, before it simply turns into a "frag fest" of overpriced, overhyped coral selling as a hobby. Or a soulless, tech-focused affair, with the "living organisms" part relegated to an afterthought. Some get it. And many of them have crossed back over into freshwater,  or tried it for the first time...with the emerging popularity of niche movements like...blackwater, etc.

And their reef work is better than ever- I belive because they are applying those hard-won skills to a new "medium"- growth is constant.  

I'm sort of happy to fill my role as a fish culture "ambassador" between the two sides of the "salinity line." I have a number of friends who see specialty freshwater systems (like our blackwater/botnaical-style tanks) as a sort of analog to reefs, where interactions between the fishes and the overall environment are an important part of the equation, and they're excited about trying one.

If they bring the best aspects of reef keeping (rapid iterations, system design/construction, experimentalism, understanding the relationship between organisms), and leave out the "Super-duper named high-end coral frag" bullshit- we may just have something here.

In fact, I think we already do.  

So, if your a bit dismayed with whatever side of the fence your on, do more than just a causal foray into that other side"- it not only will make you a better hobbyist- might just re-ignite your passion you might have been missing.

THAT is the ultimate benefit of "aquatic cross training!"

Stay engaged. Stay interested. Stay passionate. Stay curious. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment