I think I need to clarify something...😆

Let's talk about cloudy water for a second. 

Actually, we've talked about it a lot here, but I think it's something that's going to always come up in our little hobby speciality.

Well, specifically, what causes it?

A lot of things, of course.

Now, many of the causes are biological in nature. In the case of our botanical-style aquariums, the cloudiness could also be caused, at least in part- by the dissolving of the botanicals themselves. When you think about it, most plant parts, such as seed pods and such, are comprised of materials such as lignin, cellulose, etc., and their constituent sugars, starches, etc. And, because of this composition, will release these materials into the water column.

Now, cloudiness, in general, may be a "tip off" to some other issues in the aquarium. And, as we all know, cloudiness can usually be caused by a few factors:

1) Improperly cleaned substrate or decorative materials, such as driftwood, etc. (creating a "haze" of micro-sized dust particles, which float in the water column).

2) Bacterial blooms (typically caused by a heavy bioload in a system not capable of handling it. Ie; a new tank with a filter that is not fully established and a full compliment of livestock).

3) Algae blooms which can both cloud AND color the water (usually caused by excessive nutrients and too much light for a given system).

4) Poor husbandry, which results in heavy decomposition, and more bacterial blooms and biological waste affecting water clarity. This is, of course, a rather urgent matter to be attended to, as there are possible serious consequences to the life in your system.

And, curiously enough, the "remedy" for cloudy water in virtually every situation is similar: Water changes, use of chemical filtration media (activated carbon, etc.), reduced light (in the case of algal blooms), improved husbandry techniques (i.e.; better feeding practices and more frequent maintenance), and, perhaps most important- the passage of time.

Of course, with the "cloudiness" caused by our "technique" or application of botanicals is a slightly different story. These are sort of "natural consequences" of what we do..

Now, you could intervene in this if you wanted to...Performing larger water exchanges, employing chemical/very fine mechanical filtration media, etc. Personally, I have learned over the years NOT to let this stuff phase me. I suppose I'm so deep in my own "mindset" about letting nature do its thing, that I don't do much to combat it...

A lot of botanical-style aquairums start out with a little cloudiness. It's often caused by the aforementioned lignin, as well as by a Burts of microbial life which feeds upon these and other constituents of botanicals.

Once this initial "microbial haze phase" passes, there are other aspects to the water clarity which will continue to emerge. And I think that these aspects are similar to what we observe in Nature.

For example, I've noticed that in many of my aquariums, particularly those with certain types of wood (like mangrove, newer Mopani, etc.), you'll get more of a sort of "patina" to the water. Again, I'm squarely in the realm of speculation here, but I can't help but wonder if certain wood and botanical materials/leaves have a greater content of organic materials (or more readily release these materials into the water because of their structure), lignin, tannins, etc., thus creating this phenomenon?

Those of us in the community of blackwater, botanical-style aquarists seek out tint and "body" in our water...while the rest of the aquatic world- well, they just sort of... freak the fuck out about that, huh?

One of my friends calls this "flavor", and his moniker makes sense, when you think about it!

And I think that this is a really interesting phenomenon, which is distinctive to our botanical-stye blackwater/brackish aquariums. To accept it is a choice, and it definitely requires the adoption of a mindset shift to appreciate that this is very similar to what we see in many of the natural aquatic systems that we attempt to replicate.

When we begin releasing some of our "NatureBase" substrates in the coming months, you'll understand first hand why water clarity isn't as important a factor in creating a "healthy" aquarium as the water quality is.

In Nature, the accumulations of decomposing plant materials, leaves, and sediments all contribute to this cloudiness or turbidity of the water. In our aquariums, it's pretty much the same!

Yes, we are always of the opinion that an aquarium is NOT an open, natural system, and that there are fundamental differences between the two.

However, to see some of the processes, aesthetics, and what we call "functional analogies" (i.e.; the way materials break down, re-distribute within the tank, and how the aesthetics and water chemistry are affected by water exchanges, etc.) take place in our aquariums, we can't help but think that we're "on to something" here.

(Image by Aquariumaniak Khizanishvili- a master of the "dirty" aquarium!)

Nature is simply not a squeaky-clean place. It just isn't.

So, yeah, our aquariums may NOT have the "crystal-clear", colorless water which many hobbyists envision when they think of what an aquarium "should" look like. Yet, with the continued, evolving work which our community is doing, we'll continue to discuss/analyze/debate the merits of such clarity profiles in our systems.

In Nature, we see these types of water characteristics in a variety of habitats. While they may not conform to everyone's idea of "beauty", there really IS an elegance, a compelling vibe, and a function to this. 

Fish don't care that their water is tinted, a bit turbid, and sometimes downright cloudy.

As we've discussed a lot lately, we're absolutely obsessed with the natural processes and aesthetics of decomposing materials and sediments in our aquariums. And of course, this comes with the requirement of us to accept some unique aesthetic characteristics, of course!

It's almost like our idealized aesthetic perceptions of what we feel water should look like in an aquarium have conditioned us as a hobby to sort of gently disregard what it truly looks like in the habitats from which our fishes evolved. Now, I'm certainly not asserting that keeping fishes in a crystal-clear aquarium is somehow going to ruin their vitality or render them susceptible to many illnesses, or that providing "blackwater" conditions is some sort of miracle concept that will lead to unimagined success.

However, I'm at least curious about how much better our animals might do long-term (I'm talking decades in captivity of being bred, etc.) if maintained in conditions that more-or-less replicate the waters from which they evolved. We've seen a lot of Betta and Apistogramma breeders utilize these types of conditions in their aquariums for many years, and their successes have been obvious.

We have taken our first tentative footsteps beyond what has long been accepted and understood in the hobby, and are starting to ask new question, make new observations, and yeah- even a few discoveries- which will evolve the aquarium hobby in the future.

Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay engaged. Stay bold. Stay engaged...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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