Moving forward boldly...

Our world is one of constant change, interesting developments...and occasionally, breakthroughs.

Blackwater, botanical-style aquariums are certainly gaining a lot of attention in the hobby world at the moment. I'd really love to think of this not as some "trend", but as more of a methodology of aquarium keeping. Less of a "novelty"- more of an option.

Now, one of the best things about these types of aquariums is that there are no hard and fast "style rules." There are only Nature's "restrictions" and her limitations. She imposes physical "laws" which dictate "how stuff works." We can operate all over within her parameters, but we cannot circumvent her laws. 

We can and should find ways to work with Nature to try some new and different stuff; respecting her limits, while gently probing outward around the edges. 

That being said, and "best practices" aside, every situation, every tank, every nuance is unique, and this requires "customized" solutions for every aquarium. Sure, the methodology/strategy might be something which we can more or less "standardize"- but not the "formula."

I learned this in my reef-keeping and coral propagation days. Why is it that one guy can run a beautiful, coral-dominant tank with levels of phosphate that would simply create a blanket of algae in some other hobbyist's tank who operated at the same parameters?

The answer likely is that they are doing other things- making other accommodations- to create an optimized environment in other areas. And as hobbyists, we can sort of choose which areas we want to play with, while respecting others.

Trade-offs required here. We can realistically replicate many aspects of the natural environment, yet we need to really think long and hard about replicating others on a more "accurate" level.

As an example, the Rio Negro and its many tributaries provide us many different fishes that we love to keep in aquariums. The Rio Negro’s water is extremely poor in mineral content, with conductivity as low as 8 micro semions, and is extremely acidic, with pH’s ranging from 2.9 to 5.2. That's pretty damn acidic by aquarium standards, isn't it? How can you replicate water like that in your aquarium?

DO you want to?

Well, you'd start by utilizing RO/DI water and "conditioning it" with botanicals and such, which will likely only get you so far. There would likely be additional steps required, like the addition of acid solutions, different pH-reducing natural materials in your filter. Utilization of filter media like zeolites, and more detailed monitoring. And slightly different water-quality maintenance approaches. This stuff touches on the fringes of what a lot of us are comfortable doing.

And wouldn't it be easier to create and maintain these conditions with some compromising, like finding out the "average" of the pH and other parameters of the habitat you're trying to replicate and either going for it or perhaps, for the higher, easier-to-achieve higher limits of pH in the habitat, for example?

I think so. And I don't really see a problem with that. Do you?

Of course, every once in a while, I'll receive what I like to call a "gotcha!" email from some self-proclaimed hobby "guardian" telling me stuff like, "You're not really creating exact replications of Nature." Or,  "You can't have a pH of 6.2 and have a blackwater aquarium." Or, "___________________ come from a habitat where the pH is 4.3..."

Well, no shit!

People love to call "bullshit" on stuff in the hobby. I mean, when outrageous claims are being made without proof- they should. However, in many cases, it's just someone wanting to satisfy their own insecurities by regurgitating assorted facts and selected, re-hashed pieces of information which may or may not have basis in truth or experience- and often, this bullying serves to discourage people from even trying new stuff-let alone, talking about it.

I typically laugh at these emails, because 9 times out of 10, whomever writes them generally has missed the point entirely, likely never tried doing even what we are doing now, doesn't read our blogs or discussions, fails to realize that we NEVER make outrageous assertions and claims, and worst of all, has no personal successful experience with whatever he or she is telling us that we're NOT doing.

Not helpful.

Please don't be discouraged when you face such "criticisms." Sure, some constructive criticism should always be welcome. But consider the source, as they say! And, be realistic about your ideas, theories, intentions, and goals. 

Obviously, whatever we do in the confines of an aquarium is at best a simulation of some aspects of Nature. It's ludicrous for me, or anyone else to suggest otherwise (and we don't). There ARE hobbyists who, by virtue of their scientific training, significant experience, a willingness to go for it, and a set of brass ones- DO try crazy-cool stuff like lowering the pH of their aquariums to 4.5 or whatever, and operating them that way for extended periods. 

They're the true pioneers. Hats off to these guys. People like Ted Judy, who's accommodated Angelfish and such by manipulating pH with carefully introduced acid solutions.

Cutting edge stuff, for sure!

And for the rest of us- those not interested in pushing the "bleeding edge" too far?

Well, even with a sort of "compromised accommodation" approach, you'd be providing your fishes with environmental conditions that are far more "realistic" than those typically provided in aquariums, right? Is there even a significant benefit to doing so? I believe so, but that's going to require some experimentation over time to prove. A "body of work" provided by a large community of hobbyists working on this kind of stuff.

That's what we need to do.

Yeah, easy for me to sit here and talk about, but it will require some work to back up this hypothesis!

And again, we've accomplished many amazing things without going too crazy into trying to more accurately replicate these natural conditions. yet, I just can't help but wonder what we'd accomplish if we go just that much farther. The examples which Nature provides us are many and varied.

We are getting better at this as a hobby/industry.

We're making a lot less "blanket statements" like, "You can't do that!"- and instead, asking far more often, "How can we do that?" 

And the means to experiment boldly are in place.

Think about it.

We can create more habitat-specific water parameters right now, because we have the means and way more accurate and "applicable" information about the natural habitat from which our fishes come from than ever before, and ways to monitor it that simply weren't available to the hobby years ago.

Couple this with better management of lighting, thanks to LED's, more controllable current, thanks to high-tech, electronically controlled pumps, and very accurate temperature and water parameter control thanks to better monitoring/controller tech- and we're assured a continued progression towards more nature-specific captive environments for our animals.

Oh, and of course, there's the foods. Food is getting better than ever, and we're starting to see foods that contain a higher percentage of natural foods of many fishes- like aquatic insects, fruits, crustaceans, flies, etc. 


And you can state it enough- today's hobbyist is talented, intuitive, creative, smart, compassionate, and communicative in a way never before possible. The work being done is amazing! And the confidence to move forward boldly has never been greater.

The "next-level" breakthroughs will require just as much courage, effort, and creativity as they did in decades past, but the means to accomplish them are now at our fingertips. And the experiments need not be ridiculously radical.

Now, we'd like to help facilitate such hobbyist-level research. I've thought seriously about offering periodic "Tint Grants" for hobbyists who want to do work related to botanical-style natural aquariums (blackwater, brackish water, etc.) with the intent of learning and sharing some new ideas. Like, perhaps we'd make available some of our products and a small amount of cash to help do this. Would you or someone you know be interested in such a "grant?" 

Of course, let's be straight. The ideas we're looking to support aren't things like,  "I want to try a botanical-style tank to see if my wife will like the look. Oh, and I want to breed some Apistos!" or, "I want to set up a 150-gallon high-tech botanical aquascape for wild bettas to see what the effects are." Or, "I have this idea for a cool 'scape with 50 Sterculia Pods..." or, "Im interested in growing crawfish in blackwater to see if they taste different than those which I raise in clearwater ponds..."

No, that's not the kind of stuff that we're talking about! With all due respect, this isn't about just tossing you some goodies to play with, 'scape a tank, share a few pics, and maybe an Instagram post tagging us. 


Rather, if you have a specific experiment- one which will provide some good information, inspiration, and provoke discussion in our community and beyond..I'm into that. Now, it doesn't have to be some full-on scientifically-based, double-blind study thing. However, it does need to be something that will explore something that is significant and relevant to our community. 

And you'll need to update us. You'll be required to regularly "report" on your progress, struggles, breakthroughs, and findings. It will have a finite period of time (several months, I would imagine) to be conducted and summarized.

Would you be into that?

Would this be helpful? if it's something cool that people embrace-and if we get useful information (trust me, once you're "approved"- our community will know and expect some updates!)- perhaps we'll do this semi-annually or quarterly.

Kick it around. Let us know if you're interested. Give us some feedback on how we should structure this...assuming you think it's a good idea.

In the mean time- move forward...boldly.

Stay creative. Stay inquisitive. Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay inspirational...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment