Crossing the "salinity line", breaking barriers...and blurring the lines...

As usual, when I complete a presentation at a club, I leave with an insane amount of ideas, motivation, and inspiration.

The other day, I was fortunate enough to give a talk at a Reef Aquarium Club- one I've spoken at several times over the years. However, this was my first time retiring to the club since I've dived full-time into Tannin Aquatics after having spent several decades immersed in both the hobby and business side of the reef aquarium world.

I have to admit, I put together a rather ambitious presentation- one which I intended to sort of bridge the splashy world of reef aquariums to our tinted, earthy world of botanical-style/blackwater aquariums. Now, it wasn't like this was some "high concept" thing- it was a simple idea...I wanted to show a sort of "commonality" of ideas, practices, and inspirations between the fresh and saltwater worlds.

And I have to tell you, it was likely the choppiest, hardest-to-pull-off presentation I've ever given. Like, how do you inspire or excite people who have tons of money (often tens of thousands of dollars) and sweat and time invested in seriously complex reef aquariums sand show them that our world of brown water and decomposing leaves is somehow relevant to their work?

It's a tough topic even to talk about without standing up in front of dozens of people and sharing slides. It was the first time in like 18 years of talking to clubs and conferences (including the 7 times as a featured speaker at the "Super Bowl" of the reef world, the Marine Aquarium Conference of North America) that I was actually a bit nervous.

Like,  I was self-reflecting as I was starting out the talk- not even fully convinced myself that I could somehow formulate the idea.

Then, like a little over the halfway point (sorry guys) it kind of hit...And I was jamming.

What I realized that is the most significant "commonality" between the reef and the freshwater speciality world is that we deal with Nature. Sure, it might be a different side of the "salinity line", but the philosophy is the same.

And hobbyists are the same on both sides of the line. We all can benefit from "mental shifts." Reefers are obsessed with coral growth and having a perfectly pristine tank stocked with all sorts of corals...And they are all convinced that if their tank doesn't fall into a very tight set of parameters and have a certain "look", that they're somehow not successful.

The thing I realized a long time ago in reef keeping was the same thing that I've learned in our botanical-style aquarium world: Nature is not a crystal-clear, spotless, and pristine place. It doesn't have perfect order, symmetry, or even anything resembling many of the carefully ordered, "garden-style" reefs that many hobbyists strive for.

Sound familiar?

Yeah, I"ll bet it does... 

As hobbyists, we tend to get caught up in stuff like chasing numbers, following the dogmatic ideas of "influencers", and, for many- an acceptance of "stuff" without questioning why we do it.

Now, don't get me wrong- I have immense respect for the reef community and the hobbyists which comprise it. However, the reef world, IMHO- especially in the last few years- has been the epitome of "chasing numbers"- you know, trying to hit well- defined, very specific alkalinity, phosphate, and trace element levels in our tanks.

As someone coming who's been a sort of "semi-outsider" to the community recently, and is now coming back to this world more thoughtfully once again, this was really apparent to me!

Reef hobbyists are almost obsessed with this. It's the same thing that we have talked about many times here in "The Tint"- doing things just "because" the "ill-defined "they" say you need to in order to be successful.


Don't get me wrong- there is an abundance of amazing reef tanks out there. The talent pool in the reef hobby is immense- just as it is in the FW side. I just think that we in the reef aquarium world can use those skills to...push out a bit. Break convention. Breathe...

You know- you can push the boundaries.

You can question practices...experiment with new approaches. Follow up on hunches...

You're not bound to convention, someone else's opinion, or some absurdly rigid methodology. You're bound only to the laws of Nature.

And I think that's perhaps the most important lesson that we can learn from our aquariums- fresh, salt, or brackish. As aquarists, we can do a lot- we can change the equipment, correct initial mistakes or shortcomings the system might have had from the beginning.

We set the stage, so to speak.

However, in the's Nature which does most of the real "heavy lifting" here. Nature rewards us for our good decisions, kicks our asses for our bad ones, and provides "cues" on what future decisions we need to make.

And Nature does it all indifferently...without judgement. It reacts positively or negatively to our attempts to control it. 

Which is why the reality of a blackwater/botanical-style aquarium or a well-thought-out reef aquarium is that it's perhaps one of the best ways to bring Nature into our home. To help recreate the dynamics of what we see in the wild. The form and the function.

To blur the lines between Nature and aquarium.

Sure, planted aquariums give us a similar challenge...but the botanical-style aquarium, and the reef aquarium challenge us in different ways. They task us to accept Nature in all of its beauty. And yeah, it makes us accept that there IS beauty in things like decomposition, biofilm, and algal growth. Even the ebb and flow of life- corals, macro algae, and other life forms...Things which we as aquarists might have been "indoctrinated" to loathe over the years..

Yet, when viewed as a "whole", the macro view of an aquarium is that it challenges us to look at the big picture- to not get too caught up in any one aspect of managing our aquarium...and to appreciate all of the process by which nature does its work. 

We can work with Nature's cues. Follow Her lead...but we also need to accept- and let go of our extreme desire to control everything...

And to make a "mental shift" to understand that everything we see in the aquarium is exactly what Nature intends. A definite homage to Amano's idea of wabi-wabi, which treasures some of the transience and "process" which occurs in nature, without our intervention.

One need only study the wild aquatic systems of the world to realize that it's not all "crystal clear and sterile" out there- and that our aquariums in all of their tinted, murky glory will reflect this. Nature "calls the shots" here.

And that it's totally okay.

Midway during the talk...I realized that exactly what I was trying to express has been foremost on my mind for decades...Regardless of what side of the "salinity line" I was playing with.

Yeah, it wen't pretty well from there! Touched a few hobbyists...Light bulbs were going off in their heads. People were starting to question convention, "traditional approaches", and all that we take for granted.

I couldn't imagine a better outcome than that! 

Until next time...

Push the limits. Stay bold. Stay thoughtful. Stay unchained. Stay inspired...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment