The art of "fish geek intervention": The quick guide to preventing your newbie friends from f---ing up their hobby experience!


I've had the good fortune to be in this hobby pretty much my entire life, and to work with a lot of incredibly talented people during that time- most more talented than I could ever hope to be. Over the years, I've seen countless hobbyists find success while others have found nothing but failure. Among those who had the most difficulties in the hobby, I've found a few noticeable commonalities.

This has never been more apparent than in my interactions with hobbyists each day when I co-owned Unique Corals, and now as sole owner of Tannin Aquatics. Marine or freshwater-doesn't really make a difference- the underlying theme is similar- Many of these "commonalities" are things that truly can be prevented or avoided if we offer a little wisdom and guidance.  Now, you personally may have made some of these mistakes, learned from them, and moved on.

Other hobbyists you know might still be in "that phase", and knowing to recognize the signs can perhaps help you do an "intervention" that will keep them in the hobby! Today's little tirade is directed at those of you who find yourself in a position to advise a relative newbie now and then, and perhaps see the "washed out bridge ahead" when they don't. It's like a very succinct "Quick guide to helping prevent your friends from f------ up their aquarium keeping experience big time."

Yup. Rather catchy title, I think. Wouldn't you say?

So, for your "intervention", here are what I feel are the 4 most common "fatal" fish-keeping "traps"  that new hobbyists fall into, and how they can be avoided...

1) Not trusting your instincts- or "If they say it's supposed to be done this way than I better do it that way or else!"- Sure, starting an aquarium can be a bit scary or intimidating to some- we all know it's an expensive hobby, if we don't plan correctly! You understand as an experienced hobbyist that it's super easy to second guess yourself as the challenges mount, but it's really important to "go with your gut" on some things and just forge ahead if you believe in what you're doing. Just because "they" say it's supposed to be done this way doesn't mean that a variation or slightly different take on "it" (whatever "it" is...) won't work.


(Don't tell Oliver Knott "It can't work!")

Obviously, being arrogant is not a good thing, but the newbie does need to be confident in his/her skills. As long as the idea isn't completely absurd (like using a radioactive isotope to heat your system), environmentally wasteful (stocking a new 100 gallon aquarium with a pair of Asian Arowana), or dangerous (an Electric Eel touch tank in a preschool classroom aquarium), then I say tell 'em to take a chance and go for it! They might just be able to show others a new way of thinking...Don't accept the status quo "just because..."

2) "Biting off more than you can chew"- How many of you have done this before? I know I haven't (hah!) I see this in reef keeping and in the planted tank world all the time: It’s awesome to start a new reef or "high-end" planted aquarium, loaded with the latest gear, advanced lighting, crazy corals, or uber-rare live plants. Been there. Love it. Yet, I’ve seen a lot of well-heeled, well-intentioned, but totally unprepared hobbyists crash and burn spectacularly with mega dollar setups that they simply did not have the experience to operate on a sustainable basis.

These were often accompanied by amazing “build threads” and displays of expensive equipment along the way on hobby forums which had everyone drooling. Yet, appearances can be deceiving. Suddenly, once things got underway, the reality as that a newbie hobbyists may simply not have the fundamentals to operate a 500 gallon monster, particularly if he or she has had little experience with a much smaller, less sophisticated system.

If you can't manage a 20 gallon tank, a 200 gallon tank isn't gonna be all that much more successful...Right?

Look, I’m not discouraging mega-dream tanks and build threads and such…What I AM discouraging is jumping headlong into megadollar, highly complex systems that the new hobbyist simply cannot effectively operate in the short- or long- term. Perhaps you could phrase it to your friend this way: "If you can’t deal with "beard" algae in your 50 gallon tank, will you be able to deal with it in your 500…?"  Hopefully, it gets his or her thinking. At the very least, advise the neophyte to hire a competent aquarium service company to assist him/her if he or she simply not experienced enough to manage such a behemoth. Enough said, right?

3) Not soliciting advice from others- Okay, almost the antithesis of #1, but really, I’m talking about interaction and camaraderie. In this vast, internet-enabled hobby of ours, it’s very unlikely that there isn’t someone out there who has experienced the same thing your friend has during his/her startup. Newbies with disasters often feel isolated in a way...Let your friend know that he or she is not alone: "There are so many innovative and bold hobbyists out there that it’s quite likely someone has been in your shoes before, and can offer some great, solid advice based on experience- not regurgitation of some old third hand information." Make sure that they get out there on Facebook user groups, club and other forums and chat it up with other geeked-out fish nerds! Not only will they realize that you are not being a buzzkill (because the other 43 people they tell about their idea for a 20 gallon piranha tank will tell 'em the same thing...), they might just make some friends- or worse yet- learn a few things that they may not have known-and help others!

And of course, counsel them to recognize creepy forum "enablers", who would love to see them try some crazy stunt and crash and burn. they need to be able to evaluate "advice"- yet another skill we acquire as fish geeks, huh?

A fish geek conference is a great place to get some advice...and fishes, too!

4) Expecting stuff to be "easy"- Wow, that will make you sound like a bit of a "buzzkill", but the reality is that the hobby is complex. I mean, not only are you dealing with plumbing, hardware, and construction- electricity and water, for goodness have the other variable of live animals and their needs, reactions, and "issues." A lot of moving parts in an aquarium- literally!  Hard. Now, it doesn't have to be. A newbie (or experienced hobbyist) can easily be tripped up by something as simple as adding the wrong animal or misreading a test kit and making an ill-fated “correction” to water chemistry (Nope. I've NEVER done that, lol)…A lot of stuff can go wrong quickly. Why sugar coat this? We need to weed out the people who don't get it. Responsibility and logic are involved here. The "bad apples" will, in reality, do far more harm than good for the hobby, the animals, and the environment.

That being said, it’s not all doom and gloom, right? However, the reality is that a fish tank ISN’T alway easy- and it’s not always cheap, either. (My industry friends finally have something to be happy about with me!). To do it right involves research, effort, planning, observation, patience, and skill building- things that aren’t just handed to you, right? We know our struggling friends? It’s part of the "delightful" learning curve of the hobby. Agree with me here: An avoidable ich outbreak in a planted tank, or flatworm infestation in your reef tank is about as awful as it gets- but the skills you’ll acquire while combatting them will help your friend to be a solid resource for other hobbyists; a grizzled veteran of the  aquarium universe that can make life better for a lot of other fish geeks, right? Nothing’s ever wasted in the aquarium hobby, really. We just need to communicate this.

If creating something like this was easy....(Tai Strietman's inspiring blackwater paradise!)

Okay, there are doubtless countless other potentially “fatal” mistakes in aquarium keeping, but these are a few that I see all the time…If we communicate to our struggling newbie friends that they should make it a point to learn from their mistakes, and to share their hard-won knowledge with other hobbyists in a gentle, supportive, but no B.S. way- the hobby will continue to be an amazing place where we get to live our our dreams every day!

I’m gonna get my hands wet soon…Gotta do that weekly water change. The tank won't change the water itself...

See you soon..Stay happy. Stay educated..Stay supportive to a neophyte hobbyist.

And Stay Wet!

Scott Fellman

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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