If you've been in this game long enough, you've likely seen some stuff which leaves you frustrated/baffled/confused, or some combination of the above! And I'm here to tell you that you're not alone in your frustrations. Today, lets look at one of the more common "issues" reported by hobbyists with botanical method aquariums and how to address it...
One of the things I alternately love and loathe about the aquarium hobby is that, no matter what you do; no matter how carefully you plan- no matter how carefully you execute- stuff canc out differently than you might expect.
Well, the same "variable" which we have come to extoll, emulate, and adore- Nature, of course!
She'll entice, challenge, reward, and punish you- sometimes in the same day! Nature can be wildly unpredictable, yet often thoroughly logical at the same time. You can do everything "right"- and Nature will think of some way to throw a proverbial "wrench" into your plans.
She operates at Her own pace, with Her own rules, indifferent to you or your ideas, practices, and motivations.
Things can even "go sideways" sometimes.
Yet, with all of Her wild and unpredictable actions, it's never a bad idea to show some deference to Her, is it?
With our heavy emphasis on utilizing natural botanical materials in our aquairums, I can't help but think about the long-term of their function and health. Specifically, the changes that they go through as they evolve into little microcosms.
As we've discussed before, a botanical-method aquarium has a “cadence” of its own, which we can facilitate when we set up- but we must let Nature dictate the timing and sequencing. We can enjoy the process- even control some aspects of it...Yet underneath it all, She's in charge from the beginning. She creates the path...
And along this path, you'll encounter some stuff. I get questions...
"Scott, the water in my tank is kind of cloudy..."
Okay, this is one of those topics which can go in a lot of different directions. And we will...
For a lot of reasons, the aquarium hobby has celebrated crystal clear, colorless water as the standard of excellence for generations.
Our colored, often turbid-looking water is a stark contrast to what most hobbyists consider "acceptable" and "healthy."
We just see colored, slightly turbid water and think, "That shit's dirty!"
And of course, this is where we need to attempt to separate the two factors:
Cloudiness and "color" are generally separate issues for most hobbyists, but they both seem to cause concern. Cloudiness, in particular, 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.
Those are the typical "players" in most "cloudy water" scenarios, right? Yet, in the botanical method aquarium, the very nature of its existence includes stuff like sedimented substrates, decomposing leaf litter, botanicals, and twigs.
If you place a large quantity of just about anything that can decompose in water, the potential for cloudy water caused by a bloom of bacteria, or even simple "dirt" exists. The reality is, if you don't add 3 pounds of botanicals to your 20 gallon tank, you're not likely to see such a bloom. It's about logic, common sense, and going slowly.
A bit of cloudiness from time to time is actually normal in the botanical-method aquarium.
And, of course, what we label as "normal" in our botanical-method aquarium world has always been a bit different from the hobby at large.
In my home aquariums, and in many of the really great natural-looking blackwater aquariums I see from other hobbyists, the water is dark, almost turbid or "soupy" as one of my fellow blackwater/botanical-style aquarium geeks refers to it. You might see the faintest hint of "stuff" in the water...perhaps a bit of fines from leaves breaking down, some dislodged biofilms, pieces of leaves, etc. Just like in Nature. Chemically, it has undetectable nitrate and phosphate..."clean" by aquarium standards.
Sure, by municipal drinking water standards, color and clarity are important, and can indicate a number of potential issues...But we're not talking about drinking water here, are we?
"Turbidity." Sounds like something we want to avoid, right? Sounds dangerous...
On the other hand, "turbidity", as it's typically defined, leaves open the possibility that it's not a negative thing:
"...the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid caused by large numbers of individual particles that are generally invisible to the naked eye, similar to smoke in air..."
What am I getting at?
Well, think about a body of water like an igapo off of the Rio Negro. This water is of course, "tinted" because of the dissolved tannins and humic substances that are present due to decaying botanical materials.
That's different from "cloudy" or "turbid", however.
It's a distinction that neophytes to our world should make note of. The "rap" on blackwater aquariums for some time was that they look "dirty"- and this was largely based on our bias towards what we are familiar with. And, of course, in the wild, there might be some turbidity because of the runoff of soils from the surrounding forests, incompletely decomposed leaves, current, rain, etc. etc.
None of the possible causes of turbidity mentioned above in these natural watercourses represent a threat to the "quality", per se. Rather, they are the visual sign of an influx of dissolved materials that contribute to the "richness" of the environment. It's what's "normal" for this habitat. It's the arena in which we play in our botanical-method aquariums, as well.
You've got a lot of "stuff" dissolving in the water.
Mental shift required.
Obviously, in the closed environment that is an aquarium, "stuff" dissolving into the water may have significant impact on the overall quality. Even though it may be "normal" in a wild blackwater environment to have all of those dissolved leaves and botanicals, this could be problematic in the closed confines of the aquarium if nitrate, phosphate, and other DOC's contribute to a higher bioload, bacteria count, etc.
Again, though, I think we need to contemplate the difference between water "quality" as expressed by the measure of compounds like nitrate and phosphate, and visual clarity.
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.
So, yeah, clarity of the water in our case is usually directly related to the physical dissolution of "stuff" in the water, and is influenced-and mitigated by- a wide-range of factors. And, don't forget that the botanical materials will impact the clarity of the water as they begin to decompose and impart the lignin, tannins, and other compounds from their physical structure into the water in our aquariums.
This happens indefinitely.
A lot of botanical-method aquariums start out with a little cloudiness. It's often caused by the aforementioned lignin, as well as by a burstsof 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.
And in many cases, the water will never be "crystal clear" in botanical-influenced aquariums. It will have some "turbidity"-or as one of my friends likes to call it, "flavor."
Remember, just because the water in a botanical-influenced aquarium system is brownish, and even slightly hazy, it doesn't mean that it's of low quality, or "dirty", as we're inclined to say. It simply means that tannins, humic acids, and other substances are leaching into the water, creating a characteristic color that some of us geeks find rather attractive. And the "cloudiness" comes with the territory.
If you're still concerned, monitor the water quality...perform a nitrate or phosphate test; look at the health of your animals. These factors will tell the true story.
You need to ask yourself, "What's happening in there?"
I won't disagree that "clear" water is nice. I like it, too...However, I make the case that "crystal clear" water is: a) not always solely indicative of "healthy" or "optimum" , and b) not always what fishes encounter in Nature.
I believe that a lot of what we perceive to be "normal" in aquarium keeping is based upon artificial "standards" that we've imposed on ourselves over a century of modern aquarium keeping. Everyone expects water to be as clear and colorless as air, so any deviation from this "norm" is cause for concern among many hobbyists.
Natural aquatic ecosystems typically look nothing like what we'd call a "healthy" aquarium.
Yet, many of us don't think about that, or even look objectively about what wild aquatic ecosystems actually look like.
And so we panic and do massive water exchanges, add carbon , or reach for a bottle of...something...to "fix" the "problem...often creating a bigger (and more problematic) PROBLEM than what we were trying to remedy in the first place!
Even if your cloudiness is caused by a bloom of bacteria, perhaps from too much botanical materials being added to rapidly to the tank, or simply by overfeeding, it's not a disaster- if you understand it. Knowing what caused it is half of the battle, right? The "fixes" become obvious.
If you're overfeeding, just chill out on the food, right? If you added too much botanical material at one time, stop fucking adding botanicals for a while! You could do some stepped-up water exchanges...or you could just "wait it out", and let Nature catch up.
Often times, it simply takes time for these things to clear up.
Just like in nature.
Chemically, my water typically has virtually undetectable nitrate and phosphate levels...A solid "clean" by aquarium standards.
But, yeah- it's "soupy"-looking...
Other times, it can be crystal clear.
Both are just fine, as long as you're paying attention to the fundamentals of water quality.
Again, 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!
We have, as a community, taken our first tentative footsteps beyond what has long been accepted and understood in the hobby, and are starting to ask new questions, make new observations, and yeah- even a few discoveries- which will evolve the aquarium hobby in the future.
And that means understanding why aquatic habitats look and function the way they do, and embracing things in our aquariums which simply might frighten others...
It's definitely a contrarian thought process, at least. Is it rebellious, even?
I've occasionally had to re-examine my own relationship with my love of unedited Nature, as it relates to the "business" side of things.
Our original mission at Tannin was to share our passion for the reality and function of "unedited" Nature, in all of its murky, brown, fungal-patina-enhanced glory. And I started to realize that a while back, we were starting to fall dangerously into that noisy, (IMHO) absurd, mainstream aquascaping world. Pressing our dirty faces against the pristine glass, we were sort of outsiders looking in...the awkward, different new kid on the block, wanting to play with the others.
Then, the realization hit that we never really wanted to play like that. It's not who we are.
We are not going to play there.
We're going to keep doing what we're doing. To "double down" in our dirty, tinted, turbid, decomposing, inspired-by Nature world.
We all have to have some understanding about what's "normal" when we try to replicate Nature in our tanks in a more literal manner...
And the "fixes" for stuff like..."cloudiness"... are often two things: Acceptance, and the passage of time. Core tenants of our botanical method aquarium game.
Patience. Observation. Objectivity. Mental Shifts.
Thanks for being a part of this exciting, ever-evolving, tinted world!
Stay level-headed. Stay creative. Stay engaged. Stay excited. Stay studious. Stay rebellious!
And Stay Wet.