Occasionally, stuff goes wrong...

It happens to all of us: Stuff just doesn't go right. That idea you had just can't effectively come together. the "look" you were trying to achieve just doesn't happen. What you thought would occur simply doesn't. The hunch you played doesn't pan out. 

You know, stuff like that.

We've all had it happen before in the aquarium hobby. It's frustrating. It's annoying...It's humbling. But it's part of the game.

In our little world of botanical-influenced aquariums, we try a lot of crazy ideas...some are destined to work. Some require the passage of time, some trials or tribulations along the way- but ultimately do work. Still others simply fail. Maybe it's the idea. Maybe it's the way you decided to execute it. Perhaps you didn't use the right materials; the correct equipment to do the job. Maybe, it would have worked if you just did that one thing- or used that other stuff- or the same stuff, just a bit differently.

Why didn't it work? Why couldn't you pull it off? 

You don't always get the answers. 

And that is the part of the hobby which keeps us coming back for more, isn't it? That nagging in your head which tells you that the idea you had can work.

Many times, I've tried to execute stuff that didn't work simply because I didn't' give it enough time, or perhaps didn't fully understand what was happening. My first leaf litter tank decades ago were "unsuccessful" largely because I didn't know what was supposed to happen, and I freaked out when I saw the fungal growths and biofilms- and "pulled the plug" too soon.

Ironically, had I a greater understanding of the ecological consequences of leaf litter in water at the time, I might have held on and been successful. I was really close...SO close, but just didn't know what was supposed to happen, and why! if only the internet were more fully developed back then!

Sometimes, it's simply about understanding your goal a little more clearly.

I can't tell you how many different substrate formulations I came up with when I was working on my "Urban Igapo" idea...many- perhaps, dozens. It wasn't until I really took a fundamentally different approach- studying the geological composition of the locales I wanted to replicate, then delving into how the soils formed, and what role they played in the ecology, that I started to see success.

Sometimes, you're frustrated by your own ambitions, abilities- and yeah- desire to accomplish the tasks necessary to pull off your idea exactly. 

I've had many ideas for aquariums which were simply limited by my skill and vision- or my technical ability to pull of the idea. Sure, I envisioned intertidal mangrove habitats a long time ago...I knew what I wanted to do...I just flat-out didn't have the DIY skills to pull it off. And quite frankly, I didn't really want to play with solenoids, motorized ball valves, and various pumps to accomplish it. I realized that wasn't really fun to me. So I compromised and decided to replicate the aspects of the habitat which I could pull off with my abilities. 

That's all part of the game. It involves not only skills, but a degree of self-awareness; knowledge and acceptance about what you can and cannot do. It's about ideas. And trying.

As the expression goes, "To get something you've never had, you have to do something that you've never done..."

As a fish geek, you try a lot of ideas.

And not all of 'em work, right?

Like the time you tried to create the "mud hole" for those Nothobranchius you acquired at the fish club auction, or the flooded Pantanal biotope you tried to do with those weeds you found out in the local field...you know, that kind of stuff.

Ideas which are really great, and executions which, well, needed some "evolution" to really work out nicely. I can't think of the number of "failures" that I've had occur with aquariums, only to realize that they were actually "micro successes"- little incremental skill-building, experience-gaining events, which served to move me further along the path towards ultimate success.

When I first started keeping blackwater aquariums, some (gulp) 30 years ago, I was utilizing the most commonly available materials ("available" in the fish world, that is...)- like peat moss and maybe leaves. And they worked to "tint" the water, but I could never get the pH of our Los Angeles tap water (which is like as hard and alkaline as you could imagine) to fall more than a point or two if I was lucky.

It took years of research (yeah, pre-Google, mind you) to figure out that the hardness of the water was preventing the peat and such from having any real impact on the pH...SO I had really sexy-looking, tinted aquariums in 1979-1981 that had ridiculously high pH and hard water!). Then, around the mid 1980's, reef aquariums began rearing their heads, and the magazines started talking about "reverse osmosis" systems to soften water.

They'd been around a while, but not in the aquarium world...Of course, I pleaded with my parents to get a water softener for the house, touting some kinds of human health benefits...my dad, a fellow fish geek, knew my ploy, however.

I had visions of blackwater streams, and would stop at nothing to achieve them!

Eventually, I was able to afford an RO unit, and finally, the "soft, acidic water" exposed by Axelrod, LaCorte, etc. was attainable. Of course, further experimentation with different types of natural materials led to greater successes. Along the way, I had experienced a few setbacks- like poisoning my fishes, over-doing my botanical additions, etc.

But I never viewed them as "failures" to a certain extent. Now, I don't want to sound callous, as there was some loss of life during my experiments...but I think that it steeled my resolve, rather than put a damper on my enthusiasm.

Like many of you, I learned to "perfect my craft" through a lot of trial and error. While I evolved into the reef aquarium world for a couple of decades, I always kept experimenting with my blackwater aquariums. I took a lot of the rapidly-developing technique and hardware available the reef world, and played with it in freshwater. I continuously iterated and tried new stuff. I screwed up a bunch..And I learned a lot, too!

Those years were really important in the development of my hobby and aquatics industry experience. I learned the value of "aquatic cross-training", common sense, and just doing.

I tried a lot of unusual things during that time, and each one taught me something I still incorporate into my work today.

And failure and perseverance in the hobby also teaches you humility.

I've failed many times.

My biggest mistakes came out of my own arrogance, really. Yes, arrogance. A desire to flaunt the "rules" set by Nature. Hubris.

Usually, they were "created" when I tried to do something that disregarded simple logic (and a century of aquarium common sense), like trying mixes of fishes that were absurd, or overstocking tanks...stuff like that.

For example, from my reef keeping experience- not all that many years ago, actually- I was going to be the ONE reefer to keep several Centropyge angelfish in his reef, including a Lemonpeel, Vrolicki, Coral Beauty, Flame Angel, and Bicolor! If you don't know anything about the dwarf angelfish of the genus Centropyge, the one thing you SHOULD know is that they are very territorial, and don't generally get along with others of their own species, let alone other species in the same genus.

And mixing different species is a traditional "recipe"  for disaster. Oh, and most of the ones I wanted to keep had a well-earned reputation for snacking on coral tissue...What could go wrong here?

This was a recipe for failure that even the most inexperienced reefer could see coming. Of course, I was "experienced", so I knew better, right?


Nonetheless, I really thought I could pull this off in a large reef with specialized aquascaping... I was convinced that it could work and that I'd be the envy of the reef aquarium world for doing so...Not only did this experiment end with some "predictable" results (a lot of nice, pricy corals getting snacked on), it resulted in 5 very ticked-off, very beaten up dwarf angels! No shit? Who would have seen that coming, right?

Just plain stupid...For some reason, I really thought that my “methodology” would pay off and that it could work...WRONG.

But hey. I did it. I failed at it. I OWN it.

I distinctly remember a dubious experiment on the side of my parents' house one summer when I was a teen, attempting to "culture" mosquito larvae by attracting them with stagnant water and old cantaloupe rinds...yeah, you know how well THAT went down!  I think that was the most mosquito bites I've ever had in one summer...

But I learned my lesson....

Or the time I tried to build my own fluidized reactor. It sounded like noble project, but the reality was that I started with a bad concept and used cheap PVC materials that didn't quite match up. Yeah, it didn’t work, and the resulting leaks and total lack of functionality reflected my DIY "skills!" It was a good thought, but really poor on the "execution" side.

Completely unlike the Angelfish fiasco, which was a “lose-lose” proposition! Nowadays, if I have the urge to do DIY, I simply break out the credit card and purchase whatever it is I was thinking of making. Aquarium equipment manufacturers LOVE me!

Another lesson learned. Self-awareness gained.

Oh, or there was that time I tried to make a continuous-feed brine shrimp hatcher...Shit, do you know how LONG it takes to get brine shrimp eggs out of the water column in your tank?

A really long time.

Enough said.

However, failing- and I mean this in the most literal sense- can actually be beneficial in so many ways, especially if you share your failures publicly. Right now, somewhere out in the aquarium hobby world, there is another hobbyist contemplating one of the same absurd, disaster-inevitable ideas that you brought to life...

Perhaps it's not some huge, epic-disaster-bound system failure...Maybe, it's just something that's a bad decision; one that should be aborted on, but isn't likely to be- and the outcome is already well known in the hobby...

Maybe it's in our nature as hobbyists; we just love to tempt fate. And look, I get it...I've written on these very pages that sometimes, we need to go against the grain and try new ideas.

However, sometimes we do what seems like the right stuff, and things still go wrong. There is always some little thing- some detail- which you might have overlooked, forgotten...or not even thought of. That's why we keep trying, right?

To get the answers! To advance.

Try things. Screw them up. Tweak them. Learn from them. Change them. Share. Repeat.

Everyone wins.

Taking an attitude that it's not the end of the world if you fail is pretty healthy! Beginners in the aquarium hobby are happy just to win a simple victory- just to keep fishes alive. They take joy in things we likely take completely for granted...

Perhaps the beginner knows something we don't.

Sometimes, it's cool to think of stuff and just try. And be excited about trying. That's a huge thing. And we shouldn't underestimate that. And just because stuff goes "wrong" on occasion isn't a reason to get frustrated, to quit, or even reverse course. It's often an opportunity to grow and learn from the experience. A chance to correct and evolve. And, it's important to ask yourself, did something go "wrong", or is it just the result of trying something and getting an unexpected result?


Often, it's just about perspective. 

It's about adopting a different way of looking at things. It's about seeing our aquariums as diverse, dynamic, interdependent microcosms, in which all sorts of influences exerted upon them help drive growth, health- and change.

Mental shifts, once again.

That's the name of the game.

Even when stuff goes wrong...

Stay strong. Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay studious. Stay positive...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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