Something old, something new. Something...tinted...

Fall is a season for change...and it certainly has been time for a change for me and my home aquarium. Ready to embrace something new and exciting!

Or, is that just "exciting?" Or, could it be new if it has some "old" or familiar elements to it? Or, does it matter? 😆

As I re-imagined my home blackwater aquarium, I found myself drawn to some materials which I've used before, and a layout concept that I've played with several times! And this is interesting to me, because it sort of goes against some of my philosophies about pushing myself to try new things- at least, on the surface...

And then again, it is entirely new.

Sort of.

Oh, and I was kind of mentally "drained" a bit lately...adding to the challenge of creating a "new" tank!

If you recall, I was sort of obsessed with a scape that I did last year featuring Mangrove branches and roots. I really loved not only the intricate way these branches work in a blackwater aquarium, but how they look very "un-mangrove-like" (is that a freaking word? LOL) when laid out in a horizontal orientation and "locked together" with multiple branches. 

I never fully recovered (oh, the TRAUMA!) from tearing down that scape last year to do a new haunted me.

So yeah, what did I do to get out of the "funk" I was in? I did a new version of it!

And it feels really good!

Now, let's talk about some stuff for a second.

So, as you can tell- like almost all of my tanks- this is in no way meant to be a biotope. Perhaps "biotope-inspired" or something like that. You'd likely never see the combination of materials and fishes together in a habitat like that. And that's okay...these kinds of tanks are liberating and fun to do, IMHO. And when you ultimately see the fishes which will reside in the tank, you'll understand exactly what I mean here, lol.

The idea of using mangrove wood is because it's rather unique configuration makes it surprisingly easy to "interlock" pieces into place to create a sort of matrix of tangled branches. On first thought, you'd think that mangrove is not something you'd traditionally use in a blackwater aquarium. Two thoughts: First, I selected mangrove for its utility, NOT to try to recreate a mangrove habitat (and yeah, there ARE freshwater/blackwater mangrove habitats!). 

It's something I'd consider for a future 'scape, for sure! I'm thinking of something similar for a Borneo habitat...we'll see. So, hold that thought!

The second thought: Mangrove leaches a surprisingly large amount of tint-producing tannins, and is a good "recruiter" of biofilms and microbial growth. It's a long-lasting, versatile and useful wood. It's just fine for freshwater, and I have never detected any salt leaching out of it...and I have some pretty accurate testing capability for salt.

Over the next few weeks, expect to see plenty of biofilms and other growth showing up on the wood. Perhaps it's a lazy habit- a practice certainly don't recommend to others, but I tend not to "pre-soak" this wood before I use it! LIke, rinse and scape! And of course, this is what likely unleashes a lot more biofilm and such into the tank than if I did pre-soak it...However, I see this as almost a "bio-catalyst" of sorts, seeding the tank with bacteria and other organisms.

The above pic is a super early one. The water is still cloudy, the wood is still being weighed down with rocks (yeah, this shit floats like mad! See? Soaking  for a couoel of days first would address that!), and it just looks sort of "harsh" and very contrived at first.

Just watch it, though... You'll see.

What I usually do is get the initial wood laid down- the "anchor pieces"- and then I "iterate" and add more pieces to fill it out a bit after a day or so.

Oh, I know you'll ask me why the wood going so vertical and breaking the waterline...Have I sold out?

Am I  playing into some "trend" or something?

No, I hope you know me better than THAT! it's more functional than anything else. My beloved Nanostomus eques, the "Brown" or "Diptail" Pencilfish), feel much more secure and act more naturally when they can hang out under the cover provided by projecting branches and such.


They spend a large part of their day in and among the mangrove branches, and blend in surprisingly well! Plus, having some overhead branches tends to keep them more calm, and less likely to jump, in my experience. Trust me, working with open topped tanks over the years with this fish, I learned this the hard way...

Oh, and you might be asking- why are fishes in this tank at this "early" phase? Fair enough.

Now, if you recall, this tank was running up to a few days ago as a "plant-centric" Asian-themed blackwater tank. The prior "residents" have been moved to a temporary holding tank, awaiting a new Asian-themed system we'll be building in the office. 

And Johnny Ciotti, our creative director, was eager to re-home the fishes in his South American tank (some of which were from ME in the first place!) as he starts some new projects for us...So, it was like, "Dude, I'm bringing by the fishes from my tank tomorrow...!"

"Okay, dude. See you then..."

Not ideal, but in the end, not really a big deal to me. I just had to work a bit faster.

And of course, this tank was never "deactivated. Just "reworked."

I did a large water exchange. Removed all of the leaves on the bottom of the tank. And, about 85%-90% or so of the substrate was left intact. Before embarking on this journey, I removed the plants and the aquatic plant soil which accompanied them, leaving just the mix of Carib-Sea "Sunset Gold" and white silica sand in place; adding a bit more, along with a touch of "sediment" to level things off a bit. Despite some disruption, the nitrogen cycle continues to function.

With this tank being an "all-in-one", with the "filter" and biological media isolated in the rear of the tank, there was no disruption to it. And yeah, I test ammonia and nitrite regularly when I do crazy shit like this- 'cause you never can be too careful. And don't worry, I didn't actually place the fishes into the tank until after the initial hardscape was set, to minimize stress to them...

And let me tell you, this was one unflappable set of fishes. They've been through this before. And since Johnny and I are both obsessive feeders, water exchange fanatics, and RO/DI users, our environmental parameters are typically within a few points of each other (although I like a slightly darker "tint" than he does, lol).


The fishes which I'm using in the tank are a mix of some old friends and new ones. The stars will undoubtedly be my faves Crenuchus spilurus, which will be transferred from another tank soon once I'm done filling in the details of the scape. (These guys hate being disturbed, and it's best to add them to the tank after you're done messing with it, lol). And the "co-stars" will be my beloved  Nanostomus eques, the "Brown" or "Diptail" Pencilfish). 

Oh, and my dear Peckoltia compta "L134" is back, too! She's about three years old now, and has the same vibrancy and "chill" attitude as she did when she was a juvenile! I dare say, she's a bit more "outgoing" than she was when I last hosted her! 

Oh, and some Lemon Tetras, some Corydoras, and a few other fishes, which basically means that the idea of any sort of accurate "biotope" representation for this aquarium and it's "ensemble" of disparate fishes is out the window! But hey, it's my home display tank, so it's supposed to be fun!

So, yeah, this was a bit different, but it's what happens when you adapt a mindset of continuously trying to serve up new looks and inspiration to your get good at "shuffling" stuff. Now, it's not always idea for the fishes, I know, but they seem to take it in stride. That being said, this tank will be up for a long time, because it's in my home, and I don't like messing around too much with this tank if I can avoid it!

And you might recall, from my recent blog, that I was just in a sort of uninspired place, a bit "burned out" creatively. Well, all it took was looking at that empty tank and thinking about what makes me happy, aquarium-wise...And the act, literally- of placing one piece of the kind of wood I wanted to use into the tank...and then it just flowed. Credit to Johnny...When he came over, we looked at the tank...he got excited seeing a "blank canvas"- and that flowed over to me.

He was like, "Just place a piece of wood in there..."

And I did.

And of course, there is always the next day.

So I woke up, stared at the tank for a while, looked at the extra batch of mangrove branches that I brought home with me...and started "tweaking" the hardscape a bit. The goal was to fill things out a bit, to make it a bit less "harsh" and more intricate- facilitating better "hangouts" for the Pencilfishes and the Crenuchus that will be added soon.

So here we are.

A lot more intricate. Yes, getting a net in there is out of the question without destroying the whole wood stack- always a good sign to me that I've come up with something I'm going to like, believe it or not! I tend to like simple ideas, but sort of complex "tangles" of wood and branches...and this one fit the profile perfectly.

Another 24 hours went by, and the water is starting to tint up nicely, with the tannins from the mangrove branches/root leaching into the water column. It looks less harsh already.

As the water is getting much clearer now, I can get a better feel for this 'scape and where it's going.

As you can tell, I tend to move slowly- this was uncharacteristically fast- and will often "live" with a tank for a little bit before completing the initial 'scaping. This gives me a real "feel" for the tank and where it is in the process of where I want it to go.

Next up for this tank is to add more botanical materials...In this instance, it's mainly going to be pieces of broken-up mangrove bark, mangrove leaves, and perhaps a few more sturdy botanicals. A simple look that will soften up the "scape, enrich the environment, and evolve nicely. Yet, I want to leave a lot of open sand, because I like that look, too.

So here we go. Almost time to pass the torch to Nature, and let her take over the rest of the "evolution" of the tank.

That's the best part of the whole process, IMHO.

So yeah, this tank is a mix of old, new, and completely familiar- with a healthy touch of the unfamiliar...And of course, through it all, Nature will be the "chief engineer" of this system, doing what She does so well.

And yeah, I'm out of that little mental "funk" I was in for a while. And I've added back the one element that was missing- fun.

This is fun. A bit of a "mashup" of stuff...But really fun!

All good.


Stay excited. Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay relaxed. Stay happy. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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