Starting from scratch...Again...

For the fish geek, there's nothing quite like the excitement of setting up a new aquarium, right?

So, my wife and I are settled into our new home...And that means setting up some new tanks! I'm about to set up my next aquarium; Yes, this one is at home- and inexplicably, I got the "green light" from my wife to set up one of the tanks in a well-trafficked room- and that means it needs to look really good. Of course, the term "really good" can take on many different meanings in my experience!  Oh, and given my propensity to create tanks with brown water, decomposing leaves, biofilms and the like, it also means that I'll be doing a considerable amount of explaining to visitors why this isn't the crystal-clear vision of perfection that they're used to when they hear the words "fish tank." 


I do need to take care of one order of business before going on about this tank: I just want to let out a little early morning angst and state that I hate every single one of you who has mad aquascaping skills.  There. I said it. It's out. I know that jealousy is really ugly and all, but it feels good to be honest. :)

Now that the ugly stuff is off my chest- on to the good stuff.

I've decided to continue my love affair with the flooded Iagpo forests of Brazil, focusing on a "structurally functional" aquascape, anchored by a fairly solid hardscape, consisting of larger pieces of wood, arranged to replicate the branches and logs that would accumulate on a forest floor, perhaps pushed around a bit by flooding and currents.

I've resigned myself to a less "artful", more "natural" looking wood stack- as if I am really even capable of "artful", anyways. I mean, despite my best efforts at an "artful" approach over the years, my hardscape always seem to look sort of like a campfire, to be honest. An expensive campfire, of course...but a campfire, nonetheless!

(One of the earlier iterations of this umm, "scape.")

Like, why fight my lack of aesthetic talent? Use nature as an...excuse-er, inspiration!

So this time, I just kind of went with the flow, after scanning literally dozens of Mike Tuccinardi's. David Sobry's, and Ivan Mikolji's pics and videos of Amazonian underwater and above-water scenes. Tremendous inspiration there, especially when you look at the "macro view" and isolate some of the details, like how wood falls, substrate and leaves accumulate, and where fishes seem to hang out, in context.

Despite my aesthetic challenges, I've always taken comfort in the fact that my wood arrangements almost always seem to look better once they're submerged and part of a whole scene. In fact, I don't think I've ever owned an aquarium where the woodscape looked amazing before it was submerged...Wait, amend that statement: I don't think I've ever owned an aquarium with a woodscape that looked amazing prior to submerging which I personally executed! My friend, the great aquascaper Johnny Ciotti, did a scape for me for my office tank at Unique Corals which looked so good dry, that I almost felt guilty filling the tank!

Now, the wood I needed for this project was something more "rough", more "bark-laden"- and the look I wanted was perfectly filled by utilizing some heftier Red Mangrove branches! This is wood that definitely has that certain "submerged tree trunk/branch" thing going on, and has just enough bark on it to give a very natural look- you know, kind of like a brach that fell to the forest floor and was submerged by the waters when the rainy season came...

Yeah, that sort of thing.

Although I can hardly escape criticism for my near-complete lack of aesthetic sensibilities when it comes to wood stacks, one thing I DO have is my (if I say so myself!) keen understanding of the need for water movement and access, honed through decades of keeping reef aquariums. "Nooks and crannies" within the wood stack are to me far more important than exposing that one desired "facet" of a piece of wood to the viewer, etc. The bottom line is that this is an aquarium which I need to maintain for years, not for a few months for a contest, so thinking through some of the more mundane functional considerations is vital, IMHO. I need to be able to work in the tank.

As far as substrate is concerned, I am branching out just a bit from the usual substrate of choice in my tanks (CaribSea "Torpedo Beach" sand), and going with a slightly different version- CaribSea "Sunset Gold", which actually resembles our local Southern California beach sand in both color and texture. I like that it has a slight "tint" to it already, as the "Torpedo Beach" always ends up slightly "stained" by all of the tannins in the water anyways, which I like. This saves a bit of time, lol.

And the reality is that I hope to see very little of the substrate exposed, once things really get underway. I want to go for a significant amount of leaf and botanical coverage in this tank. I'm modeling it, of course, after once of my favorite pics by Mike Tuccinardi.

As far as which leaves I'm going to use, I am leaning towards a mix of Magnolia, Guava, Jackfruit, and maybe a smattering of medium Catappa and definitely, a few Yellow Mangrove leaves (yes, you heard me). I believe this will provide the right combination of shape, texture, and "structural integrity" I'm looking for.


These will certainly last a bit longer than a "straight-up" catappa leaf litter bottom, and I have no doubt that they'll recruit biofilms like mad i the early days (explaining THAT to visitors is gonna be a lot of fun! I think I might have to make prints of some of those underwater scenes and hang them near the tank to "validate" my aesthetics here, lol)

From here, it gets a bit more "murky" (perhaps literally), as I think I'm going to utilize "bits and pieces" of stuff like Cutch Tree Bark, crumbled Indian Catappa Bark, and maybe some broken Fishtail Palm Stems to provide a bit of accent on the bottom. Will I throw in a few palm fronds? Not sure just yet, but having a few small ones breaking down i the tank will be pretty authentic!

Like many of you, I need to fight my urge to load up the tank with as many different botanicals as possible, to try to get the scene I really want. A sort of "less is more" approach when it comes to how many type of botanicals I'll use will serve me well, I think. Not that there's anything wrong with a lot of variety...but not in the scheme in my head this time! 

I'm also trying to take on a different mindset this time. I'm going to envision how the scene would naturally come together as part of a "dry" forest floor...liek, thinking about how materials would aggregate and accumulate in certain areas. Obviously, once the water hits, things get a bit different, but thinking from a bit of a "terrestrial" mindset at the outset will, I think, positively influence my approach to the 'scape.

(Image by Dick Culbert, used under CC BY 2.0)

The strong connection between land and water is something that I think that an aquarium attempting to replicate an Igapo habitat can do really well. I feel that it's been an historically under-represented, yet absolutely amazing ecological niche for aquarists to play with. 

Oh, and I might throw in some random elements, like some submerged terrestrial plants- ones which I know can tolerate long periods of submersion. This will be something I haven't done before, and I've been doing some studying on possible candidates. None will be from the actual region we're inspired by specifically, but will be representative of those encountered in these habitats. This is not going to be a strict biotope's biotope inspired.

As far as fishes...because that's what everyone wants to know...I can honestly say that I have not finalized ANY candidates at this point! I've been more concerned about getting the overall aquatic environment the way I'd like it first. Obviously, given my incredible love for characins, you can bet a bunch of Tetras will reside there...and a few catfishes...But that's as far as I've gotten in that process. Crazy, huh?

So, I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to my next aquarium project. It's as much about mindset and concept as it is about the actual execution of the tank. I promise to document the process, changes (you KNOW I'll make plenty), trials and tribulations of this tank as it comes to life. I keep saying I'm gonna do this... So the time is now.

And I hope that I can inspire a few of you along the way; or at the very least, share some ideas that you might want to play with. And of course, I look forward to your feedback, questions, and suggestions as I move ahead.

Until next time...

Stay enthusiastic. Stay honest. Stay relaxed. Stay creative. Stay innovative...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response


November 09, 2017

Sounds like you have put a lot of time and thought into this setup, and putting a lot of what you’ve ruminated on into action! I’m very interested in seeing how it evolves, especially how you utilize the terrestrial plants. I gotta say though, your first wood layout makes me want to bust out the s’mores!

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