The first hours...and beyond.

I'm in that most exciting of times: The startup phase on a new long-delayed brackish water aquarium! It's given me the chance to re-think some of my long-heals beliefs about starting aquariums.

Now, to me, the "startup phase" is NOT those first hours after you fire up the tank. Nope- it's a much longer affair...Like, maybe the first 6 weeks or so of the aquarium's existence. 

Yeah. I mean, there is a LOT of change that happens in a brand new tank over the first six weeks of its existence!

That's not to say that the very first moments of a new tank aren't the most exciting and even challenging! 

I guess it's just me, but I find the most "stressful" part of setting up a new aquarium to be those initial 24 hours after you set up a new aquarium. You know, that time when the focus is on making sure that everything is up and running fine.

It's a time when you learn to "read" your new recognize every sound the tank know what is a "normal" sound versus one that you don't want to hear. It's a time to make sure that the operating level of the water is optimal. A time to "dial in" your heater, pumps, etc.

And we tend to obsess over our tanks at this time, don't we?

I know that I do!

You know, making sure everything is running correctly- that water isn't leaking...A time to make sure that the plumbing connections are tight, light and heater settings are correct, etc. 

But that's just the "mechanics" of your aquarium.

Getting those things buttoned up is important...And then it really begins.

You know, making the tank come alive. Bringing it from a clean, dry,"static display" to a living, breathing microcosm, filled with life. This, to me is the most exciting part!

And how do we usually do it? I mean, for many hobbyists, we've been more or less indoctrinated to clean the sand, age water, add wood, arrange plants, and add fishes. And that works, of course. It's the basic "formula" we've used for over a century.

And it works...

Yet, I'm surprised how we as a hobby have managed to turn what to me is one of the most inspiring, fascinating, and important parts of our aquarium hobby journey into what is more-or-less a "checklist" to be run through- an "obstacle", really- to our ultimate enjoyment of our aquarium.

When you think about it, setting the stage for life in our aquariums is the SINGLE most important thing that we do. If we utilize a different mind set, and deploy a lot more patience for the process, we start to look at it a bit differently.

I mean, sure, you want to rinse sand as clean as possible. You want make sure that you have a piece of wood that's been soaked for a while, and..

Wait, DO you?

I mean, sure, if you don't rinse your sand carefully, you'll get some cloudy water for argument there. And if you don't clean your driftwood carefully, you're liable to have some soil or other "dirt" get into your system, and more tannins being released, which leads to...well, what does it lead to?

I mean, an aquarium is not a "sterile" habitat. The natural aquatic habits , although comprised of many millions times the volumes of water that we have in our tanks- are typically not "pristine"- right? I mean, soils from terrestrial geologic activity carry with them decomposing matter, leaves, etc, all of which impact the chemistry, oxygen-carrying capacity, biological activity, and of course, the visual appearance of the water.

And that's kind of what our whole botanical-style aquarium adventure is all about- utilizing the "imperfect" nature of the materials at our disposal, and fostering and appreciating the natural interactions which take place in aquatic habitats. Understanding that descriptors such as "crystal clear" and "pristine" only apply to some aquatic habitats, and that there is real beauty in all forms.

Indeed, the real "magic", in many instances, occurs in the more murky, turbid, not-so-crystal-clear waters of the world. And if we understand and accept this, we're likely to start our aquariums with a bit less concern over absolute sterile perfection.

We can embrace the mindset that every leaf, every piece of wood, every bit of substrate in our aquariums is actually a sort of "catalyst" for sparking biodiversity and yes- a new view of aesthetics in our aquariums.

I'm not saying that we should NOT rinse sand, or soak wood before adding it to our tanks. What I AM suggesting is that we don't "lose our %$@#" if our water gets a little bit turbid or there is a bit of botanical detritus accumulating on the substrate. We don't have to start a tank with brand new, right-from-the-bag substrate.

We can utilize some old substrate from another tank (we have done this for years for the purpose of "jump starting bacterial growth) for the purpose of providing a different aesthetic as well.  Use that slightly algal-covered piece of driftwood or rock in our brand new tank...A more "broken-in look", and a habitat more favorable to the growth of the microorganisms, fungi, and other creatures which comprise an important part of our closed aquarium ecosystems.

It's okay for your tank to look a bit "worn" right from the start. In fact, I think most of us actually would prefer that! It's okay to embrace this. From a functional AND aesthetic standpoint. Employ good husbandry, careful observation, and common sense when starting and managing your new aquarium.

But don't obsess over "pristine." Especially in those first hours.

Stay excited. Stay ambitious. Stay curious. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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