The mental shift...revisited.

With global attention on our "dark" little section of the aquarium hobby, it's fun- and actually, necessary- to revisit some of the now-familiar "themes" we've touched on over the past two years.

And I think that one of the most important themes we need to continually revisit is what we've called the "mental shift" that we as hobbyists must make when working with a botanical-style blackwater aquarium.

Now, it sounds a bit, well- "dramatic"- but we've all come to realize that this type of aquarium has different "operating parameters" (literally and figuratively) than pretty much any other type of system you'd keep. Not that there is some big "mystery" or "secret" to keeping one...Like any aquarium, you simply need to understand, appreciate, and yes- enjoy- the characteristics, phases, and nuances of this type of system.

First off, the color of the water is just something that you as a newcomer to this world have to really fundamentally get used to. Okay, you could certainly utilize activated carbon or other chemical filtration media to remove the water-staining tannins from the aquarium while still retaining much of the beneficial humic substances, but for most of us, "brown" is a foregone conclusion. It's what brought a lot of us to "the dark side" in the first place!

That being said, there is a certain "look" to the water in a blackwater aquarium which goes beyond the color. It's a sort of "patina" if you will, or a subtle variation in the way light plays upon the surface. You compare your blackwater tank to a "white water" system, and it becomes immediately obvious that there is a radical difference!

The biggest parts of the "mental shift" are the understanding that botanical materials break down in the water column as they impart tannins and other substances into the environment. The well-manicured aquscape you might have conceived will be reshaped by nature as the leaves, seed pods, and other botanical materials are broken down by bacterial and fungal action. To many, this is a remarkable departure, aquascaping-wise from the more controlled, high-concept planted "Nature Aquarium" which has been extolled for much of the past two decades. On the other hand, the transient nature of the botanicals is the very embodiment of Takashi Amano's Japanese-garden-derived appreciation for "wabi-sabi", or the acceptance of the beauty of a state of transience and imperfection.


And once you accept this process, the other aspects become even more easy to embrace, appreciate- even love.

Biofilms...Yes, those lovely coatings of bacterial material that begin to appear some time after your botanicals have been submerged" for a time. The appearance of biofilms is a sort of "stage", or even a "right of passage" if you will, which almost every botanical-style blackwater aquarium goes through. They're present throughout the functional life of such an aquarium.And, we tell our community over and over that this is a completely natural occurrence; bacteria and other microorganisms taking advantage of a perfect substrate upon which to grow and reproduce, just like in the wild. Freshly added botanicals offer a "mother load"of organic material for these biofilms to propagate, and that's occasionally what happens - just like in nature.  


Their presence "waxes and wanes" to a certain extent- the product of a botanical bioload. Yet they're always there, as they are in natural habitats. And making the effort to understand and even appreciate their appearance as a sign that your aquarium is functioning as nature intended is the biggest step in achieving what can only be called "aquatic enlightenment." 

The realization that nature is not the pristine, orderly environment that we have conjured up in our stylized aquariums and global aquascaping contests is perhaps the most difficult thing for the aspiring "tinter" to grasp. We've been indoctrinated for so long to think that this is the way nature is, and that the definition of a successful, well-conceived, or "healthy and clean" system is one that consists of perfectly symmetrical/intentionally-placed/trimmed plants, pearly-white sand, and impeccably clean driftwood. Of course, the reality is that this is just one aesthetic, and that nature rarely has such circumstances combining in the same place. Rather, it's a world of biofilms, patinas of algae, randomly distributed botanical debris, scattered rocks and wood tangles, deposited by currents, rain, and even the fishes themselves, settling into positions that typically defy the "golden ratio" and other human-created constructs.

There is a beauty- perhaps subtle..or perhaps pretty "in your face", which nature conveys with the tinted water, biofilms, algal strings, and decomposition. Appreciating this is not always easy; many simply don't like that part of it. Of course, we can certainly "moderate" the appearance of biofilms and algae, and remove/replace decomposing materials as soon as they start to break down.

I know many hobbyists who do this, and are delighted with their beautiful aquariums. Others leave them "in play", enjoying the results as they completely break down i the aquarium.  There are many ways to enjoy a blackwater/botanical-style aquarium. There are no "rules" about how to enjoy this type of system. I think my "acceptance" of this comes from studying, visiting, and understanding the relationships between the natural environment and its inhabitants, and realizing that there is something enormously satisfying about seeing a truly functional and aesthetic representation of nature in those glass or acrylic boxes in our living rooms.

As a reefer for decades, I learned a lot about balance, understanding that there is a certain amount of natural growth, such as coralline algae and such, which goes with the territory, and that a well-functioning and stable reef aquarium has achieved a certain balance between what we perceive as "nuisance" and "necessary." No reefer likes huge algae outbreaks, but every reefer appreciates the presence of some algae in his or her system, as well as the random appearance of various micro and macro-fauna. A sort of acceptance of a "holistic" environment within the confines of our aquarium. It's one of the "foundation principles" of reef keeping, and I think it would serve many within the freshwater aquascaping community to study and appreciate this as well.

The "mental shift." Far more than a barrier, really. Rather, it's like a point of demarkation between what we have come to expect from an aquarium and indeed, nature- and the way nature wants to "evolve" our aquariums. There is a certain dynamic- perhaps even a "tension"- between expectation and reality, and the understanding of this, wether we embrace it or not- will only make us better aquarists, with a more complete appreciation of the natural world and how function and form unexpectedly combine to create beauty- if we make the effort to see it. And when we see it, we're far more likely to want to preserve and protect it, and educate others about it's wonders.

Yeah, it's a mental shift. Yet, one which can not only help the aquarium hobby, it can help the natural world in ways we might not have even contemplated.

Stay appreciative. Stay curious. Stay open-minded.

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment