"The name “Tannin” was selected because it’s the substance derived from leaves and wood that tints the life-giving waters of tropical rivers and streams with a beautiful brown color that I find so alluring. The dark waters, tangled roots and earthy-colored leaves found off the shores of tropical “blackwater” rivers, ponds, and streams provide an irresistible subject for hobbyists to replicate in our aquariums..."- From our "About Us" page.
Even though we've been playing with this stuff commercially for about 5 years, as a hobbyist, I've been dabbling with blackwater/botanical-style aquariums for around 18 years...and the hobby itself has been "doing" blackwater tanks for many years. It always amuses me when someone tells us that we "didn't invent this idea.." As if we ever claimed that we did!
Gotta love our hobby culture, huh?
Nature was the "inventor." We just play with her. Follow her lead. Her inspiration.
We dream in water.
Now, I will claim that- perhaps- we "elevated" the art just a little bit; perhaps brought it out of the "darkness" (literally), but we did not invent it.
Regardless of who pioneered blackwater/botanical-style aquariums and when, there are still lots of questions surrounding this stuff. There are still many unknowns, misconceptions, and perhaps even a bit of confusion...We're doing our best to dispel many of these misconceptions, yet it takes time (and hundreds of blog posts and podcasts!) and a global community of active hobbyists to really get the word out more that this is cool stuff!
Often, when I'm asked to speak at a club or event, I'm asked to describe the benefits of the types of aquariums we all love...and that's something you no doubt will receive now and then, so I thought it might make some sense to share with you the summary of the main points I bring up in such situations...
And of course, as you might expect, one of the fundamental questions we receive often here at Tannin is, "What are the advantages of a blackwater-type aquarium, and why would I want to try one?"
It's a really broad, but very logical question, which I can attempt to answer in broad, hopefully logical terms!
In no particular order, here are some of the many reasons why you might want to embrace "The Tint" in your next aquarium:
1) It's different.- Okay, this is probably the most fucking vapid reason for this, but, whatever. But hey...You asked.
Well, anyone can set up a planted tank with clear water, colorful fishes, and natural gravel. It takes an adventurous aquarist to try something truly different- brown water, decomposing leaves, detritus, biofilms...just like in nature! A totally different aesthetic experience than we're used to, which requires definite "mental shifts" in order to embrace and be comfortable with.
It's not just about the aesthetics, of course- but they play a huge role in this stuff.
It's really different.
I remember, during my tenure as co-owner of the coral propagation/import/retail company, Unique Corals, the amusing (to me, anyways) comments I'd get from reefers and marine aquarium experts who came into my office (which, with it's earth tones and wood, looked nothing like what you'd expect from a reef guy, btw) and checked out the "high concept" 20 gallon blackwater tank I had there ( it was no biotope, trust me). Literally, a typical comment was like, "Umm, I think you need to change the water in there...kinda dirty, huh?"
Yeah, it's different- and of course, that doesn't define the whole concept, but it does describe it fairly accurately!
2) Many fishes come from "blackwater" habitats, and this a more appropriate environment for them.- Although many fishes, such as Tetras, cichlids, Rasbora, and Discus (a few that come to mind) are bred in typically harder, alkaline "tap water" captive conditions, I personally have yet to see one of these species which doesn't seem to look better, be healthier, and act more naturally in a blackwater environment. We've talked about this idea before, and I still believe it.
Yes, in a tremendous tinge of irony, you need to acclimate these fishes, which have traditionally been kept in more "tap water" conditions in aquairums, to softer, more acidic blackwater conditions slowly, and yes, you need to apply common sense, but I believe that the benefits for your animals will become very evident over time.
There have been some studies, which we've discussed over the years here, which indicated that materials such as catappa leaves do indeed provide some potential anti fungal/antimicrobial benefits because of the compounds they contain, but I would certainly not use this "disease prevention" thing as the sole justification for utilizing botanicals and creating blackwater systems. That is a whole lot of marketing bullshit, IMHO.
Rather, I'd make the argument that, when coupled with good overall husbandry, a well-managed blackwater aquarium can provide environment which is more consistent with that which many of the fishes we keep have evolved to live in over eons, and that this is a generally healthy way to keep them. Humic substances and other compounds released by botanicals are thought by scientists to be essential for the health of many fishes, and in blackwater aquariums, there are significant concentrations of these compounds present at all times.
Our blackwater/botanical-style aquariums cannot be called the "the best option" for many fishes- just a really good option- one worth investigating more!
3) A planted blackwater environment embraces different elements than a traditional planted aquarium does.- We get a lot of interest from hardcore planted aquarium enthusiasts! Over the past year, planted blackwater aquariums are really starting to become a "thing", and that's great! We are seeing more and more amazing planted blackwater aquariums, ranging from artistic to biotope style systems. Obviously, our style of aquarium is a bit different than the typical type of system we'd maintain plants under.
Yeah, you're not able to keep every type of aquatic plant in a blackwater tank. You'd want to research which plants specifically hail from these environments and can adapt and thrive under these conditions. The usual suspects, like Bucephalandra, Cryptocoryne, and various Swords.
There are many others, too.
4) Blackwater tanks lend themselves to amazing hardscapes.- Oh, we're back to the superficial stuff again! But hey, this IS a hobby- and it's supposed to be fun and enjoyable...and this is cool! By virtue of their unique physical attributes, botanical materials such as seed pods, leaves, and stems, can help to create some very interesting aesthetics.
Sure, you can combine them with more "traditional" materials, like wood and stones to create a really unique aesthetic experience for many hobbyists. The ability to express yourself creatively with different elements cannot be overlooked by avid aquascapers!
And, you don't HAVE to keep the water brown, you know!
There are other "intangibles" of experimenting with blackwater/botanical-style aquariums.
First off, a greater understanding of the relationship between fishes and their aquatic environment- both chemically and physically. When you're using materials which are highly "interactive" with their aquatic surroundings, like leaves and botanicals, you can use them to your advantage, and give fishes more of what we like to call "functionally aesthetic" habitats.
You'll want to research this stuff.
And speaking of environments- these types of aquariums will often make you do some research before you set one up...You know, like looking at an actual natural habitat instead of last month's "Tank of The Month"-a process that opens up your imagination- and increases your awareness about the wild habitats of our fishes, how they evolved, where they are, and the threats they face to their existence.
"Big picture" stuff... The biotope aquarium crowd knows this already; it's good that more people come to the party.
It's a big world out there...and not necessarily one that looks the way we might expect.
There are endless possibilities to research.
5) Blackwater/botanical-style aquariums almost force us to deploy patience.- This is a huge thing, as we discussed yesterday. Good stuff in aquariums never happens quickly- especially in botanical-influenced systems, where the seed pods, leaves, and other materials break down over time.
They are almost "ephemeral" in existence, gradually imparting organics, tannins, and other compounds into the water. It requires time, patience, monitoring, and attention to allow one of these systems to "evolve" to its full potential.
You can't rush it. Mind set shifts are essential.
6) You'll be in on the ground floor of a "New Botanical" movement.- Sure, people have played with seed pods, wood and leaves before, but I don't think with the mindset that we've seen lately. In other words, hobbyists who incorporate botanicals and such into their aquarium nowadays are looking at things more "holistically', embracing the natural processes, such as the breakdown of materials, accumulation of biofilms, and even the occasional spot of algae, as part of the environment to be studied and enjoyed, rather than to be loathed, feared and removed.
You'll want to experiment with the idea of volving systems to represent seasonal dynamics, niche habitats, etc. Stuff that pushes the boundaries of what is normally done in the hobby.
We're learning more about the interactions between our fishes and these unique environments, and the opportunities to share this new knowledge are endless! New types of environmental simulation are possible, with new secrets to learn!
I could probably go on for hours (I HAVE, by the way!) talking up the key "takeaways" from blackwater/botanical-style aquariums...and more natural aquariums in general. However, I think the "benefits" can best be understood by simply creating one and enjoying it; learning from Nature in an unedited manner. Watching it evolve, as it's done for eons, without over-extending our management based on "hobby-standard"purely aesthetic considerations.
We'll continue our mission of inspiring, educating, and prodding you when necessary, to take the plunge and move into new directions.
At Tannin, we've done our best to aggregate many different natural materials for you to work with to create unique biotope-inspired displays. We're constantly researching, refining, and tweaking our offering to help you enjoy different aquatic experiences!
Okay, that's the most cursory, quick list of some of the reasons why blackwater, botanical-style systems are something we feel you should be playing with in an aquarium.
Since so many of you are new here, it seems like as good a time as any to cover this stuff today!
Hopefully, this will be enough to kick you over the edge to get started...or to use as a "track" to run on to inspire others!
The endless opportunities for experimentation, creativity, expression, and education are just a few of the wonderful benefits that we will enjoy as we continue to open our eyes- and minds- to a new and very different approach to aquarium keeping.
Yeah, we dream in water.
Stay inspired. Stay creative. Stay open-minded. Stay observant. Stay patient. Stay enthralled!
And Stay Wet.