Weird done well...A challenge. A calling?

I start today by clearly stating that this piece is entirely my opinion. It is not intended to be a criticism of any one person, group of persons, organization, or event. It's a critical review of something that I feel is important. A challenge to the hobby as a whole.


It's that time of the year again. Everyone is buzzing about the big worldwide aquascaping contests. Everyone has pampered their planted tanks, trimmed their mosses, arranged their wood. A lot of energy, money, time, and talent has been devoted to entries that will win the praise and awards offered by the judges and the fish world as a whole. All eyes are on aquascapes!  Good stuff.

And once again, we'll see "sky forests", "Fantasy Hobbit-scapes", underwater waterfalls, roads, and intricately-detailed moss 'scapes. And some amazing nature-inspired tanks, too. All of these will be incredible, inspiring work done by talented and tireless aquascapers who have devoted a good part of their year to it. And once again, in my opinion, an opportunity to do something truly unusual and inspiring will have been dismissed in the pursuit of the ultimate version of what seems to me like last year's winning entry. And once again, IMHO, every winner- although stunning and beautiful- will look like the winning entry from 2016. Or was that 2014. Or maybe 2013?

Someone has to speak up. Might as well be me.

Uh Oh. I'm ranting.

Yup. I am.

A very few skilled entrants will be rewarded. Others will be disappointed by the way they were judged. Others will be justly proud of how they fared. And maybe- just maybe- one or two will know that, while they didn't have a "snowball's chance in hell" of winning, that they pushed the limits of aqusacaping by entering something entirely different. Something that made a statement, pushed into a new direction, made some people look, think, and perhaps scratch their heads a bit as they contemplated and tried to comprehend it. An expensive "sacrificial lamb", entered for the sole purpose of truly pushing the state of aquascaping and execution of aquatic technique and ideas.

Okay. Let me address the inevitable hate I'm going to receive. I'm not "dissing aquascapers or certain contests. They are what they are and they have rules, guidelines, judging criteria. I AM trying to point out that what we've long considered "progressive" in aquascaping contests- although incredible- is sort of starting to look the same, almost all of the time, in my opinion. I don't- can't knock the achievements of the worldwide talent pool of entrants to these shows. Their skills and technique are amazing. It's just my misinformed opinion, we seem to keep doing the same damn thing year after year...and rewarding it. And we aspire to create tanks that look like the winners. 

Not that these executions DON"T deserve the accolades they get. That is not my point. My point is that it seems like no one really thinks outside the box and tries something totally different. I get that there are some rules and criteria and such. However, why doesn't someone try to push it within the context of the contests? Apply the same energy given to the tried and true to something entirely different. And not just with biotopes...but perhaps with artistic representations of different niches, any of which could easily (well, not easily) be accomplished by a number of the many talented 'scapers in the world. Everyone on these podcasts and forums talks about how they want to inspire and "push the envelope", which is great. Yet, almost every year, IMHO, new versions of a "moss-covered log scape" with a crazy name seems to be on everyone's lips.

Wouldn't it be amazing if just once, an entrant who truly pushed into a different direction somehow snuck into the winner's circle, somehow deftly satisfying the rigid contest judging criteria while undeniably forging into the unknown?  I realize that it's unlikely to happen, given the judging criteria, etc. But again, I think it would be cool if someone could somehow use these highly visible platforms to disseminate ideas, inspiration, and beauty in a completely different way. Aesthetic alternatives that make us really think. And maybe smile.

Why not do "weird?" But do it really well. Like, better than it's ever been done before. Really apply all of that talent, technique, resourcefulness to something a bit different than an underwater beach scene diorama tank? Why not take an unusual concept-from nature or otherwise- and apply "amazing" to it? Surely the contest entry fees might be worth essentially "blowing" to show the aquascaping world something truly thought-provoking on the most visible global "stages" of the craft?

Oh, how I'd love to see someone do that.

What would be examples of "wierd done well?" Here are just a few...Now, of course these are not all acceptable/appropriate for entry into specific contests. They are, however, ideas you can utilize, build on, create with- in the proper context...Examples of looking at stuff differently, perhaps. 

Cave- Like, okay...we've seen a lot of people do a bunch of rockwork with some nifty little caves or recesses built into it. A lot of thought goes into placement to produce all of these nooks and crannies. These usually look pretty cool. However, when was the last time that you actually saw a serious aquarium recreation of the interior of cave ecosystem? I mean, a tank in which the entire aquarium is representative of the interior of a cave, right down to the extremely dim light and pigment-less fishes?

Now, this is one that wouldn't be for everyone for sure, because: a) It is kind of...dark  2) The fish selection is rather limited, and not known for color (it's about the novelty/morphology here) and 3) It's kind of...dark.

Yeah. Perfect.

African Mudhole for Nothobranchius: Yeah, on the surface, this sounds easy and just like a breeding jar or something: Throw peat on the bottom, add your killies...yeah, "mudhole"; whatever..Next. "Fellman, you just described a breeding jar for killies...!"Uh-uh. NOPE. Not gonna let you get away that easy. I'm talking more of a paludarium-type setup, with a strong terrestrial component. You'd probably set it up not unlike a terrarium for reptiles: Somewhat barren, with patches of terrestrial vegetation here and there, and a substrate really consisting of a mix of peat/mud/fine sand. The emphasis more on recreating the overall look than the utility of function. It's not for temporary breeding, either.

And it would be shallow water; probably not exceeding 6-8 inches (15.24-20.32cm) in depth. Circulation? Nope.  Filtration? Not likely. You'd be relegated to small water changes with a plastic cup a couple of times a week or more. Even that is not 100% accurate to the biotope, but infinitely more "realistic" than what a lot of us have done before. You'll have dark, acidic water, a small population of fishes, and the challenges of managing bioload in a filter-less "water hole."

Who's in? 

Palauan "Rock Island"How many times do I have to present this one before someone- or ME- for that matter-tries this? (FYI, My excuse  has been not having the time or energy to devote to this specialized project, but I'll go on record to say that is a lame excuse and I'm going to act on this soon...) It requires definite "crossover" skillsWe have lots of talented FW paludarium types out there. But you need to marry it with a real reef tank. It's essentially a marine paludarium, in which you'd have an "island" built up of "live rock", with a terrestrial component (yup, that means soil, etc.) complete with various tropical plants, and the "below water" component is a reef-type setup featuring Acropora, Pocillopora, and some soft corals. 

It's not as easy as one might think. You need to consider the filtration/water delivery of the aquatic component- no half-ass-ing it here. You're doing a full-blown reef- so you need an overflow weir in a partially-filled tank...that means "custom", which takes a bunch of us out of the running straight away. It also means positioning lighting to provide benefit for both the terrestrial and aquatic sections. I'm thinking LED spotlights? And you need to keep the planted section sort of "separated" on the "island", which means either a pond liner, pots, or other type of container(s) to hold plants in soil, hidden in the rock. No visible stuff. And you need to be able to water and get some drainage. And a nice reef. Not just some shitty frags glued to a rock. Grow it. Challenging. NOT impossible. One day, some rogue reefer with plant skills is going to enter this type of tank into one of those aquascaping snob-fests and freak everyone the f--- out! Yup. Someone needs to do this. And do it well. If you don't, I will. (I probably will anyways, but you'd tip me over the edge to act, lol)

Substrate Celebration: Yes, a tank with no rocks. No wood. No plants. Just...substrate. And fishes. A mix of beautiful sands, gravels, soils, and muds of various grades, sizes, textures, colors...arranged in a natural-looking, yet oddly alluring way. With appropriate fishes (yes, there ARE actual biotopes in South America and elsewhere that are essentially sand communities, fascinating in their simplicity, yet surprising in their biological complexity). 

With all of the many different aquarium configurations (like really wide and shallow!), substrate choices (commercial and otherwise), and unusual fishes available, this would be a chance to really try something that would be truly different. Lighting, water movement, fish selection would all be critical components here. Each would form a crucial part of the aesthetic and functional whole. With a number of fishes ecologically adapted to this habitat, the opportunity to create something so out of the realm of our ordinary perceptions, yet entirely plausible in its reality- is irresistible! 

So there you have just a tiny smattering of possible ideas that would kick convention back just a little bit.

Again, not just any of these would work in any contest. In fact, you don't HAVE to enter them in a contest. You just need to plan, execute, and share some of these, or any number of a thousand better ideas- with the world. Show fellow hobbyists that it's okay to do things that make us uncomfortable once in a while. Something different, yet compelling. We're not entirely  inexperienced at this concept in our niche, are we?  I've seen dozens of examples of botanical/blackwater tanks that you've created already that would present an entirely different aesthetic to the usual stuff we see served up as progressive and brilliant in the greater aquarium world. It's okay to do "incredible" a bit differently than everyone else, and maybe, just maybe- inspire a few others in the process.

Mental "shifts." We all know about those, right? Yup.

Not everyone will, of course.

The optics on this rant may not be great for everyone. It's okay. Not everyone likes this sort of talk. Not everyone feels it's productive or well-thought-out. It ruffles some feathers. I get it. I can see the criticism. In fact, I'll write my own: ("He ignorantly rips what he perceives as the 'establishment', then serves up a few lame, nebulously-developed ideas in the name of "pushing the envelope"- all the while convinced that his arrogant misperception of the art of aquascaping is even remotely useful. All talk, no action..".etc.)

Ahh. The advantages of having your own blog! 

Do it for yourself. But do it visibly, to inspire, and bring light to the world. Do your best. Do what makes your heart sing. 

And occasionally, do "weird."

And do it well. Regardless of what anyone says. Your vision just might inspire another hobbyist to do something that has never even been contemplated before. Those are the moments we live for. The moments that make facing challenges, fears, criticisms...all worth it in the end.

Off my soap box...for today.

Stay bold. Stay relentlessly creative. Stay inspired. Stay inspirational.

And always...

Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

June 01, 2017

Yup, Garrett- you just sorta summed up modern mainstream aquascaping in a nutshell…Great analogies, BTW!

Somebody…somewhere…PLEEZE do something a little f——ing different! Yes, the judges will trash you. But if you do something cool, it might just wake up the greater aquascaping world from its self-induced coma of sameness.



June 01, 2017

Love your ideas, and love the criticism. There does seem to be an oversaturation of incredible nature tanks… the closest parallel I can think of is today’s superhero movies (or Transformers) – incredible technical feats that would make anyone’s head explode twenty years ago, but which are now just blended in our minds into a series of forgettable explosions and giant blue space lasers…

My personal favourite for both design and ridiculous naming is The Green Machine. Much respect to James Findley, they are all beautiful, but aquascapes like “Nature’s Chaos” and it’s perfectly-positioned and segregated plantings are anything but chaotic!

I want to see more “natural” tanks and less “nature” tanks. More riverbeds, pools and shorelines that evoke nature, not a zen garden! Plants that grow wild and unchecked, and aren’t manicured thrice weekly into perfect little topiaries! I mean, do what makes you happy, but it’s the aesthetic difference between a wildlife preserve and a golf course. Of course, many people prefer golf courses….

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