Welcoming the unexpected...and resisting the urge to overthink...

One of the great joys of the aquarium hobby is that, despite our careful planning, "stuff" can happen to our tanks that we didn't anticipate...And not all of it is bad!

We spend an awful lot of time worrying about every contingency, stressing over how our tanks will operate or why  "x" happened, despite our extensive planning to avoid such things. And often, whatever it was that happened wasn't all that "bad."- we as hobbyists just tend to classify anything which doesn't go exactly to plan as an "issue."

I was talking to one of my friends recently about what was going on in his cool fish room, and he was telling me that he was just looking to see what fishes were “breaking out”, which ones could be doing better, and which ones were in trouble. A cool, useful practice that many of us engage in with our tanks.

He reflected on the fact that, on any given day in a lot of fish rooms, you’ll find fishes or tanks that are kicking ass, some that could look better, and some that just declined for no apparent reason.


“No apparent reason…”

I find that expression intriguing.

Familiar words, actually. I hear them often when talking to fellow hobbyists who, when talking about the goings-on in their aquairums, will say things like, “…and they were looking great the other day, and today- they’re just failing to thrive for no apparent reason.” 

You see it on the forums- at least a dozen threads every day about “anomalous” fish losses. This is not a new thing. It’s not even an unusual thing. It happens. A lot. 

In a given community of organisms, all sorts of stuff happens from day to day.

Back when I co-owned a large coral propagation operation, with thousands of corals under our care, we needed to assess and get to the bottom of whatever went wrong- because if it spread, it could have jeopardized large amounts of our inventory. Not good when you make a living growing corals. Oh, sure, we had safeguards in place, but sometimes stuff slips through, and you need to attempt to find the root cause of the problem, lest it occur elsewhere in your facility.



Over the years, I’ve learned that there is ALWAYS a reason why fishes or corals struggle or die. We may not always find the ONE factor- the one thing that did it…But there is always a reason, or bunch of reasons- why the fishes or corals didn’t make it. It's not just "because..." The explanation may be beyond our ability to decipher, but it's out there. Stuff-good and bad- just doesn't happen for "no apparent reason."

On the other hand…sometimes, you just can't seem to pin it down, right? You go through the mental checklists of things that you do. Some change in the usual product additions, feedings, procedures, etc. You look at water parameters, search for trends. Look for one thing you did differently two days ago that could have been the trigger for the calamity…And still, the answer eludes you.

The unfortunate, unscientific, and altogether unsatisfying conclusion that we come up with after exhausting the obvious- and even the obscure- is often- the fish simply died for “no apparent reason.”


That sucks. It’s frustrating, because of course, there are reasons why the fishes died. Often, its more than one factor that contributed.

And you can’t find them. Can’t pin down the cause.

Without sounding like the proverbial broken record, this reinforces the usefulness of practices like regular water testing, because when tests are performed regularly and evaluated frequently, you’ll spot trends.

Trends are super important in aquarium management, aren’t they?

They help you see what direction your system is headed. They help you see if your parameters are stable, swinging all over, or just headed in one direction or another. Without getting too caught up in “big data”, you can get some good feeling for how your tank is doing by sifting through your test results from time to time. 

This seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how often many of us don't do this...

And there is no substitute at all for the simple, and often quite enjoyable- act of just looking at your aquarium. Every parameter is important, but if your tank looks like shit, does it really matter if phosphate is .04ppm or .08ppm? Your eyes are probably one of the best aquarium testing devices ever conceived…you just need to apply them regularly! In our busy lives, the surprisingly simple act of allocating the time to just look at our beautiful tanks sometimes eludes us...how ironic is that?


So the altogether unsatisfying conclusion of this discussion? Sometimes you just can’t find the source of the decline in your aquarium, or why you lost that particular fish. Sometimes the data eludes us. 

There are a lot of “moving parts” in a typical aquarium, and the failure of any one of them may or may not trigger a problem…it can be frustrating ferreting out which of the 5 dozen possible things that could have gone wrong might have lead to the "problem" you experienced. And it's very easy to simply overthink; over-analyze everything. 

Just don't beat the shit out of yourself by overthinking stuff. 

I think there is something about tropical fish and aquariums in general that invites over-thinking" stuff.

Yeah, we've kinda made a damn art form of it.

Cases in point:

Algae blooms.

We analyze every possible cause, sometimes embracing on multiple courses of action, and then ultimately realize that it boils down to the fact that we had excessive nutrients in our source water, something that could have been addressed first, and with appropriate actions taken, would have solved the problem much faster!

Sometimes, we attack the problem, but spend valuable time on the wrong part of it.

Disease outbreaks? 

I get a lot of emails from aquarists trying to figure out how the new fish caused their disease outbreak ("It appeared healthy, and my LFS quarantines all new fishes"), when the reality is that it DID, and that it would be far better focusing on the solution- that being, removing the fishes to a treatment aquarium, etc.- and for the future, instituting a rigid quarantine protocol for future additions. 

We already know the answers to some things...I think that we just sometimes don't like to hear them. We know that we need to quarantine new fishes for the maximum protection. We just don't always want to execute on that...

We know how to solve most of the problems that we encounter in the hobby. As a group, we're actually pretty damn good at aquarium keeping. A century or so of "modern" aquarium keeping experience has definitely paid off.

Yet, we sometimes make things more complicated than we need to, adding layers of complexity to problems that, although important or critical, can be more than adequately addressed by simply DOING something we already know how to do.

Water quality is important in closed systems. Water exchanges are simple, economical, and probably one of the very best thing we can do as aquarists to keep captive aquatic animals healthy for long periods of time. We know this...

Many aquarists just absolutely despise them, and will go to great (and often expensive) lengths to avoid doing them, or to make them less onerous. Yet, an entire cottage industry of gadgets, procedures, etc. exists around the premise of "Eliminates water changes!" or "Reduces water changes!"

I mean, how many hobbyists do you know who developed "automatic water change" systems for their aquariums, with a lot of experimentation, complexity, labor, expense- and sometimes, consequences? In fact, I know at least two hobbyists who had to submit homeowner's insurance claims for damage caused by an "automatic water change system" that they designed and built!

Why not just perform a water exchange the old fashioned way? A siphon hose and a bucket can do wonders. It's not even that big a deal, gets you intimately involved with your tank, and doesn't take all that much time.

I think that even scientists tend to "reinvent the wheel" and make things related to aquariums more complicated than they have to sometimes!

I saw a segment on one of those cable news magazine shows not too long ago about how scientists were working on this "novel way to help restore coral reefs that were threatened by global warming, etc.", and how they went to all of this effort to collect coral larvae, let them settle in the lab, then attach the young coral to rock on a reef. Collecting coral larvae is difficult, time consuming, and resource-draining.

I couldn't help but reflect upon the fact that we, as hobbyists, have been fragmenting and propagating corals for some 3 decades now, both at a personal and commercial level. Literally cutting them into fragments and gluing them to ceramic plugs or rocks...and we grow them by the tens of thousands all over the world. Coral farming is not some esoteric theoretical thing. It's being done every day on a practical level.

I remember watching this and was like, "Guys, if you need coral to restore a coral reef, just visit a local reef club meeting! They'll hook you up. Why are you making it so complicated?"


Now, granted, there's a bit more to it than that, and I cannot downplay the achievements of the scientists involved...collecting and studying larvae and all...but man, if you want to restore a reef...quickly, why not just make some frags?

And the best part of the segment was that there was an admission by a scientist working on the project who said something to the effect that, "As scientists, we're great at studying corals, but not great at growing them." So what did they do? They turned to aquarists! ( I knew they'd get there eventually!)

It's also long been a reef hobby joke that scientific institutions generally have reef aquariums in their facilities that are, ahem, "less impressive" than an average home aquarium!

Granted, there are many awesome reef tanks at public aquariums, but generally, to a hobbyist, a surprisingly large number of them are underwhelming, despite the obvious availability of manpower, equipment, and resources available for the institutions to create and  maintain them. My advice? Just call a reef club, tell 'em what you need, and be done with it already! They'll hook you up! You don't think hobbyists would literally crawl all over each other to be involved in a project like that?

I know, this is a harsh, generalized, and sort of unfair assessment...But yeah, it serves as an example of how aquarists often tend to overthink aquarium-related stuff, even at "higher levels."

As aquarium hobbyists, think of the time, money, aggravation, and energy that we can save if we just focus on the actual problem, and don't over think ways to solve it.

In fact, sometimes, it involves NOT micro-managing every aspect; controlling each and every aspect of what goes on in our tanks. Sometimes, just sitting back and letting things unfold is the very best strategy.

As a lifelong hobbyist, I've personally been through periods of time when I couldn't devote as much time  to my beloved fish tanks...Yet I always had one- fresh, salt, or otherwise. It's just not "home" unless you hear the reassuring popping of bubbles, whirring of pumps, and see the beautiful reflections caused by the interplay of light and moving water.

Of course, there were a number of times that, for one reason or another, I simply let my tanks "run themselves", save an occasional water change or filter media cleaning, and of course, regular feeding (that consisted of tossing in a few flakes or pellets, or whatever was on hand at the time).

You know, putting Mother Nature in control!

A particularly fond memory of this type of  "practice" comes from my Senior year in high school, when I was seriously into breeding killifishes (in addition to keeping saltwater, cichlids, tetras, and of course, the usual high school pursuits of girls, sports, and socializing). As a junior AKA member, I obtained a group of the "Clown Killie", Epiplatys annulatus Monroviae, and was determined to breed the little buggers.

Of course, this species always had a reputation for being just a bit of a challenge, requiring careful care, feeding, and a fair measure of patience. As a busy kid, I had little patience (although more than the average high school guy- after all, I was a fish geek!), so I was delighted to learn that these fishes were thought to fare better in "permanent" and "natural" setups (fish geek code for "set and forget", IMHO).

So of course, in a rather strange twist, I kind of thought that this species was a perfect fish for my busy lifestyle at the time!

I set up 2 pairs and a few extra females in a 2.5 gallon tank, planted (well, packed) with Water Sprite, Hygrophila, and Rotala. Given moderate light from a small fixture, and a sponge filter providing filtration/circulation, this tank looked good and ran just fine with little intervention on my part. In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit that I would sometimes go a week or more without some much as looking at the tank long enough to toss some food in there.


One day (I think it was during Spring Break), I actually took the time to really stare into the tank, to see what was going on...Sure enough, upon close examination, I saw several tiny fry flitting in and among the Rotala! I was elated! Rather than panic and start hatching brine shrimp, I made the very mature and level-headed decision to simply...leave them alone, as I had been doing for months.

I resisted the temptation to net them out, power feed them, and otherwise intervene. I reasoned that I could hardly do better than what they were apparently being provided by Nature, as they have done successfully for eons. ( like, this is a big part of my current philosophy on aquarium keeping!)

I ultimately ended up with a pretty stable population of around 12-15 individuals, in a tank I "maintained" for around 3-4 years. Ironically, the difficulties started when I had the time to really get into "taking care" of the fishes, and took more initiative and control of the breeding.

I ultimately slowly lost the entire colony. Sad.

But a valuable lesson. Sometimes, what we would classify as "benign neglect" is actually the best thing we could do..the closest imitation to Nature that we can offer fishes in captive environments! 

Part of what makes the “job” of the hobbyist so enjoyable is the search for knowledge…the camaraderie that arises from our community putting their heads together to answer great questions…and sometimes, just to share "war stories" with fellow fish geeks. To learn and grow together as a community.

And occasionally, to laugh at our own absurdities. 

Not long ago, I recall walking into my office early one morning, and I immediately was taken aback. I apparently had accidentally messed with the time settings on a lighting app for one of my LED lights while tweaking a color setting (cause, that's what fish geeks do, right?), and caused the light to say on almost 20 hours before I realized that I messed it up.

No biggie, right?

It happens.

Except that I had recently added some cool wild fishes to the tank, after weeks of careful acclimation and quarantine...and then- THIS had to happen, and....you know where I'm going with this?

This is what was going through my mind:

"Omigod, the fishes didn't get any dark period...they've been seriously stressed..."

Now, some of you will say that this wouldn't bother you- but you're totally lying! It would bother the shit out of you, too! I know it would,'cause you're a fish geek. Being bothered about ridiculous stuff is part of what we do!

Never mind that the "delicate" wild fishes had endured the rigors of being captured, traveling to a collection facility, then. a wholesaler, then on to my LFS...like, THAT shit wasn't stressful enough, right?

And goes what? They freaking lived!


Of course, I relayed this concern to my wife later in the day, when we touched base and asked each other how are days were progressing.

To which my wife, who's absolutely not a fish geek, yet ever the pragmatist, noted, "You know, Scott, sometimes, unexpected things happen in the Amazon."


She was on to something there!

She was right. Everything in Nature, like in society, is not a linear, routine, predictable path. Shit happens.

Yet, we worry, and panic, and obsess...

And it's not just me who freaks out about stuff like this. I know for a fact...

We ALL do. It's like a fish-geek thing.

I think, that as hobbyists, we tend to get caught up in every little minute detail of the little worlds we've created for our fishes- so much so that we often forget the one underlying truth about them: They're living creatures, which have evolved over eons to adapt to and deal with changes in their environment-big and small...or even insignificant, like an excessive amount of light one evening. 

I mean, there must have been some natural precedent for this, right? Some atmospheric phenomenon- or combination of phenomenon-which rendered the night sky inordinately bright one evening at some point in the long history of the world?

Yeah. Exactly.

Think about it more for a second. 

I think that this high level of concern-this "overkill", if you will, on the part of all hobbyists is based on the fact that we take great pains to assure that we've created perfect little captive environments for our fishes, and do everything we can to keep them stable and consistent.

When something out of the ordinary happens- a pump fails, a heater sticks in the "on" position, we forget to feed, etc.- we tend to get a little bit, oh I dunno-...crazy, maybe?

Look, I get it: When a critical piece of environmental control equipment fails (like a heater), especially during a cold spell or heatwave, it could be life or death for your fishes. If you're about to spawn a particularly picky fish or rear some fry, it could be a serious problem. You can't really downplay those concerns.

However, some of the less dramatic, non-life-threatening issues, such as, oh- a light staying on or off longer than usual one evening, a circulation pump stopping unexpectedly for a couple of hours, or forgetting to change the carbon in the filter one week, don't really create that much of a problem for your fishes when you really think about it objectively, do they?


At some time during the existence of our fishes in the wild, there was a temporary blockage in the igarape in which they resided, slowing down the normal flow of water. At some point, there might have been a once-in-a-century cold morning in the tropics, right? At some point, perhaps the swarms of Daphnia or Cadis Fly larvae that were so abundant for months at a time, just weren't...

In most instances, the reality is that the animals that we keep are not so delicate, and the closed environments we provide aren't running so "close to the edge" that we should panic when some random factor changes things up one day.

Again, what I mentioned already bears repeating: When we purchase our fishes, they are unceremoniously netted out of the tank (or stream, lake, river, etc.) environment in which they reside, placed in a plastic bag, transported for who knows how long, and possibly making a few stops on the way before ultimately landing in our aquarium. 

That's a LOT of changes to cope with. Stress.

But guess what? Fishes manage to deal with it. Somehow. 

Sure, our first choice is to have rock-solid parameters and environmental conditions for our fishes 24/7/365, but sometimes stuff happens that throws a proverbial "wrench" into our plans. We have to be adaptable, flexible...just like our fishes apparently are.

So next time your light doesn't come on, or you forget to feed your fishes as you rush off to work some morning, don't stress out over it. They'll be fine. Keep calm. Always keep your concern high, find out what might have went wrong, but don't let obsessing over your fishes keep you from focusing on the even more important things in life (yeah, there are a few, right?).

And remember, sometimes unexpected things DO happen in the Amazon. Sometimes, we don't have the answers for everything. Sometimes we don't have to overthink this stuff. And sometimes, the unexpected can trigger some beneficial- even amazing- consequences. And sometimes, taking a sort of "hands-off" approach is actually the way to go.

There's so much to learn in this hobby...so much to think about...and too many opportunities to overthink stuff.

It's almost impossible to eliminate any probability of failure in our aquariums, especially when we are dealing with variables like living creatures, dynamic chemical environments, and complex system designs. Even the most simple, "low concept" aquatic display has literally dozens of potential "failure points"- each which could cause consequences ranging from annoying to tragic, depending upon how they manifest themselves.

We just need to learn to relax, look at the realities of what's actually happening in. our tanks, and adjust IF needed.

Stay flexible. Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay thoughtful. Stay calm...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment