When things just...happen. What gives?

If you've been in the aquarium game long enough, you start thinking about stuff like just "why things happen the way they do" in our aquariums. And sometimes, there seem to be no answers...at least on the surface.

We saw this a lot in the reef aquarium world: An aquarist would send months and months planning, designing, and constructing the seemingly "ultimate reef system", with  every arcane detail taken care of- often at great expense, in terms of time and money- only to find after just a few months that the aquarium has developed into a seemingly perennial haven for nuisance algae, fish and coral losses, and equipment failures of all sorts. 

How? Why?

Other times, we develop a concept for an aquarium, tweak and test it on small tanks, and build it our based on our encouraging initial results...And for some reason, when we "build it at scale", our carefully-thought out dream tank becomes an unmanageable, unstable, or otherwise untenable haven for assorted aquatic problems. What causes this to happen?

Or, we carefully acclimate, feed, and condition a rare fish, spend the time to finally work it into our community aquarium, where it appears to be thriving for several months...before it inexplicably disappears one day, never to be seen again.

Why does stuff like this happen? What mysterious forces appear to conspire against us as hobbyists to throw all sorts f previously invisible or even unimaginable consequences- despite our best efforts at testing, preparing, and constructing what we feel are fantastic aquarium systems?

Did we overlook something, even in our heady "research and development" phase? Perhaps. It is possible that even the most well thought out aquarium can have glaring oversights, simply because we can't see "the forest for the trees"- or maybe, because we developed a false sense of security because we seemed to be doing everything right..at least on the surface.

There is precedent in other areas of human endeavour. One need only look into the history of the manned space program to see the results of what they used to call "go fever": a fervent desire to hit a target that was so great, an effort so vast, that some glaringly important details were carelessly overlooked.

Remember the Apollo fire? The spacecraft was being tested on the launch pad in a (dangerous) pure oxygen environment, and it was rather defective- with many highly combustible materials, and some pretty shoddy construction details that were previously overlooked. On the surface, it seemed like a good ship, and NASA's test procedures, although dangerous, were used in the past without problems. There was a deadline to meet, and the Russians to beat in the race to the moon. All it took this time was one spark in this pure oxygen environment to cause a tragic fire disaster that resulted in the tragic, avoidable deaths of three astronauts. NASA pushed it too hard, too fast, and overlooked some things- and it came back to bite them. It took a couple of years of introspective searching, questioning, and redesign before the agency emerged from this tragedy, triumphant and wiser for its costly mistakes.

I'm not trying to say that a mistake that we make on aquarium design as a result of our excitement is anything on par with the loss of human life. However, the situational parallels are often similar. We think we have so many things figured out, spend a ton of time, energy, and money- but all it takes is the seemingly most mundane error in judgment, assumption- or complacency...the things that seep into our plans, almost unnoticed, seemingly unimportant- until they end up playing a major role in something going terribly wrong.

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.

It's sort of the price we pay when engaging in this hobby. Our "best laid plans" may sometimes simply let us down. Even when we thought we did everything right. Yay, you quarantined that new arrival for 3 weeks...and the deadly disease didn't manifest itself for 4 weeks. You designed that sump to handle all of the "drain down" capacity you thought you needed...but you had a check valve inline that clogged easily and still flooded your living room. You had a spare aquarium available for that unexpected batch of fry...but you forgot that it was the one that had the sick Barbs in it last month...and you never broke it down to sterilize it...simple, seemingly obvious things after the problem strikes. Stuff that you may not have foreseen in your eagerness to get stuff done.

So, what can we do? Is this a depressing assessment of the unavoidable tragedies that await every fish keeper?

Of course not.

It's a friendly reminder that, we simply need to do the very best we can, think through as many of the variables as possible, and prepare for potential problems. As aquarists, the ability to "back engineer" an issue is as important as it is to do something correctly from the start. As mentioned before, more often than not, it's a relatively simple thing that we somehow overlooked which caused the problem. Smoothies, the best we can do is to simply make good decisions, be alert, and act decisively if something goes wrong, while being prepared to think through what occurred.

In the case of mysterious fish losses and such- sometimes, there simply seems to be no immediately obvious reason. Maybe you really have to put all the pieces together, searching your memory for tiny clues that you might have missed along the way. "Hmm, that loach never did appear to eat food...thought he was feeding on the 'leftovers' everyone missed"- when in actuality, the fish was slowly starving to death in front of our very eyes. Sometimes it's about looking at things differently.

The same is true of equipment issues: That weird temperature anomaly wasn't caused by the little heat wave we had last week- after all, the tank was located in an air conditioned room, and none of the other aquarium had this happen. It was only after the thermostat stuck in the "on" position that it became apparent there was a hardware malfunction.

Stuff like that can drive us crazy. It can also drive us to be better aquarists.

Better, more alert, more inquisitive, more self-reliant, more prepared. All fox which are good habits- often borne from tragedies- which will make us better all around hobbyists. So the simple takeaway here? Keep experimenting. Keep trying new things. Keep doing your best. And when something goes wrong...try to work backwards to see what could have went wrong, so that your future is even more successful than your present.

Stay optimistic. Stay alert. Stay inquisitive.

And stay wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment