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Debunking the "reef mystique..."

Tannin Aquatics

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As most of you know by now, a good chunk of my recent aquarium experience is from the world of reef keeping...marine aquariums, fish- that sort of stuff. Oh, I've been keeping freshwater aquarium almost since I could walk. I joined the American Killifish Association when I was 15. Bred my first cichlids (Kribs) when I was 14. Always had at least two aquarium in my bedroom as a kid. I sort of deviated in to saltwater when I was around 12 years old, and pitched a "base camp" in the saltwater world shortly thereafter, where I remained for decades. 


I kept reefs, hung out with other reef geeks, experimented with stuff, wrote articles, appeared in videos, travelled the world speaking at reef clubs and conferences. I was a sort of "rock star" in the reef world (really), getting the coveted prime speaking spots at the glamorous Marine Aquarium Conference of North America for several years. I worked in a prestigious reef aquarium design and maintenance firm, managing some pretty talented people designing and building some amazing aquariums. I ultimately co-owned one of the reef world's most successful and respected coral propagation/online vendors, Unique Corals, which I sold my interest in last February, while the company was still peaking.


I was very salty. 

Yet, I always had a foot in the freshwater world. And the call of my freshwater roots was too strong to resist. It was time to cross back over, big-time. I couldn't resist the fishes I loved: Killifish, tetras, dwarf cichlids, etc. I was always fascinated. And I always was playing with natural materials, different aesthetics...blackwater. And the itch to do something in the freshwater world led to the creation of Tannin Aquatics last year. It's been quite a ride! We're now starting to receive worldwide recognition not only because we are advocating a different approach to freshwater aquariums- but because we are embracing and fostering a culture of excited, enthusiastic hobbyists who are doing all sorts of cool stuff. Bulding bridges; creating an inclusive culture. It's fun!


Yet, in discussion on various hobby forums, and just with individual hobbyists, many are still a bit "intimidated" about saltwater- reefs in particular.  I still hear about this mystery or snobbiness associated with the reef world. It's almost as if the 1990's "reefs are mysterious and difficult" mystique never left. It's like someone said: "There are you freshwater guys...and then there are us reefers! Just be careful when you try to enter our world. In fact, maybe you should stick with guppies..."


Like, snobbery. Or at the very least, some desire to perpetuate some continued myth that reefs require some magical talent level to enter the kingdom- let alone, succeed in there. A real joke, IMHO.


What gives here? I mean, back in the 90's, when the reef hobby was really taking off, you read a lot about all sorts of exotic equipment, procedures, tests..."Stuff" that you had learn, purchase, understand, to play the game. Reefs were seen as a "graduation" from the "minor leagues" of freshwater...And for some unknown reason, the freshwater world allowed this sham to be perpetuated.


Trust me, reef keeping  not that complicated. In fact,  I recently read an article about the "Estimative Index" method of keeping a planted tank, and my head spun around far more than it ever did when reading about trace element management, Lanthanum chloride dosing, or any number of reef-keeping practices that have been popularized over the years. of course, we make it super complicated for some reason. Dunno why.


Think keeping coral is complicated? Yet, you can keep an African cichlid tank, with its chemical dance, need for strong nutrient export mechanisms, environmental monitoring, and territorial squabbles...not to mention, the endless taxonomy debates. Oh- and you BREED them. Speaking of breeding- just about any fish breeder who maintains a few tank in his or her basement is doing stuff, using skills, and understanding problems every bit- if not more- than reefers do.  And biotope aquariums, with specialized water chemistry, fish populations and such- every bit as complex and demanding as any reef tank- if not more so. It's about perspective.


I think part of the whole myth of "reefs are too mysterious and complicated for most people" started because, "back in the day" (like the 1980's-90's), the freshwater hobby was sort of "stagnating", and things had been done pretty much the same way they had been since the "Golden Age" of the 1960's. Then, along comes this new thing, and with it, a need to understand things from a slightly different angle- the addition of a few new components (literally and figuratively- we needed some new equipment, but nitrate, phosphate, and ammonia are the same, right?). Suddenly, the slumbering freshwater world woke up and saw this new thing, and many hobbyists simply saw this expensive, new, complicated, and somewhat brash world that they felt was not really for them.


And the reef world did little to close this gap. I think part of the problem was that a lot of the technology and concepts used up until the mid 1980's in the saltwater world were simply freshwater things adapted to this different "medium", and they didn't always work. So you began to see a literal explosion of new brands offering dedicated reef keeping equipment. New techniques were developed to grow corals, keep fish healthy longer. The marine/reef world was, for the first time, "flying free", developing on its own. And as more people got into the game, the demand for more and more refined equipment and techniques grew. Specialized development happened at an explosive pace. A lot of R & D money from aquarium manufacturers seemed to be pouring into the reef world.


And reefers themselves developed. They learned the stuff that seemed on the surface to be so complex, but was really much the same as applied to the freshwater world. It was just necessary to bring some of this stuff front and center, because many freshwater life forms simply couldn't thrive in conditions that weren't monitored carefully. And because we were doing things that hadn't been done before, everything seemed so new and mysterious.


Meanwhile, the freshwater world sort of started to evolve even more, with amazing dedication, new animals, techniques...everything was at a higher level. The same tech we had in the reef world started to "cross back" into the FW world. To those in the reef world who didn't keep a foot in the freshwater community, it appeared to be moving at a glacial pace, relative to the hypersonic world of reefs. But those of us who looked on the other side of the fence had our mind blown.


And that stupid stereotypical view of freshwater is for "beginners" took hold even more. Personally, I found the whole thing disgusting. I knew many reef keeping "experts" that never owned a freshwater tank. Never could tell the difference between an Apistogramma and a Plecostomus. Never knew the joys of tetras, Bettas, etc. Nor the challenges of new concepts, like ripariums. Too caught up in their high energy, high priced, burgeoning world.


Fortunately, it seems that the freshwater world has so many crazy cool things going on at any one time that it's almost too much to comprehend. And coming from the more homogenous reef world, the hundreds of "subspecialties" in the freshwater world- each with it's own technique, adaptations of equipment, language, culture, and tribe of experts-seems to match, or even eclipse the reef keeping world in many ways.


But it doesn't matter. It shouldn't matter...we are all fish geeks.

It is a bit different now. Nowadays, I have tons of reef keeping friends- "heavy hitters" in the hobby- who are going crazy keeping freshwater tanks. Planted systems, cichlids, Rainbowfishes...all sorts of cool things. And they're challenged. Yes, challenged. because the nice thing about the hobby- despite the efforts of some to quantify, qualify, and "snobbify"- is that it's all there for us- as shallow or deep as we want to go. 


The skill sets we acquire in one area will absolutely translate into another. We are not compartmentalized in our thinking. We can't be. There is far too much to learn- far to much to share- and more to discover.


So the next time someone tries to sell you on the "reef mystique", tell 'em about the Lake Tanganyikan "mystique" (ohh, rock dwellers, shell dwellers, or..?), or the concepts behind the high-tech planted tank, or a blackwater aquarium, or a Rainbwofish biotope tank, or... You won't find a rival, a person to be humbled. Instead, you'll find a kindred spirit, who is as fascinated about a part of the aquatic world as you are- and equally as excited to explore it.

We're all on the same team here.

Stay curious. Stay interested. Stay united. 

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

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