“Our aquariums are too clean.” — Mike Tuccinardi
After spending most of my life — Okay at least 4 decades — trying to get my aquariums as crystal clear as possible, it took me a bit by surprise when, during an interview with aquarium adventurer and world traveler Mike Tuccinardi I learned that I might be doing it all wrong.
Mike shared some GoPro video he recorded while snorkeling in the Amazon rain forest showing tetras and apistogrammas and other fish in their natural habitat. Of course the river water wasn’t clear. There wasn’t a nice, gravel substrate, and the plants were not evenly spaced into perfectly proportioned bunches. There was driftwood, but it was covered in bio film and who knows what else. Mike suggested that this is what our aquariums should look like. He made a case for creating an enviroment that pleased the fish and therefor the aquarium keeper.
As it turns out, it’s not that hard to re-create this environment for our fish, and the aquascape can be quite attractive.
I set out to try a tannin aquarium. I have recorded all of my efforts on a series of videos — including my interview with Mike — but I felt like there was more to say, or that those with an interest might find it more digestible in blog form.
Obtaining Jungle Leaves and Pods
In order to create the Rio Negro environment that Mike captured on video, I ordered some driftwood and something called an Enigma Pack from Tannin Aquatics — which now specializes in aquarium products for people who want to do this. I exchanged a number of e-mails with the owner, Scott Fellman and between him and Mike, I set off on my journey to a “dirtier” fish tank.
To make it work, one must get the driftwood to become waterlogged. So I immediately started soaking it in five gallon buckets. The other stuff, referred to collectively as “botanicals” needs to be boiled. I believe this removes any potentially dangerous microbes but also makes the media sink. The thicker the botanical, the longer I boiled it. But half an hour was the longest. I was amazed at the dark tea stained water that resulted from the boiling. I was worried all the “tannins had escaped! Alas, there was nothing to worry about.
I put all my botanicals into ziplock bags with water to keep them wet and waterlogged. I don’t know if this is necessary, but it would be another day or so before I had time to begin aquascaping — so what the heck. For the record, the stuff punctured the bags — so I had to double bag, and store in in bucket.
Aquascaping with Tannins
In the aquarium I had arranged a bit of a dry scape with sand from National Geographic from Pet Smart (25 lbs) and a finer grain sand from Carib Sea (20 lbs) from Petco. If I could only use one, it would be the Carib Sea product as it is finer and more in keeping with soft river bottom. I had already purchased the Nat Geo sand, and the second store, Petco only had 20 lbs of Carib Sea — so in it went.
I arranged my rocks and driftwood so that I had a series of “roots” on the right hand side of the tank, and a tangle of branches on the left. Then I started adding leaves and pods. I can’t say this was easy for me. After watching bunch of videos and looking at photos, I just started adding stuff almost randomly. Then I went back and put the pods in places that seemed like focal points, and/or places I felt like the fish might like them in terms of cover and potential breeding spots. Of course if this happened I wanted to be able to watch and or record it on camera.
Laugh if you want, but I reviewed my work by riding my bicycle trainer in front of the aquarium with no fish in it. Yes. I rode for an hour staring at the tank and letting the proportions and decisions sink in. I’m sure I was Waaaaay overthinking this — but if you stare at something long enough, problems and opportunities will present themselves. I wound up moving some of my Catappa leaves and kavu pods to new places.
For filtration I had rescued an old hang on back filter (pictured below) and it worked but it was worn out and noisy. So off to the store I went to buy a Fluval 306 canister filter which has been great. I added the activated charcoal media that comes with the filter, even though I knew it might remove the tannins. As I suspected however, the tannins overmatched the small amount of media and the tank remained tea stained. I added two Marineland heaters which are a bit small for this tank, but I’ve been able to get the temperature up to 75 degrees. Lighting is provided by a four bulb t-5 high output fixture with bulbs at about 6500K. Most of the time I only use two bulbs set on a timer for six hours daily. (plants are coming later)
If there is one think I’ve learned from marine aquarium keeping, its that the amount of flow or current in the tank is critical. So I added two old powerheads to help circulate the water. I plan to move these occasionally to keep “dead” spots from emerging — where detritus can collect and create littlw pockets that could “poison” the tank. In addition, I reasoned, if I was emulating a river biotope there had to be current.
Now I was ready for fish.