The cover up of the cover up.


I am a know-it-all in the fine tradition of Cliff Clavin. The fact that Sarah doesn’t kill me in my sleep is really a testament to fine parenting and her Quaker heritage. My latest bout of blowharditis was in relation to the substrate in our tank.

As I previously mentioned, we started out with a substrate made of a little bit of natural sand (light tan) and a whole lot of fluorite (black). We later learned that this was a bad idea for discus fish. Sarah suggested that we remove all of the existing substrate and replace it with a 100% sand base. I was very hesitant to upset the tank and disturb the helpful bacteria which live in the gravel. I thought it best to merely sprinkle a layer of the sand above the existing fluorite. We’d get all of the benefits of the lighter color without having to disturb the tank. Sarah was skeptical, but I was adamant and she went along with the sprinkling plan.

Well, it became clear in a day or two that my plan wasn’t going to work. As I really should have expected and I’m sure Sarah did expect, the black fluorite found it’s way back on top of the sand within minutes. It was only a matter of time before we wound up with a peppered color instead of the light tan we were hoping for. But I remained confident and/or defensively unwilling to admit my mistake.

A day or so after we sprinkled the new sand on our substrate, we purchased a worm feeder cone. The fish love freeze dried Australian black worms, but the discus are messy eaters and the worms are easily carried away by the current.  We often wound up with worms all over the tank after a feeding. The cone allows the fish to eat without all of the worms in the meal having a chance to float away.

The cone came with a suction cup for attaching to the aquarium glass, but it was difficult to move it. I decided to just leave the cup sitting upside down in the sand. Sarah was concerned that it might tip over, but I was sure it wasn’t. Sarah stepped out to run and errand and left me to finish the feeding. Almost as soon as she walked out of the door, the cone was knocked over just as she had expected. Rather than re-consider my plan, I doubled down and dug the cone into the sand. Problem solved! I felt pretty good about my clever handiwork and allowed myself a smug grin.

Then I removed the cone and realized that I’d created a huge black area. “No big deal”, I thought to myself. “I’ll just move some sand over to cover it.” Let’s call this the cover-up. Unfortunately, my moving sand only served to create more and more black or peppered areas. At this point, I should have stopped and waited for Sarah to return. We could have calmly discussed our next steps and set an appropriate time to redo the entire substrate if necessary. That’s what I should have done.

Instead, I decided to completely remove the substrate in the affected area and quickly add new sand. This was the cover-up of the cover-up. If I worked efficiently, I figured that I could have everything fixed before Sarah got back and I’d never have to hear an “I told you so”. I’m sure you can get where this is headed. The affected area kept expanding the more I tried to fix it and eventually I heard Sarah opening the door.

She walked in to see me with both arms in the tank, the water completely clouded with sand and dust and our poor fish were huddling at the bottom of the tank. I was forced to admit my mistake and Sarah was forced by the fear of criminal punishment not to kill me.

In the end, everything worked out. We replaced the entire front area of the tank with 100% sand substrate. We’ll continue to change additional areas where our plants haven’t already rooted in the future. Two days of water changes got the water clear again and made all of our inhabitants happy.

If you’re going to get discus, definitely go with sand as your substrate. It makes it so much easier to locate uneaten food or waste.

If you’ve made a mistake in your setup, don’t be so married to it that you’re unwilling to go back and fix things. Sometimes small tweaks and hacks work, but often times you wind up having to do the full fix in the long term anyway.

Most of all, once you’re doing a cover-up of a cover-up, it’s probably time to fess up.