Setting up an aquarium is not just an average hobby these days. The look of a well-arranged one with the right plants, driftwood and rocks is a thing of astonishing beauty – something that can illicit awe.
Think of it as using water as a medium for creating intricate mini worlds. The kinds where you would want to stop and take a long, second look, then wonder: how ever were they created?
Well, it takes a lot of effort, meticulous planning and the right eye for aesthetics. It is very much like landscaping a garden, but within a much smaller space and with a lot less room for error.
“While it is normal to make a large aquarium appear large, the fun is in making a small aquarium look really big,” Takashi Amano, the man universally recognised as the father of modern aquascaping, once said.
He could not have put it better. The best aquascape aquariums are probably the ones that can fit in the corner of a room, where it shines and takes over it – despite the smaller-than-expected size.
The late Amano made his name for creating some of the most breathtaking setups. So much so, that he is revered among the aquascaping community. He is a legend of sorts, with his legacy living on after he died at the age of 61 in 2015.
A species of freshwater shrimp is named the “Amano shrimp” after him. After discovering that they eat large quantities of algae, Amano special ordered several thousand of them. The shrimp has since become a staple in the freshwater planted aquarium.
He also developed a line of aquarium components that are known as Aqua Design Amano, and his “Nature Aquarium” article series appeared monthly in both Practical Fishkeeping magazine in the UK, and Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine in the US.
Amano believed in always creating a harmony between the surrounding space of a room and the aquarium. He is said to have frowned upon an overwrought (or rather, overthought) underwater design.
“A layout that is crafted with overly great finesse is tiring to look at, and it is also difficult to maintain over a long period of time... It is important to provide an unpretentious, casual atmosphere of water and greenery.”
No Easy Feat
Aquascaping is now considered a competitive sport of sorts. At least for the hard-core enthusiasts who not only take pride in their underwater gardens, but really invest in creating the best setups that they can.
Take for instance, the International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest (IAPLC). This is the world’s largest nature aquarium and aquatic plants layout contest and draws competitors from around the world.
The 2018 IAPLC received a total of 1,977 entries from scores of countries. A book showcasing all this year’s works is even set to be published, where it will feature the hard work of the participants.
Image: Josh Sim 'Congo' via iaplc.com
Last year, Josh Sim from Malaysia took home the grand prize. His creation, titled "Congo", featured a seemingly vast jungle of trees and shrubs, with branches covered with moss – all underwater, of course.
If you are toying with the idea of actually joining, maybe you should first know the amount of work that goes into these works of art. It can take up to months or even years in order for someone to complete an aquascape.
From minute details like the type of gravel or soil to the different plants and fishes that you will be putting in, it requires careful planning. It is not uncommon to hear of someone tearing down his whole setup and start afresh when something minor goes wrong too.
But don’t be discouraged. Amano himself was never trained nor did he study any form of design. Yet, he has successfully transformed aquascaping from a niche hobby to an obsessive global passion.
Image: Lisbon Nature Aquarium via Oceanário de Lisboa
Just consider the Lisbon Nature Aquarium, which is one of his final masterpieces. Measuring a staggering 40m in length, the supermassive tank makes for an unprecedented attempt by the man.
“The layout is almost like one symphony telling a story. It allures those who see it from shallow to deep waters, and from an open space to a lush jungle,” he was quoted as saying in an interview.
“The world where not only the fish but a wide variety of life forms can survive together – that is and will be the paradise I have been pursuing for. Truly beautiful landscape only lives in a beautiful ecosystem.”
What Amano has said perfectly sums up the art of aquascaping. For it is the overall look of an aquarium that catches the eye, and a beautiful one can be more than a unique way to add plants to a room.
Cover Image: Aqua Design Amano
Writer | PY Cheong
PY Cheong has plied the trade of words long enough to recognise the difference between writing and storytelling. He believes in always dressing up his prose. He lives and breathes the work he does.