Aquascaping your saltwater reef tank is an essential -- and enjoyable -- step in setting up a healthy and attractive marine aquarium. Many aquarists choose to get their aquascaping ideas from nature by replicating specific biotopes similar to those from which the animals they intend to keep originate. Others choose to create a specific underwater habitat and then stock it with appropriate animals. While using large amounts of live rock used to be the norm in aquascaping, some attractive modern reef aquaria take a minimalist approach to design.
A Species Approach
A natural setting looks attractive and also provides an excellent habitat for your fish, corals and other invertebrates. If you have developed a stocking list, choose one of the centerpiece species and then peruse images of that species in its natural environment. Bookmark online or print out images you like to model your aquascaping. As many species inhabit many habitats, choosing a sessile -- immobile -- centerpiece species such as a coral, clam or plant can be helpful during this initial planning phase.
A Habitat Approach
Instead of building an aquascape around a centerpiece species, you may have an underwater habitat in mind that will drive your aquascaping. For example, you may know you want to create a cave, overhang or reef flat. Collecting images based on habitat type can provide a useful starting point when aquascaping a new aquarium. In this approach, you then develop your stocking list based on the habitat you choose.
A Minimalist Approach
While conventional wisdom used to suggest at least 1 pound of live rock for every gallon of aquarium water, advances in filtration and husbandry mean a minimalist approach to aquascaping is now possible. Negative space in the aquarium can give a sense of depth and, when done properly, can make the reef tank look far larger than it actually is. Negative space also provides plenty of room for coral to grow, creating a natural looking reefscape over time. Certain fish require open swimming space, and providing ample room to move around is essential if you choose to keep these fish.
Regardless of how you design your aquascape, certain basic materials are necessary to create the general shape of your reef. Live rock or base rock obtained from your local marine fish store is the most commonly used building block for most reef aquascapes. Rock can be carefully stacked on the bottom of the tank to create the shape of the reef, although some aquarists choose to make rock structures more secure by drilling holes in the rock and inserting PVC pipes to act as dowels to hold the rocks in pace. Cable ties and epoxy can also be used to connect more stable structures, as well as habitat elements such as caves and overhangs. Once the structure is complete and the aquarium is fully cycled, small corals can be attached to the rock, where they will grow and create a natural-looking reef.
Reef Animal Health
While you may approach aquascaping as primarily aesthetic, good aquascaping is also critical to animal health and husbandry. Some of the key factors to keep in mind when aquascaping are water flow, access for aquarium maintenance and appropriate habitat for certain species. A poorly designed aquascape can lead to excessive detritus buildup, an unmanageable setup from a maintenance standpoint and animal stress. In general, making sure water flows freely in and around the reef is essential, as is creating places for animals to both swim and hide. Some animals require specific habitat requirements, so it is important to thoroughly learn about any creature before acquiring it.
Ret Talbot is an award-winning writer and photographer, as well as a lifelong freshwater and marine aquarist. He is the author of "Banggai Cardinalfish; A Guide to Captive Care, Breeding & Natural History" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Saltwater Aquariums." He is also a senior editor at "CORAL Magazine," the world's leading reef and marine aquarium magazine.