For the most realistic looking aquascape, you need to steer way clear of the diving dog and the treasure chest. I do not know of any sightings of these objects on any of the coral reefs of the world. This is simply an aesthetic thing with me. I don't like those types of things, although I heard of a coralline algae covered skull in a reef tank with a green star polyp mohawk. That might be worth having.
Now, barring any unnatural decorations, what we have to work with is rock and sand, and perhaps the occasional bleached coral skeleton, but again, not for me. The things we can do with rock and sand might be limited, but with a little imagination, marine epoxy, PVC piping, and plastic zip ties, we can create an environment that rocks. Pardon the pun.
First off, we should have two goals in mind: comfort of the animals and pleasing to the eye. As for comfort of the animals, this is not a difficult to achieve. In my experience, the more places that the fish have to hide in, the less likely they are to hide. Therefore, if you are going to keep fish, as most of us do, we need to create nooks, crannies, and caves. Nooks and crannies seem to take care of themselves when you pile rocks up, but creating stable caves tends to be more difficult.
We need to create a stable pile of rocks that large turbo snails and other animals can't knock down. We can do this using a combination of large plastic zip ties and underwater epoxy. You can assemble the large seamounts that will be the show pieces of your aquascape, making sure to create those necessary caves, by attempting to pile up rocks, or you can do as I did.
I decided on the basic shape of my aquascape; an L shape that tapered off on each end leaving a lagoon floor in the center of the tank (see the diagram below). Then I went to the local home improvement warehouse and picked up some ˝ " PVC piping, and several tees and 45° and 90° angle connectors. With these items I constructed a small frame to support my rock-work, dry-fitting-only each joint, drilled a few small holes in it so that it would sink, and placed it in the tank. After piling the rocks on the top I had large caves, nooks, crannies, yada, yada, yada… By the way, after a few months, the coralline algae will cover the exposed epoxy, zip ties, and PVC, and they will simply disappear into the background.
Now, back to the comfort of the animals, just the sessile animals this time. When deciding on the layout of the tank, you must keep in mind the need to create zones with differing current and lighting parameters; high, medium, and low current, bright, moderate, and low light. When stocking your tank, you will eventually develop the fine art of coral placement. Each animal has a current and light range in which it is most comfortable. Make sure these areas are available in your tank.
Look at the diagrams below of some likely layouts. There are many ways to avoid the "brick wall" look of all the rock shoved against the back wall, unless, of course, "brick wall" is the look that you want. In John Tullock's book, "Natural Reef Aquariums; Simplified Approaches to Creating Living Saltwater Microcosms," he advocates re-creating natural biotopes. To do so, you mimic the reef face and the animals that inhabit that particular area. If a reef wall is the look you want to recreate, there is a clever way to do so. I heard "on the net" of someone who used a masonry blade to cut the live rock in half, and attached them to the back of the aquarium using marine epoxy. I thought that was a great idea.
need to talk about using a sand bed as part of your aquascaping. Some
people embrace the idea of a bare bottom tank, but that ain't me. I
am a sandy bottom man, myself. The proponents of the bare bottom proclaim
that it is easier to keep the detritus, flotsam, and jetsam cleaned
out in their tanks. I am sure it is, but to me it is ugly, and it provides
no de-nitrification help. Your call. Do whatever floats your boat.
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