On the Rocks – How to build a Reefscape

As a Scuba diver, I have been lucky to seen many of the world’s most beautiful reefs. As an aquarist, I have also seen many a reef tank. Most of them drive me to despair.

One would think that the typical reef tank would somehow be modelled after a natural coral reef — a little slice of reef, if you will. Well, it is simply not true. The typical reef tank is not aquascaped like a real reef. It is scaped  from bits and pieces from many different parts of a reef, usually stacked together tightly inside a glass tank.

The first thing wrong with the reef tanks I have seen, is that their owners do not have the least idea of how a natural reef habitat looks. So how can they build a natural looking reef?

Take the quick tour with me:

If we approach a coral reef from the open ocean, we first come upon the reef wall and fore-reef. The reef wall is a solid, vertical rock structure scoured on top by the full brunt of storms, ocean surge and tidal currents. Not much grows on top of the fore-reef, except for the occasional sturdy coral living within the depressions of an otherwise barren seascape.

Several feet below the surface is where one finds abundant corals, such as sea whips and sea fans. The majority of corals on the reef wall are filter-feeding animals, drawing nourishment from the ocean water flowing past the reef wall. The few photosynthetic stony corals found in this environment are modest in size, growing slowly as they cling to the reef wall. The fish life found in this habitat is abundant. This is where one finds numerous surgeonfish, including clown, blue and convict.

Behind the protection of the fore-reef lies the reef flat. This is generally where we find the most abundant and diverse aggregations of corals. The calmer waters, combined with plenty of light, create the ideal environment for a wide range of soft and hard corals.

As we move closer to land, the reef flat gives way to patches of rock surrounded by areas of sand. This is the back reef,  or patch reef. Sand accumulates in this area because of a combination of environmental and biological processes. As storms pound the most exposed areas of the reef, forces grind coral rock into sand, and currents carry the sand to the protected back reef. This transitional area varies widely, depending on topography, currents and how the area has evolved. Soft corals dominate some back reefs, whereas delicate branching hard corals dominate others. Back reefs in areas under biological stress can be overrun with fleshy algae.

Moving even closer to shore, coral rock gives way to sand, and the sand itself changes, becoming finer and intermixed with detritus. This is the lagoon, the final resting place for all that accumulates on a reef. Lagoons, by definition, are shallow. Wind and water currents push sand and detritus from the reefs toward the shore. This builds up over time and gradually becomes a lagoon that is sometimes, but not not always, attached to a sandy beach. The windward side of an island will be just rock because it gets hit with storms; the leeward side is where one finds lagoons because they are protected from storms. If the area is exposed to strong currents, it isn’t a lagoon.

The sand can often be covered with filamentous algae and cyanobacteria. At first glance, lagoons appear sparsely populated by animals. This is where one finds lone shrimp gobies posted at regular intervals across the sand. Yet a closer look reveals that lagoon habitats are some of the most biologically diverse habitats of the reef. The great diversity, however, is not found in a lagoon’s waters but rather in the detritus-enriched sand and silt, the sand having high nutrient levels.

There are small transitional areas between each of these habitats, but for the most part, the habitats are visually distinct. One can readily tell the difference between fore-reef, reef flat and back reef because of distinct topographies, as well as distinct mixes of animals. Different animals and aggregations of animals have evolved to exploit the available niches in each of these habitats.

This is one of the greatest problems of the traditional reef tank:

When aquascapers ignore the linkage between habitats and residents, they risk the well-being of the tank’s inhabitants. Placing animals from one habitat into another can potentially stress or impair the transplanted animals, often forcing them to deal with species they rarely encounter on a natural reef. So, ideally, by modelling a reef tank after a single natural habitat, the reef hobbyist does not  just have the satisfaction of creating a reef tank that actually looks like a real coral reef — he or she has also created a potentially healthier environment for the tank’s inhabitants. But can they and will they?

The second thing wrong with the reef tanks I saw was their total lack of imagination. What, I wondered many times, happened to the innate creativity of their human owners?

It took a while before I found out that the problem did not really rest with creativity, or even with the ability to imagine what a reef looks like. The problem stems from a lack of knowledge on how to actually construct live rocks into a beautiful reef habitat. 

We can change that! You can build an underwater dream scape that will take your friends’ breath away! Anyone can build a beautiful habitat. I am going to show you how.

 Since most of you are unlikely to want to create a lagoon, or patch reef habitat, we need to find a way in which we can create a realistic and natural looking  reef that allows the living inhabitants to thrive and yet allows us to have the best and  most beautiful of the actual, natural reef worlds.

The problem is that most ready-to-buy tanks tend to have a low surface area relative to their height. Most reef tanks I have seen are too tall; and because of the height, most hobbyists put too much rock in their tank. They have to, otherwise they sit with half empty tanks!

Although this approach to aquascaping a reef tank is the traditional method, it falls very short if one is trying to emulate nature as much as possible. There is no habitat on the natural reef that resembles this stack of rocks. On the natural reef, most fish spend their time swimming in the open water above the reef. In the typical reef tank filled with rock, fish are essentially pressed against the reef structure and have no open areas in which to swim. A reef tank filled with rock is also a lot more difficult to maintain. Many of the husbandry problems that develop over time as a reef tank ages are compounded by too much rock in the tank.

The traditional interpretation of a reef: Lots of rock, lots of coral, lots of money – but not anywhere near as appealing as a modern Reef tank.
Photo credit: Www.aquariumdesigngroup.com
Aquascape by Douglas Petranoff
Photo by Jeff Senske

The solution is to have a tank specially made — and have it provide you with greater tank width and possibly a shallower depth. A large surface area in the tank enables the construction of isolated rock clusters surrounded by sand, which allows you to create a much more convincing reef. The large open areas in such a construction will allow fish to swim freely and hover over the rocks, as they would on a natural reef. In addition to being more realistic, the isolated rocks and shallow depth all help make the tank more accessible, whether this be for simple chores, such as cleaning the glass, or more labour-intensive tasks, such as vacuming the sand, or changing water. In short, it simplifies every aspect of maintenance.

A beautiful modern interpretation of the reef, created by Steve West

Modern SALTWATER REEF Aquascaping

Hopefully you are, or want to be a modern Aquarist: One who is willing to take interest in the construction of the rock work, paying the same attention to placing even the smallest of rocks  as you would to the larger and largest rocks. I say hopefully, because in this article I will be focusing on this kind of commitment,  and try to share the modern principals and notions around Reef Aquascaping, inspired by Nature and taught by just a very few natural reef building gurus.

Building a reef layout can be tricky. And we may have many differences of taste. But you need to commit to setting up an environment that is natural and comfortable for your future tank inhabitants, to providing the appropriate shelter and space for the fish to swim, and enough suitable areas for coral placement. If you cannot commit to this, then please do not start a reef tank.

Many of you may now tell me that you do not have the skills, or the imagination to create a reef environment that is eye catching and natural. If you are serious about reef building, I am going to prove you wrong. And not only that, I am going to prove that that the rock-scape itself is actually the primary factor in creating a more natural and balanced tank with enough places for coral placement,  in ways that will promote an easier way to appreciate the tank in detail, as well as a whole. I am also going to show you how the planning and meticulous placement of your rocks can also promote better biological filtration, since it will allow water to flow more efficiently through and around your rocks, helping the bacteria and microorganisms perform their job better, while reducing the chance of detritus accumulation.

Understanding why we need to pre-plan construction

Let us begin with five simple rules to guide you, and to focus your attention when it comes to building a reef:

  • Always think of good water flow around and through the whole rockwork
  • Always create fish shelters and hides
  • Always provide enough fish swimming area
  • Always consider places to place the corals you want to keep. (Please research what they need!!!)
  • Always commit to a natural feel, and seek beauty and balance in everything you build.

Understand that a reef tank is essentially a Hardscape — decorated afterwards! A reef cannot be a reef without its underlying skeleton of hard-coral, or rock bones. So to simulate a reef structure, we need to know how to put live rock (expensive stuff) together and construct it in such a way that it provides plenty of ledges and terraces where live organisms such as corals, mushrooms and anemones can be placed.

But before we even begin to consider how to build a reef, I want to urge you to read my article on hardscaping, as it contains a myriad of useful tips and tricks that you will find very beneficial for your reef building project. It is called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and can be found under the Aquascaping drop—down menu, which you also used to find this article.  That article also teaches you how to compose the design of your Hardscape — information I do not want to repeat here. As a reward, I am going to tell you the biggest secret to attaining a stunning aquascape:

If you have placed your rocks properly in your underlying hardscape, the rest of the scape, as if by magic, will lay itself out for you.  You will know it the second this happens for you. It will ignite your imagination! It is as if the moment you attain a harmony and balance in your placement, everything else is drawn to and wants to become part of that balance.

I also have a second secret to building a beautiful hardscape for your reef. We will do it OUTSIDE of the tank first. You may think that I am crazy, but you will only think so until you have done it your way — which usually means dripping water all over the place and cursing with frustration, or even worse, cracking the floor of your tank! Trust me, my way is better.

The first thing we have to consider is how your tank is going to be viewed: From the front only, from the sides too, or perhaps from all sides because your tank is a room divider? Is it going to be viewed from eye-level when you are standing, or when you are seated, or will it be partly viewed from above? This is important, because in a reef tank you need between 15 and 25 cm free space above your rock-work construction to provide room for high light requiring organisms.

The second thing we have to consider is the importance of water flow. Walls of rock, whether live or dead, always break up water flow very efficiently. Yet reefs with corals need very good water flow. You may need additional power heads blowing into and through your terraces and mounds to ensure good, full and complete circulation. You want your corals to thrive and you do not want debris collecting in places you can not see or get to!

The third consideration is this: How much rock do you need to build your reef? It depends on the size of your tank, and the type of reef you want to create.  I will explain that later. But for now you need to know how much rock you will need, not only because of the financial implications, but also because the weight of your rock, plus substrate, plus water, plus tank must be calculated beforehand, so that you can make sure your tank stand and your floors will be able to bear it.

Likewise, you would need to have all the saltwater aquarium equipment together, preferably already set-up and tested, even if you only test with fresh water first. Make sure beforehand that your tank does not leak!

Learn the basic building skills

Let me try to help you with this.

First to clear things up: While a reef-building aquascaper works with live rock, I may sometimes simply speak of ‘rock’. Unless I expressly state otherwise, please take this to mean live rock.

Now watch. I am going to use just 12 pieces of rock to build a construction element and show it to you in an image, or perhaps two, to demonstrate.

Then I will break it apart and use the same rock to build the next image, and do this over and over, until I have shown you all the different elements. Please pay close attention — because you are going to use all of these configurations by stringing them together to construct your entire reef scape — and this may enable you to estimate what you will need.

With these 12 rocks, I am going to build 5 basic construction elements and one extra. Let’s call the basic elements the wall, the mound, the terrace, the column, and the curve. The extra is a bridge — an element that is do-able, but dangerous. I did it solely for the engineers, and for those of you who like to live on the edge!

The Mound, as seen from the front.


The Mound, as seen from above.

The Mound is great for tanks viewed from 3 or 4 sides. It gives a tremendous
amount of fish hiding and nesting places in its base, and offers lots of places on which to put things. It seems logical that the more rock you have, or the bigger your rock is, the higher or bigger you can build — but this is not necessarily so. I’ will explain this in due course.

If you are pinched for money and can find good dead rock, you can use it as the core of a larger mound if you need more volume. Over time it will become live rock in your tank.

The terrace, as seen from the front.


The Terrace as seen from above.


The Terrace is a series of steps, each one higher than the previous one and highest toward the rear. It creates lots of extra nooks and crannies for fish and corals and offers them different levels to live on and do what fish do. When we place sand or substrate in front of a terrace, it gives diggers and sand sifting species, as well as sand—loving corals and clams space to do their thing.


Put a mound and a terrace together, and you create a myriad of nooks, crannies and caves each which will very quickly be claimed by a fish. Depending on how big, or small you build this combination, it can take up a good amount of floor space and leave only a little around the edges.This combination also gives you many places to put things on and will accommodate quite an astonishing amount of corals.

The wall, as seen from the front.


The wall as seen from above.

The wall takes less space on the floor, but offers more niches higher up.You need to wedge everything together triple good, you may even want to glue parts together with a dab of aqua-safe putty or silicone. We are talking rocks on glass, so do not play house of cards!

Be careful though that you do not build the kind of wall that looks like granny’s display cabinet. It is not only ugly, it also seems static. So combine any wall you build with an amphitheatre-like curve, or some other, softer element or arrangement.

The curve as seen from the front.


The curve as seen from above.

The curve is really just like a wall, but arranged in a semi-circle. To me this is perhaps the most important element of them all, because it is the one element that will give you a natural looking reef! This particular version is centered and built with even sized rocks, but it can be started at the front and go to half way across the back, or it can curve in an s-shape for a completely different look. You can also build it by starting with bigger rocks at the base, then smaller rocks above.

 The wall and the curve are taller, narrower structures, with lots of caves, nooks and crannies.

I would always use a combination of several curves to create ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ in my scape, working outwards from my back wall, or from a more centrally placed mound — not only to spread living and hiding spaces around, but to create more definite territorial delineations, and a much more pleasing, natural looking scape.

 Curves offer good places for housing corals on top, while leaving a good amount of open floor space for bottom type corals like tongue, plate, or elegance, clams and such. If you are careful while building it, you can even place a thin shelf type piece that projects out enough to put a coral on as long as there is enough weight on the part in the wall to hold it down. Then you can put a less light-loving coral

The column as seen from the front.


The column as seen from above.

A column is a pile of rocks built upward, but not as straight as a pillar. Build it as an island and you bring variation into your scape. The column is good for fish display as it gives the most open swimming area, while still providing nooks and crannies. If you find good dead rock, you can use it as the core of a larger column. Over time it will become live rock in your tank.

Columns should also be built in such way that it offers lots of flattish places to use as shelves that you can place things on.

The Bridge

I am really hesitant to show this possibility. Firstly, bridges such as these are rarely found in nature, and it goes against my grain to create something that does not naturally occur. And yet, for many aquarists, bridges have a certain visual appeal that they find hard to resist. Consider how strong and anemone or snail can be. If you want to build bridges, use much heavier rocks and build much more structurally sound than the example shown here.

The Construction of a hardscape for reef tanks becomes easier the moment we break it down into smaller portions. It is as if we suddenly understand how they can be strung together to make a whole! So, the images and comments above were meant only to show you how to put together those elements with the minimum amount of rock, but has nothing to do with aesthetics.

So, you need to know that the ability to construct certain elements does not make an aquascape yet!

How to Aquascape your reef

Many reef tanks are much too far removed from the tenets that nature teaches us.  Where is that feeling of wild abundance, of species having evolved and survived through millennia, of species wanting to reproduce and defend their homes and territories? In short, where is the essence of life? A few species flitting past, or corals sitting clustered upon rocks, do not make a tank come to life. For me, it is the down and dirty everyday life of each species that makes the difference, and the beauty with which nature creates their habitats, filling it with countless possibilities for each kind to find a niche and a home and to truly be what they were meant to be.

The truth is that the traditional (old-fashioned?) marine tank aquascape uses lots of live rock, piled left to right, front to back, filling the tank. Corals are then spaced out along the pile, with light-requiring species at the top and low light species at the bottom. Whether they are impressive, or not,  I call all these reefs ‘granny’s display cabinet reefs’, because they are nothing more than treasures heaped upon a series of rock shelves.

This kind of design may be well proven, but it doesn’t even come close to representing a natural reef. It also uses a lot more live rock than you really need and its construction leaves many dead spots at the back, behind the rock.

A modern aquascape is much more open. Why? In the first place we are looking for better water circulation, because this is the lifeblood of our living reef. In the second place, we want to construct the live rock in such a way that it makes interesting shapes and overhangs, just as we find in nature. Thirdly, we want to construct a reef with coral growth in mind. Without proper exposure to light and nutrient, fast flowing waters, your corals and fish simply cannot thrive!

So before you can construct anything, you have to carefully pick your live rock, or if you are re-scaping, sort your existing live rock and consider what to add. During this process, you need to pick rocks with interesting shapes, and in particular, rocks that lend themselves to becoming natural caves, or bridges, or rocky overhangs.

Pro tip:

Always aim for batches of matching rocks that when combined, will give the appearance of a single rock – or can be used together to create a ‘theme’.


When it comes to rock placement, you will need to be adventurous. You can drill through live rocks and fasten them together with cable ties. Rock can also be drilled and then threaded on to plastic or acrylic tubes cemented into a sturdy base rock to create supporting pillars, or columns and mounds, onto which corals can then be securely attached with putty. The result of adventurous construction is an aquascape that is much more interesting, with a much larger total surface area for circulation and coral placement, while using less live rock,  all of which is good news.

Do not ever use your aquarium walls to prop up your reef structure! Move rocks away from the glass sides and back, so that water can flow all the way through and around the live rock. This prevents the unseen build-up of sediment and detritus that could harbour nitrates, and it makes maintenance a lot easier.

With better water flow and more rock surface exposed, less rock can be used, cutting down on weight and the amount spent on this feature. Understand that live rock is a major factor in the biology of a saltwater system, as it acts as filtration. So I am not advocating that you should not have a sufficient amount of live rock. But stacked reefs really con you into using much more live rock than you actually need. In fact, you can even use dead rock or modern replica rocks as volume builders, and jut them out from under your live rocks, creating even more space for corals on top and shady overhangs for shade-loving sun corals and fish underneath. If you choose porous dead rocks, they will over time become ‘live’ in your tank. (Tip: Old hands at marine systems place dead rock in their sumps and then add the chips and detritus from their construction project in too. Over time this provides them with live rock at no extra cost!)

It is time to begin planning our actual aquascape.

I am going to use the method of reef building guru, André Silvestre,  and demonstrate creating the aquascape of a reef inside a tank. Hopefully you will  first construct this outside your tank.

Create a focal point: 

In the image above, André Silvestre created one solid rock island with a pronounced focal point that stands out as a diagonal reef plate. (This is a scape for a mini tank and he will do little more in terms of construction. But the point is to show how prominent a focal point needs to be)

The focal point is the most important ‘rule’ of all. This is where the entire layout is born, and from where it develops to other parts of the tank when it is viewed from the front glass. The focal point is the part of the layout that should stand out the most — so to say, the most dominant area of the tank. Focal Point is related to the Golden Ratio which plays with the 1/3rd and 2/3rd equation, as set out in my hardscaping article.

A focal point can be created through a big rock, or pile of smaller rocks, or both — that when positioned in a particular way, will capture the viewer’s attention the minute he looks into the tank.  Later on, you will strengthen this focal point,  perhaps with fleshy corals that have warm colours like red, purple, orange, yellow, etc., or otherwise with corals that will form a big colony once they fill in, or both.

We could create the focal point in a ‘negative’ zone such an open sand area, or even create more than one focal point. But one should always dominate. However, the first technique can have a limited effect, since creating the focal point in a sand area will inhibit the smooth leading of the eye through the rock structure and its corals, because the viewer’s eye automatically begins in the sand and will continue through the sand until he/she is forced to turn his/her attention to the rock structure and the corals placed on it. This is because there is not a natural transition from the sand to the rock. We have to create it.

Transitions are made through connection points that belong to either the same materials or a specific subject, or element.  Sand pathways, for example, will always have fluid transitions even if a rock is placed in the way to narrow that pathway, because the sand has continuation beyond, and we, or rather our  brains perceive it as such. Our rocks will also have the same smooth visual transition, as soon as we place a second and perhaps even a third element of rocks, even if this essentially creates islands separated by sand.

This is so, because rocks have both a bigger impact and a greater contrast in relation to the sand. We can now further exploit that contrast by placing small/medium rocks to create a transition from one island to another, without losing the fluidity of the design. But here we need to be very careful how we place the rocks, and how we make the transition, because we do not want to confuse the viewer’s eye. We want the focal point to remain dominant in order to fix the eye and only then lead it further.

We do this by creating ‘tension lines’ or ‘escape lines’ which not only will lead the eye,  but will also help us to achieve a balanced perspective between the rock elements (1st, 2nd and possibly 3rd focal points) and therefore, throughout the entire composition.

Create Tension or Escape Lines:

Tension or escape lines are extensions made of rocks that flow outwards from focal points – and in fact, they  match and seem to have their origin in the focal point. From there they take the direction towards the infinite and/or towards other rock structures. They serve to guide the viewer’s eye from the focal point to the rest of the rockwork, in a smooth, fluid way, and impart balance to the entire layout throughout the background, mid-ground and foreground. They also serve as connections between the main and secondary rock structures, when one builds a two- or more-island layout. At the same time they add detail to the overall composition at the base or sand level and provide coral placement areas from the sand sand level right up to the top of the reef.

Remember the Pro Tip: Always Aim for rocks that when combined, will give the appearance of a single of rock, and in the case of leading tension lines will match the focal point’s rock/s.

Playing with tension lines help us to give a three-dimensional perspective to our layout, but they should not be used in such excess that they become distracting, or, even worse, unnatural. Aim for an irregular number of tension lines, as this contributes to an asymmetric effect, which always look more natural than symmetry, because symmetry simply does not exist in Nature.

In a new scene, in the image below, André Silvestre used triangular formations flowing out from the the main as well as the secondary focal points down to the sand level, repeating these lines once more, in the same triangular theme,  in the the plates placed at the middle level of the layout. Also note that the tilt and direction of the two rock elements harmonise in a very subtle way.

Creating depth with rock bleachers:

Rock ’bleachers’ are base, or core rocks that allow you to create depth as well as volume. They are meant to promote a smooth transition between the foreground, mid-ground and background. The ‘Bleacher Effect’, as André calls it,  is much more noticeable if the rocks that serve as ‘base rocks’ to the rest of the rockwork are smaller in the front and taller and bigger in the back. Besides rock size, one can also play with the sand bed,  by sinking or raising the rocks into or lifting them up in the sand. The visual effect of the rock bleachers depends on how the base rocks connect to the upper rocks.

There is a trick to creating the ‘Bleacher Effect’. You want to place them in such a way that the back ones can still be seen when viewed from the front, at the same time as you see the smaller bleachers toward the front. It is the dimensional difference between them that creates the effect of depth and volume. This trick also creates extra depth at the sand level and physically as well as optically widens the layout. To find what works best you must try different positions for your bleacher rocks, viewing from all sides until you have found the best angles.

Remember that depth is always a matter of perspective when you work in a tank, so you may have to arrange several perspectives until the arrangement looks right – a task better done outside of your tank and then transferred when it works. (You will keep on spraying your live rock with salt water throughout this out-of-tank process. Nothing will die. All that will happen is that some creepy crawlies might emerge – usually ones you do not want in your tank!)

Another alternative to create perspective is using small rocks in the foreground,  with bigger rocks in the mid—ground and finally smaller rocks in the background — as this gives the feeling that rocks get smaller with increasing distance.

However, do not confuse with the ‘Bleacher effect’ which is exactly the opposite — big rocks in the back, small rocks in the front. The ‘Bleacher Effect’ is made only with the base rocks. All the other remaining rocks of your structure, again smaller in the back, big in the mid and small in the front, are positioned next to, or on top of the base rocks to give the final depth effect. Again, remember that they always have to be angled in a way that gets you the most perspective, or ‘illusion’ of depth.

In the image below, you can see how André Silvestre took the same basic arrangement of before,  and added the base rocks to create the ‘Bleacher effect’. Note that while he did it on both rock structures, he exaggerated the effect in the main focal point.

At this point you may perhaps feel that we are working back to front. But we are not. Remember, you are still just reading, not building yet. The reason the process is set out in this way, is so that you can actually see how the layout is transformed from a flat two-dimensional idea into a bold and very believable three dimensional reef structure.

Open Spaces:

When aquascaping a reef structure in the modern way, you should always consider leaving some areas open for sand. It gives a tremendous visual impact to your rock/reef structures and imparts a natural, open and clean feeling. It also makes maintenance and glass cleaning a breeze and allows a much better water flow around the rocks. Open spaces around and between between two or more rock structures also contribute greatly to a more natural, three-dimensional effect, with heaps of depth. You can even opt to build two separate structures so close together that it almost gives a ‘gully’ effect.

This open space between rock structures always works best with sand, as the sand helps to increase the feeling of depth, especially if the rock structures get narrower from the back to the front. It literally creates the feel of a ‘canyon’  between the separate structures.

In the image below we can see how open the reef structure really is – and also how it never leans against or even touches the glass.  We will soon look at how stunning this aquascape  looks when finished!

Rocks in the sand:

Finally, position some small rocks in the sand at the end terminations of the tension/escape lines, to give the last detail to the overall aquascape. These small rocks are essential, because they what completes the look of the big base rocks rising from the sand bed — giving the appearance that natural erosion and sedimentation occurred. We find this in all rock structures, whether they are under or above water. It is attention to these little details that helps us to create that enviable natural feeling when we look into our reef tanks. Do not think that they won’t be noticed. They will, because this is where the eye terminates after wandering through the tension lines.

André Silvestre  likes to emphasise this by pointing out that every rock structure has small rocks in the end terminations, some next to the big rocks, others serving as small islands. In the image below, he shows how it is done. Use these tricks to showcase your skill at building a modern reef.

In almost no time at all, with a last look at the new aquascape from two angles, and a time period of cycling to allow the settlement of coralline algae, we can  finally look at the end result: A modern aquascaped reef!

This is a stunning reef tank that truly tells a story of the world below the water.

We see how fish act like they do in nature, swimming and hovering above their reef. We see how sand creatures will find their own niche below. We see hides that fish can claim as homes at night. We see cleaner shrimp having claimed a place of their own, and now advertising their services to fish needing to be  relieved of their parasites.We see corals flourishing in their various placements. In short, we see a fully functional working reef!

And then we understand how André Silvestre can publish images like these:

As for the mini-tank that served as our focal point demonstration, it did not take long for it to look like this:


I sincerely hope that all of this has has inspired you to create a stunning, modern reef tank.

In final summary, here are a few more tips on setting the rock in your aquarium properly

  • Be extremely careful not to let the rocks touch the front of the aquarium or fall against the aquarium walls, because they will definitely scratch the glass.
  • Do not build or lean corals against the glass walls of your tank. Create an oven, free-standing structure.
  • Always use two hands when setting your rock.
  • For a new aquarium, it is always much better and easier to create your arrangement outside the tank. Glue, putty, or fasten the rocks that need it. Then transfer your construction into the empty aquarium with only a sand bed. You will fill the tank only once you have finished. Keep any breaks short, for the sake of your live rock, or otherwise place them back into salt water. Throughout the setting-up process, keep on spraying with saltwater to keep your live rock moist.
  • When placing your rock, make sure that you wiggle the bottom layer of rocks down through the sand so that they rest firmly on the bottom of the aquarium. If you are working with very large rocks, you may want to cushion them on egg-crate instead.
  • Then stagger the rocks on the bottom layer creating interesting caves and passageways through them. Always use your bigger, heavier rocks for the bottom layer, and for creating a dimension of depth.
  • For the next layer use longer flatter rocks to bridge the gaps between the rocks on the first layer. Make sure to wedge the rocks in securely.
  • If the rocks don’t seem to fit together, try adjusting some of the rocks on the bottom layer.
  • If the rocks don’t fit together sturdily, use smaller rocks to act as spacers and give the larger rocks a sound foundation.
  • If you need smaller rocks, but do not have any, use a hammer to break one of the larger rocks into pieces.
  • Use the heel of your palm to gently hit the rocks and wedge them tightly into place.
  • When setting the rock, think about creating caves and hiding places, as well as many levels of platforms for your coral to sit on.
  • When you are finished, tap your hand around on the rocks to make sure they are all secure and nothing wobbles. You do not want rocks to fall down or get knocked over.

I thank you for your patience and I wish you great success in your reef building venture. To inspire you,  I will end with a few images that will hopefully light up your imagination. The last image is of a nano-reeftank that only sports corals and shrimp. It does not represent a reef. Instead, it is meant to give us a close-up look of a tiny slice of a densely populated coral reef.


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