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Bommie 01.jpg


Aquascaping is the landscaping of an aquarium using primarily rock work (typically liverock) and corals. It is an art form. It is an aesthetic process. However, the real art form is the creation of a physical environment that provides for the needs of the inhabitants. This include better water condition through biological filtration, an appropriate space to interact in and sanctuary / shelter from predators (whether perceived or actually present). Aquascaping involves initially the construction of the reef structure itself within the aquarium, placement of corals giving a natural and interesting aquarium to behold, and providing sufficient, appropriate habitats for the inhabitants to live in.


Deciding on the type of reef structure or habitat to follow depends largely on the type of inhabitants to be kept within the aquarium. Secondary is what looks appealing to the hobbyist.

Anemone fish, while not dependent on an anemone for survival, may benefit from the protection it offers. Many fish like surgeonfish require large open spaces to swim. Certain wrasses like the Coris gaimard are active burrowers and require a sand bed, they also enjoy swimming through the smallest of gaps, in and out of crevices in the rockwork and resting beneath undercrofts. Certain corals will need to be placed on ledges where they can receive enough light, while others prefer less light and like to sit on soft substrate. Corals also grow, so there needs to be some room to move between specimens.

A very good way to gather a picture of the type of reef structure to build is by being familiar with the real thing! Watch documentaries on reefs, going snorkeling or diving, searching the internet for underwater imagery and videos, take a trip to public aquariums and viewing other reef keepers successful aquascaping. These will all assist in producing a suitable biological habitat and be aesthetically pleasing.

Aquascaping is also an effective way to hide unsightly in-tank equipment such as heaters, powerheads, overflows and PVC piping. Also ensure the reef structure built won't damage or prevent the removal of equipment for future maintenance or replacement.


What is used to aquascape a reef aquarium varies greatly. It depends on the ultimate goal of the system, the materials being used, and what is available. Some common items used for aquascaping are:

  • Liverock, many different grades, types and shapes
  • Base Rock, which is dead coral skeletons, has nothing alive on it and is dry
  • Limestone, which is simply fossilised coral skeletons, easily shaped into what is required
  • Eggcrate, great for making platforms with
  • PVC piping, used to create an underlying structure for liverock to be placed onto
  • Cable ties, used to connect rocks together or hold onto other structures
  • Milk crates, or any other plastic boxes, great of making an underlying structure
  • Epoxy putty, such as Selleys KNEAD IT Aqua, used for form a bond of sorts and provide support
  • Rubber gloves, for personal safety, since some bits of liverock are extremely sharp

Common Layouts

The only real limit to the type of structures and layout for a reef aquarium is imagination. A multitude of different things can be done, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. The general types of reef structures and the resulting tank layout is detailed below. This is definitely not an exhaustive list and can be mixed and matched with each other to create a hybrid structure.

Rock Wall

A reef structure is constructed along the length of the back wall of the tank (all or part), that typically extends from the base to the water surface. Has all sorts of little nooks and crannies for critters to swim through or hide in within the structure. It leaves the full length of the front of the tank as open water for fish to swim around in. Can be difficult / challenging for coral placement, due to shading from coral colonies higher up the reef structure.


Can also be referred to as a gorge. The reef structure is formed so that tall, almost vertical walls are formed, with a ravine through which the fish can swim and other livestock placed. To increase the length of the ravine formed, it is typically along a diagonal. More square tanks, or those with more front to back depth, are suited to this type of structure. More than one ravine can be created in the same tank. The ravine creates a very good sense of depth that can be very attractive. See Oregon Reef.


The reef structure of a bommie consists simply of a roughly circular pillar of rock surrounded by open water and / or sand. So the rock is formed into a single structure within the aquarium, away from the tank walls, with lots of open water around it for the fish to swim. See Axeman's Aquarium.

Island of Rock

Rock is arranged into one triangular mound which rises in elevation. See Darkmuncan's Aquarium

Twin Peak

Live rock is arranged in two triangular shapes when viewed top down which creates a diagonal ravine or channel that fish can swim through, creates a sense of depth.


Can also be referred to as a sand zone aquarium. The reef structure is arranged around the outer edges of the tank, enclosing a large sand region in between. Typically will only be on three sides, with the forth side for viewing, looking like an inverted U-shape when view from the top. A more square shaped tank is required for this type of structure, otherwise too much of the space is taken up by the reef structure itself, insufficient for the expanse of sand. Livestock is focused on the type of organisms found in a lagoon zone on a natural reef.


The focus of this type of aquascaping is the more cryptic organisms on a reef, that tend to be nocturnal or are non-phytosynthetic. The reef structure forms a substantial cave and will typically require additional support from things like a PVC piping frame to hole the roof of the cave up.

No rock

Open layout with minimal rock.

How To

The tank should be filled with seawater and equipment running before adding live rock. Be aware that adding live rock will increase the water level in the tank and the weight of the tank. Have a rough sketch of the reef structure, detailing the ideal positions of corals, outcrops and overhangs. Try to locate the position of some the pieces of live rock. If you are re-aquascaping, try to stage it, completing a portion of aquascaping over a few weeks.

Do a dry run before putting it in the tank. Live rock can be exposed to the open air for around ten minutes without too much adverse effect provided it is kept moist by spraying periodically with salt water. You may try several configurations outside the tank. If two or more pieces interlock well you may decide to fix them together with either cable ties or Aqua Kneadit (the method you choose to fix pieces together may require drilling)

Lightly arrange the rock with openings between each piece for water to move through. This will help prevent the build up of detritus and allow good nutrient and waste exchange between the rock and the water. Ensure the structure is stable placing larger pieces at the bottom and smaller ones on top. Most aquarist slope the reef structure upwards and towards the back of the tank.

Also remember regular maintenance such as cleaning, you may want to make sure that there is enough space between the rocks and the glass panels to allow an arm, hand and sponge to move around freely.

There are plenty of forces, livestock predominantly that will seek to undermines your hard efforts. Be aware that poorly stacked live rock is an avalanche waiting to toppled on livestock and equipment.

Tips and Tricks

  • For minor rearrangement or rock work, corals and livestock may be moved in the tank. For major changes, rocks can be stacked on the top of the tank and can come out onto the floor.
  • It is a good idea to have another pair of eyes on the aquascaping to ensure no livestock is squashed, equipment damaged, avalanches etc. Note that if ever you move a rock, you will never get it back into the same position ever again.
  • Try to complete aquascaping prior to the addition of any livestock. Re-arranging can be a lengthy process, and one that isn't always finished on the first attempt. Removing rock to and from water, heating and cooling etc. can adversely effect organisms found on the rock itself, so it is therefore beneficial to minimise impact.




What is a bommie?

Basically stacking rock into one big island

Cured liverock versus uncured

If you are adding liverock for the first time, you might consider introducing it to the tank in 5kg increments, waiting around 3 weeks before adding the next batch. This may reduce the amount of organism that could die from sharp changes in their environment.

What background should I use?

Black or ocean blue or nothing. Everything else looks ridiculously tacky.