The Fundamentals of Live Rock in Aquascaping by Mike Paletta
Live rock is not only crucial for biological filtration, but when done properly, it provides a natural environment for aquarium inhabitants. It can provide natural hiding places to make the fish feel secure as well as providing a natural base upon which the corals and other invertebrates may be placed. Unfortunately during the planning of the tank, aquascaping and the use of live rock often take second place to the overall construction of the tank. It is not that it is neglected; it is more that it is taken for granted. As a result, little effort and planning is put into how to aquascape the tank to achieve maximum beauty and function. This is unfortunate in that despite how much money we put into corals, fish or equipment if we do not aquascape it properly, it will not look as beautiful as it could. Only a short while ago, a reefkeeper's main concern was simply to keep his soft corals alive and not have the tank become overgrown with algae. As things progressed, controlling algae has become easier. It is now even possible to not only keep small polyped stony corals alive, but to have them thrive and grow and even reproduce.
Coupling the success with these corals with the technological improvements now being made, it is time to start addressing one of the neglected aspects of setting up a reef tank: namely aquascaping. Properly done, good aquascaping should produce three results: it should be aesthetically pleasing to the viewer, it should replicate a portion of the reef so that the inhabitants exhibit natural behavior, and it should allow for easy maintenance. I have received criticism in the past for stating that one of the problems I see when looking at most reef tanks is that they look like fruit stands. This was not my own conclusion, but rather a comment that was made by several of my non-reefkeeping friends. This appears to be a common view of how many of our tanks look to non-reefkeepers or to their spouses.
As I have traveled and gotten to see many reef tanks, I have now come to appreciate how this opinion has developed. Unfortunately, many of the tanks that I have seen do indeed look like underwater fruit stands. Most of us, included myself, display our corals in a manner reminiscent of how fruit is displayed. The live rock is arranged like a wall to cover the back of the tank with the live rock lying uniformly lower in the front and taller in the back. Corals are then placed to maximize the viewing of our collection. While this configuration is conducive to viewing our corals, the resultant structure is no more similar to a reef than are the old saltwater tanks we used to set up using bleached coral skeletons.
There are several reasons why aquascaping a reef tank has generally resulted in this pattern. First, and I am as guilty of this as anyone, we tend to be collectors of as many species as possible. In order to enjoy all our plethora of new purchases, this method of aquascaping was the only way to accomplish this. Second, we are not sure if newly introduced corals will stay healthy when they are first introduced in the tank: this method of display allows us to view our corals quite easily so that we can monitor the health of these newly introduced specimens. Since we usually copy what others are doing successfully, we often copy this fruit-stand method of aquascaping as it seems to work well for others. Up until recently, there has been little discussion as to how corals are oriented on the reef: therefore, perching them on top of the rocks seems like as good a way to orient them as any other.
Unfortunately, we have also been precluded from orienting our corals in a more natural way because there have been no good underwater adhesives available until recently. In addition, we usually start with keeping soft corals: which are un-aggressive toward each other and stinging is not usually much of a concern. This method allows us to put as many corals as possible as close to each other as possible. Lastly, our reef tanks often have to be aquascaped this way simply because the narrowness of our tanks keeps us from designing the reef structure in any other way.
I really did not realize how similar most reef tanks looked to each other and how we reefkeepers were missing the boat in terms of aquascaping until I read the Natural World freshwater books by Takashi Amano. These books were a revelation in terms of how they discussed the art of aquascaping, even though it was in relation to using freshwater plants. These books contain photographs of perfectly aquascaped plant tanks by Mr. Amano. Amazingly, the beautiful photographs in these books illustrate a sense of depth and balance in the smallest of freshwater tanks that are often lacking even in large reef tanks.
Now, you may be asking yourself why I am bringing up planted freshwater tanks in a discussion of aquascaping reef tanks. The reason for this is that in these books, Mr. Amano explains, in architectural and compositional terms, certain formulas that are used to make an aquarium layout more visually pleasing. In addition, Mr. Amano strongly adheres to making the tank look as natural as possible by trying to have tanks replicate what is occurring in a small patch of stream or lake. This is also the same goal of many reefkeepers: to try and replicate a tiny portion of the reef.
During my discussion of aquascaping, there are several design principles that I would like to discuss. Please note that I am trying to extrapolate concepts taken from freshwater aquascaping into useful information for reefkeepers. If these ideas are appealing to you, I strongly urge you to read through the above-mentioned books. This also may be helpful since it is difficult to write about concepts that may need to be seen in order to be understood.
The first concept that Mr. Amano uses is that of the "golden section" to bring out the focal points of an aquascape. This golden section is an art composition term that refers to the placement of objects and how they appeal to our sense of aesthetics. For example, if you have a tank that is four feet long and you have a large beautiful head of coral or piece of live rock that you want to put in the most visually appealing place, you intuitively would not place it in the exact middle of the tank. The best place would be off to one side. According to Mr. Amano's method, the exact ratio for placement is actually 3/5 from either side of the tank. This section is referred to as the "golden section".
In addition to the golden section being used in aquascaping, another rule that needs to be followed is to use common sense. You have to think of and plan for what you are going to place where. That is, you do not want to place tall growing types of corals (i.e. Sinularia, Sarcophyton) in front of short corals (i.e. Clavularia, Zooanthids). Otherwise, you will not see the short coral. Also, you have to know how much light, as well as other requirements, your invertebrates require before you place them in the tank. For this information I recommend the "A Practical Guide to Corals for the Reef Aquarium."
Initially, I thought that a discussion of aquascaping would only be of benefit for someone that is just getting started. However, since most reef keepers like to tinker with things to make them better, hopefully this discussion will encourage them to make some changes as well; particularly if their tank is either not appealing or is difficult to maintain. Experienced reef keepers actually have an advantage here in that they already know what animals they have and how they grow. While this discussion centers on aquascaping, I do not want to neglect the health of the animals. However I would like to warn against constantly moving the corals. Just as you would not move the trees in your yard around, you shouldn't move your corals around once they have become established either. Hopefully, the overall design of your reef tank will not only be visually appealing, but also be conducive to the health of your animals.
As with every thing else in reefkeeping, the first step in getting a successful aquascape is planning. Even before you start planning, you need to visualize what portion of the reef you want your tank to mimic. The easiest way to do this is to look at pictures and videotapes of the reef and find sections of the reef that are appealing to you. Once you have done this, see how the animals you have or that are readily available in your area fit into this portion of the reef. That is, if you want to set up a fore reef area, heavy bodied corals like Porites and thick branched Acroporas predominate. If all you have available are Bubble and Elegance corals then you have to set up an aquascape for these corals.
Please do not be discouraged if there are only a limited number of coral species available to you. It is my opinion that many of our aquascapes would be much better looking if we reduced the number of species that we were trying to house in any one tank. I am trying not to be a hypocrite in this matter, particularly since I am the Will Rogers of coral keeping, i.e. I have never seen a coral that I did not like. Unfortunately, this desire for always picking up just one more coral has probably diminished the overall visual impact of my tanks.
In looking at the planted tanks of Mr. Amano, their beauty and elegance comes from their simplicity in that the number of plant species is usually quite limited even in large tanks. Additionally, these plants have a lot more visual impact because they are grouped together. Gardeners understand this concept in that when designing a garden, they never mix a large number of different plants together but rather they use groupings of the same type of plant to maximize the garden's visual appeal.
This concept of limiting species is very difficult for most reefkeepers to follow for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that it is often difficult to obtain more than a single colony of a species at a time. In order for a hobbyist to get a grouping of animals, it may be necessary for him to either propagate the animal into multiple colonies or to buy propagated colonies. The second reason is that if you are like me, you cannot resist adding just one more colony that is different from the others that you have. But as I said above, you need to plan in order to have a good aquascape and impulse buying is not a planned event.
Now that I have thoroughly bored you discussing my opinions on aquascaping, it is now time to discuss the nuts and bolts of how to set up an aquascape that knocks you out. As mentioned above, first look at pictures to determine what you want to replicate. Next, you should diagram how you want your aquascape to look. After that, you need to decide on what materials you are going to need. This includes such questions as which substrate will be used, what type and how much live rock will be used and will any unusual structures be built, i.e., overhangs, caves, etc.
When substrate is used, as much of the live rock as possible should be above the substrate and not resting on it. When live rock rests on the bottom, even on bare glass, detritus tends to accumulate and may eventually lead to algae problems. Therefore, to make the aquascape as pleasing as possible and to reduce both the amount of live rock needed and the time for maintenance on the tank, I have begun using a PVC pipe framework under the live rock. Rather than using base rock as the main method for supporting "show" pieces of live rock, I now place PVC structures built out of PVC pipe under the live rock to support it. These PVC pipe bases have produced some unexpected results in addition to reducing detritus buildup and costs: they have produced a more open area under the live rock and this has allowed for more caves and overhangs to be built. Tanks using PVC will often have a more natural appearance. The use of PVC framing will allow you to use less live rock in your tank: resulting in savings of up to half your initial cost of live rock. Because of their use, I now only use 1-1.5 pounds of live rock per gallon or less rather than the 2+ pounds that I had been using before.
To build these structures 1/2 or 3/4 inch schedule 80 PVC pipe is used. Using gray pipe will allow the structure to blend in more readily with the live rock. Although schedule 40 PVC can be used, it is white color will stand out more. Pipe in these sizes have many types of fittings available to be used on them. After much experimentation, I have found that simpler structures work best. Large squares or rectangles are now what I use exclusively. When I build these, I use lots of cross supports for increased strength so that the structure will hold as much live rock as I need without my fearing that it will fall down. I usually do not glue the pipes together, but rather I make sure that they are hammered firmly into the fittings with a rubber mallet. By not gluing them together, they can be pulled apart and reconfigured should the need arise. Small holes should be drilled into the pipes to reduce the likelihood that any anaerobic areas develop within the pipes and to prevent the accumulation of detritus.
Before placing the PVC structures in the tank, the structures can be laid out on a piece of cardboard cut to the same size as the tank in accordance with the diagram of the aquascape. This will allow you to determine how much space the PVC and live rock occupies. If the live rock is on hand, it can be placed on these structures outside the tank so that the entire tank can be laid out and the pieces of live rock and PVC structures changed and manipulated before being placed in the tank to give the most visually pleasing look. Even when the live rock has not been cured, laying it out ahead of time is still usually a good idea because you need to see how it will fill your tank when placed on the PVC skeletons. Laying it out ahead of time also lets you see how the space between the live rocks will look. By laying it all out before final placement, you can make any changes to the structure long before you place them in the tank. Also, by laying out the live rock ahead of time, you will not need to move the rock around after it has cured.
The process will be the same when using base rock instead of PVC. The base rock should be laid out according to the plan you have devised before the final live rock is placed upon it. Once again, this will give you a better idea of how the reef will look ahead of time and save you the hassle of having to move the rock over and over again once you have set it in place. This can be particularly difficult in a new tank as there is often cloudiness that precludes being able to do this easily.
Once you've laid out the base structure, adding the choice live rock to finish off the reef structure is a little trickier and requires a more imagination. The rock that is available for you to make caves, overhangs, pillars, etc. will often be either too small or too large and bulky and difficult to work with. Fortunately, there are some ways around this. First, if the rock is too large or too much like a boulder to make a good bridge or overhang, it may be necessary to shape the rock. By this I mean chisel it. By using a small stone chisel, you can shape the rock or reduce the girth of a rock so that it is of a usable shape. You can make a bulky rock flat or a boulder more open simply by chiseling away the portions you do not want. If chiseling away the rock seems too haphazard you can also shape the rock by drilling through it with an electric drill using a masonry bit. The porous nature of live rock makes it very easy to drill through.
On the other hand, if all you have are small pieces of live rock, not too small mind you, there are ways to use these to build structures. Waterproof glues and epoxies as well as cable ties and small plastic pipe can all be used to get the desired effect. The new gel type of super glue coupled with cable ties can be used to make two small rocks into one large rock to achieve the desired configuration. In addition, by drilling small holes within a piece of live rock, cable ties can be run through and used to attach the rock or hold it in place so that a desired structure, like an overhang, can be built.
Another way to add structural stability to live rock structures is to drill the live rock and insert pieces of rigid tubing into it. The adjoining piece of live rock can then be drilled so that the hole is aligned to accept the piece of rigid tubing so that the pieces will mesh together properly. To add further stability to the live rock, waterproof epoxy can be placed around the rigid tubing and allowed to set once the rocks are in their desired location.
By using the above-described techniques, a reef base can be built so that it acts as a natural-looking platform onto which the corals and other invertebrates can then be attached to. If done properly, the live rock structure may be attractive enough so that corals may not be needed for it. This same methodology can be used for a fish only system. Using live rock only in this system provides the same benefits that occur in a reef system. This methodology is being used on a more widespread basis due to its advantages. Once the live rock is in place and has been properly cured so that it is free of any dead or decaying spots, it is time to start adding corals. This usually takes 4-6 weeks.
As stated above, it is my hope that more hobbyists will try to aquascape using groupings of corals of the same species from the same biotope rather than just randomly what one comes across. Since this is unlikely to happen, I would suggest creating a tank with the corals, fish and all coming from the same ocean; at the very least. It has been my experience that Indo-Pacific fish and corals seem to do better when housed together than when they are mixed with Caribbean and Atlantic species. It also provides for a better approximation of what we are trying to achieve: a little section of a reef.
In order to achieve a more natural looking aquascape, it will also be necessary to not only have the corals perched on top of flat rocks, but also to have them grow from the sides of the rocks as well. To get this effect, several techniques can be used. The gel types of super glues that are now on the market work quite well for attaching small colonies or fragments to the sides of the live rock. In order to do this, a portion of the gel (about the size of a dime) is first placed on the base of the coral. After the coral has been removed from the tank and the base dabbed dry, the coral is then held out of the tank for approximately one minute so that the glue can seal over. After this time, the coral is then held in place underwater for approximately one minute so that the glue can begin to adhere properly. When placing the coral in place, care should be taken so that as much surface area with glue on it is in contact with the live rock as possible. This is particularly important when the coral is being attached to a steep slope. Also, care should be taken to not glue more than 5 or six animals in place at any one time as this may cause the skimmer to produce very wet foam and over flow.
If the method mentioned above does not work, there is an alternative method to mount your corals, fortunately. In this method, cable ties are placed through holes in the base of the coral are then pulled through holes in the rock. The cable ties are then tightened to secure the coral to the rock. If adequate holes are not present, they can readily be drilled in the rock at the appropriate places. Once the cable ties are drawn together the excess can be cut off and the plastic band will eventually be covered with coralline algae, or the coral itself, making the plastic invisible.
One last thing to keep in mind when aquascaping is that when corals are placed in holes or under overhangs, adequate light and water motion are still needed in order to maintain the health of the corals. Space should also be provided to allow the corals to expand and grow; which can occur quite rapidly if the proper conditions are provided. If the corals are not forced to constantly compete for space, they can achieve their full potential much more rapidly and thus provide their owner with the enjoyment that a properly set up reef tank should.
Since I have now been keeping reef aquaria for over 19 years , I feel that I have failed enough to know one of the main reasons why: I usually want a tank to look complete overnight. Fortunately, the years and failures have taught me that a successful reef aquascaped properly is never truly done. Because the corals are constantly growing, an aquascape is not a static entity but rather a continual work in progress. Having proper aquascaping will not only provide a better environment for your corals, it will also make the hobby more fun by allowing you to have a better-looking and healthier reef aquarium.
Photographs courtesy of David Saxby