Some of the aquariums look like they could be a screenshot of a scene from Princess Mononoke.

Every year since the early 2000s, Aqua Design Amano, a company that produces aquarium accessories, has digitally hosted the International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest, a world-wide competition for hobbyists to share their love of aquarium design. It’s a serious competition that requires a lot of hard work, as contestants cannot win simply by plopping some plants into a tank, taking a photo, and calling it a day; they must not only arrange a beautiful and original design, but one of the criteria for judging is a perceived long-term maintenance of the layout, so a living, working tank environment is a must. To enter, contestants may submit only one photograph of their fish tank, and it must be taken from the front to be accepted.

Recently, the winners of the 2017 competition were announced, and the top 27 pieces are really impressive. Since it’s a hobby that requires a lot of skill and care, it’s not surprising that the results can be quite breathtaking. What is surprising is that many look like they aren’t underwater, but rather could be photos of jungles deep in Africa or in the Amazon. They showcase the incredible talent of a little-known hobby that’s well worth taking the time to browse.

Take this year’s winner, for example: “Congo” by Josh Sims, from Malaysia. With its thick, tree-like plants and lush green tones, you can’t help but see a jungle in this photograph. But no, it’s not a snapshot of the Congo Rainforest, it’s merely a 150 x 60 x 50 centimeter (59 x 23.6 x 19.7 inch) fish tank. Impressive!

Second place winner Junmiao Xu’s “Seclusion” is another beautiful forest-like aquascape. It features ancient-looking trees with dangling vines that really remind one of the forest in Princess Mononoke. While gazing at the landscape you almost expect to see the Forest Spirit appear in the gap!

“Between the Clouds” by Yufan Yang of China is the ninth-place winner, and another forest-like scene, but this one looks like a forest in the sky. The whimsical, flowing way in which the light permeates the space between the plants gives the impression of a forest that has grown as high as the clouds.

“Back to the desolation” by Yong Liu of China, the thirteenth place winner, is also a forest scene, but from a different perspective: standing under the trees. The plants reach their tendrils towards the center, giving the perception that the viewer is standing in a clearing of a forest, looking up at the sky through a gap in the trees. It’s hard to believe that this shot is really of the front of a fish tank.

Interestingly, most of the pieces that actually resemble underwater scenes earned lower rankings. For example, almost alone among the winning entries is a piece that looks like it was taken while scuba diving in the ocean. Japanese designer Katsuki Tanaka’s fourteenth-place winner, “ORO!”, contains a beautiful rising assortment of mossy rocks that gives the appearance of coral reaching up to the surface of the ocean. The fact that the plants actually look adrift in the water really makes a difference in the appearance of this one, unlike the other pieces, whose plants appear to be still.

There was a lot of criteria for judging the competition, including technical skill, originality, presentation of natural atmosphere, and overall composition and balance. But the design is not the only thing that matters: half of the total maximum score of 100 points is allotted for the perceived health of the aquatic life and the layout’s suitability as a natural habitat for fish, so each submission must be a living, healthy, functional ecosystem, as well as a work of art.

It must take a lot of diligence and attention, but it’s such an interesting form of art and expression of creativity. And for such a little-known hobby, there really is a very talented following of artists! Color me impressed, but considering I have never been able to keep fish alive, I think I’ll settle for my no-maintenance miniature Art Aquarium instead.

Images: Aqua Design Amaro
Reference: The International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest

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