You’re standing before a fairytale landscape. Ancient tree branches twist together, dripping with moss. Sunlight plays over rocks and then gives way to deep shadow. Far off, the sky is visible. You’re about to step into this story–but just then, a fish swims in front of your nose.
Welcome to the world of aquascaping, an up-and-coming sport-slash-art that brings together horticulture, design, and cutthroat international competition, then dunks them all underwater.
Though people have been turning fishtanks into fantasylands since the Victorian age, the pursuit got a new champion in the 1990s, when cyclist Takashi Amano poured his professional-athlete salary into his true passion: aquarium design. Amano’s innovative approaches inspired devotees across the globe. He now designs tanks for hotels and museums, jobs so huge and precise he has his workers hold onto the inside of the (dry) tank with suction cups while delicately tweezering each plant into place.
Such dedication is necessary before and after the initial setup. Aquascapers not only plan out and plant their bottled worlds, they support them, too, providing the right light and atmosphere and keeping the plants trimmed and healthy. According to competition guidelines, the best have balanced design and balanced pH.
This year’s International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest (IAPLC), which invited aquascapers to submit a photo of their creation for judging and the chance at a million-yen ($8,125) first prize, showcases the incredible possibilities of the genre. Those selected by the judges rose to the top of the largest pool yet in the competition’s history–2,545 entries from 69 countries. Drawing from many known styles, including classic Dutch and more modern Japanese, the winning ‘scapes bring to mind mountain ranges, pastoral scenes, and haunted forests (all share a certain air of seriousness, in defiance of their fishy inhabitants).
See more of this year’s winners below–and if you’re having a bad Monday, sink into one of the many aquascape compilation videos available for perusal on YouTube.