Only found swimming deep in the reef waters around the South Pacific island of Rarotonga, the peppermint angelfish is considered the holy grail among aquarium aficionados—and comes with an appropriately rarefied price tag of $40,000. Its scarcity and natural shyness explain its exalted status, but it’s also rather lovely: a sunset-orange body crossed by vertical white stripes with pops of bright yellow around the eyes. There are just two in captivity—one in Japan, the other in London.
Roland Horne is the man who acquired the London fish, legally sourcing it for a client who collects rare breeds. “Collectors want fish that are super, super rare and are prepared to pay for them,” says Horne, who is creative director of upscale aquarium design firm Aquarium Architecture.
Bringing part of nature into any space is both calming and healing
Jiin Kim-Inoue, Finchatton
In Hong Kong, James Bruce of Red Fin has clients requesting rare clownfish such as the snowflake, Picasso, and lightning maroon variants—the latter of which cost a few thousand dollars each. “They have unusual white markings that are caused by an extremely rare birth defect,” says Bruce.
But acquiring a rare fish is only the beginning—keeping it alive in captivity can arguably be a greater challenge, especially in the case of the peppermint angelfish, which has an extremely high mortality rate when taken from its native habitat, often dying within a week. “It lives at 23°C (73.4°F) and most seawater aquariums are 25-26°C (77-78.8°F),” says Horne. “Before our fish went into the client’s aquarium, we acclimatized it by increasing the temperature in its temporary tank by 0.5°C (0.9°F) every three months until it was comfortable living at 25°C.”
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE
Having started out in Roman times as a simple marble bowl to house the whiskery sea barbel, aquariums today (aquaria to the purists) have become the ultimate luxury statement, a living art form whose broad appeal can rival that of an Old Master or modern sculpture. “You can have a room filled with amazing art, sculpture, and an aquarium, and everyone will go straight to the aquarium and say ‘Wow,’” says Bruce.
The most sought-after are seawater aquariums: brilliantly colorful creations that aim to imitate a section of tropical ocean. For a Monaco-based client, Aquarium Architecture replicated a Fijian coral reef in a 13-foot-long tank that contained a darting kaleidoscope of 150 fish, as well as shapely corals in 1,600 gallons of water. “For another client we created a Caribbean aquarium as a permanent reminder of his St Lucia holiday home,” says Horne, who cofounded the company that now has offices in the UK, the US, and Nigeria, as well as a client list that includes actress Gillian Anderson and former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The past five to 10 years have seen aquariums become a favorite among interior designers, too. “Aquariums bring a sense of relaxation and tranquility to a space; bringing part of nature into any space is both calming and healing,” says Jiin Kim-Inoue, head of design at international property firm Finchatton. “Aquariums can also bring movement and warmth to a color scheme, and they work well as room dividers, visually linking two spaces.”
Interior designer Shalini Misra designed a seawater aquarium in the open-plan, lower-ground floor of a house in London. “The light, movement, and color make the room feel very joyous,” she says, “and the family has given names to many of the fish.”
Seawater aquariums are a significant investment, however. They not only cost many thousands of dollars to create, they also need weekly maintenance, which means running costs are equivalently high. At Aquarium Architecture, the average price of an aquarium is $60,000 for a 660-gallon tank, although the company has just drawn up designs for a $6 million aquarium that stretches over two floors and includes a slide so the client, a wealthy Nigerian, can whoosh through the tank. Such extravagant designs are not unusual; for the South China Morning Post newspaper, Red Fin created an aquarium concept in which a room is set within a 42,000-gallon tank containing 1,000 fish from more than 100 species, as well as a wide variety of corals, sea anemones, and urchins.
It’s all about balance and composition to create something sublime
Jeff Senske, Aquarium Design Group
The design standard, however, is a deep, rectangular shape that fits seamlessly into its surrounds with all the filtration and temperature-control technology hidden. A typical 660-gallon reef aquarium will usually contain a hundred or so fish—a mix of large and small, including Disney “film stars” Nemo (clownfish) and Dory (blue regal tang)—as well as shrimp, hermit crabs, and corals. Key to a successful aquarium is ensuring the wildlife is happy enough to stay disease-free and thrive. “Our golden ratio is that from front to back a tank must be at least half the height,” says Horne. “Fish need space to live but also to swim from left to right.”
Tank size is also an issue for sharks, a popular request. “Sharks need to keep moving to survive, so you need an enormous tank,” says Bruce. “And it has to be a tank without corners, otherwise they would bump their noses and badly injure themselves,” adds Horne.
Although corals at their smallest are less than a quarter of an inch long, they are also tricky creatures to keep happy in an aquarium as they require highly specific living conditions, including constant water temperature and light, high calcium content, and just the right alkalinity levels.
THE LIGHT FANTASTIC
Jellyfish, an increasingly popular choice, are different again. “A jellyfish aquarium is like having a living lava lamp,” laughs Bruce, who has many years’ experience looking after these marine animals. “Jellyfish don’t have a brain so just drift through the water, but they do look amazing, especially when lit up, so we build LED lights into our tanks.” Until recently, keeping jellyfish safely was almost impossible as they would get swept up into the filtration system, but new technology has been developed allowing water for filtration to be simultaneously drawn up while blowing the jellyfish away from danger.
Nano-aquariums are another trend: tanks as small as six gallons that can » fit on a desk. “With one of these you can keep a couple of jellyfish,” says Bruce. At 10 gallons, a tank can house shrimp, mini corals, invertebrates, and even small fish. “Some tiny gobies and damselfish live on one coral head in the wild and have such a small territory that they may not even realize they’re out of the ocean,” he adds.
Freshwater aquariums with their lack of brightly colored fish and coral have long been seen as the dull relation, but the trend for hardscape aquariums is changing this. An aquarium in the minimalist tradition, the emphasis is on a sparser, sculptural design created with beautifully twisted woods, stones, and sand, as well as a select number of fish. “It’s all about balance and composition to create something sublime,” says Jeff Senske from Texas-based Aquarium Design Group, which champions freshwater aquariums. “There is a much wider palette of textures and tones, with many different varieties of driftwood, types of stone, and sand.”
But you don’t need fish to have an eye-catching aquarium. Plant-only freshwater tanks, offering a vista of different shades of green, are increasingly in vogue. “With these tanks you can have as many as 50 different plant varieties,” says Senske.
An alternative approach, Iwagumi introduces the Eastern concepts of feng shui, Zen, and bonsai to aquariums. Created by Japanese designer and aquarist Takashi Amano, Iwagumi focuses on the precise placement of stones to create energy, but also the meticulous construction of miniature landscapes that have amazing depth and resemble a land-based panorama.
FIVE AMAZING AQUARIUMS
Ocean Kingdom, China
This newcomer on Hengqin Island near Macau is today the largest aquarium in the world and boasts 12.87 million gallons of water. Visitors view its residents through the world’s largest aquarium window (129 feet, 11.05 inches by 27 feet, 2.77 inches).
S.E.A. Aquarium, Singapore
Here, almost 12 million gallons of water provide a home to 100,000 marine animals of more than 800 species.
Georgia Aquarium, USA
This 10 million-gallon aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia, is home to more than 100,000 marine and freshwater creatures. It is the only aquarium outside Asia to house whale sharks.
uShaka Marine World, South Africa
Built around a series of underwater “shipwrecks”, the viewing galleries at Sea World at uShaka Marine World, Durban, extend 1,640 feet.
A cylindrical aquarium in the atrium of Berlin’s Radisson Blu Hotel, AquaDom (below) is part of neighboring Sea Life Berlin. Visitors can ride a transparent elevator up through the center to a viewing platform at the top.