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  • Jeff Miotke

Competitive Aquascaping – Live vs Photo

Originally Published in The Aquatic Gardner Volume 31 No. 3

I’ve been competing in contests for the last 7 years but only recently had the experience of doing it live. I wanted to share my experiences and insights from two events I participated in recently. These events were the Aquatic Experience in Chicago in November and then a few months later in the Great Lakes Aquascaping Contest in Wisconsin. Live aquascaping events are a recent thing in the USA. And while a lot of fun they also bring along quite a few new challenges.

We talked about the photo contests in the last article so let’s do a quick review. To participate the aquascaper prepares the aquarium at their own location with their own equipment. After months of working and perfecting the aquascape they take a photo. This photo is then submitted along with some other written details about the plant and fish choices on the contest web site. After a few months the judging occurs, and the results are posted.



Team mates relaxing after a long day at GLAC

Now live aquascaping contests also have the aquascaper(s) prepare an aquascape but that is where the similarities end. The equipment like the tank, light and filtration are typically provided by the event coordinator. Depending on the contest the layout materials like hardscape, substrate and plants may or may not be provided. For example, The Great Lakes Contest we were provided the materials. The contest organizers used a snake draft for distributing the piles of aquascaping materials. For the Aquatic Experience we brought all our own materials. Renting a vehicle loading it up with driftwood, stones, live plants and fish and driving it all the way from Dallas.

Now once arrived and the contest begins the competitors are on a strict clock. No touching the aquarium before the timer starts and hands out after. This time provided is extremely short and measured in hours instead of the months for a photo contest. And because this time is so short it creates many challenges. Some examples, bonding hardscape with epoxy or adhesives is risky, plants previously at their peak may not look great after shipping, and the fish may not have enough time to get comfortable resulting in faded colors or may hide completely.

In addition to the aquascaping challenges the competitors must understand and know how to use the provided equipment. In both contests we had challenges with equipment. In the first contest we had a drilled bottom and stand pipes. Typically, an aquascaper uses equipment that can be easily removed for a photo contest. This presented a major challenge to work around and, in our case, we made the decision to let it be.


Team effort at Great Lakes Aquarium Contest

Other equipment challenges we experienced were a hang on filter that would not fit on the side where it would be hidden due to the plastic rim thickness. A lighting challenge where the fixture had interchangeable lights but replacing the lights chewed up significant time. There was also the laughable situation we found ourselves in with an aquarium with a center brace after being provided a large piece of driftwood that would have had troubles fitting even if the brace wasn’t there.

There were also things that I had not anticipated that each individually were small but altogether added up to make a significant impact on the day. The learning curve was steep and on my trip home I made a list. Here are some of the items that made that list.

Know the rules down to the fine print and ask questions prior to your time starting. For instance, I didn’t realize that all equipment provided had to be used on the tank which resulted in a scramble to throw it on in the closing seconds or be disqualified. Oddly we were not required to plug it in and get It working. Go figure?


Be prepared for interaction with an audience as people walk by and have questions. This will eat into your time and if you’re like me and like to talk tanks it will be significant.

You will be on your feet most of the day. You will be lifting, bending, and reaching into the tank for hours. I found that frequent short breaks helped keep my focus, give my back a break and most importantly a chance to step back and look at the progress.

Leave enough time after aquascaping to allow for filling the tank with water and letting the filters do their work. This turned out to be one of the biggest hurdles in both contests. The first contest we were scrambling with only 20 or so minutes to go from murky water to crystal clear. At that point I freaked out and let my teammates go to work. Somehow, they worked magic with not one but two diatom filters. Go team!


Teamwork makes the dream work at the Aquatic Experience in Chicago

So, after talking about all this effort and challenges why would you want to do a live aquascape contest? Fun! Hanging out with everyone and doing something you love is priceless. Scaping shoulder to shoulder while pushing your limits is an amazing experience. There is an excitement in the air as the friendly banter between competitors fills your ears. And when it is all done for the day, grabbing a bite afterward and talking war stories with your aquascaping pals. Love that deep-dish pizza in Chicago!


In conclusion, where I think photo contests are for everyone, I think live contests maybe not so much. Those folks that are a bit more advanced in the hobby or very passionate or maybe just a little bit crazy will love it. For those of you that aren’t quite so fanatical, I highly encourage you to still come watch and hang out. And, yes, I do plan on participating in more live contests soon! In fact, as I write this I’m on a plane headed to Dallas to visit my teammates, hang out and prepare for this year’s Aquatic Experience contest in New Jersey. Hope to see you there and remember:


Scape and Participate!


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©2019 by Jeff Miotke | Aquascaper