Marine Aquarium Decorations: Tacky, Tasteful, or Somewhere In-Between?

Large coral insert tank decoration at a big box pet store

Large coral insert tank decoration at a big box pet store

I’ve always favored very naturalistic aquariums, so when an acquaintance recently asked me what I think about using decorations in saltwater systems, my immediate response (more or less) was that I find them tacky and cringe-worthy and that corals and fish should be decoration enough. But I have to admit, when pressed to explain why I think this way, I couldn’t really come up with a satisfactory answer.

My contention that I prefer to keep things natural doesn’t really hold up, since, let’s face it, I’m using artificial means to provide everything from water currents to sunlight to waste removal in my tank. Not to mention, there aren’t a lot of fish and corals out there in the natural world living in rectangular glass houses (and if there are, they probably shouldn’t throw stones!). Nor could I honestly argue that aquarium decorations are just plain ugly because, as the old saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

So this challenge to my long-held viewpoint sort of got me thinking. Can I really support the assertion that ornaments have no place in marine tanks?

Aquarium decor

Tasteful tank décor I’ve seen

My mind goes back to a photo of an aquarium I saw in some book many, many years ago. A focal point of this tank was a spot-lit, half-buried amphora (similar to these ancient vase replicas) with bubbles created by a hidden airstone rising from its mouth. One could easily imagine the amphora was some partially unearthed artifact from an ancient shipwreck, and the visual impression it created was rather stunning. One could certainly argue that it complemented—rather than detracted from—the beauty of the aquascape and livestock.

And I’ve seen other aquariums that put ornamentation to very tasteful use in a minimalist way. For example, I recall a particular planted tank aquascaped to look like a terrestrial jungle with artificial temple ruins, in proper scale, tucked amongst the foliage. Granted, this was a freshwater aquarium, but I imagine a similar effect could be achieved in a saltwater system depending on the livestock and decorative elements chosen.

The garden analogy

Being an old horticulture and landscaping aficionado, I can even see how one might draw a certain parallel between a marine aquarium that incorporates artificial decorative elements and a terrestrial garden that tastefully incorporates sculpture, bird houses/baths, wind chimes, etc.

Traditional Japanese gardens, for example, very commonly feature stone lanterns, basins, bridges, Shishi-Odoshi, and other man-made elements that complement the plants and other natural materials and help create a very tranquil, balanced visual impression. Rendered skillfully, such gardens are truly stunning.

Truly tacky tank decor

Sunken treasure tank decorationOkay, that’s all fine and good, but what about those really tacky decorations like Spongebob, Patrick, Squidward, and, of course, that famous pineapple under the sea? Or how about a good old-fashioned pirate skeleton, scuba diver, diving helmet, ship’s wheel, bubbling clamshell, or sunken treasure chest? Or what about those (gasp!) artificial coral inserts?

Well, to be honest, none of those items would suit my taste, but as with the concept of beauty, “tacky” is in the eye of the beholder. Who’s to say where that line should be drawn between tawdry and tasteful? Besides, having some fun decorative elements to choose from might just encourage more kids to get started in our hobby. That has to be a good thing, right?

If the spirit moves you…

So, to answer the question I posed earlier, I think it’s reasonable to say that artificial decorations do have a place in marine aquariums regardless of whether I would welcome them in my own tanks or not. However, if you do choose to use them, first make certain they’re specifically labeled as safe for use in saltwater systems, as not all of them are!

What’s your take on tank décor?
Okay all you salties out there, what’s your position on using artificial décor in marine tanks? Tacky, tasteful, or somewhere in between? Let us know in the comment section below.

Shelves of coral decroations for aquariums

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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. I have a fowlr and used some fake coral for extra color in the tank. Don’t have interest in live coral. I’m here for the fish. I’m quite happy with the tank. See for yourself:

  2. Paul Baldassano says:

    I personally do not like artificial anything in a tank but I realize it is your hobby and if you want to put a left front fender from a 1957 Oldsmobile in there, it’s your tank. The most interesting tank I ever saw was a freshwater tank in a very large store in Manhattan. It was decorated with plumbing. A sink, a toilet bowl, pipes etc. Sounds awful, but guess which tank had the largest crowd around it?
    I go for odd and interesting. We all know what a coral reef looks like. There is fish and corals and no one can say a regular reef is boring “because” of it’s intricacies. But even to much repetition of the “same” intricacies can be boring. If you dive over a large coral reef and every few yards is the same, it can get boring. But if while you are swimming you come across something, anything, different or something that doesn’t belong there, that will grab your attention. Maybe even a tire or shopping cart (I dive in New York a lot) You will stop there to investigate, maybe take a picture. When the dive is over people will ask you what you saw and you will say, a shopping cart. You won’t say, acres and acres of coral because that is expected to be there. If you want your tank to stand out, get a little creative.

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