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At Aqua Forest, underwater gardening

Tropical fish are merely inhabitants of a lush submerged landscape at Aqua Forest Aquarium.

FIRST PERSON | Gary Neatherlin

Years ago I began experimenting with aquariums.

I have several — freshwater and saltwater — in my apartment above Fillmore Street.
So I was pleasantly surprised when a friend told me about an unusual aquarium display at a relatively new store, Aqua Forest Aquarium, located just down the street at 1718 Fillmore, near Japantown.

I walked in and was amazed to see the number and variety of underwater plants, some growing from the aquarium floor above the water line.

Aqua Forest was started last year by George Lo, a 29-year-old born in Taiwan, who runs the business with his brother, Steven. After graduating from San Francisco State with a degree in cell and molecular biology — helpful, if not strictly necessary — he became interested in planted aquariums.

“It’s like gardening,” says George. “Underwater gardening,” adds Steven.

Their store is the first in the nation to focus on the nature aquarium style started by Japanese aquarist Takashi Amano. He has created a series of products known as Aquarium Design Amano, and the Los are his distributors in the western United States. In their retail store, they sell Amano’s aquariums, supplies and books — along with many other books and supplies — as well as select varieties of tropical fish that add movement and brilliant color to the underwater gardens.

The Lo brothers searched for the right location. Given the Japanese influence and style, the storefront near Japantown seemed a perfect fit. Aquarium hobbyists from around the world are already finding the store; the style is well known in Asia and Europe. But Steven says three-quarters of their business so far comes from the neighborhood.

It’s amazing to see the variety of miniature ecosystems in the store created with different combinations of plants, rocks and fish. Books show how to set up a planted nature aquarium.

“It’s not that hard,” says George. “Just follow the rules and position the stones and trim the plants appropriately.”