Hidden Hobbies: Diving Deep into Reef-Keeping

ERNEST YEN dives into the world of reef-keeping to find out why more Singaporeans are choosing to bring a slice of the ocean into their homes.



Ernest Yen
Social Media Manager

Hype Issue #57

Published on
June 1, 2023

Ng Xuan Yi, 26, an engineer with his 60cm cube-sized reef tank that he set up over a year ago. Photo by Ernest Yen.

Enter the home of Ng Xuan Yi, and the glow of blue LEDs and the hum of water pumps is what first greets you as you take a moment to admire the oceanic beauty in front of you.

As far as the eyes can see, corals glow brightly under artificial LEDs as they pulse in the current generated by an aptly named wavemaker. Fishes such as the quintessential “Nemo”, also known as ‘clownfish’, dart in and out of rocks, as an urchin slowly lumbers out of its hiding hole onto the aquarium glass. On the topmost part of the tank lies a Sunburst anemone, the cost of which can only be described as obscene. 

This is reef-keeping, a hobby not commonly known of or seen in Singapore. It is one where people keep saltwater aquariums filled with living corals, fishes, and invertebrates such as snails and shrimps in the comfort of their own homes.

A sunburst anemone in an isolation box with a retail price of almost a few hundred dollars at a minimum. Photo by Ernest Yen.

“The first thing is of course its beauty. When people look at it [reef tanks], they feel relaxed after a long day of work or study,” shared Patrick Neo, 27, one of the managing partners of the HaiYang chain of shops, as he talked about the appeal of the hobby.

“It also provides a perfect platform for people to learn more about nature and the coral reefs…I think that’s why people are so attracted to this unusual hobby,” he added.

According to Grand View Research, the reef-keeping hobby has been on the rise globally, with the global market generating about US$ 4.9 billion in 2020. This is projected to balloon to US$11 billion by 2028, a near-triple increase in global revenue in just eight years.

Due to the advent of social media platforms and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, awareness of and interest in the reef-keeping hobby in Singapore is growing, with people of all ages now taking up the hobby.

“COVID caused a really huge rise [in the amount of reef-keeping hobbyists], and I think nobody ever expected that because, well, it’s the pandemic and all,” said Ken Kwan, 31, founder of Singapore Reef Aquaculture.

He added, “Since everyone is home during the day, people want to try new stuff and because of that, you see that climb”.

Mr Neo said, “And even though COVID has sort of passed, these hobbyists still keep at it, as they cannot pull themselves away from the beauty of the hobby”.

Ken Kwan, the owner of Singapore Reef Aquaculture, poses in front of his coral facility. Photo by Ernest Yen.

Mr Larry Ng, 45, the administrator of the local hobby group SGReefClub, also points out that the rise of social media has brought about more hobbyists, as well as a greater awareness of reef-keeping.

According to a survey conducted in the Telegram hobby group “xyzreefer’s emporium” all 30 respondents believe that social media plays a big part in generating interest in the hobby and that platforms such as Telegram, Instagram, and YouTube are key drivers in raising interest in the hobby.

An example of a YouTube hobby content creator is George Mavrakis or @coralfish12g, with millions of views. Photo by Ernest Yen.

“Reef-keeping is such a visual hobby, so it’s no wonder why social media plays an important role in driving interest, as one would see pictures of beautiful tanks and feel encouraged to join,” Mr Ng said.

Mr Kwan, who is also a local content creator, added: “There are so many content creators now, and when people go onto social media, the algorithm will do the rest. The best part is that it recommends content from (all over the world), and this inspires people to want to know more about the hobby. ”

As the reef-keeping hobby continues to increase in popularity, Mr Kwan wants to nurture the next generation to lead this hobby. 

“We need young people to rise up and lead the hobby into a new era,” he said. “(And) that’s why we have to start acknowledging those who put in the hard work to grow and support their community so that they can grow everybody too, ” he added.

Similarly, Mr Ng agrees, ”I am hopeful to see more hobbyists and also social media communities. This will help make reefing more accessible for all to join and enjoy.”