If you’re anything like me, you probably got into this hobby because of your love for fish (and corals, of course!). Whether you were on a cool vacation in Hawai’i, went diving at the Great Barrier Reef, or just binged on the Blue Planet narrated by David Attenborough, something must have really hooked you.
Keeping saltwater fish can be super cool and rewarding, but let’s be real, it’s not all smooth sailing. Trying to recreate a whole tropical reef ecosystem in your home is no joke.
But hey, even with all the challenges, there are steps you can take to make sure you’re on the right track. Before you rush out to buy those saltwater fish, take some time to go through this article. It’s got all the info you need to make smart choices, and hopefully, it’ll lead you to an awesome and long-lasting hobby.
I) Characteristics Of A Beginner Fish
You might be wondering, “What exactly qualifies a fish as suitable for beginners?” Well, that’s a valid question. Here are nine traits that define a fish as a great option for those new to the hobby.
Certain fish simply possess more resilience than others. The reasons behind this could vary – perhaps they boast stronger immune systems, thicker slime coats, or maybe their natural habitats align more closely with our tanks. Regardless of the explanation, a hardy fish is one that handles shipping and acclimatization well, while also being adaptable to shifting water conditions.
Out of the 10 fish listed in the latter part of this Beginner Guide, all are categorized as hardy. However, this doesn’t imply invincibility. It simply signifies that they stand a better chance of thriving and surviving in a tank environment.
Saltwater fish can reach incredibly high prices, and I’m talking really high – we’re talking over $1,000 for just one fish! But hey, on the flip side, there are also fish that won’t break the bank.
Several factors contribute to a fish’s price tag, such as:
1. Origin: Where the fish was caught matters.
2. Captive-Bred or Wild-Caught:** Whether the fish is bred in captivity or caught in the wild affects its cost.
3. Location: Your geographical location influences the price.
4. Breeding Difficulty: The ease of breeding in captivity is a factor.
5. Popularity: How common or rare the fish is plays a role.
Now, I’m not suggesting you go for the cheapest fish you can find, but I’m encouraging you to be mindful of the cost. When a fish passes away, it can be a sad experience for everyone involved, especially when it’s not only premature but also involves an expensive fish.
3) Easy To Find
For most of us living in the city, a local fish store (LFS) is pretty accessible. However, if you’re residing in a rural area, luck might not be on your side. Your main route could be buying fish online, often involving overnight shipping, which can rack up some costs.
Typically, a fish’s availability reflects its prevalence in the hobby. Yet, being easy to come by doesn’t necessarily make it beginner-friendly. Among the easily found fish, Clownfish and Damselfish stand out, and both are fantastic choices for beginners.
4) Easy To Acclimate
There are instances when a fish appears perfectly healthy at the store, but within a day of being brought home, it sadly doesn’t survive. It’s a puzzling situation that leaves you wondering why.
Certain fish struggle with adapting to changes. Frequently, the water conditions at your local fish store (LFS) differ significantly from those in your tank. The salinity of LFS water might be notably lower, and they might even have copper in their water.
If you don’t ease your fish into their new environment gradually, they could become stressed and eventually perish. Therefore, an ideal beginner fish is one that can quickly acclimate to a new home without succumbing to stress.
5) Ships Well
The shipping process can be the most stressful phase of a fish’s life. These aquatic creatures are often collected from tropical locales, embarked on a journey spanning half the globe, received by wholesalers, repackaged, and then shipped across entire countries.
Throughout their multiple flights, the oxygen in the bag decreases while carbon dioxide increases. Additionally, ammonia levels rise due to the fish excreting waste.
Shipping causes a substantial number of fish casualties, and those that do survive might require a great deal of tender loving care (TLC) to fully recover. Therefore, an excellent choice for beginner fish is one that can endure the shipping ordeal with minimal harm.
6) Captive Bred
Several fish species can be successfully bred in captivity. These fish tend to be free from diseases, don’t harbor undesirable pests, and are accustomed to consuming pellet food from a young age. This quality is particularly beneficial for finicky eaters that might otherwise struggle to find sustenance in a home aquarium.
Captive-bred fish also receive more humane treatment, as they aren’t extracted from natural reefs. Moreover, they typically undergo only one shipping process, either to the local fish store or directly to your home.
It’s true that they come at a higher cost, but the investment is unquestionably justified.
Keeping small fish can pose significant challenges, so I want to clarify that not every small fish is necessarily a suitable option for beginners.
On the contrary, many beginners start with smaller tanks, typically under 60 gallons, where larger fish wouldn’t thrive. For instance, you might initially get a small Foxface Rabbitfish, thinking it’s a great fit. However, as it grows, it could outgrow your tank size and either face health issues or necessitate relocation.
Hence, smaller fish species are more fitting for beginners since their tank sizes usually match those of most beginners.
Fish are typically categorized into one of three groups:
For instance, Clownfish fall into the semi-aggressive category because they guard their territory and may nip at other fish, yet with sufficient space, they can coexist harmoniously and become wonderful tank residents.
The challenge with housing semi-aggressive or aggressive fish lies in their potential to intimidate and harm other fish, even leading to fatalities. Therefore, opting for peaceful community fish is a safer choice. Nevertheless, several fish mentioned in this post are labeled as semi-aggressive, yet I’ve observed that they can coexist amicably with various other creatures. However, it’s crucial to keep an eye on your fish and promptly remove any causing issues.
9) Accepts Pellet/Flake Food
Certain species have a reputation for being extremely selective when it comes to their diet. Some might solely consume live or frozen food, while others might require feeding as often as five times a day.
In this scenario, the most reliable choice is to opt for a fish species that is naturally inclined to eat a variety of foods or to go for a captive-bred fish that has been raised on pellets/flakes from the start.
As you gain more experience, you’ll gradually be better equipped to care for those finicky eaters. However, it’s wise to avoid starting your journey with them.
II) Aquarium Requirements
1) Size of Aquarium
You’ll often come across the advice suggesting that you can have 1 inch of fish per every 5 gallons of water in your tank. While this guideline might offer a starting point, I find it somewhat unreliable in the grand scheme of things.
The capacity of a 20-gallon tank can significantly differ based on whether it’s tall and narrow or short and wide, which is where surface area comes into play.
Yet, let’s stay practical here. If you’re considering a 20-gallon aquarium, it won’t accommodate more than a few small fish comfortably. Numerous species out there require at least a 60-gallon tank, so it’s wiser to err on the side of caution when adding fish. Aim for a smaller number rather than pushing the limits!
The more robust your filtration system, the greater the number of fish you can accommodate. What exactly does “more robust” mean? Well, it encompasses a few key aspects:
1. **High Turnover Rate:** For instance, if you have a 10-gallon tank, employ a return pump that cycles the entire water column 10-15 times an hour, which translates to 100-150 gallons per hour (GPH).
2. **Frequent Mechanical Filtration Changes:** Regularly change out mechanical filtration, either daily or every other day. Food and waste break down into ammonia over time, so it’s essential to catch and remove larger particles before they have the chance to degrade.
3. **Utilize a Protein Skimmer:** This aids in gathering minute organic matter that might not be captured by your sponge or filter sock.
4. **Ample Live Rock and Ceramic Media:** Enhance your biological filtration by incorporating a significant amount of live rock and ceramic media.
5. **Regular Water Changes:** Execute weekly water changes ranging from 10% to 30%.
Does all of this sound quite labor-intensive? Well, it certainly is, which is why I recommend opting for fewer fish to make your tank management more manageable!
A substrate refers to any material that rests at the bottom of your tank, such as sand or gravel. Keeping fish doesn’t inherently require a substrate. Interestingly, some individuals in the hobby actually advise against using a substrate to maintain cleanliness.
However, the majority of us end up choosing sand as our substrate. While sand isn’t essential for most fish, there are specific fish species that depend on a sandbed for their survival. Take the Sand Sifting Goby, for instance – it relies on sifting through the sand to find its food. Many types of Wrasses have a preference for burying themselves, and Dragonets require a substantial copepod population, which a sandbed can assist in providing.
The particular brand of saltwater you opt for doesn’t hold significant weight. For the most part, beginners usually opt for pre-made saltwater from their local fish store (LFS). However, if you’re inclined to create your own mix, my sole advice is to select a brand and stay consistent with it.
What matters most for fish is maintaining consistency. While many fish can tolerate a moderately wide salinity range, it’s best to aim for 31.5-36 parts per million (ppm). If you have plans to introduce corals down the line, aim for a specific gravity of around 1.026.
Keeping the temperature close to 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25.6 degrees Celsius) is a must.
Be sure to take a look at my blog post titled “Top Five Beginner Saltwater Mixes.”
5) Hiding Places
No need for complex theories here, but numerous fish species require hiding spots to feel secure. Without a safe haven, stress can set in, ultimately leading to sickness and, sadly, mortality.
Creating hiding spots can be as straightforward as using live rock. Alternatively, you can incorporate a few sections of PVC pipe into your tank. While it might not be the most aesthetically pleasing solution, it’s undoubtedly effective.
While appropriate lighting is undoubtedly crucial for corals and anemones, its significance for fish is somewhat different.
Most fish can tolerate a broad range of lighting conditions and don’t rely on light for their nourishment. Excessive light exposure can actually induce stress in fish, and it’s essential to provide them with substantial periods of darkness each day for rest.
However, if your aim is to establish a Fish-Only-With-Live-Rock (FOWLR) system, there’s no need to invest in an expensive programmable lighting setup. Opt for an affordable LED option, connect it to a timer, and you’re good to go – your tank is illuminated, and your fish are content.
I recommend running the lights for approximately 12 hours a day, or perhaps even a bit less. Avoid the temptation to keep the lights on for too long, as this can trigger excessive algae growth and deprive your fish of sufficient resting time.
For further details on recommended lights, take a look at my post titled “Top Five Beginner LED Lights.”
7) Cycling Your Tank
Numerous enthusiasts initiate the cycling of their tanks using fish. However, I don’t endorse this approach because it deliberately subjects the fish to stress by exposing them to an environment with ammonia.
Instead, you have two options: exercise patience and wait out the 4-6 week cycle naturally, or opt for a faster, fish-less method like Dr. Tim’s. For this method, you’ll need both of the products listed below and must meticulously adhere to the instructions. I personally employed this technique in my neighbor’s setup, and the tank was fully cycled within 2 weeks. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that this isn’t an instant cycle; in my view, such a thing doesn’t exist. However, a two-week cycle certainly beats the standard six-week cycle duration!
III) Choosing A Healthy Fish
If you don’t have the convenience of a local fish store (LFS) nearby, then this section might not hold much relevance for you. Your only option would be to buy fish online, eliminating the opportunity to view them in person beforehand. In this situation, it’s essential to conduct thorough research and ensure you’re purchasing from a trustworthy seller. Personally, I’ve had positive experiences buying from Live Aquaria.
There are several factors you can consider, questions you can ask, and steps you can take to ensure you’re acquiring the healthiest fish available.
1) Ask About Quarantine Procedures
In a perfect scenario, your local fish store (LFS) would quarantine all newly arrived fish for a period of 2-3 weeks before offering them for sale. If your LFS indeed follows this practice, you’ve struck gold and are in a fortunate position. It’s certainly a good bet to purchase from such a store!
Take the time to inquire about your LFS’s quarantine (QT) procedures. Do they utilize separate quarantine tanks? Do they administer any medications? Is hypo-salinity treatment part of their process?
Or do they simply introduce the fish directly to the display? Naturally, the more thorough their quarantine procedures, the more favorable it is for you as a buyer.
2) Purchase Fish & Ask LFS To Hold For 1-2 Weeks
After selecting your desired fish, consider asking your local fish store (LFS) if they could hold the fish for you for about a week. This approach offers a safety net – if the fish happens to pass away during that time, it serves as an indicator that the fish was not in good health to begin with. This arrangement also ensures that you’ll either receive a refund or have the option to choose a different fish.
While not all stores may offer this service, the reputable ones often do.
3) Feed Fish
Any LFS with even a semblance of reputation will readily provide food to the fish if you request. Healthy fish exhibit an appetite, while stressed or unwell fish tend to avoid eating. Although a fish eating isn’t an automatic green light for purchase, it certainly serves as a positive indicator.
4) Buy Captive Bred Fish
Opting for captive bred fish instead of live caught ones has essentially no downsides. The catch is that we haven’t yet cracked the code for breeding numerous fish species, so your choices might be somewhat limited.
Captive bred fish possess not only enhanced resilience but are also sourced sustainably and treated humanely. Unfortunately, this statement doesn’t hold true for the majority of saltwater fish in this hobby.
Although you might need to invest more money, you’re contributing to reef conservation and providing better treatment for your fish.
There might come a time when you do acquire a live-caught fish. In such instances, make an effort to educate yourself about its origin and the wholesaler involved.
5) Research The Source
I must confess, this isn’t something I usually undertake, but it’s something I should indeed do. Not all tropical fish exporters and importers operate on the same standards. A worthwhile step is to inquire with your local fish store (LFS) about their suppliers and then proceed to conduct thorough research.
Attempt to ascertain the countries of origin for the fish. What are the fishing practices employed in those nations? Are they humane or reliant on hazardous chemicals? Are there stringent regulations regarding export quotas, or does a particular country have a reputation for overfishing and harming the reefs?
What’s the point of cherishing this hobby if our actions end up causing harm to the very things we cherish?
6) Observe Fish Behavior
This might pose a challenge for beginners, as you might not yet grasp what constitutes “normal” behavior. Adding to the complexity, the definition of “normal” differs from one species to another. Some fish exhibit curiosity and openly swim, while others prefer seclusion.
However, to the best of your capacity, observe the fish for clear indications of stress, including:
1. Rapid breathing.
2. Flashing (rubbing against a rock or solid object, which could indicate disease).
3. Excessive fear (while a certain degree of fear is natural, a properly acclimated fish should not constantly hide).
7) Check For Obvious Signs Of Injury/Disease
What are these signs? Here are a few:
- Frayed or torn fins- could be a sign of disease or aggression from other fish.
- Missing scales – an obvious sign of severe stress, bullying, and/or disease.
- Large growths- just like us, it is not normal to have a growth on the outside of your body.
- White spots- a surefire sign of fish disease.
There are may more such as cloudy eyes, abrasions, white cotton looking patches, etc. Just pull out your phone and search for your fish online to see what a normal healthy fish looks like. If you have any doubt, don’t buy it.
IV) Acclimation, Quarantine, & Dips
Without a doubt, it is absolutely the best approach, without exception, to drip acclimate your fish and employ a quarantine tank. Despite this well-established practice, a significant number of us tend to engage in rushed acclimation and often overlook the quarantine phase entirely.
For a comprehensive guide on effectively drip acclimating your fish, I recommend watching my video titled “How To Set Up A Saltwater Aquarium.” To acquire insights into setting up a quarantine tank, refer to my other video called “How To Setup A Quarantine Tank.”
1) Drip Acclimation
As an absolute minimum, it’s imperative to engage in drip acclimation for all new fish. The process takes around an hour and involves a couple of steps.
Firstly, you need to harmonize the temperature between your tank’s water and the water in the bag. A simple method is to turn off your tank’s lights and float the bag within. Let it float for roughly thirty minutes or until the temperatures are nearly aligned.
Next, gradually introduce water from your display tank into the water from the local fish store (LFS) using a bucket and airline tubing.
Here are two options to assist you in drip acclimating your fish. It’s worth noting that I personally use the more sophisticated one on the left!
2) Quarantine Tank
I will (or may have already, depending on when you read this) put together a comprehensive Beginner Guide detailing the setup and usage of a quarantine tank. However, let’s touch on the concise version here. Why is it not just a good idea, but an exceptional one, to quarantine all new fish?
1. It offers a stress-free environment away from other fish.
2. Identifying fish diseases becomes more straightforward.
3. Promptly removing an afflicted fish is feasible.
4. You can administer medications for sick fish that might not be safe for invertebrates.
5. It effectively blocks potentially fatal diseases from infiltrating your display tank and endangering other fish.
Despite these compelling reasons, many of us find it somewhat cumbersome. In fact, I too refrained from using a quarantine tank during the initial years of my involvement in this hobby (regrettable, I admit).
Indeed, setting up a quarantine tank entails having an additional 20-40 gallon tank, which could be beyond the budget, overly intricate, or restricted by space constraints for some individuals.
I understand these factors, yet if a quarantine tank isn’t feasible for you, at the very least, contemplate the option of a preventative dip (outlined below).
3) Medicated Dip
A multitude of medications and dips exist, and no single option possesses the ability to universally cure all ailments. Thus, please refrain from interpreting the forthcoming advice as a guaranteed solution to curing your fish or preventing diseases. At best, it can offer some assistance, but that’s the extent of it. A well-structured quarantine tank remains irreplaceable… absolutely irreplaceable.
Both freshwater dips and medicated dips can offer temporary respite from a range of parasites and infections. However, a more sustained medication regimen, spread out over several days, typically becomes necessary.
Following the drip acclimation of your new fish, I suggest employing this two-step dipping process.
V) Top 10 Beginner Saltwater Fish
Let me emphasize that this list is by no means comprehensive, nor can it ensure foolproof success. Nonetheless, it provides a solid foundation for those contemplating their initial fish selection. The species featured here are recognized for their relative hardiness and straightforward feeding habits, increasing your likelihood of success during your initial endeavor.
1. Clownfish (Ocellaris & Percula)
There are currently approximately 30 recognized species of Clownfish, with Ocellaris and Percula being the most prevalent within the aquarium hobby. Clownfish share close kinship with Damselfish and exhibit semi-aggressive behavior.
Both Ocellaris and Percula clownfish are widely available and reasonably priced, largely due to numerous captive breeding initiatives. Among saltwater fish, Clownfish are among the easiest to successfully breed in captivity.
You can acquire a captive bred Clownfish for less than $20, a fairly reasonable cost considering their potential decade-long lifespan!
For beginners, I would suggest focusing on either Ocellaris or Percula varieties, as certain other Clownfish species can grow sizeable and display pronounced aggression.
It’s worth noting that Clownfish don’t necessitate an anemone to thrive. Opting for a single Clownfish or a pair is ideal. When selecting a pair, ensure that one of the clowns is smaller than the other. The larger, more dominant clown will transform into the female, as all Clownfish are initially male.
A 20-gallon tank can comfortably house up to two clownfish. They exhibit robust hardiness but remain vulnerable to afflictions such as Brooklynella, necessitating diligent care and attention.
2. Banggai/Pajama Cardinalfish
Cardinalfish encompass a vast group of over 300 species, primarily inhabiting saltwater environments, although a few species can tolerate brackish or even freshwater conditions.
Within the saltwater hobby, Cardinalfish come in a multitude of species. Yet, among the many options, the Benggai (Kaudern’s) and Pajama species stand out as the most common and beginner-friendly choices.
This peaceful fish can exhibit slight aggression towards smaller members of the same family. It thrives best when housed in a compact school comprising three or more individuals.
Captive bred Cardinalfish are notably more robust than their wild caught counterparts and are relatively straightforward to breed.
Given their leisurely swimming style, be vigilant for any signs of aggression when introducing them to your aquarium.
These fish are truly captivating to observe. They frequently stay together in a group, seemingly suspended motionless within the open water column – a sight that’s both fascinating and enjoyable.
Resembling a goby, the Firefish is capable of injecting a vibrant burst of color into your tank. Often referred to as a Dartfish, this diminutive species displays a lack of aggression, save for interactions within its own kind. However, it’s worth noting that acquiring a mated pair can facilitate harmonious coexistence.
Ensuring you offer a sufficient number of hiding spots is imperative. When sensing danger, these fish possess a tendency to swiftly retreat into a crevice.
Another important characteristic to consider is their tendency to jump. Don’t introduce this fish into your tank unless you have a securely affixed mesh screen top in place.
4. Yellow Watchman Goby
Often recognized as Shrimp Gobies, these fish are truly captivating, largely due to the potential symbiotic partnerships they establish with various Pistol Shrimp species.
As dwellers of the lower regions, they rely on a sandy substrate for burrowing and require ample hiding spots within your live rock setup.
Although they tend to remain concealed, they occasionally emerge, seemingly gazing directly at you. Beware, they are also inclined to jump, making a securely fitting mesh screen top a necessity for your aquarium.
They readily form pairs with several Pistol Shrimp species, offering an entertaining spectacle of sharing a burrow.
Demonstrating a peaceful demeanor, these fish are well-suited for a 20-30 gallon tank environment.
5. Six Line Wrasse
An incredibly resilient and vibrant fish, the allure of this species comes with a note of caution. Despite its modest size, the Wrasse in question exhibits marked territorial behavior and tends to nip at smaller, more placid species, as well as its own kind – the Six Line Wrasses.
For those considering this fish for a smaller tank (20-30 gallons), exercising great care when introducing other fish is paramount. It’s advisable to cohabitate this Wrasse with other semi-aggressive species such as Clownfish or Damsels.
As an economical, easily manageable, and commonly accessible choice, this fish holds popularity within the marine aquarium trade. However, approach with prudence and be ready to take action if it persists in aggressive behavior.
I personally have a Six Line Wrasse in my 120-gallon tank. Upon adding new Anthias and Damselfish, the Wrasse exhibited aggression for about a day. Subsequently, they have coexisted harmoniously.
6. Flame/Longnose Hawkfish
Observing these fish within your tank provides an enjoyable experience. Hawkfish, characterized by their absence of a swim bladder, utilize their pectoral fins to secure perches on rocks, sand, and coral.
Readily available within the aquarium hobby, these fish boast impressive durability, exhibit a willingness to consume diverse meaty sustenance, and showcase engaging personalities.
In terms of temperament, they tend to be peaceful, yet there’s a potential for aggression towards their own kind.
7. Blue/Green Chromis
In my experience, Blue/Green Chromis can be impressively robust… provided you acquire a healthy batch! Unfortunately, too often these fish are already afflicted when they arrive at the local fish store (LFS). Thus, it’s vital to adhere to the aforementioned steps for selecting a healthy specimen.
Despite their classification as Damselfish, Chromis exhibit a peaceful demeanor. They thrive in groups and boast a potential lifespan of over a decade.
Additionally, these fish are among the most affordable options and are widely accessible. Growing up to 4 inches, I would recommend accommodating them in a tank of at least 30 gallons.
Their graceful schooling behavior enhances their aesthetic appeal, making them an excellent choice for beginners.
8. Azure Damselfish
Presenting another Damselfish variety, these vividly blue and yellow-hued fish prove to be an excellent choice for beginners. As they mature, their semi-aggressive tendencies become more pronounced, necessitating cohabitation solely with other semi-aggressive species within a 30-gallon or larger aquarium.
Economical and readily available, these fish are frequently cultivated in captivity. Opting for a captive bred Azure Damselfish may involve a slightly higher cost per fish, but it contributes to reef conservation and often yields a more resilient specimen.
Thriving in small groups, it’s crucial to offer ample hiding spots as these fish tend to nip at others when they feel threatened or to safeguard their territory.
9. Coral Beauty Angelfish
I hold back a bit on suggesting the Coral Beauty as a beginner’s choice, mainly due to their requirement for a larger tank (60-70 gallons) and their inclination to nip at a variety of corals, including sps, lps, and softies. However, it’s worth noting that this is among the few species of Angelfish available as captive bred, making them more accustomed to life within home aquariums.
As a smaller type of Angelfish, the Coral Beauty generally displays a peaceful disposition towards its tank mates. Operating as a grazinger, ensure your aquarium boasts an abundance of live rock to facilitate the species’ food pecking activities throughout the day.
10. Royal Gramma Basslet
An excellent choice for beginners, the Royal Gramma stands out not only for its striking appearance but also for its suitability in smaller tanks. Although generally peaceful, it tends to be aggressive towards other Royal Grammas.
Being a carnivorous species, this basslet readily consumes a variety of prepared pellet foods. Displaying territorial behavior, it often chases other fish away from its chosen hideout within your aquascape.