10 Best Saltwater Aquarium Fish for Beginners

saltwater aquarium fish for beginners

While taking the plunge and setting up your own saltwater tank can be exhilarating, the sheer number of possible inhabitants can also be overwhelming. With over 1,500 possible fish species to choose from and a limited amount of tank space, it’s easy to be frozen by indecision.

Don’t worry– we’re here to help. The fish guide below has been created to help you target your search and find the perfect beginner saltwater fish for your aquarium habitat.

How to Choose Fish for a Saltwater Aquarium

When creating your first saltwater aquarium, it’s important to start with fish that will be able to survive and thrive as you learn the ropes. The best fish to start with are fish that meet the following criteria:

  • Do not require a large tank
  • Are reef-safe (if your tank will have a reef)
  • Are not overly-aggressive
  • Are hardy and/or bred in captivity
  • Do not require specialized diets
  • Are inexpensive

The next step is ensuring that the species you choose will thrive in the ecosystem that you have created. It’s important to make sure that your aquarium is large enough and has the proper water quality and habitat for the species you choose.

If you are adding the fish to an active aquarium, it’s important to make sure that their temperament and lifestyle is compatible with the other species in your tank. If you are unsure, talk to your local fish shop or reference a Marine Animal Compatibility Chart.

To help you, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite beginner saltwater aquarium fish below.

Best Saltwater Aquarium Fish for Beginners

1. Ocellaris Clownfish

Ocellaris Clownfish

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Maximum Size: 3”
  • Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Reef Compatible: Yes

Since “Finding Nemo” came out in 2003, the bubbly orange and white Ocellaris Clownfish has become one of the most iconic marine fish in the world. As luck would have it, the Ocellaris Clownfish is also one of the best saltwater aquarium fish for beginners.

Ocellaris Clownfish are hardy fish that are able to thrive in the inconsistent environment of a new aquarist. They’re not picky eaters and will gladly subsist on the dry pellets and frozen foods, which are available at your average pet store. However, they also enjoy algae, zooplankton, worms, and small crustaceans.

If given the option, it is best to purchase a tank-raised Ocellaris Clownfish, as they are accustomed to being hand-fed and will acclimate more quickly to a new tank. The Ocellaris Clownfish does best on its own or with a mate.

Now let’s talk anemones: while clownfish are known for their symbiotic relationships with anemones, they are not dependent on them for survival. In an aquarium setting, the Ocellaris Clownfish will be just as happy with rocky overhangs and caves.

Anemones typically require larger tanks than clownfish and are difficult to maintain. Therefore, consider skipping the anemone, at least until you have some saltwater experience under your belt.

2. Chalk Bass

Chalk Bass

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Maximum Size: 3”
  • Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Reef Compatible: No

The Chalk Bass is the ultimate saltwater aquarium starter fish. It is an extremely durable fish that will seamlessly adapt to various water types and environments, and can thrive in sub-optimal water conditions.

The Chalk Bass is a voracious eater that will consume any insects, worms, zooplankton, fry fish, or small invertebrates it encounters. Therefore, it’s best to limit it to a Fish Only with Live Rock (FOWLR) tank so that it doesn’t decimate your shrimp or invertebrate populations. (Link the FOWLR above to the FAQs below)

The Chalk Bass is related to Sea Bass and Giant Groupers. However, you would never know it by looking at it. The Chalk Bass is a beautiful white fish with prominent red stripes.

Unlike its relatives, the Chalk Bass is a small, non-aggressive fish that will coexist with most non-aggressive species. It is typically reclusive, and will require plenty of caves and rocky overhangs to retreat to.

Before you purchase your Chalk Bass, make sure you take into account their two small quirks:

  • Chalk Bass like to breach, and therefore require a tank with a sealed lid.
  • Chalk Bass must be added to the tank at the same time as any other Chalk Basses to prevent territorial fighting.

3. Blue-Green Chromis

Blue-Green Chromis

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Maximum Size: 4”
  • Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Reef Compatible: Yes

Unlike most damselfish, the Blue-Green Chromis is a mellow fish that is extremely easy to care for. Blue-Green Chromis, as the name suggests, are iridescent aquamarine fish that will dazzle in any home aquarium.

They are schooling fish, and are happiest when added in groups of six or more. Once in your tank, a school of Blue-Green Chromis will glide together through the middle to upper water column and feed on food as it floats by. Blue-Green Chromis will eat a variety of foods, including meaty items, frozen foods, and herbivore flakes.

The Blue-Green Chromis is one of the most common beginner saltwater aquarium fish because it gets along with almost all fish, corals, and invertebrates.

This friendly demeanor, combined with its hardiness and well-versed diet, make it an easy addition to any tank.

4. Watchman Goby

Watchman Goby

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Maximum Size: 2”
  • Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Reef Compatible: Yes

The Watchman Goby, also known as the Yellow Prawn Goby or the Yellow Shrimp Goby, is one of the most popular saltwater aquarium fish. The Watchman Goby’s bright yellow coloration and iridescent blue spots are an amusing contradiction to its eternal scowl. Don’t let its grumpy face fool you- the Watchman Goby is an amicable fish that will happily coexist with other peaceful species.

Watchman Gobies require a sandy substrate that they can burrow in, as well as plenty of rocks to hide behind. They will spend the majority of their time perched on the edge of their burrow or on the cliff of a rock, patiently waiting for food to float in their direction.

Their varied diets make Watchman Gobies easy to care for. They will happily eat table shrimp and mysis shrimp (both available at most pet stores), as well as the algae that naturally grows on the plants and substrates of the tank.

The one catch with Watchman Gobies? They don’t get along with other gobies!

So, limit your tank to a single Watchman Goby unless you have a large tank with plenty of room for all of them.

5. Firefish Goby

Firefish Goby

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Maximum Size: 3”
  • Minimum Tank Size: 20 gallons
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Reef Compatible: Yes

If the Watchman Goby isn’t your style, the Firefish Goby is a fantastic alternative. The Firefish Goby, also known as the Fire Goby, Nemateleotric magnifica, or Magnificent Fire Dartfish, is so named for its subdued white body and bright red and orange tail.

The Firefish Goby is a calm, non-confrontational fish that will continually dash from one burrow to the next in search of food. Like the Watchman Goby, the Firefish Goby has a varied diet, and will gladly feast on zooplankton, brine fish, algae, or frozen foods.

The Firefish Goby requires a good number of rocks and caves so that it can retreat to cover when it is feeling stressed. It also requires an aquarium with a tight lid, as they are prone to jump from the water during their frequent dashes.

And, like most members of the goby family, they don’t get along with other gobies! Therefore, it’s best to have them housed singly.

6. Pajama Cardinalfish

Pajama Cardinalfish

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Maximum Size: 3 ½”
  • Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Reef Compatible: Yes

The Pajama Cardinalfish is by far the coolest saltwater aquarium fish on this list. With its yellow/green face, black torso, and orange polka-dotted tail, the Pajama Cardinalfish looks more akin to a mix and match doll that was dressed by an enthusiastic toddler.

Luckily, their unique style is matched by their fun, quirky personalities. Pajama Cardinalfish, when introduced to a tank together, will boldly school around the tank, putting on a beautiful display.

Pajama Cardinalfish thrive in tanks with lots of live plants or rocks; they are explorative fish and slow swimmers, so they like to know that safety is close at hand. They are also a nocturnal breed, so they prefer to be fed at night, unlike most of the other fish that you will likely have in your tank.

This quirk also makes them a great addition to your saltwater aquarium, because it ensures that your tank will be active and aesthetically captivating 24/7.

7. Bi-Color Blenny Fish

Bi-Color Blenny Fish

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Maximum Size: 4”
  • Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Diet: Herbivore
  • Reef Compatible: Yes

The Bi-Color Blenny is an adorable perching fish with a blue anterior and dull orange posterior. The Bi-Color Blenny, also known as the Two-Colored Blenny, has a peaceful disposition, and will happily watch its tankmates’ antics from the comfort of its perch.

If you add male and female Bi-Color Blennies to your tank, you will get to enjoy the color shifts that males go through during the mating process.

The Bi-Color Blenny will also make your life easier by eating any marine and blue-green algae that grows in the tank. Its diet should be supplemented with vegetable matter and frozen/dried foods that contain algal matter.

The Bi-Color Blenny is a typically peaceful fish. However, they can get nippy with other blennies, small gobies, and dartfish. However, most of this behavior is negated as long as there are enough burrows and caves to go around.

8. Royal Gramma Basslet

Royal Gramma Basslet

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Maximum Size: 3”
  • Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Reef Compatible: Yes

The Royal Gramma Basslet, also known as the Fairy Basslet, is an instant central character in any tank with its blue/purple anterior, large blue eyes, and neon yellow posterior. Royal Gramma Basslets are small, hardy fish that are perfect for small saltwater aquariums.

They thrive in aquarium habitats with plenty of rocks and overhangs. In fact, they are known for swimming upside-down along the bottoms of overhangs while they look for food.

Royal Gramma Basslets are territorial toward their own kind and should be housed singly. They are voracious carnivores that prefer a healthy diet of zooplankton, brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, and frozen meats.

As long as other fish give them their space (they are known to give warning nips when others get too curious), they are peaceful tankmates that can coexist with most species.

9. Klein’s Butterflyfish

Klein’s Butterflyfish

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Maximum Size: 6”
  • Minimum Tank Size: 55 gallons
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Reef Compatible: No

Butterflyfish, with their yellow, black, and white markings, are some of the most iconic and recognizable saltwater aquarium fish. However, due to their aggressive behaviors and large tank requirements, they are not typically recommended for beginner aquarists.

Klein’s Butterflyfish is the exception. The Klein’s Butterflyfish, also known as the Orange, Sunburst, Brown, Corallicola, or Blacktip Butterflyfish, is a beautiful yellow fish with a black or blue-black eye band. As one of the smaller species of the butterflyfish family, Klein’s Butterflyfish are perfectly suited for smaller, beginner aquariums.

Klein’s Butterflyfish are even-tempered fish that coexist nicely with most fish species. However, they are known to eat corals, shrimps, and crustaceans.

They prefer aquariums with moderate rock structures that provide both numerous hiding spaces and plenty of swimming space.

Klein’s Butterflyfish are hardy fish that provide beginners with a great introduction into the world of larger, more aggressive marine species.

10. Coral Beauty Angelfish

Coral Beauty Angelfish

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Semi-Aggressive
  • Maximum Size: 4”
  • Minimum Tank Size: 70 gallons
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Reef Compatible:  No

The Coral Beauty Angelfish, also known as the Two-Spined or Dusky Angelfish, requires the most space of any fish on this list.

However, if you are looking at a larger tank, the Coral Beauty Angelfish is a great beginner species. Coral Beauty Angelfish are a favorite among beginning aquarists due to their hardy nature, low price, ready availability, and beautiful coloration.

Coral Beauty Angelfish are beautiful navy blue fish with vibrant orange stripes. They flourish in rocky environments and will be more active and outgoing the more hiding spaces they have. They are opportunistic eaters that will happily supplement their meaty foods with the algae growing in the tank.

The biggest thing to watch out for is their aggression; they can be aggressive towards other Coral Beauties and smaller fish if not given enough room.

Saltwater Aquarium Fish to Avoid

As a beginner saltwater aquarium hobbyist, it is best to avoid fish that:

  • Are sensitive to water quality changes- Species such as seahorses, tangs, and most angelfish are highly susceptible to water quality changes.
  • Require live food- Species such as lionfish, sharks, and seahorses will only eat live food. Live feeding is typically more challenging, more expensive, and time-intensive.
  • Are aggressive- Balancing a tank of aggressive fish takes a delicate hand and a lot of research. Therefore, when starting out, make sure that you are choosing fish that will be peaceful tankmates.

How to Introduce New Fish

When creating a new saltwater aquarium, you cannot go out and buy all of the tank components and fish on the same day. It is important to establish your tank, and then add species one by one to allow them to acclimate to their environment and their tank mates.

When adding new fish species to your aquarium, best practices include:

  • Introducing the least aggressive fish first
  • Introducing fish of the same species at the same time
  • Confirming that all current species are healthy and acclimated before introducing another species
  • Quarantining fish in an empty, cycled tank before adding them to your aquarium to ensure they aren’t sick

For more information, see our saltwater aquarium fish FAQs below.

Saltwater Aquarium Fish FAQs

How Many Fish Can I Put in My Saltwater Aquarium?

The number of fish that can live in an aquarium is based on a number of factors, including the space requirements, bioloads, and temperament of the species you choose.

However, the general rule is that you should not keep more than ½-inch of fish per gallon of water in a fish-only tank. For example, if you have a 10-gallon tank, you could keep one 5-inch fish or five 1-inch fish.

In a reef tank, the general rule is that you should not keep more than 1-inch of fish per 10-gallons of water. When doing your calculations, make sure you are using the adult size of the fish, not the size they are when you purchase them.

How Long Do Saltwater Fish Live?

The lifespan of a fish is species-specific. However, with proper care and a good environment, most saltwater reef fish are able to live for ten or more years. Some species can even live much longer. Harold and Maude, a clownfish pair in Louisiana, reportedly lived for 41 years!

Does Buying Saltwater Fish Hurt the Environment?

Historically, the saltwater aquarium trade has negatively impacted the environment. However, thanks to many creative solutions by aquarists, it’s possible to have a saltwater aquarium today with virtually no environmental impact.

Many fish species are now bred and raised in captivity, coral is typically propagated from cuttings (known as frags), and live rock is aquacultured specifically for the aquarium business.

If you are concerned about the environmental impact of your tank, discuss the origins of the species you’re considering with your local fish store prior to purchasing.

How Should I Acclimate My Fish Before Adding It to the Aquarium?

Though the floating bag method can be used for saltwater fish, it is typically better to acclimate saltwater fish using drip acclimation.

What is a Fish Only with Live Rock (FOWLR) aquarium?

A FOWLR aquarium is an aquarium that has fish species and live rocks (such as corals and algae-covered rocks).

A “reef tank” is an aquarium with fish, live rocks, and other marine species, such as crustaceans, shrimp, urchins, starfish, sponges, etc.

A “fish tank” is an aquarium with fish species only; any rocks in the tank are typically synthetic.

How Long Should I Leave My Aquarium Light On?

While fish don’t sleep like you and I do, they still need downtime just like us.

At night when the lights are off, you will see that most of your diurnal species will hunker down in caves and burrows around the tank to rest.

A good photoperiod for an aquarium is typically 10 hours per day. To keep this timing consistent of your fish, it is best to get a timer for your aquarium lights.

Final Thoughts

Choosing the right fish for your saltwater aquarium can be an exceptionally exciting, albeit sometimes daunting, task. As a beginning saltwater aquarium hobbyist, you can make your life, as well as the lives of your tank’s residents, much more enjoyable by choosing hardy, inexpensive, and easygoing fish like those listed above! With these guidelines in mind, you should have no problem finding saltwater aquarium fish species that will be happy to call your aquarium home.

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