five best saltwater aquarium fish for beginners

Five Best Saltwater Aquarium Fish for Beginners

What makes a fish species a great saltwater aquarium fish for beginners? 

There are a few key attributes that are most important if you are a looking to add a great community fish to your saltwater aquarium. A great saltwater aquarium fish for beginners must be:

  • Hardy
  • Vibrant
  • Inexpensive
  • Non-aggressive
  • Great community fish

These are all tropical fish, meaning they come from tropical waters (generally with a temperature around 78-80 degrees Fahrenheit, but to be clear, these fish will not survive in a freshwater aquarium. You have to keep them in a marine aquarium. If you are thinking about converting from freshwater to saltwater, check out this article here.


To be a great saltwater aquarium fish for beginners, the most important attribute to look for is hardiness. The best starter fish must be able to tolerate imperfect aquarium conditions and acclimate well to life inside the new saltwater aquarium you have set up without the need for super challenging care.

Hardiness also speaks to how well a fish eats. You want fish that will eat readily available foods.


A great saltwater aquarium fish for beginners should also have vibrant colors and a vibrant personality. A starter fish is going to be one of the first fish you add to your aquarium, and as a result, it might be the fish you have for the longest period of time. No sense picking a mild-mannered or drably colored fish–a great saltwater starter fish should be vibrant.


Adding saltwater fish to a new aquarium is always a challenging event. A new aquarium can be a harsh, changing environment, and the fish you add may not survive. So it makes sense that the first fish you select–your starter fish– should be relatively inexpensive.

It’s a tragedy to lose any fish you add to your aquarium–but it’s an expensive tragedy to lose an expensive fish–so the ideal saltwater starter fish will be an inexpensive fish.


Saltwater starter fish must absolutely be non-aggressive. Any fish you add to your aquarium will naturally acclimate to the conditions and set up their territory within the space. Aggressive species are those species that rigorously defend their territory against other fish.

It is best to add aggressive fish at the end of your stocking list, rather than the beginning, to avoid aggressive behavior. An aggressive fish dropped into an aquarium with other established fish is a fish that ‘has no territory’ to defend. An aggressive fish dropped into an empty aquarium often defines its territory as the entire aquarium and will fight to protect it.

So pick non-aggressive fish to be your saltwater starter fish.

Great community fish

All of the saltwater aquarium fish on this list are considered to be great community fish. that doesn’t mean they’re going to volunteer to run your annual block party, but they are each, individually known to be fish that get along well with other small aquarium fish.

Here five saltwater starter fish for beginners that can be added to any aquarium

In addition to each being an excellent addition to any saltwater fish or marine aquarium, these fish can all be kept together in the same aquarium, as long as the aquarium contains at least 55 gallons (208L) in volume. You can combine just a few of these species in a smaller aquarium if you prefer or set up a refugium to increase the volume of your tank.

Saltwater aquarium fish for beginners # 5- The Pajama Cardinalfish

One of the best saltwater starter fish for beginners is the curiously colored Pajama Cardinalfish. These fish are hardy, boldly patterned members of the mouth-brooding cardinalfish genus (mouthbrooding means one of the two fish–in this case the male–holds the eggs in their mouth while the larvae inside the eggs get ready to hatch…way cool).

PJs are ubiquitous in fish stores all over the country—their bold colors, hardiness, low price and mild manners make them equally suited as a great starter fish or addition to an established setup.

Saltwater fish # 4- The Neon Goby

neon goby a functional fish

The Neon Goby is a great saltwater fish for beginners. This is a small fish with a lot of personalities.  Neon Gobies are ‘perching’ fish—they sit on their pelvic fins, with their belly lined up flat along the preferred structure in their territory.  They are also sometimes characterized as ‘cleaner fish’. 

In your tank, you may see them perched, facing straight up or upside-down on a flat rock or on the glass.  They wait in their territory for morsels of food to float by or for a larger fish (like a Coral Beauty Angelfish…keep reading) to swim by and ‘request’ a cleaning. 

The larger fish will stop and hover, while the Neon Goby darts around, look for parasites or loose scales, picks them off and makes a meal of the treasured tasty morsel.  Aquacultured Neon Gobies can often be found, so efforts should be made to purchase such tank-reared specimens over wild-caught.

In addition to being a fantastic saltwater starter fish all on their own merit, the cleaning behavior expressed by neon gobies may also help reduce aggression in the saltwater aquarium, according to some research done on a different cleaner species.

Community saltwater fish # 3-The Royal Gramma

The Royal Gramma is a beautiful saltwater starter fish that is half purple and half yellow—since purple and yellow are the colors of royalty, the fish earned the common name: Royal Gramma.  This fish is great for any size aquarium, even a Nano aquarium and is, therefore, one of the best saltwater aquarium fish for beginners.

Please be careful not to confuse this fish with the Royal Dottyback which shares similar coloration, but is an aggressive, territorial and in my opinion, less attractive fish that isn’t suitable to be a community fish.  Given suitable rock-work or other structure in your tank, the Royal Gramma makes a great starter fish and will be a bold, colorful, comfortable addition to your tank.

Beginner marine fish # 2- The Coral Beauty Angelfish

coral beauty angelfish

There are two kinds of angelfish available in the hobby today—’regular’ angelfish and dwarf or pygmy angels.  Regular angelfish species, like the Emperor Angelfish or Queen Angelfish, are gorgeous fish but are large, delicate, and NOT good saltwater starter fish, or even good fish for the advanced aquarist hoping to keep coral.

The pygmy angelfishes, however, are docile, reef safe fish that grow only to be a few inches in length and are a great addition of color and perpetual motion to any tank.  Some of the more rare species can be expensive to purchase and also more delicate—which is why the Coral Beauty Angelfish is the perfect combination of hardiness, color and value for the money–making it an excellent beginner saltwater fish.

The Coral Beauty is probably the most expensive fish on this list but is still reasonably priced by most saltwater reef fish standards.  They are worth every penny and typically less expensive than some other pygmy angels, like the Fire Angel.

Inspect pygmy angelfish closely in the tank at your local fish store, because they are susceptible to saltwater Ich.

Saltwater Starter Fish # 1- The Ocellaris Clownfish

This common clownfish is clearly one of the best saltwater aquarium fish for beginners.

It goes by several names–Common Clownfish, False Percula Clownfish, and Ocellaris Clownfish.  It is also sometimes incorrectly called the Percula clownfish—which is similar in appearance, but typically commands a higher price.  “All the world loves a clown,” and no tank would be complete without a clownfish.

So why not start with the most popular and hardiest fish in the entire aquarium hobby–perhaps the most popular beginner saltwater fish ever.  Consider buying two Ocellaris Clownfish, and watch them pair up in your tank. If you follow the stocking advice here, you will have a combination of small and medium-sized fish.

You will have a splash of orange, white, black, purple, yellow, pink and neon white/blue.  You will see clearly defined coloration patterns, gradual fading color patterns, and seemingly mismatched color patterns.

You will see stripes and polka dots, and observe a mixture of behaviors—from the hyperactive, constantly grazing angelfish, to the waddling ‘begging for food’ clownfish, to the perching and cleaning goby, to the darting gramma, and the slow, deliberate movements of the cardinalfish.  Who knows, you may even witness your clownfish pair up and spawn.

If you’re on the fence about setting up your first saltwater reef tank, stop waiting and make it happen. I hope this information helps.

Beginner saltwater fish chart:


# Specimens

PJ CardinalfishKeep a single fish in a small-to-medium sized tank. In a larger tank (75 gallons +) consider a small shoal of 3 to 5 fish
Neon GobyKeep a single fish, or a mated pair.  2 fish if the same gender will fight and should not be kept together
Royal GrammaKeep a single fish to avoid aggression. Also, try to avoid mixing similarly colored/sized fish–like the Royal Dottyback or Diadem Dottyback
Coral Beauty AngelfishThe old adage is to keep only one angelfish per tank to avoid problems
Ocellaris ClownfishI recommend purchasing two fish. Part of the fun of clownfish is watching them pair up and establish a territory.  The two, once bonded, will be a joy to watch, as they spend most of their time together. Do not mix clownfish species, as serious aggression will result.

Summary: Saltwater aquarium fish for beginners

Setting up your aquarium for the first time is an awesome feeling. The excitement and anticipation are hard to contain. Make sure you take a moment to pause and reflect on your goals for your aquarium–and try to envision what it looks like once it is full and established–and then work backward to figure out the best order in which to add the fish.

If you make a bad choice now, you could be stuck with it for a very long time.  Stick with the list of saltwater starter fish mentioned above and you’ll be off to a great start.

If you would like to stray just a little bit from these conventional and very safe options, you might want to check out these 7 coolest saltwater fish for beginners, instead.

An additional resource to help you pick the perfect beginner saltwater fish

It is important to make sure that the saltwater fish you add to your marine aquarium are compatible with each other. A great resource to confirm the compatibility of different species of saltwater fish is the saltwater fish compatibility chart. There are many other great options in addition to the fish described here, so take your time, do some research and pick great fish.

Further reading

There are actually a lot of fish that you absolutely should not consider as beginner saltwater fish. Every now and then, a well-intentioned but otherwise not that well-informed individual will make a recommendation that could haunt you, in the long run.

Don’t make that mistake. Check out 5 starter fish to avoid here, or check out these books and these magazines that will help you get started.

Sometimes your starter fish can get sick from parasites and infections. If so, you’ll want to check out this aquarium medications guide.


  1. hi, i would like a salt water set up but is a 5 gallon tank ok? i would like 20 clown fish in it, is it ok? very nice blog by the way 😀 more power

  2. Author

    Thanks for checking out the blog. I appreciate your positive energy and interest in the hobby. I’d like to be balanced with my response to your question. I’m hopeful that you will continue to puruse your interests, explore the hobby, and see how fun it can be.
    A word of caution, however, on the size of the tank and the number of fish you are interested in. While it is possible to have essentially ‘any’ size tank, a 5 gallon tank may not be ideally suited for a beginner. Remember that the smaller the tank, the more important it is to maintain pristine tank conditions–and this is difficult to do for even the most advanced aquarists, so you would be taking some risks, to have a tank that size.
    Regarding the stocking level–it would be extremely difficult to maintain suitable living conditions for that many fish, in that small of a volume of water. Besides, who wants 1 female clownfish, one male and 18 juvenile males anyway? That’s about 18 too many. I encourage you to keep reading up on the hobby and keep learning. You’ll figure out what’s best for your soon enough.

  3. Hi,im very new to marine life and have just started buying products for my 200 litre tank,any suggestions?ive got a sump and my lighting.really good site by the way.cheers.

  4. Author

    Welcome to the site and the hobby! Thanks for signing up for the newsletter, too! I wish you great success and fun in the hobby. The sump and lighting are definitely a good start. If you are going to have a tropical tank (most people do) you’ll need a good heater. Depending on the size of your return pump (the pump that returns water from your sump back into your tank)you may want to add a powerhead (internal pump)to supplement the water flow. While not necessary, I highly recommend you get a protein skimmer too. Do you have plans for a filter?

  5. hello, I enjoyed reading this! My husband and i have been doing saltwater tanks for over 6 years but have just decided to purchase a 14gal start up tank from one of his co-workers. It’s been previously used, he had a pair of clownfish in it. After we get it established, what would be a good combination of starter fish to put in it?

  6. Author

    Hi Reba, as you know, starting a new aquarium is like a blank canvas. You have a lot of options in front of you. I’m not sure what your taste is or fish preferences, but in a nano tank like you describe, it is best to stay small–and that means you can’t go wrong with gobies–there are a lot of species to choose from. I encourage you to check out an article on NanoReefBlog written by Albert J. Thiel on the subject. He covers much more than I can in a comment here:

  7. Great article. Very informative for a beginner like me. Have had freshwater tanks my whole life. Bought a 150 gal tank recently and I’m going to make it a FOWLR tank. I love all the fish you talked about, but would like to add a few more to the list. After a lot of reading I thought a small school of blue/green chromis and a firefish would go well? Would love your thoughts? Also would you recommend any others with or instead of the ones I suggested?

    1. Author

      Hi Matt, welcome to the hobby, glad to have you on board.Thanks for finding the site and engaging with the content like this. The fish you mention here (green chromis and firefish) are beginner fish. They are hardy, inexpensive and have great colors. I have experience keeping both types of fish and even tried to do what you mention, which is have a small school of them. At one point, I even tried to breed the firefish when I had the fish room going in the basement. My firefish have always meet their doom by jumping out of the tank. Even when I had what I thought were tight-fitting lids. The green chromis look great when you drop them in, but they have a tendency to ‘disappear’ one at a time. I’ve read other accounts of this dwindling effect. I suspect there is aggression within the species I just haven’t seen, but I’m not sure.

      Other great starter fish would be captive-bred blenny species (canary, midas, striped, etc.), hawkfish (although they’ll eat your invertebrates), or even chalk bass, if you can get them in your area.

  8. I’ve been considering starting a saltwater tank for awhile now, and it’s quite overwhelming. This article was very helpful. If you could give a list of live plants that would go well with these fish and the best food choices for each of them that would be amazing. If possible I would like to start growing my own food. Thanks!

  9. Author

    Hi Andee, thanks for the comment and welcome to the hobby. It’s a lot of fun (maybe even addicting), I wish you a lot of success as you get started here.

    Compared with the freshwater side of things, there aren’t really all that many ‘plants’ that people tend to keep in their tanks. Some people keep macro algae in their tank or in the sump area called a refugium.
    If you keep a fish like the coral beauty mentioned here, you may find that they graze on the algae naturally.
    As far as food choices, my favorite food to feed on a regular basis is frozen mysid shrimp–you get them in the freezer at your local fish store. That would be a great routine food for clownfish, gobies, grammas and cardinal fish. For the angelfish, that would work as a staple, but you need to supplement with macro algae, which is typically sold in the dry goods section. You will see this in food stores where they attach it with a plastic clip in the water.

    I also feed my fish with a Spirulina based flake food by ZooMed. Spirulina is another algae. You can pick this up in stores or at Amazon

    On occasion, I also like to supplement with live foods, like brine shrimp (you can buy these at many fish shops) and/or live black worms (sometimes harder to find). Use this kind of food sparingly.

    Finally, for your angelfish, there are angelfish-specific frozen foods that have sponges and other healthy foods mixed in. That’s a good, safe recommendation for angels.

    Here’s a link to more info about a refugium.

      1. Author

        Sure thing. I realized you mentioned you may want to grow your own food. If you decide you want to do that. A relatively ‘easy’ food to grow and hatch are brine shrimp but it would just be an occasional food, not an every day thing. You could also grow phytoplankton to feed your corals, but I would recommend getting that deep into things somewhere a lot further down the road.

  10. Can you talk about tangs? There are so many tangs out there. I learned that tangs are easily infected with Ich when stressed. What particular area need to pay attention to?

    1. Author

      Hi Alan, thanks for the comment. I wouldn’t necessarily consider tangs to be a beginner saltwater starter fish. I think of them as intermediate to advanced. In general, they need a lot of space (about ~75+ gallons aquarium volume), and they are almost all wild caught, with the exception of a few yellow tangs which have been aquqcultured. The do tend to have challenges with ich infestations. I have personally had a fair amount of success with yellow tangs. they are hardy and brightly colored. What size tank do you have? What kind of tangs are you considering?

  11. Just starting a salt water tank and looking for the best combination of fish and living coral. Just browsing sites.

  12. Just subscribed.
    Really enjoy your website, very informative. Hope to get more!

  13. I enjoyed this post. I’m currently setting up my 30 gallon saltwater tank as we speak. So far, I’m not set on any particular starter fish except for a pair of clownfish. My goal is to have a good selection of anemone and coral primarily. However, there will also be a cleaning crew of crabs, snails, and shrimp. I’ve already purchased a filter, once the tank is stable and acclimated with good water quality, my next purchase (besides fish) will be a skimmer, and shortly thereafter a refugium. Do you have any additional suggestions for a first-time-hobbyist?

    1. Author

      Peter, first of all, THANK YOU for the comment. I really appreciate it and would appreciate comments on any of the posts you have something to add. As far as advice, I would actually recommend you hold off on adding an anemone–they’re hard to keep alive and are not for beginners. I’d also suggest you check out this page.

      1. Thank you! Of course I don’t intend to get an anemone until my tank is mature, and that is going to take plenty of time. Long term goals though!
        Oddly enough however, when I purchased some new live rock for my tank, I got a hitchhiking mushroom! So here’s to hoping it thrives in the new environment!

  14. Really love Saltwater Starter Fish # 1- The Ocellaris Clownfish. It is great beginner saltwater fish and it makes a half of my fish tank.

  15. Albert, in respect to the Coral Beauty can you give me an indication of tank sizes for it? I have read a bit and seems to find a lot of variations as to what is the minimum size tank needed.

    PS Not on your list but I have similar issues with tank sizes for the Foxface Rabbitfish?

    1. Author

      Hi Joe, thanks for the great question, sorry for not covering that better in the article. I’ll plan to make an update to it, for sure. The Coral Beauty Angelfish grows to about 4 inches in length and is a very active swimmer. My recommendation would be to have a 40-55 gallon tank, at a minimum. I’ve seen some sources list both smaller and larger tanks as ‘ideal’ for this fish, but I’m somewhere in the middle. If you believe strongly that the fish should have more than ample room, stay to the high side. If you believe you could create an environment with lots of swimming room on the small side, you could do that as well.

      The rabbitfish, by comparison, is a much larger fish that grows to ~ 9 inches in length. They also have poisonous spines…which means, if you’re going to be in your tank, you want there to be plenty of room for the fish to get out of the way. I wouldn’t recommend a fox face rabbitfish for any tank under ~100 gallons–and even then, the fox face, once grown up, would be a large fish in that tank.

      1. Appreciate the reply Albert, I thought that much. My 32 gallon is just not going to do it for me…now how to convince the wife I need a bigger tank?!

        1. Author

          Joe, good luck with that. You may want to start by suggesting you buy a small yacht. Once you both agree that is too expensive, quickly introduce the new aquarium topic.

  16. I agree for Saltwater Starter Fish # 1 – The Ocellaris Clownfish. Great little fish healthy upon arrival and friendly in the tank!

  17. Hello Albert:

    I bought my first marine tank about 5 yrs ago when I saw a used 90 gal, used in an oak cabinet identical to my freshwater set up. Hubby thought I was nuts. Everyone I talked to said all the fish that came with it, three large tangs and one large Niger trigger would all die when I set up new water. So I bought 2 50gal plastic garbage pails and hubby tied them to the cab of his full size 4 door pick up and I pumped all the water out of the tank and brought it home too. SUCCESS was mine. So for anyone starting out like I was, to increase your odds I strongly recommend bringing the water home too. For myself it was well worth the 100$ I spent for a couple of brand new pails. I’ve subscribed. Cheers

    1. Author

      Hi Colette, thanks for the comment. Talk about turnkey–it sounds like you bought and relocated an entire aquarium system, including the fish and water. You bring up a good point about water and stability–a key part of being successful with a new aquarium is getting the biofilter established and keeping the water quality stable. Because you purchased and relocated a mature system, you likely moved the bacteria (mature biofilter) along with it, in the water and on the substrate.

      For those of you looking to start your own tank, take a few examples from Colette’s experience and tips–try to ‘seed’ the tank with mature water, mature bacteria (from a sponge?) and mature rock from an existing tank. In Colette’s example, she moved ‘the whole thing’ not just a seed amount.

      Thanks, Colette

  18. Albert, I also meant to add that I’ve since moved up to a 180 gal mixed reef and a 140gal tropical Discus. I friggin love this hobby, although I have spilled a million gallons of water by now. Good thing it’s in the downstairs. One day I must replace my floor, I should be a pro by then. Seriously though, I never walk away when I’m pumping water anymore, just too easily distracted. Would love to send you a couple of picks if you send me a destination?? Regards

    1. Author

      Colette, thanks again for the additional comment. Sounds like you’re hooked and keep some impressive tanks. Those sound like great tanks. I always wanted a discus tank–but I switched to saltwater before I ‘got there’.

      Agree on the advice to never walk away. I’ve spilled some serious water that way too. Seems funny that it ‘only happens’ when you step away.

      Thanks again for all the contributions here, please keep them up! What’s your best advice for someone starting out?

      1. My best advise for starting out would have to be as I actually do tell people is the bigger the water the better. If you can afford it and say you’re looking at a30gal but plan to upsize to a 90gal then just go for the 90. Buy a functioning second hand setup. You get everything you need to start at half the price of new and a larger volume of water is much more stable than a small volume. I went from a 5 to a 90. I found myself constantly changing the water in the 5 and lost a lot of little fish because of my water’s instability. Anyhow my motto is “the bigger the water the better”. Adequate filtration and stable temps are probably the next most important in making “big water” good water. Of course hobbyists already know this but you asked about advice for newbies. I have learned and McGyvered a few tricks along the way. A good plan for saving money at one end of the hobby to be able to spend at another end of it. Say how to hold a pump together rather than throwing it out and replacing it then you can get the fish you’ve been eyeing. (Return pump I McGyvered about 8 months ago still going strong.). Thanks for replying, wasn’t expecting that since I just wrote to you last night. Pretty impressive! Regards

  19. Hi Albert,
    I’m a newbie, cycling my 32g biocube, of course I want to add 2 clownfish, as tankmates what are your thoughts on maybe 2 assessors and a six line wrasse? Thank you

    1. Author

      Cathy, thanks for the comment. Clowns are a ‘must’. Assessors are great looking, captive bred fish–good choice and six line wrasse is a tiny perpetual motion machine. The Wrasses are sometimes known to be bullies so I would advise adding them last. Keep us posted, sounds like a fun tank!

  20. Hello, I have a fully cycled 150 litre saltwater aquarium with a single maroon clownfish. I am adding fish gradually so what would be compatible with him.

    Many thanks

    1. Author

      Hi Steven, thanks for checking out the site and for the comment/question. Kudos on going slow. The maroon clownfish can be a bit territorial, so the best advice I could give would be to pick fish big enough or tough enough to fend for themselves. Jeff, at Saltwater Smarts recommends larger wrasses, tangs, triggers, but the wrasses and tangs probably need more room than you have in your 150 l.

      Some other choices might be dotty backs or a royal gramma (either or, not both) maybe a six line wrasse,

      I’m speculating here, but perhaps a few pajama cardinal fish would work too–they are big and docile but having a few may dilute the idea of any one being the target of too much bullying. Every animal is a little different, you may see your clown is more tolerant of other species–but I’m erring on the side of caution here since they can sometimes be aggressive.

  21. Thank you for this article Albert.

    Would other species of clown fish be reasonable for a beginner or is the Ocellaris Clownfish the recommended? My local fish shop has a vibrant red clown fish which looks amazing. Do you recommend getting an anemone as well?

    1. Author

      Hi Jackson, thanks for the comment. Ocellaris (common) clownfish are what I recommend because they are the perfect size for most tanks, inexpensive, hardy and not aggressive. Percula clownfish come in a close second. Beyond that, other types of clownfishes like tomato clowns and maroon clowns are inexpensive and hardy but are also larger and can be more aggressive. They will live well in most tanks but may be a bit aggressive. the bright red fish you talk about is possibly a tomato or maroon. If that’s your preferred clownfish, go for it, just read up about the specifics of that species.

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