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 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.

Hardiness

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.

Vibrant

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.

Inexpensive

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.

Non-Aggressive

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 with 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 structures 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:

Name

# 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 medication guide.

Comments

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Leave a Comment