Let’s jump right into it. Here are 26 great beginner saltwater fish and 7 fish recommended by others or sometimes just so irresistible at local fish stores that you should avoid.
Peaceful, inexpensive, ubiquitous, easy to feed (which means eager to eat frozen foods, flakes or pellets (if small enough), and a great shoaling fish (sometimes), the green chromis stands out, in my mind, as one of the best beginner saltwater fish.
Take a look at that gorgeous fish. Torpedo-shaped, with bold, prominent black lines and a flashy yellow head, the striped blenny is another great beginner saltwater fish. This captive-bred species can be added to your tank without having to ‘take one away’ from a natural reef.
Ocellaris clownfish: most popular beginner saltwater fish
All the world loves a clown–and the Ocellaris, or “common” clownfish is probably the # 1 most popular saltwater fish in the world. The shockingly bright orange coloration with the white stripes and adorable waddling motion, when swimming, makes this fish a perennial fan favorite.
Learn more about caring for and breeding the ocellaris clownfish here.
Don’t be fooled by the surprisingly aggressive name, this adorable, small, beginner saltwater fish is peaceful, hardy, and easy to care for, making the shark nose goby a great beginner saltwater fish.
Banggai cardinalfish: my favorite beginner saltwater fish
Please know, the Banggai cardinalfish is perhaps my absolute favorite fish of all time. I’m obsessed with them. The long fins, the black stripes, white dots, and the fact that they will breed in your tank and live babies will shoot out of the male’s mouth makes them soooo cool. They are a great beginner saltwater fish and even a saltwater fish breeding challenge for you, all wrapped into one.
If you’re looking to add a clownfish to your tank but want something that looks a little bit different from the rest, check out the tomato clownfish. Adorable.
With a burst of color (canary yellow color), motion, and swagger in your tank, the bold (in personality and coloration) canary blenny is a great beginner saltwater fish to consider.
Longnose hawkfish: coolest looking beginner saltwater fish
Have you ever seen a fish that looked more awesome than the Longnose hawkfish? This hardy, bold invertebrate predator will sit on display, perched on the live rock, waiting for a meal. Then, watch them zip to life at feeding time.
Yellow watchman goby
The yellow watchman goby has it all and is a perfect beginner saltwater fish. They are colorful, hardy, relatively inexpensive, and have the amazing added benefit of a really cool behavior to watch. This fish is famous for its symbiotic relationship with certain shrimps.
Pairing a goby with a saltwater shrimp is not a task for a beginner, but these are great beginner saltwater fish whether purchased solo or with a bonded shrimp.
Another great beginner saltwater fish that is fairly similar to the yellow watchman goby is the diamond goby. Take a look:
These hardy fish do need a sand bed, because their natural behavior (which is fascinating to watch) is to sift the sand through their mouths and gills. But they are hardy, beautiful, bold and relatively inexpensive.
Whether your first tank is a small nano aquarium or a larger reef tank, the tailspot blenny could be a fun beginner saltwater fish to add.
If you want to add the classic look of the common clownfish with a slightly less “common” species, take a look at the Percula clownfish, or “Perc”.
Neon dottyback: perhaps the most controversial beginner saltwater fish recommendation on this list
When it comes to the neon dottyback, I just can’t help myself. It’s a great-looking fish. They are so full of energy, have a bit of a personality (can be a little aggressive) but they are soooo vibrant and fun to watch. They are hardy, are widely available as aquacultured fish, and will certainly add some zip to the tank. They will also help you keep the polychaete (bristle worm) population in check.
The Yellowline goby is another interesting cleaner goby species you could add to a beginner saltwater tank. They have a prominent, neon yellow line that extends from their glowing eyes to their tail. They will perch on the rocks in your tank and will clean your fish of parasites or dead scales. It’s fascinating to watch cleaners go to work, and the yellow line goby is no exception.
Hardy, bold, and providing a completely different look than the other commonly available clownfish species, the Clarkii clownfish is another great choice.
I think I have had engineer gobies in my display tank at all times. I love watching these guys go to work. They are great beginner saltwater fish, as long as you have a sand bed for them to dig around in.
Pink skunk clownfish
Not quite as popular as some of their mainstream cousins, the mild-mannered pink skunk clownfish is certainly still a top 25 choice and is a perfect beginner saltwater fish choice if you want a very cool but less traditional clownfish species. I like them so much, I put them on the cover of my book. Check out the New Saltwater Aquarium Guide here.
Bicolor blenny: why choose when you can have both colors in a single fish
Another inexpensive, hardy, and small fish, the bicolor blenny can be a great addition to your tank. Just be sure to get some algae in their diet, to keep them healthy.
Flame hawkfish: a red-hot saltwater fish for beginners
Wow, look at that red and black coloration. They are on fire, look great, are hardy, relatively inexpensive fish. The biggest downside is that the flame hawkfish would eat your clean-up-crew, so if you want to have hermits and small snails, you shouldn’t get a flame hawkfish. But they are otherwise a perfect beginner saltwater fish.
Pajama cardinalfish: can’t go wrong
Topping the charts, perhaps, with the craziest pattern on a saltwater fish, the pajama cardinalfish is a great beginner saltwater fish. They are super-hardy, inexpensive, available almost everywhere.
Neon goby: another one of my personal favorite saltwater fish for beginners
The last of the cleaner gobies recommended here, but the first cleaner that I personally added to my reef tank, the neon goby is a great beginner saltwater fish. They are hardy, inexpensive and one of the easiest fish to breed in captivity.
Firefish goby (actually a dartfish): you should get one if you are a beginner –and have a tight-fitting lid
Take a look. Need I say more? Probably the most gorgeous and delicate-looking fish available for less than $15 (at most stores, I assume). It’s hard to beat this fish in terms of color and grace. The firefish goby is certainly one of the best beginner saltwater fish. However, watch out for this fish’s greatest nemesis–your floor.
This great saltwater fish seems to have added another level of ‘pop’ to the yellow or gold colorations of other reef fish.
Coral beauty angelfish
Hardy, colorful, bold, and full of motion, the coral beauty angelfish is another ‘go-to’ species to consider as a beginner saltwater fish. The bold colors and relatively lower price tag make them a great fish to give dwarf angelfish a try. The two minor downsides are that they are susceptible to saltwater ich and sometimes may nip at fleshy coral polyps like zoanthids and other softies. That has not been my personal experience with them (I have had a Coral Beauty in my tank for years now), but there are reports.
They get their name from the Royal coloration they display (take a look–awesome, right)? But they are also hardy, inexpensive and although last on the list here of 25 great beginner saltwater fish, they are certainly among the most popular fish in the hobby.
7 fish to avoid (if you are a beginner…and sometimes forever)
There is some bad advice out there on the web (and sometimes perpetuated in pet stores) about a few inexpensive and hardy saltwater fish that are purchased as beginner saltwater fish. I strongly recommend you just steer clear of the fish in this section
Not sure why other sites are recommending mollies. Look, they’re cheap, ubiquitous, and can tolerate full-strength saltwater, but just because they can tolerate it doesn’t mean they are beginner saltwater fish. Every molly I’ve ever seen was kept in freshwater in the local fish store. Then you have to figure out how to acclimate them to saltwater by slowly increasing the salinity without hurting or killing them.
Then, you’ll likely be adding them to a tank full of reef fish. Mollies are not reef fish. I reject the recommendation of this fish as a great beginner saltwater fish, with prejudice. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it.
Damselfishes are some of the most commonly imported saltwater fish. They are extremely hardy. They are inexpensive. Many of them seem to glow, with electric coloration. In the local fish store, they look like swimming jewels. I totally get the allure. I have also ‘bought into the hype’ and regretted it. But damselfish, like the blue devil damselfish, are (spell it with me like a cheerleader), A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E.
Do you know what aggressive fish like to do? Claim as much territory in your tank, as the other fish will allow, and then defend it by attacking (biting!) anything that swims into its territory.
Want to know how much of your tank an aggressive fish will ‘declare’ as its territory if it is a beginner saltwater fish and nothing else is in the tank with it? The entire tank. Handing over your shiny new saltwater tank to a damselfish is just asking for trouble.
With that said, there are some situations where you might want to have some damselfish–you can learn more about the blue devil damselfish here.
The six-line wrasse is such a cool fish. One of my favorite fish to look at, in terms of coloration/patterns. The blue/red/pink colorations with those amazing eyes are a lot of fun. Watching them is like watching perpetual motion personified…or I guess…fish-onified. For a guy, like me, who likes to eat, I also identify with the fact that they seem to be always scouring the rock work looking for something to eat–copepods, worms, you name it. The way their eyes move around in their heads, too, creates an image of a fish supremely evolved to exploit their niche. They are also hardy and inexpensive.
Those are all the reasons I love this fish. HOWEVER, most of the time the six-line wrasse will be a jerk in your tank. You don’t want that kind of drama. Best to avoid them, unfortunately.
Seahorses: not a great beginner saltwater fish
Very sorry if I am bursting any bubbles with this recommendation, but seahorses should probably not be considered to be beginner saltwater fish. I totally get the allure. I suspect a love for seahorses attracts a fair amount of us, myself included, into this hobby. But seahorses are not a great pet for the uninitiated. They are docile, peaceful creatures that, beyond that, have almost none of the features that make a great fish for beginners.
They require special care and feeding (and a dedicated aquarium) and sadly often starve when kept by people unable to provide the care they need (even more likely to starve when wild-caught). Please don’t do it, unless you are able to keep ample supplies of their preferred foods in hand –and plan to have a relatively high daily commitment to feeding and caring for them. They can be a lot of work.
For those who love seahorses and caring for them, it is a labor of love, just know that this is one of the highest maintenance creatures you should add. So it is best to earn your stripes in the hobby with some other fish before you dedicate yourself to raising seahorses.
Copperband butterflyfish: may starve
The Copperband butterflyfish is another extremely popular saltwater fish. Just look at them, they are gorgeous. In fact, they’re one of the easiest fish for a guy like me to find a picture of on the internet that he can use. They love the camera. They look great in a tank. They are boldly colored, have a cool body shape, and are commonly available in local fish stores and online. But they, unfortunately, have some pretty special care requirements.
Three-spot damselfish: aggressive and therefore not a great beginner saltwater fish
Just seeing if you’re paying attention, but in case you were wondering…hey, maybe the blue devil damselfish is out, but what about this adorable-looking three-spot damselfish? They look peaceful, and they’re shaped a bit differently and don’t seem aggressive in the local fish store tank.
Sorry to say, the three-spot damselfish, the yellow tail damsel or any other damselfish is not a great beginner saltwater fish. They are best kept in a damselfish-only tank.
Sometimes confused for the royal gramma because of their very similar coloration, the royal dottyback is definitely a saltwater aquarium fish that beginners should avoid. They are aggressive, territorial, and pugnacious–one of the most aggressive of the dotty backs. Buyer beware and steer clear. Pugnacious fish like this can cause double the trouble if they’re paired with an animal that can damage the tank when bullied, like a sea slug.
A great beginner fish is peaceful, hardy, easy-to-care-for, and hopefully inexpensive. Whether you are about to start your first saltwater aquarium or looking to add an attractive new member to your new or established reef tank, this list of 26 great beginner saltwater fish…and 7 species to avoid should give you a great place to begin thinking about and planning for your ideal fish.
All of the fish on this list are known for being relatively hardy and easy-to-feed, but if you run into any challenges, feeding live, freshly hatched baby brine shrimp can often stimulate picky appetites.
If you want to learn more about what it takes to have a successful new saltwater aquarium, check out this book:
For more information
Here’s a helpful video to watch if you want to look deeper at beginner saltwater fish on a budget
Or keep learning about other saltwater fish species:
Last but not least, you should also read these other important articles, if you haven’t already:
- Picking the best aquarium salt mix
- The best protein skimmer
- How to make saltwater
- Saltwater tank for beginners