A Simple Guide to
Beginning a Saltwater Aquarium
For many of us the idea of having a saltwater aquarium has
been a dream wished for but never realized. The practice of keeping
saltwater animals has been described as an impossible task left to only
the most experienced hobbyists. In the past that statement may have
been an accurate. However with recent advancements in both
technical equipment and theory many, many amateur and even
beginning aquarists are having great success in the marine hobby
they never dreamed possible. Even with these advancements in
technology the critical factor for success remains the dedication of
the hobbyist. This dedication involves, in large part, an
understanding of what is needed to make your aquarium function and
thrive. This understanding takes patience, desire and guidance in a
hobby where there are as many differing opinions and ideas as there
This guide has been assembled to offer suggestions and
guidance to the beginning saltwater aquarist based on our many years
of experience and those of our successful clients. We hope you find
this information helpful. We invite you to explore our shop and
allow us to assist you in any way that we can.
The following are subjects covered in the material to follow:
Starting out the right way
Where in this vast hobby to begin
What to Buy
Selecting and caring for your first fish
Some thoughts from some former beginners
Starting out the right way
Learning the basics of aquarium keeping is essential for success no
matter what kind of fish you choose. Learning the basics of filter operation,
maintenance, and the many chemical reactions that happen in aquariums
help give an overall view of what is occurring inside those glass walls and
can help minimize mistakes before they occur. Every beginner can benefit
from time spent learning about the hobby before they buy. We spend time
each day assisting hobbyists who have acted too quickly and are
experiencing problems that could have been avoided by slowing down and
doing things right from the start. Beginning with a good book can give you a
quick tutorial as well as a permanent reference when questions arise.
The New Marine Aquarium by Paletta and The Conscientious Marine
Aquarist by Fermer are two excellent modern books on the marine hobby
and at least one should be in every new aquarists library. There is also an
excellent introduction to basic aquarium husbandry on the following
websites by Marineland Labs Chief Scientist:
Choosing a tank to begin your marine system can be a difficult choice. When
setting up any aquarium, bigger is usually better. This is definitely true
when dealing with a saltwater aquarium. A saltwater aquarium almost
always requires a larger investment in filtration and support equipment than
the same size freshwater aquarium. There is no "economy" saltwater
aquarium. A big tank with inadequate filtration is not better that the right
equipment on a smaller tank. Plan for the largest tank you can afford to set
up properly and reasonable maintain.
Where in this vast Hobby to Begin
In order to properly design and assist in your saltwater creation we
must first discuss what will be kept in the aquarium. Fish, corals, crabs and
anemones all require slightly different levels of care and knowing what is
compatible requires great expertise. We will be happy to explain the
differences between fish-only aquariums, live rock based systems, and coral
reef systems so that you can make the proper decision on what and what not
to keep in your aquarium. Our experts have years of experience helping
people enter the hobby at a skill level appropriate for the individual and to
assist them as they grow in the hobby.
Decide early on what you're going to keep in the aquarium. The most
common and logical place to begin is with a fish-only aquarium. Keeping
marine fish is the best and easiest way to begin in the marine hobby. You will
find that costs are not significantly more than a well-equipped freshwater
aquarium and it probably uses equipment that you may already be familiar
with. In reality it's not that it's more difficult, it's just different. Here are a few
essentials that should accompany your purchase:
1) An aquarium - preferably as big as you can maintain. Allow 3-5 gallons for each
inch of fish capacity (ten gallon tank = 2 one inch fish). An aquarium of at least
twenty gallons is recommended for marine fish.
2) A good filtration system combining biological, mechanical, and chemical filters.
Certain aquariums may include protein skimmers or ultraviolet sterilizers. Live
rock and live sand are not required for a fish-only tank.
3) A quality submersible heater and thermometer. A steady temperature of 78-80
degrees is recommended.
4) A hydrometer. This device measures the salt content of the water in the aquarium.
Freshwater has a specific gravity of 1.000. Natural seawater has a specific gravity
of 1.025-1.026. We recommend a specific gravity of 1.016-1.019 for the fish-
5) A bacteria culture. Essential for cycling the aquarium. Bacteria are added once
the aquarium has been prepared i.e. dechorinated, heated, and salted to the proper
level. Once bacteria are added to the aquarium starter fish can then be introduced
as soon as the water quality allows. This period can range from a few days to a
week or more depending on individual circumstances. Remember to always bring
in a water sample when purchasing a fish!
What to Buy
To begin a saltwater fish-only aquarium you will need the following:
Marine Sea Salt Mix
Hood with fluorescent light
Gravel or sand depending on filtration
Appropriate aquarium Stand
Optional but recommended equipment:
Air Pump/Air Injector
Circulation Pump for tall or long aquariums
Home Test Kit
We have complete packages for nearly every common aquarium size
and can customize these kits to fit your individual needs. All aquariums
require a sturdy, level base to support them. We strongly recommend, as do
aquarium manufacturers that customers purchase a proper stand for their
aquarium. We offer discounts on every stand purchased with our aquarium
packages and manufacturers will extend warranties on their aquarium up to 20
years in most cases. We keep many models on display and catalogs from top
manufacturers in store. We also contract with local carpenters for in-wall and
custom installations. Ask a salesperson to show you the possibilities.
Our complete packages do not represent one manufacturers product and
are not an off-the-shelf boxed kit. We assemble our kits based on function and
value at different price levels. Our kits come in basic, deluxe, and pro levels
that differ in the quality of the equipment and components. All of our kits are
functional, however, for marine use most lower tier kits are upgraded to allow
for higher function and a reduction in maintenance. The kit pricing is based on
a discount off our normal retail price of at least 15 percent or more depending
on the aquarium. We think they are a great value and a perfect way to begin
your fish-only aquarium. Most kits can be modified or upgraded with
equipment for invertebrates as well. We constantly alter the kit components
assuring you the latest and best equipment available. See our in-store signage
or a salesperson for details.
Selecting and Caring for your First Fish
Before any fish are added to the aquarium it's imperative the
environment first be prepared properly. We have always offered free water
testing to our clients and continue our straightforward guarantee practices.
Our saltwater salespeople will ask questions to ensure every fish sale is
appropriate for the aquarium and individual.
Our go-to starter fish is the damselfish. They are small, hardy, disease
resistant, and enthusiastic eaters. We stock numerous species to choose
from and with most between five and ten dollars are an economical choice as
Other fish for beginners to consider include certain species of;
*some species within these families attain a large size and can become aggressive.
Fish for beginners to avoid include:
Most of these fish are suitable only after the aquarium is completely cycled
(3-6 months) and the basic feeding, observation, and maintenance skills have
Fish for everyone to avoid (do not buy, anywhere):
Acclimating your new Saltwater Fish
1. Turn off the Aquarium: Lights
2. Float the bag on the surface of the aquarium for
3. Open the bag and add one cup of aquarium water
every five minutes until the specific gravity of the
bag water matches the aquarium water.
4. Carefully remove the fish from the bag with either a
net or small plastic container.
5. Discard the water from the bag.
6. Allow the fish to acclimate to its new surroundings for several hours before
turning on the aquarium lights.
7. Most fish will begin to feed within a few hours. If a fish refuses to feed after 48
hours call a salesperson for advice.
8. Report any problems regarding compatibility with other fishes to a salesperson
Some Thoughts from Some Former Beginners
I believe the most important advice to anyone considering setting up a saltwater tank would
be to have a knowledgeable person to guide you on every step starting with equipment available,
through the types of fish that you want to place in your aquarium. There are many aspects of
saltwater aquariums that are so rewarding. I find the saltwater fish are not only beautiful but many
are fun and interesting. They don't just swim around; many are comical to watch,
I started with larger showy fish when I began with my saltwater tank. That was a good
experience however I now have smaller Goby varieties and love it. I find it extremely enjoyable
creating a safe habitat for them to live in, places for the fish to hide and feel safe in the
environment. I prefer to use real coral that has a lot of hiding places for small fish to use. I lost far
more freshwater fish in my freshwater aquarium than I have in my saltwater tank.
Avoid adding too many fish at once. Allow a cycling period between each fish, If at all
possible purchase a test kit or at least have your water tested at your local fish store on a regular
basis. Water changes are also very important. A common rule is 25% a month. Although this is
acceptable I personally perform 10-15% twice a week on all of my tanks. Watching your tank for a
few minutes a day can also keep you aware of the overall health of everyone. This may seem low-
tech but problems can be seen just by behavior changes. Somebody's not eating, hiding too
much? Perform a water change and have everything tested again.
Mini-reefs are for "the experienced" only. While this can be true, they are not as tough as
they look or sound. How much work and money are you willing to dedicate to what could be the
focal point of your household? After years in the hobby I still consider myself an amateur and
have kept only mini-reefs. Light requirements for corals range from basic to extremely intense. If
you wish to keep ANY corals, regardless of their needs, do some research and purchase an
appropriate fixture. Follow the same rule for filtration. Protein skimmers, live rock and lighting will
be the biggest expense in the initial construction of a mini-reef. If you are willing to take on the
task I say good luck and enjoy.