Saltwater Aquarium Blog

7 Biggest Aquarium Mistakes I’ve Made in the Hobby

I was chatting with a friend and Saltwater Aquarium Blog Newsletter subscriber the other day who was bummed because he made a mistake that ended causing some pretty significant damage to his tank.

In the end, he decided to take a break from the hobby.

It bums me out to see this happen, and unfortunately, it happens a lot.

The key, I think and hope, is to not let it get you down. Mistakes happen. They can be costly. It sucks when your actions end up causing damage (or a loss of life) for the animals in our care, but hopefully, we can learn from it and rebound.

I’m certainly not proud of these mistakes. I’m not bragging. I’m actually embarrassed. So much so that I almost deleted this article after I wrote it. Because some of these mistakes are dumb and most of them are irresponsible. But the mistakes themselves pushed me to get smarter and be better and then to share my stupidity to help save a few fish if I can get the word out and prevent anyone else from making the same mistakes…which was why I started SaltwaterAquariumBlog in the first place.

So now, I humbly offer the below stories as evidence that you can recover mistakes, I thought I’d share some of my own most embarrassing reef moments.

#1: Failure to quarantine

It took a while for me to make my first big mistake. I was mistake-free all the way up until I bought my first two fishes. That’s right. I made it all the way to about the first day

I dropped the two damselfishes in the tank, after doing a float acclimation…and introduced saltwater ich to my tank, for the first time.

Set up a Quarantine TankThose fish and a few fish afterward didn’t make it. Failing to set up and properly use a quarantine tank was my first big mistake. Have you ever made this mistake?

You can learn more about how to properly quarantine fish here.

#2: Didn’t take the ‘do not mix’ advice seriously enough

I remember reading that you shouldn’t mix different species of clownfishes—because it would cause ‘aggression’ between the different species.

maroon clownfish by anew
I had kept freshwater cichlids for a few years before I got into saltwater. Those fish were aggressive…and in freshwater, I thought it was typically okay to mix (certain) aggressive species with each other.

So I created a big mess by mixing multiple species of damselfishes with multiple species of clownfishes.

That didn’t end well either. Just know that when we say there will be aggression between species, we mean that the fish will kill each other, if you don’t separate them.

That was a hard lesson learned.

#3: Thought when the saltwater Ich ‘disappeared’ that it was gone

I remember once having a flame angelfish that was my prized jewel in the tank. He or she ALSO got saltwater ICH. They got it bad. So bad that I was worried about it and almost pulled it from the tank to rescue it to a hospital tank.

But then, magically, the ICH ‘vanished’ from its skin. I thought it was over, that the fish had developed immunity and had kicked the infection.

Turns out that’s just a part of marine ICH’s reproductive cycle. A few days later, the fish had a gazillion parasites and the next day after that, it died.

I ended up having to pull every fish out of the tank after that and ran it fallow. Ugh. What a mess that was.

Learn all about saltwater ich here.

#4: Rushed quarantine

One of my dumbest mistakes was to rush quarantine. Yup, you read that right, I rushed quarantine. I set up the tank, cycled it. Dropped the fish in, watched it closely for about 2 weeks. Decided it was the healthiest damn fish I’ve ever had—bright colors, stocky, eat like a pig-fish.

So I added her to the display tank.

Doh! That didn’t work either.

#5: Fed a $30 shrimp to a ‘free’ fish

Came home from the local fish with a skunk cleaner shrimp. I LOVE those invertebrtes. They are amazingly gorgeous, delicate and so much fun to watch.

But for this story to make sense, we actually have to flashback about 2 years before, when I got a shipment of wild-caught fish from an online store. I had ordered mated pairs of jawfish and neon gobies, and the retailer included some ugly brown zoanthids and a flame cardinalfish as some free, unordered bonuses.

flame cardinal fish

Well, that cardinalfish was quite large by this time…and it had never shared space with a shrimp before. Take a look at him or her. Looks cute enough, doesn’t he/she?

I acclimated the shrimp painstakingly over an hour (probably too long, in hindsight). Scooped up the shrimp in a container, opened up the lid of the tank and dropped it in.

The shrimp fluttered down the water column diagonally. The flame cardinalfish darted up, like a largemouth bass hitting a topwater bait. The only time I’ve lost money faster than that was in a casino.

#6: Didn’t remove fish from an aggressive situation

Yeah, so, it didn’t take long for me to realize that my clownfish and damselfishes experiment didn’t work.

What I learned the hard way is that if you don’t remove the victim fish from the aggression, more often than not…that less dominant fish will disappear one day.

That’s how I learned that lesson. So my new rule with aggression in a saltwater tank is…if you see something, do something about it.

dealing with aggression between fish in a saltwater aquarium

#7: Electrocuted myself, repeatedly, on purpose

Ok, and now onto the absolutely dumbest mistake, I made. This mistake could have killed me. Downstairs in my basement, I had built a rack of tanks. I wanted to have a fish room and I wanted to breed several different species of fishes at the same time.

I don’t know how, when or why, but the return pump started leaking electrical current into the sump area…and since water is a great conductor of electricity, that meant the whole tank was alive with electricity.

One day, I stuck my hand in the tank and it hurt my hands. I pulled back, tried it again. Same thing. That’s weird. I put some lotion on, assuming my hands were chapped or that I had cuts on my hands that I didn’t see…Next day, the same thing. So…weird. Was I developing a skin allergic reaction to something in the water?

Weeks went by. Seriously, I’m not that bright, folks. Same outcome every time. I really kept rationalizing it thinking that I was getting some sort of skin sensitivity to the water. Then one day, I was a bit sharper than the rest and I thought…I wonder if that’s an electric shock. But there was only one way to be sure…I had to test the theory. After all, I am a scientist (not really). So rather than stick my whole hand in, I just stuck the tip of a finger.

Sure enough, the same sharp pain that was dispersed across my hand was now concentrated on my finger, just at the part that was underwater. Ah-ha! I was onto something. About to have my big breakthrough.But first…let me try the next finger…yup, same thing. Next finger…same thing.

OUCH, that stings.

Then it dawned on me…this feels like electricity. then the dimly powered mental light bulb went on…oh crap…that’s electricity. Turned off the power, repeated my experiment…no shock. Shocking. So, that was dumb and probably the dumbest way I could have troubleshot that problem. I don’t know why I refused to think that sharp, tingling pain could have been dangerous.

But after that, I found the culprit and removed the electrocution and fire risk. And now I always, always use a grounding probe.

Online storesafety equipmentIf you don’t have a grounding probe installed in your tank, it is a must-have piece of safety equipment. You can pick one up here for less than 20 dollars.



aquarium mistakes

As I mentioned in the intro. I’m not proud of these mistakes. The longer I’m in the hobby, the more sensitive I get about the lives that were in my care that I mishandled—and it bums me out to think about it.

But I’m hoping that maybe reading about my dumbness will make just one person feel better about their mistake and not just pack up and quit the hobby.

Luckily, however, the mistakes I made and shared with you here aren’t that common. If you want to learn how to avoid some of the most common mistakes, I’ll send you a copy of a free e-Book when you sign up for the Saltwater Aquarium Blog Newsletter.

How about you, have you made any mistakes you want to share? It will be our little secret (and by that, I mean if you reply in a comment here it will be public) :). If you’ve made a mistake and you’re thinking about quitting, try to take a pause before you throw in the towel.


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