Here are some saltwater fish tank ideas to help you build the reef aquarium of your dreams.
First fish saltwater fish tank ideas
When you start a new saltwater tank, the environment will sustain life, but it isn’t mature enough for most fish to thrive. Therefore, it is crucial to select a first fish, called a starter fish, that is hardy and able to help settle that new reef frontier in your house.
Fortunately, some of the most popular saltwater fish also make the best fish. Here are a few first saltwater fish tank ideas.
Adding a clownfish to an aquarium is one of the best saltwater fish tank ideas. Clownfish are the first fish in half of new saltwater tanks.
There are 3 great options if you want to find Nemo in your home.
The Ocellaris clownfish is the most popular saltwater fish in the world. It is the fish that inspired the Pixar movie Finding Nemo and is a hardy fish and an excellent option for a new tank or a mature tank.
The Percula clownfish is a close cousin to the Ocellaris clownfish, so close that you technically have to count the tiny rays in the dorsal fin to tell the difference between the two species, in instances where the coloration or designer nickname doesn’t give it away. They are slightly more challenging to keep than Ocellaris but are still a great first fish..
The Maroon clownfish is another popular option. There are varieties with white stipes, gold stripes, and a few designer types with bold and unique striping patterns. Unfortunately, they are one of the largest and most aggressive clownfish types, which could cause some problems for you down the road.
The Damselfishes are the second most popular choice as the first fish for a new saltwater tank. They are beautiful fish, hardy and inexpensive, but they fight like cichlids (if you know freshwater fish at all). Here are three of the most popular damselfish types.
In a 2022 Saltwater Aquarium Blog Survey, 92% of people were successful with Damselfishes.
Blue devil damselfish
The Blue Damselfish, also called the Blue Devil Damselfish, is one of the most popular saltwater fish in the world. The colors are so blue that it feels like you can see in ultraviolet. They are a semi-aggressive species that will eat most food options offered.
The Yellowtail damselfish is another crowd pleaser with electric blue highlights and the eponymous yellow tail. Their care level is easy, and they’ll grow to about 3 inches in total length.
Both the Yellowtail Damselfish and the Azure Damselfish have a yellow tail, but you can tell an Azure apart because the yellow extends along the belly of the fish and includes the ventral fins and anal fin.
Wrasses are another popular saltwater starter fish with a track record of success. 89% of aquarium enthusiasts who tried to keep wrasses reported success in a 2022 survey. The great part about wrasses is that there are many different species to choose from. Here are two of the most popular.
Six line wrasse
The Six line wrasse technically has 12 lines…6 on each side. They are very active fish that will zip around the tank, always giving you something interesting to watch. They are attractively colored and have eyes that are constantly darting around.
I do advise some caution when thinking about keeping them because they can become bullies in the tank. For example, you wouldn’t want to keep the timid Firefish (below) with a Sixline, or the Sixline would likely bother it to death.
Flasher wrasses get their name because the males like to show off their fins and colors for the female wrasses in the tank. They have flashy colors and risk calling a predator’s attention just to attract a mate. If you have a large enough tank, a great saltwater fish tank idea is to add one male and several females to support this natural behavioral tendency, which will be almost as impressive for you to watch!
Another great saltwater fish tank idea is to add a tang to your tank. Tangs are relatively large, open water swimmers that will help keep the resident algae population down because of their constant grazing on the rocks.
Tangs also have some of the most uninspired names, like Yellow, Blue, and Purple. There are many different types of tangs to choose from, but the two most popular tang species are the Yellow Tang and the Blue Tang.
The Yellow tang was likely the most popular tang species before Dory was found. Their entire body is a vibrant canary yellow, except for their eyes and the bright white spine on their tail, which they use to intimidate or hurt other fish in the tank. They can be somewhat aggressive, so adding them to the tank is a good idea once you have some other smaller fish established.
Regal blue tang (Hippo tang)
The Blue Tang is the fish that Dory was based on. Can you tell? They have smaller eyes than they do in cartoons. You might see a tiny Blue Tang less than an inch in length at the local fish store but beware. Dory needs a tank that is 180 gallons in volume. She’s a beautiful fish and an excellent saltwater fish tank idea if you have a big enough tank.
Every saltwater fish tank needs a pair of clownfish and an angelfish. So here are two great angelfish species.
Coral beauty angelfish
The coral beauty angelfish is a fish that may become your favorite fish in the tank. My coral beauty was the favorite of some of my family members. As you can see in the picture below, they have gorgeous blue, purple, and orange colors. They are also open water swimmers that will spend their time zipping around the tank and zig zagging in and out of the rocks. They are a lot of fun to watch.
The Flame Angelfish is somewhat pricier than the Coral Beauty and just as beautiful (seen as even more attractive to some). The coloration reminds me of red hot coals at the bottom of a campfire, with purple and blue accents at the tips of the dorsal and anal fins.
Here’s another excellent saltwater fish tank idea for you. Add one of the gobies to your tank. This is another group of fish with a ton of options. They also tend to be small in size and relatively affordable. Here are two of the most popular choices.
Yellow Watchman Goby
The Yellow Watchman Goby is gorgeous in its own right. But if you’re lucky, you may be able to score a goby paired up with a shrimp! The Goby and the Shrimp have symbiotic relationships. The shrimp digs the burrow, and the goby keeps watch. It’s one of the best saltwater fish tank ideas on this page because it’s also one of the most incredible things you’ll ever have the privilege to watch in your tank.
You’ll also be sad when the inevitable happens, and the fish or shrimp dies. I don’t mean to be morbid. I’m just pointing out how attached you’ll get. Better to have loved and lost…
The Diamond goby is another extremely popular fish. They are gorgeous, and they are sand sifters. They spend their days sucking up the aquarium sand/gravel and sorting through it for tiny invertebrates to eat and blow the sand out their gills. It’s a challenging way to make a living, but they seem to enjoy it, and it’s enjoyable to watch, which is one of the reasons they’re such a good saltwater fish tank idea.
Another saltwater fish tank idea to consider is whether or not you want to add one of the fang blennies to your tank. As their name implies, the Fang blennies have venomous fangs, like snakes, that they use in self-defense. Most reef fish will tend to leave them alone, which means the Fang Blennies tend to swim in the water column with a sense of confidence that is rare among fish.
Their confidence can also positively affect the other fish in the tank. For example, fish tend to look at each other for safety signs.
A bold, confident Blenny signals that all is safe, making a Fang Blenny a great option for almost any marine aquarium.
Adding a Hawkfish is another fantastic saltwater fish tank idea if you’re interested in a colorful, moderately priced, and adorable fish that might rival all the others and become your favorite. Here are two of the most popular Hawkfish to start thinking about.
It’s likely no surprise how the Flame Hawkfish gets its name. This popular saltwater fish species is an invertebrate hunter, just like all the other Hawkfish. They are ambush predators who like to perch on a spot and watch the world drift by until their prey forgets they are there and then….slam…dinner.
Look at that face! How can you not LOVE THAT FACE? The Longnose Hawkfish is one of the most unique and beautiful creatures you will have the chance to keep in a saltwater tank.
The Firefish is a Dartfish with gorgeous coloration and fins. They have a white head with big, curious eyes, a long, white crest on their dorsal fin, and fiery red, orange, and black fade into the tail. These peaceful fish have a gentle demeanor and are prone to jump.
The Foxface rabbitfish is one of the best algae eaters you can find. They are a bit awkwardly beautiful, with bold yellow, black and white markings and a long snout suited to picking algae out of tight spaces.
The Banggai Cardinalfish is one of the most sought-after saltwater fish. They are mouthbrooders. If you are lucky enough to have a pair spawn in your tank, you will get a chance to see the male hold a mouthful of eggs for 28 days until the babies hatch and emerge from his mouth, fully formed and ready to swim juvenile fish. Most other saltwater fish emerge as larvae to float among the plankton until a metamorphosis.
They congregate in large shoals in the wild. You can certainly try to create a shoal in your own tank. In smaller tank settings, the shoals often de-evolve down to a single pair once the largest, most dominant male and female start to pair off, but I have seen nice-looking shoal displays in larger aquariums.
The Pajama cardinalfish is a marine fish that had his outfit picked out before it became fashionable to work from home. Their coloration is almost too comical to believe. It’s almost like they were assembled from a back of leftover parts.
But, they are peaceful, hardy, inexpensive, commonly available, and attractive saltwater fish.
Saltwater fish tank ideas for experienced aquarists
The following few saltwater fish tank ideas are best suited for those who have mastered the challenges of maintaining a reef tank over a sustained period of time (2+ years, perhaps).
The Mandarinfish is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular saltwater fish in the hobby. They are stunning to look at and fun to watch. They flutter their pectoral fins like a hummingbird and have active eyes that remind me of a chameleon that they use to scan the rockwork for a tasty copepod to eat.
Unfortunately, they are pretty challenging fish to care for. Many individuals are already starving by the time you see them in the store, and they can be picky eaters that might only eat live copepods, which can be quite expensive.
The tried and true advice is to wait until your tank is mature and crawling with a natural, sustained population of copepods before trying them. You can also train them to eat baby brine shrimp with some good luck, the right fish, and some patience.
The Copperband Butterflyfish is another fan favorite. They are one of the iconic marquis fish in the saltwater hobby. Copperbands can be quite helpful at keeping the aiptasia anemone population down, but they are also prone to starvation in a home aquarium. They can also be problematic if they acquire a taste for the corals in your tank.
The Longnose Butterflyfish is probably the second most popular in the butterfly family. They have this tiny mouth on the end of a very long snout, suited ideally for eating meaty foods and small creatures hiding and out of the reach of most other fish.
The Jawfish are delicate and shy saltwater fish that dig in the sand and create a burrow. They spend most of their time in that burrow with their head pogo-sticking up and down as they search for food and/or react to motion that might scare them.
Blue spotted Jawfish
The Blue Spotted Jawfish is the crown jewel of the Jawfish family, highly desired because of its fantastic coloration. Unfortunately, this image doesn’t do the majestic beauty of this fish justice. Take my word for it. They’re awesome creatures.
Saltwater fish tank ideas: Set up a lagoon aquarium
Another interesting saltwater fish tank idea would be to create a lagoon-style tank and keep some of the more docile and interesting saltwater fish that are used to slower waters, not the hustle and bustle of the reef. The most popular two species of lagoon ecosystem fish are seahorses and pipefish.
Everyone loves seahorses. They are fascinating creatures that almost look cartoonishly awesome. Whenever possible, look for captive-raised fish for the best chances of survival and easiest feeding.
Pipefish are another great option for the advanced saltwater fish tank keeper who wants to create a lagoon tank. They are close cousins with the Seahorses and look a bit like a stretched-out seahorse.
Saltwater fish tank ideas: Set up an aggressive fish aquarium
Another great saltwater fish tank idea would be to set up an aquarium with only aggressive fish species. Aggressive fish can be a problem when you mix them with non-aggressive species (the bullies always win), but mixing similarly sized aggressive fishes together tends to work.
As long as there are no obvious targets for them to gang up on, a combination of aggressive fish will spread the aggression around and/or return the aggression given to it, creating some kind of fish balance.
Here are a few great aggressive fish options:
Two caveats about creating an Aggressive Fish-themed tank:
- Some of the most desirable fish species are large fish requiring large tanks.
- It is easier to manage the water chemistry in some ways because those fish will not be as fussy about specific water parameters as some invertebrates and corals would be. Still, larger fish create more waste, so you need to keep an eye on biological filtration and the nitrogen cycle.
Saltwater fish tank ideas: Coral focus
Setting up a tank full of colorful, living corals is another great saltwater fish tank idea. Creating a reef aquarium environment where fish, corals, and other invertebrates live in harmony is a satisfying and enjoyable option in this hobby that you can’t touch with a freshwater aquarium.
Here are a few of the saltwater fish tank ideas for adding coral.
The best group of corals to consider for a beginner saltwater tank is the group called soft corals. These tend to be some of the hardiest, widely available options that will give you the greatest chances of success while starting out, making them a great addition to community tanks.
One benefit of primarily focusing on a single type of coral is that the most popular coral options have similar care requirements.
If you can master the environment for one, you will have created an environment where many would thrive.
Another great option still somewhat approachable for a beginner saltwater tank is to set up an LPS dominant tank. LPS stands for large polyp stony corals. This group of corals has a stony/rocky base but large fleshy polyps that tend to fluoresce and ‘flow’ in the current.
Some of the most popular corals are LPS, like Hammer corals, Torch corals, and Frogspawn. The same benefit is true with an LPS dominant tank. In addition, many of the most popular options will want a similar environment, so you could mix and match different LPS corals relatively easily to create the aesthetics you want.
Saltwater fish tank ideas: SPS tank
An SPS dominant coral tank is at the top of the food chain in terms of challenge, sophistication, and expense in this hobby. But I think most would agree. It also tends to be one of the most stunning displays you can create.
Mixed reef garden
Of course, you don’t have to go with a dominant coral type. You could mix and match to your heart’s content and have a little of everything. This creates a bit of a challenge within a challenge, to create an environment that is perfectly suitable to a wide range of coral types, but mixed reefs tend to have a more full and textured appearance.
Fish only with live rock
Another great saltwater fish tank idea would be to skip the corals centirely This would be a much easier tank to maintain. It tends to be called a FOWLR tank. That stands for Fish Only With Live Rock. The live rock creates a reef-like structure to help the fish feel more secure. It gives some decoration and appeal to the tank and serves as a surface/home for beneficial bacteria and invertebrates.
The best aquascape design for most saltwater fish tanks will include plenty of live rock that will give the tank inhabitants plenty of hiding places. You will also want to mdecidewhat type of sand bed you want.
Sand and substrate saltwater fish tank ideas
When decorating the bottom of your tank, you have three basic options: no sand, called a bare bottom tank, a shallow sand bed, or a deep sand bed. Let’s explore these saltwater fish tank ideas for the sand and substrate below.
Shallow sand bed
The first and most popular saltwater fish tank idea for the bottom of the tank is to have a shallow sand bed. The word shallow is actually essential–not just to differentiate it from the other options below, but because it is important to keep the sand bed either shallow or deep.
Shallow is an inch or less of sand. A sand bed of this depth gives your invertebrates or wrasses something to ‘dig around in, but it isn’t deep enough to cause some of the problems that an intermediate-depth sandbed might cause if pockets of low-oxygen sand get created and disturbed.
Deep sand bed
Another interesting saltwater fish tank idea for the substrate is to create a deep sand bed. A deep sand bed is 6 inches or deeper. This is an environment suitable for keeping burrowing fish like Engineer gobies and Jawfish. The sand bed also becomes home to many invertebrates, and bacteria colonizing the deepest parts of the bed will actually remove nitrates from the tank.
In some ways, a deep sand bed can create a semi-sustainable system where nitrates are removed biologically, not entirely, through water changes.
Bare bottom tank
While you may be thinking that sand, oceans, and reefs are inextricably linked, the fact of the matter is that many reefs occur in rocky areas. As a result, sand can get blown around in a reef tank with serious water flow (the kind of flow that is ideal for SPS corals).
Sand also creates a spot where problem algae can anchor, and it creates a more challenging surface to keep clean. For those reasons, or simply because they like how it looks, many people choose to go without sand and create a bare bottom tank.
There are also several different types of sand you can choose from:
- Coarse crushed coral
- Fine sand
- Black sand
- Pink sand (not as pink as you might think…mostly sandy colored)
- Oolitic vs. Aragonite
The choice of sand is lprimarilyan aesthetic choice. There is a lot of information circulating saying that aragonite is the best, it helps buffer the water, but my research suggests that potential ‘benefit’ is, at best, dramatically over-stated, and at worst, may be untrue.
Check out this deep-dive about sand here.
I will share that coarse sand and crushed coral was great for housing amphipods and copepods but was a challenge to keep clean–there are just too many nooks and crannies to be able to get to.
Check out these other related articles for more information:
Best fish for a small saltwater tank
Best fish for a 55 gallon saltwater tank
Best fish for a 75 gallon saltwater tank