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Top 5 Reef Safe Fish for Beginners

By December 28, 2018 Articles

Introduction

This list of reef safe fish for beginners barely scratches the surface of the potential animals you can keep in your reef aquarium.  These fish are all affordable, reef safe and easy to care for.  Most importantly, none of the fish on this list will cause problems as you add more advanced fish, coral or invertebrates over time

Other websites have wrote about the best saltwater fish for beginners, but their lists are often riddled with misinformation.  A few of the highly ranked pages on Google are completely wrong.  These articles are sometimes written by hired writers that have no reef aquarium experience at all.

As a rule, you should avoid any reef aquarium beginner guide that recommends a Blue tang or tang fish in general.  Tangs have very specific needs and should never be recommended to a beginner.

Doing it the right way!

I want to thank you for putting in the effort to find some truthful facts about the best reef safe fish for beginners.  Understanding the care requirements and temperament of your fish is vital to your long-term success.  There is always a new lesson to learn in our reef aquarium hobby and this is a great place to start.

Every fish will have its own unique quirks and personality. Sometimes these quirks even go against the normal traits of their species.

A fish that is renowned for being outgoing and active may turn out to be very shy and timid in your fish tank.  Likewise, some peaceful species might end up being the tank wide bully.  This may just be the fish settling into its new environment, or it could be how that specific fish is.

General Tips for All Saltwater Fish

  1. Do not keep more than 1 of the same exact fish or closely related fish in the same aquarium. Closely related or identical saltwater fish will normally fight to the death unless they are a mated pair. 
  2. Minimum Tank size requirements are negotiable. The minimum reef aquarium size for most saltwater fish is between 20 and 30 gallons.  All fish will do better in a larger aquarium, but some can thrive in smaller aquariums known as Nano Tanks.  No matter the size of your tank, it must be able to maintain healthy and stable water parameters with adequate swimming room. Many of these fish would do fine in a 10 gallon Nano Tank with sufficient filtration and care.
  3. Provide enough rockwork and hiding space for all your fish. Moving into a new aquarium is a traumatic event for any fish and they will need a safe place to hide from time to time.  Fish may remain shy for weeks, but be patient and they will come around in time.  Never try to force a fish out of hiding or attempt a “house call”. This will only make matters worse.
  4. Target feed fish that are hiding in your rocks. Some fish will be so afraid of their new living situation that they won’t come out of hiding, even to eat.  These special case fish will become sick or die from starvation unless you make the effort to target feed them.  Even the timidest fish cannot resist Mysis shrimp being shot into the rockwork with a pipette or turkey baster.  Take care not to overfeed because uneaten food will pollute the water and cause algae outbreaks.
  5. Do not add too many fish too quickly! Doing that can overload your filtration system, leading to dangerous levels of nitrates and deadly ammonia spikes. This is especially important with a freshly cycled aquarium.  You did fully cycle your fish tank before adding fish, right?
  6. Quarantine your fish whenever possible. Many reef aquarium hobbyists will just roll the dice and add fish directly to their display aquarium.  Sometimes you get lucky, but one outbreak of marine ich can be a costly disaster that is fatal to your new pets.  There are many pests and diseases that are impossible to remove from your aquarium once they are introduced.  Prevention is not fun, but it’s always easier than starting over from scratch when a disaster strikes.

#1 Clownfish

Common Ocellaris Clownfish - Photo by harum.koh

Common Ocellaris Clownfish

Scientific name: Amphiprion ocellaris or Amphiprion percula

Personality: Peaceful (very territorial)

Diet: Omnivore

Max. Size: 3 inches / 7.62cm

Recommended Tank Size:  20 gallons

Clownfish Information

The Clownfish is one of the most popular fish in the saltwater and reef aquarium hobby.  These fish rose to infamy after the release of the Pixar film, Finding Nemo in 2003.  The movie brought a lot of interest to the aquarium hobby, but it has left many aquarists annoyed by being constantly asked if “they have a Nemo” in their tank.

Ocellaris and Percula are the most common types of clownfish for sale. Ocellaris clowns have that familiar stripe pattern that most people envision when they think of a clownfish.  Percula clowns look similar to Ocellaris, but with slight color and pattern variations.  Sometimes it’s difficult to tell them apart without experience or having them side by side.

Clownfish are a solid choice for almost anyone starting their first aquarium. Clownfish do best in pairs that are similar in size.  Multiple pairs should not be housed in the same aquarium to prevent aggression.  Keeping more than two clownfish is possible, but only recommended for advanced hobbyists.

Clownfish are easily bred in captivity and this has ushered in an ever-growing selection of designer fish.  Designer clownfish are well known for their varied colors, patterns and price tags.  They also have strange names like Mocha Gladiator, Frostbite, Black Snowflake and Lightning Maroon.

There is a bit of controversy about designer clownfish in the reefing community.  Some reefers feel that breeders are exploiting clownfish with genetic defects for massive profits.

Black Storm Clownfish

Black Storm Clownfish, ~$250 per fish

Pairs of clownfish will claim a small portion of the aquarium as their nesting territory.  They have a reputation of being peaceful, but will ferociously defend their territory.  Clownfish will routinely chase fish that are 5-10 times larger away from their nesting area.  They are also known for attacking your hands while doing tank maintenance.  They are fearless and rarely back down from a fight.

Clownfish are part of the damselfish family and can be just as fierce as their more colorful relatives.  Thankfully, clownfish rarely venture into open water to attack tankmates, unlike the common damselfish.

Caring for your clownfish is simple. They require clean and stable water parameters and will accept a wide range of food.  Your clownfish should be fed a mix of quality pellet and frozen foods.

This video has a few more helpful clownfish facts

#2 Firefish

Common Firefish - photo by Brian Patrick

Common Firefish

Scientific name:Nemateleotris magnifica

Personality:Peaceful (timid)

Diet:Carnivore

Max. Size: 3 inches / 7.62cm

Recommended Tank Size:  20 gallons

Firefish Information

Firefish are easy to care for and make a great addition to almost any reef aquarium. The common Firefish or, Nemateleotris magnifica is readily available and very affordable.  Firefish are known for jumping when startled, so a tight fitting lid is highly recommended.

The Helfrichi Firefish and Purple Firefish provide the same peaceful demeanor and easy care level but have a higher price tag.  There is also an Exquisite Firefish (Nemateleotris exquisita) that looks like a slightly more vivid version of the Purple Firefish at around twice the price.

Firefish are members Dartfish family and move with lightning fast bursts of speed when startled.  These fish normally hover around the aquarium with a quirky jerking motion.  However, a Firefish can propel its long slender bodies through the water at high speed like, well… a dart.  Some Firefish are so fast, it almost seems as if they are teleporting around your tank.

Firefish will accept most foods but are carnivores, so you should feed them meaty foods like frozen Mysis from time to time.  They can be timid and do best in reef aquariums with other peaceful tank mates.  Every fish tank should have a tight fitting lid, preferably made of nylon mesh.  Any fish can jump, but this is extra important with the Firefish.   Their shy personality and quick bursts of speed can turn deadly if they dart over the top of your aquarium and on to the floor instead of down in the rockwork for safety.

#3 Yellow Prawn Goby (Watchman Goby)

Yellow Watch Goby with shrimp - Photo by Nick Hobgood

Yellow Watch Goby & Pistol Shrimp

Scientific name: Cryptocentrus cinctus

Personality: Peaceful (timid)

Diet: Carnivore

Max. Size: 4 inches / 10.16 cm

Recommended Tank Size:  30 gallons

Yellow Prawn Goby Information

The Yellow Watchman Goby is another affordable and peaceful addition to your reef aquarium.  A Watchman goby has the potential to be one of the most interesting animals in your entire reef aquarium.  This colorful goby do not sift sand for food and is generally easier to care for than its Diamondback Goby cousin.

Also known as Yellow Prawn Goby, they can form a symbiotic relationship with a certain type of shrimp.  The Pistol shrimp is a tunneling invertebrate with poor eyesight that makes a great goby companion.

In the wild and some home aquariums, a Watchman goby will bond with a Pistol shrimp to share a burrow.  The goby will keep watch for danger while the shrimp excavates a tunnel that they will both sleep in and use to hide from predators.

Witnessing a Yellow Watchman Goby and Pistol shrimp team in action is an awe-inspiring miracle of nature.  However, there is no guarantee that the two will bond in your reef aquarium.  I have a Yellow Prawn Goby and Randall’s Pistol shrimp that have never even made contact with each other, as far as I know.  You can briefly see them in the tank that was featured for our Save The 120 Series on the YouTube channel.

The Yellow Watchman goby will eat a variety of foods but prefers meaty options.  They will spend most of their time perched on a rock or nook somewhere in your reef tank, but they can also be a jumper, so a secure lid is a must.

More aggressive fish may take advantage of the Yellow Prawn Goby’s peaceful nature and bully it into hiding. I have a Yellow Tang that mercilessly bullied my goby.  The poor Watchman goby would sometimes hide for such long periods that I worried it had died.  Thankfully, the goby was just working up the courage to come back out again.  My Yellow Watchman goby still shares the 120 gallon tank with the Yellow Tang.  The aggression is not as bad as it was in the beginning, but our Yellow Tang is still a jerk.  This is just one of the many reasons why Tangs make a terrible starter fish for beginners.

#4 Green Chromis (Blue/Green Reef Chromis)

Green Chromis

Green Chromis

Scientific name: Chromis Viridis

Personality: Peaceful (Hostile to similar Chromis)

Diet: Omnivore

Max. Size: 4 inches / 10.16 cm

Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons

Green Chromis Information

The Green Chromis is a social fish that is also affordable and perfect for your first reef aquarium.  Green Chromis are schooling fish and their low cost makes purchasing 3 or more an attractive proposition.  Unfortunately, groups of Green Chromis rarely do well in a home aquarium.

These fish are sometimes mislabeled or confused with their relatives, Chromis Cyaneus or the Blue Reef Chromis.  The true Green Chromis is a less aggressive and much hardier than its vivid blue colored cousin.

Green Chromis are very active fish that enjoy swimming in open water.  They will readily accept almost any food and rarely show aggression towards other fish.  However, this peaceful nature does not always extend to other Green Chromis that they share an aquarium with.

Most hobbyists will purchase 5 or more Green Chromis with dreams of enjoying a beautiful school of fish in their home.  In reality, the Chromis will perpetually bully the smallest fish of the school until there is only one large Green Chromis left.

Some reefers have kept the peace with a group of chromis for years without a fatality, but that is the exception and not the rule.  My best advice is to purchase a single chromis or be ready for gladiator-style deathmatch if you attempt to keep a school.  Only keep them in uneven numbers if you are attempting a school.

The final note on the Green Chromis is a strange one! These fish have been known to dislocate or otherwise damage their jaw.  It is unclear if it happens from over-aggressive feeding or from fighting other fish.  Any Green chromis with jaw-lock issues will have its mouth stuck open, either partially open or freakishly wide.

There is no treatment for this condition and in my experience, it will either heal by itself or be fatal.  Do not attempt to close its mouth or align its jaw with your hands!  This will do more harm than good. I don’t care if they do that with someone’s shoulder on TV, don’t attempt it on a fish.

#5 Royal Gramma Basslet

Royal Gramma Basslet - Photo by aquarist.me

Royal Gramma Basslet

Scientific name: Gramma loreto

Personality: Peaceful

Diet: Carnivore

Max. Size: 3 inches / 7.62cm

Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons

Royal Gramma Basslet Information

The Royal Gramma Basslet is the best choice when it comes to selecting a colorful and low maintenance fish that is also peaceful.  This Gramma is hostile towards other members of the Basslet fish family but can be a great tankmate for many other species.

Royal Grammas come from the deeper reef areas of the Caribbean and enjoy an aquarium with enough reef rock to make them feel safe.  Like all carnivorous fish, the Royal Gramma enjoys Mysis shrimp and other meaty types of food.

Your Royal Gramma Basslet may spend most of the day in the rocky overhangs of your tank.  This is probably because your tank lighting is too bright.  A wild caught fish that spent its entire life in a dimly lit environment will need a little more time to acclimate to your aquarium. If you have LED lights, slightly dimming them may speed up the transition.

Most newcomers to the hobby mistakenly purchase highly aggressive damselfish because of their vibrant colors and low cost. A Royal Gramma Basslet may cost 2-3 times as much as a colorful damselfish, but its peaceful demeanor is worth it.

Conclusion

Starting your first reef aquarium is an exciting adventure, but it’s really easy to go overboard.

We have all been there before, you go into the LFS to buy some salt or maybe a test kit and leave with a bunch of fish and coral.  You may have not known half of those critters existed before going to the store, but you had to have them!

Try not to get caught up in the excitement and remember these words.  Nothing good happens quickly in the reef aquarium hobby. Almost every shortcut and knee-jerk reaction leads to a costly learning experience or dead pets.

No one enjoys being told about the amount of patience our hobby demands, but it’s true.  We are replicating parts of oceans that formed over millions of years in our homes.  The least we can do is proceed with caution.

Whatever you do, don’t fall victim to the misinformation out there. It might sound like what you want to hear, but if it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.

Please leave a comment and share this list with someone if you found it helpful. I need your help to reduce the amount of misleading and completely false articles out there. You can help by sharing articles and guides like this one, which contain verifiable facts.

If enough people are interested I will write a “5 more reef safe fish for beginners” follow up article.

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Phil Beauregard

Author Phil Beauregard

A man with a beard, that you can trust! Phil Beauregard has been addicted to fish keeping since childhood. He grew with stories of his grandfather’s exploits during the early days of reef aquariums and African Cichlid breeding. Phil brings a flair for high tech DIY projects and his love of teaching others to the reefing community.

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