Good Starter Fish
by Maestro

So you’ve waited for seems like a lifetime for your tank to mature and you are finally ready to add your first fish, however it is important you make the right choice, there are certain fish that are very suitable to being first additions while lots of others that are not, selecting the right fish now will save you a lot of time and hassle in the future.

So what are you looking for in your first fish?

Firstly the species of fish must be relatively hardy, we all make a few mistakes as beginners and the hardier the fish the more forgiving they will be. You should also ensure you select a fish that will live in harmony with its future tank mates, adding an aggressive species now could result in you having WW3 in your tank every time a future first is introduced. While these attributes are a must it is understandable that you also want a fish that is colourful and interesting, after all that’s probably what attracted you to this hobby in the first place.

With the above in mind the following fish have been selected as recommendations for good starter fish, it is worth noting that a lot of the fish mentioned are available as tank bred specimens. It is advisable that tank bred specimens be bought where possible. They are already adapted to aquarium life and are usually slightly hardier than the wild caught specimens. All the fish featured below are reef safe and are also non fussy eaters, accepting a variety of dried and frozen food.

The classic marine fish and probably the most popular starter fish. Generally they are very hardy and well suited to aquarium life, although they can be kept as a single specimen they are much more interesting when in pairs. Add 2 young fish to your tank at the same time and the larger more dominant fish will turn into a female. They may even go on to breed in your home aquarium. While in the wild, clownfish are always found with an Anemone, which provides protection and shelter. In a tank environment they will be perfectly happy without. Anemones are an extremely hard to care for and shouldn’t be attempted under any circumstances by the beginner.

The following species of clownfish are peaceful and are suitable as your first marine fish.

Common Clown (Amphiprion ocellaris)

Picture by GavinM
Beautiful orange and white colouration, inexpensive and tank bred specimens are easy to find. It is worth noting that while the tank bred fish may not appear as colourful as the wild caught clowns in the shop, given time and a good diet they will colour up nicely, grows to maximum size of between 3 and 4 inches.

Picture by MrFish

Back and White Clown (Amphiprion ocellaris)

photo by Fuzed
Has all the same characteristics of its orange relative, also available tank bred.

Percula Clown (Amphiprion percula)

photo by aidyb
Often confused with the common clown they are difficult to tell apart. The difference is that the percula clown (Amphiprion percula) has 9 to 10 dorsal spines, whereas the common clown (Amphiprion ocellaris) has 11. The Percula also tends to have thicker black outline to it white bars, this thickness varies significantly from a thin black line to completely filling the width between white bars, the percula clown will reach a maximum size of between 3 and 4 inches

photo by sharktale

Other species of fish

Orchid Dottyback (Fridmani pseudochromis)

Picture by Ian Davies
A really beautiful fish that grows to around 3 inches. They can be hard to come across specially in tank bred form but are well worth the wait. Best kept as a single specimen or an established pair. They shouldn’t be mixed with other dottybacks or fish of a similar shape and colour, e.g Royal Gramma. Can be a little shy at first but will venture out more once they have settled in.

picture by Frogfone

Royal Gramma (Gramma Loreto)

A very striking fish, they are peaceful but can be aggressive towards their own kind so should be kept as a single specimen, grows to around 3inches. There are a couple of similar looking fish that are a lot more aggressive, the Pseudochromis paccagnella and Gramma brasiliensis, so it is important to make sure the fish has the spotted gradual colour change from purple to yellow AND has the 2 reddish lines running through its eye/head.

Picture by suk

Midas Blenny (Ecsenius midas)

photo by marc
An entertaining fish with real character, they are a beautiful deep yellow/orange colour with blue rimmed eyes. Often seen sitting in holes in the rock or in a barnacle cluster, great fun to watch. Maximum size around 5 inches, can be prone to jumping when spooked but otherwise a highly recommended fish.

Bicolour Blenny (Ecsenius bicolor)

picture by fras
Another Blenny with amazing character, like the Midas Blenny (Ecsenius midas) they also like to perch on a rock or squeeze into a tight space and watch what is going on around them, reaching a maximum size of 4 inches. Can be prone to jumping so a tank with a lid is recommended.

picture by fras

Blue/green Chromis (Chromis viridis)

Picture by steve W
If you have a large tank it is possible to add a group of chromis as your starter fish, they are hardy and stay small reaching between 2 and 3 inches, best to add in groups of 5 or more to limit any limit any aggressive behavior between themselves, once settled they can form a very attractive shoal.

Banggai Cardinal (Pterapogon kauderni)

photo by Preds
A strange looking and slow moving fish that is a bit different from the norm, best to keep as a single specimen or an established pair. If you are lucky enough to get a pair they are easy to breed, once spawning has occurred, the male carries the eggs in his mouth to protect them, maximum size 3 inches.

Firefish (Nemateleotris magnifica)
A colourful easy to keep fish which grows to 4 inches, these fish often use a small gap in the base of the liverock as a ‘bolthole’ when the fish is frightened or as soon as the lights are turned off, it then uses its long dorsal fin to lock themselves into the rock. Unfortunately due to this darting behavior it is also prone to jumping out of the tank when frightened so not really suitable for an open top tank, adult fish can be aggressive towards their own kind so should be kept as a single specimen or an established pair.

Purple Firefish (Nemateleotris decora)

photo by preds
Closely related to Nemateleotris magnifica, they share the same characteristics.

Carpenters Flasher Wrasse (Paracheilinus carpenteri)

Picture by strider
A hardy, small reef safe wrasse, they have a lovely colouration which turns from red/orange to yellow when mature, Paracheilinus carpenteri is probably the most commonly available flasher wrasse but still can be hard to find, grows to 3 inches, they can be kept as a single specimen or in groups in a large tank.

To finish off a word about Damsels

Unfortunately there is still a few fish shops that recommend adding damsels as your first fish, while they are very hardy and relatively inexpensive they are simply too aggressive to even consider. Damsels are highly territorial fish and will nip, attack and often kill other tankmates, even the so called more peaceful varieties such as the yellow tailed damsel (Chrysiptera parasema) can still turn out to be absolute terrors.

For this reason it is strongly recommended that all damsel fish be avoided