My Newbie Saltwater Aquarium Mistakes… and a Few Good Choices

Saltwater Aquarium Guide for the Beginner, Aquarium Setup and CareSee the Saltwater Aquarium Guide, Beginner Saltwater Aquarium Setup and Care

Good, bad, and best choices for the saltwater aquarium beginner.

As I sit here staring at my 75-gallon semi reef tank, with my Platinum and Picasso Percula Clownfish, Halichoeres Garnoti Wrasse, and Royal Gramma… yes, I’ve started over again after moving… I thought about how I got to this point. I thought that the things I’ve learned, a few good choices along with my newbie mistakes, which started in 2005, might be of use to someone. As I reflect, I realized it wasn’t all bad and I did learn a lot along the way.

My first saltwater tank was a 55-gallon in 2005. The first bit of advice I can give you is that you WILL want corals, so just buy a good light now! You can remove some of the bulbs if you think you are going to have a fish only tank, but you will have all the watts you need when you can’t help but buy that first coral!

Back to my first tank… I read what I could on the internet, and at the time, you could get live Fiji rock on eBay from a reputable dealer for $.99 a pound! Excited to find such a great buy, I did order the 50 lbs of live rock and eagerly awaited its arrival. The tank was set up with the proper salt level of 1.023, and this made sense to me since the ocean is about that or higher.

That was my first good choice. My first bad choice? Well that would be crushed coral. A guy at the LFS (live fish store) who seemed to be knowledgeable on the subject, we will call him Mr. Crushed Coral, told me that this was the best choice. I recall they were out of sand, yet he assured me this was better at keeping the pH up, and yes that made sense to me… at the time, and in certain applications it does have its uses.

One good choice was that a different guy at my LFS, who was actually quite knowledgeable in some areas, told me due to the hot summers here in Vegas, to wait and see what temperature my tank could maintain on its own. He said if 82°F was the lowest you could get it to in the summer, then keep it there! This was good advice due to the fact that keeping it at 78°F in the summer would be near impossible, and the fluctuations between 78°F at night and 82° during the day would cause Crypt and other stresses. I also found from this the best way to medicate your fish in the reef! Read on!

Crushed Coral, Crushed Heart

So I went home, rinsed and then dumped in my crushed coral per Mr. Crushed Coral’s instructions. I also observed where the temperature tended to hover and found that 82°F was the magic number, and set it there. In the meantime, the live rock had been delivered to my house, and it was amazing!

At the 4 week mark I did a 50% water change, as advised by Mr. Crushed Coral, and I saw emerge from the rock, a peanut worm! Coolest, freakiest thing I ever saw… well up to this point. The little dude kind of hung around the rock for the first week after that water change and then decided, “Hey, I need to burrow, because I am a WORM after all!” That did it. The crushed coral sliced and diced up Mr. Wormy in no time as I watched dumbfounded that I thought sand was not the better choice!

Upon further research on the internet, which we all tend to do after a mistake which we never even realized, I found it WAS a mistake. I found that good quality reef sand will also keep up your pH! So I bought this sand and replaced half of the crushed coral initially, then the other half 2 weeks later, to give the bacteria and other creatures a chance to migrate. I also read how crushed coral, especially when several inches deep can hold anaerobic pockets, which can cause issues if released. Lesson learned, note to self… only reef quality sand.

Starfish, Love/Hate Relationships

I was now ready for my clean up crew, which you guessed it, included hermit crabs, snails, and a sand-stirring starfish. Yeah, it was the Mr. Crushed Coral dude, again. Well, one out of 3 creatures in the cleanup crew were not too bad. Why do I say this? Well the hermits systematically hunted and killed all my snails for their shells, so yeah, THERE was money well spent! To this day, I will only add a hermit crab if I have a fish that likes to eat them! Yes I love Harlequin Tuskfish!

I also noticed over the next 12 months my tank seemed unstable. I was testing my saltwater tank daily, almost to an OCD level! Thus my parameters of calcium, magnesium, iodine, etc were all good, no ammonia or nitrites and only about 5 nitrates. I also slowly added fish, at the rate of one every 2 weeks. One day I noticed my sand-stirring starfish had crawled up on a rock, and later that same day, during a conversation with my seawater supplier, I was telling him how my tank just didn’t seem to want to stabilize.

He happened to look in the tank and see the starfish on the rock (at the time I didn’t know it was dead) and he said, “There is your problem! They eat all the good stuff in the sand, and then once it is gone, they starve to death! In a much larger tank they are fine, but not a 55 gallon.” I was like, “Oh great guru, please guide this newbie!” We took out the starfish, uh, okay Sea Star, and to this day I still have it… on my window sill… yeah, I know.

He then sold me some of his live rock from one of his established systems for $2.00 a pound and I got some GREAT stuff! He also gave me copepods, then after a few weeks, my tank was stable! To stir sand, I found the jumbo nassarius snails are best and their babies are adorable! At that point, my sand was being stirred, water was stable and I then had a new brittle starfish that was very cool, eating the extra food the others missed. I loved that starfish! Err, Sea Star. Note to self, don’t even bother with Linckia Starfish.


One bit of information I stumbled upon while talking to an online website who sold fish bears repeating. They told me they purposely keep their tanks at 82°F to prevent the Cryptocaryon life cycle from completing, thus their fish rarely if ever had it! This would explain why I never had Crypt, and why any fish that I added who may have had a few spots never developed any more. I will say to this DAY, when my tank is at 82°F NO ONE gets sick!

To illustrate how harmless 82°F is, around the early part of 2006, my local UPS guy asked if I had a saltwater tank, noting the companies I was ordering from. I showed him my 55-gallon tank and on the spot he offered me, for FREE, a 150-gallon tank! He just finished with the hobby. This was oddly a foreshadowing of what I WOULD BE DOING with tanks over the next decade, but didn’t know it yet! So I continued with the temperature staying at 82°F, and I added more live rock and inhabitants to my 150-gallon reef over time. Eventually I had a Heteractis Magnifica (Magnificent or Ritteri Anemone), 2 Bubble Tips, various SPS (soft polyped stony corals), mushrooms (corallimorphs) zoanthids, one Kenya Tree, and LPS (large polyped stony corals), with all inhabitants, including fish, thriving. Of course, I never had cold-water fish! Note to self… no, you cannot have the Catalina Goby.


One time, back in 2007, I ordered some black perculas… yeah they were HOT back then! One had Brook! Quinine Sulfate, pharmaceutical grade cured one as I treated it in a separate tank, but I lost the male. I bought it from and these people are very knowledgeable! One morning I noticed, in my 150-gallon tank, a few of my fish had Crypt, and the temperature was only 77°F because of a failed heater. I had an extra one on hand, but I needed to figure out what to do.

After hours of researching, I settled on Seachem’s Metronidazole and Seachem’s Focus. The idea behind these products was awesome! The food and medication is bound together and will not affect the water chemistry or harm any inverts or bacteria! I used 3 parts Focus (binds the food and the other Seachem medication) to 1 part Metronidazole (used for Crypt and a few other illnesses) to 1 tablespoon of fish food, which can be dry or wet, then stored the leftover in the fridge. Upon following the instructions, my fish recovered very quickly! No need to bomb the tank, remove the fish, or relocate corals! To my horror, upon one of the feedings, my Magnificent Anemone accidentally ATE this mixture of food and medication, (thanks to the clownfish “feeding him”), but nothing ever happened! It is an amazing product! Note to self… check the expiration date on the Metro and Focus…

Next time I will talk about my “charge” mistakes. Fish, corals, or creatures I was talked into buying at the local fish store, and regretted it every day since… but learned a lot from!

Saltwater aquarium success can be yours! Learn how to set up your aquarium with our Saltwater Aquarium Guide, Beginner Saltwater Aquarium Setup and Care. Then select the best fish with our Beginner Saltwater Fish Guide, Hardy Marine Fish for the Beginner’s Saltwater Aquariums.

Carrie McBirney is a team member at Animal-World and has contributed many articles and write-ups.


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