Ask Yourself These Questions Before Starting Your First Saltwater Aquarium

The first step should always include an honest assessment of whether a marine aquarium is the right fit for you

The first step should always include an honest assessment of whether a marine aquarium is the right fit for you

One of our primary goals here at Saltwater Smarts is to give budding marine aquarists all the insights and information they need to embark upon this challenging hobby with their eyes wide open. Encouraging prior research on techniques, equipment, and livestock is, of course, a major aspect of this, but even before the research stage, there’s an important step every aspiring hobbyist should take. That is, performing an honest assessment of whether setting up a marine aquarium is a good idea in the first place.

Think of it this way: Setting up that first saltwater tank is a lot like bringing home a puppy—it can be wonderful, disastrous, or something in between depending on your unique circumstances. How it turns out for you will depend to a large extent on how you answer the following questions:

What’s your motivation?

First ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Is it because you have a deep, abiding fascination with marine life and want to bring a slice of reef into your living space and do whatever it takes to maintain it? Or is it because your kids keep lobbying for a tank so they can show off “Nemo” and “Dory” to their friends? You can probably guess which scenario is more likely to set the stage for success.

Do your living arrangements allow for an aquarium?

Does your home offer adequate space, utility access, and structural support for the tank you envision? Is your spouse/partner on board with the tank? If you live in an apartment or condo, does your landlord/association forbid aquariums or place size restrictions on them?

Also, keep in mind that a marine aquarium is a long-term proposition. If you’re planning to move to a new home in the not-too-distant future, you’d obviously be better off waiting until after the move to set up the tank.

Are you in it for the long haul?

Building on that last point, many marine fish and invertebrates can survive for decades in captivity. For example, with proper care that “Nemo” clownfish you buy now to bring a smile to your child’s face may still be with you long after that child has reached adulthood and moved out of your home. Are you willing and able to meet the long-term care requirements of any animals you acquire?

What does your day-to-day schedule look like?

Of course, there’s also the near-term time commitment to consider. I always contend that the marine aquarium hobby doesn’t have to be prohibitively time-consuming, but it does involve certain unavoidable routine tasks, such as feeding fish and inverts, testing water parameters, performing top-offs and water changes, emptying the protein skimmer collection cup, scraping algae, and simply observing your livestock to make sure everything is alive and well.

Certainly some of these chores can be automated, but no matter how you slice it, this hobby requires a regular time investment and might not be feasible if your schedule is already jam-packed with work, family, and social commitments.

Does your budget allow it?

Spend any amount of time on a marine aquarium internet forum and you’re apt to come across comments like, “I know a queen angelfish can’t live in a 30-gallon tank for very long, but it’s all I can afford right now.” As someone who’s extremely budget-conscious, I can certainly appreciate the sentiment underlying such remarks, but the simple fact is, the fish and invertebrates in our care don’t give a fig how much money we make. Their fundamental needs must be met regardless of whether we can afford to do so or not.

Also, keep in mind that the initial price of setting up a marine tank, while potentially daunting, is only part of the overall cost equation. For as long as the tank is in operation, there will be certain ongoing expenses to contend with as well, e.g. for artificial sea salt, replacement light bulbs/tubes, foods, test kits, chemical filtration media, calcium/alkalinity supplementation, RO/DI components, etc.

How would you describe your work ethic?

Would you describe yourself as diligent and disciplined in your work habits or are you more like me—kind of lazy and prone to procrastination? Being naturally closer to the “lazy procrastinator” end of the spectrum isn’t a deal breaker, but this hobby does come with nonnegotiable responsibilities, so, at the very least, you have to be willing to do whatever is necessary to make yourself accountable.

How do you respond to challenges?

Last but not least, ask yourself how you typically respond when challenges come your way. This is important because our hobby is fraught with them—from algae outbreaks to diseases to water-quality problems to livestock compatibility issues, the list goes on and on. If your normal reaction to these types of challenges is to get disheartened and “throw in the towel,” reefkeeping may not be the hobby for you.

If, on the other hand, you can take these problems in stride, exercise patience as you slowly work through solutions, and maybe even enjoy a laugh or two at your own expense from time to time, then welcome aboard!

Photo credit: Emilio Ciccarelli

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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.

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