Secrets for Beginners Setting Up Their First Fish Tank

Secrets for Beginners Setting Up Their First Fish Tank7 mins read

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Tal Halperin
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Image from Ray Woods /Aquacadabra

For our second instalment of Aquarium Spotlight, we spoke with Ray Woods of London-based aquatics centre Aquacadabra about the secrets he discovered for setting up mesmerising tanks even as a beginner. Setting up your First Fish Tank is not as easy as it looks. So, we’re keen to share his insider knowledge to give beginners the kind of insight that comes only from personal experience.

Below, we look at keeping lesser known invertebrates, aquascaping, and all you need for filling a fish tank for the first time. Yes, these are the things that every beginner aquarist should know if they want to create an amazing tank. And best of all, they’re based on Ray’s dedicated personal experience. Read on to find out more.

1. You Originally Weren’t a Fishkeeper, but Had Some Help From Colleagues at Aquacadabra. How Has Working in Aquatics Inspired You To Keep Fish?

That’s right, I’d never kept a tank before. In fact, I didn’t have any plans to get a tank or fish when I first joined the team; actually, it was the crabs that got me into it. I wanted a tank for pet crabs, so, after finding a suitable species, I went down the rabbit hole of setting up a paludarium.

I started looking into aquariums that could be partially filled with water. Soon after, my colleagues at Aquacadabra pointed me toward the Exo Terra range of terrariums & paludariums. All their terrariums work well as paludariums too. However, the paludariums have a higher bottom section to fit more water! This is very important to know when filling a fish tank for the first time.

While setting up, I did a deep-dive on YouTube channels like Serpadesign & Dr Plants. Their videos were very informative, helping me set up my hardscape and handle the planting. Deep diving can also help you find the best fish tanks for beginners and choose between them.

Working with the team at Aquacadabra had piqued my interest in learning more about the hobby. They’ve been super helpful, especially with new tank syndrome or algae build-up. These are classic beginner problems but they also helped more recently with some fungus on one of my cherry shrimp. Their help and enthusiasm not only solved my problems with my First Fish Tank but also made me appreciate the wider world of fishkeeping.

2. You Keep Some Interesting Invertebrates! Is There Anything People Should Know More About These Often-Overlooked Tankmates?

Vampire crabs and cherry shrimp are fascinating creatures that add so much to a tank. Image from Ray Woods / Aquacadabra

Absolutely! Vampire crabs and cherry shrimp are fascinating creatures that add so much to a tank. Nevertheless, they do require some specific care to thrive. Vampire crabs, for instance, are semi-terrestrial and need an environment that includes both water and a large land portion. This should not just be a small floating turtle dock or a few rocks poking above the surface! I would recommend lots of wood, rocks and plants to increase the surface area. This maximises space available to the crabs. They’re brilliant climbers and master escapologists too, so you’ll need a lid!

Cherry shrimp are simpler to keep. They can live in a tropical aquarium setup with much fewer considerations than vampire crabs, besides suitable tankmates. However, they’re very sensitive to water quality, particularly sudden changes. Yet either way, water quality is one of the biggest things to consider when setting up your First Fish Tank with any species.

So I strongly recommend drip-acclimating new arrivals via a syphon using some knotted airline. Frequent but small water changes are also recommended to avoid sudden changes to the water chemistry. When filling a fish tank for the first time ensure you let it cycle and test the water parameters afterwards.

Ray’s advice on water chemistry:

Speaking of water chemistry, it’s a great idea to add some catappa leaves (also known as Indian Almond leaves) as they release tannins into the water as they decompose. This helps with lowering the pH and mimics the natural, slightly acidic water conditions that many shrimp and fish species thrive in. They also have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Just remember, the tannins will change the colour of the water to a degree (depending on how many you add). Many fish and shrimp prefer this as it makes them feel safer, though it’s not to every aquarist’s taste.

I would also definitely recommend buying captive-bred critters wherever possible, especially for your First Fish Tank. Not only is it much more sustainable and ethical, but they tend to be healthier. They will also be better adapted to life in an aquarium or terrarium than those which have been wild-caught.

3. One of Your Tanks Is a Paludarium (Hybrid Terrestrial and Aquatic Tank). Did Working in Aquatics Enable You To Set This up More Easily as a Beginner?

Ray Woods: If you don’t happen to work in the industry I’d recommend trying a local shop for natural products. Image from Ray Woods / Aquacadabra

Yes, it absolutely did! Aquacadabra’s team have a wide range of expertise and experience and are available on the phone & via messages for any customer, but having them in the office obviously made it really easy for me to pick their brains and get help whenever I needed it. You may not have access to a whole team, but don’t be shy about asking questions. If it’s your First Fish Tank, it’s better to be open as it can make or break your experience.

I was also really lucky that I could take my pick of things like spider wood/azalea root and other natural material products. Normally when you order online, you only get a rough idea of the piece you’ll get. Thus, it can be hard to work out the best fish tanks for beginners from online alone.

If you don’t happen to work in the industry I’d recommend trying a local shop for natural products. However, taking the gamble isn’t too bad either! Most shops are happy to take returns, especially if things are unused. Therefore if it’s your First Fish Tank and you are playing around a bit, don’t worry. You can usually send back any excess or bits you don’t need without too much trouble.

4. Were There Any Challenges You Encountered Teaching Yourself to Aquascape?

Initially in my desktop aquarium, I didn’t really utilise height in the hardscape. Image from Ray Woods / Aquacadabra

I stacked some larger rock pieces towards the back of the scape, with some spider wood and smaller stones in front, and a fairly flat layer of substrate.It took me a while to figure out what I’d done wrong, but after watching some tutorial videos on YouTube I realised the importance of piling up the substrate to give a more dimensional appearance, and positioning the rocks and wood accordingly.

Yet, I came across a lot of hurdles when scaping both of my tanks. Initially in my First Fish Tank (as opposed to paludarium), a desktop aquarium, I didn’t really utilise height in the hardscape. Once I started the scape again, this approach really transformed the aesthetic of my aquascape. In fact, it started making it look more natural and visually appealing. Ideally, the best fish tanks for beginners should have both height and width to give you flexibility.

When working with dragon stone, I discovered the importance of aligning the grain direction of different rock pieces. Initially, my setups looked a bit jumbled because I hadn’t paid attention to this detail. By aligning the grains, the overall appearance became more cohesive and natural, mimicking real-life landscapes which significantly enhanced the visual flow of the aquascape. This bit of advice doesn’t apply to every rock type, but it’s very important when dealing with those it does!

Ray’s First Fish Tank or paludarium background experience:

Another interesting challenge was using expanding foam for the first time to create the paludarium background, which was pretty daunting. I started with the basic nozzle that comes with the can, but I quickly encountered difficulties as it was hard to control and would come loose. I did a bit more research mid-project and went to a local hardware store to get a foam gun with which to apply the foam – it made a huge difference and made everything so much easier! The best fish tanks for beginners may not have the background you want built in. So consider that you can always modify a tank like this after buying.

In fact, we now stock these foam guns at Aquacadabra and also list them as a handy bundle. The expanding foams are more often marketed as pond foams for creating water features rather than terrarium or paludarium backgrounds, but they’re perfect for both. It’s a great way to create a custom background with texture and depth, and incorporate wood & rocks into the semi-permanent hardscape of a tank. Once you’ve created a background using the foam, you’ll want to trim off the outer layer, add silicone and coco husk to create a more natural look. Oh, and if you do get a foam gun, grab some foam cleaner too so you can clean the gun for future use!

Including water features in your setup:

Setting up a waterfall in the paludarium was another area where I faced challenges. Keeping the water path contained above the waterline is crucial, as water can be incredibly tricky and will flow into unexpected areas if given the chance. In my first attempts, I didn’t consider this thoroughly, resulting in a sodden substrate that required me to redo parts of the paludarium—a tough lesson when you have a tank full of crabs! My advice on this would be to keep the planned path of the water as contained as you can. It will likely escape a bit anyway but don’t take any chances to avoid it as much as possible!

5. What Would You Recommend People To Prepare for When Setting up Their First Aquascape?

Whether it’s an aquarium, terrarium or paludarium, there’s a lot to consider and prepare for. Image from Ray Woods / Aquacadabra

Great question! Whether it’s an aquarium, terrarium or paludarium for your First Fish Tank, there’s a lot to consider and prepare for:

My biggest piece of advice would be to research as much as possible! You’ll probably start with an animal in mind for a tank, so start off with finding out what requirements they have, from tank size to tankmates, substrates and lighting. Focussing on tank mates is especially important for fish like the betta, which can become aggressive. I found that specialist fish- and exotic-keeping websites are a great place to get this kind of information, and for more scaping-specific research I found YouTube to be a great resource.

There are so many great videos out there by a variety of creators, each usually focusing on a single tank setup but this is a great one on general principles of hardscaping. I found YouTube to be a fantastic source of inspiration regarding what I wanted my aquascapes to look like. It’s also great for advice on how to go about creating them! Like any skill, aquascaping benefits greatly from learning from a variety of sources. Again, the best fish tanks for beginners, best plants, or even best fish may be different depending on what you want from your tank. So, it helps to broaden your sources of info, especially for you First Fish Tank.

This approach helps you avoid adopting the habits or biases of just one person. It also allows you to integrate the best techniques and ideas from multiple experts. This is also a great way to figure out what you’ll need and put together your shopping list!

How to put together your First Fish Tank smoothly:

Once you have your hardscape materials, plan your layout and take your time. Try a variety of combinations and layouts, photograph and compare them later. Patience is key here, it’s always a good idea to take a break and come back with a fresh pair of eyes. It also helps to run your ideas by somebody else if you can.

And it’s always a good idea to use something like filter grid/egg crate at the bottom of your tank to spread the weight of your rocks/wood/ornaments. The last thing you want is cracked glass. Likewise, once the tank is set up it will get covered by your substrate.

6. Lastly, Aquacadabra Prioritises Staff Knowledge and Experience. When Buying Fish, Are There Any Questions Beginners Should Ask Staff in Order to End Up With a Thriving and Successful Tank?

By asking these questions, you’ll be better prepared to select fish (or crustaceans!) that are suitable for your aquarium. Image from Ray Woods / Aquacadabra

When buying fish, especially as a beginner, it’s important to ask the right questions to ensure you’re setting up for a thriving and successful tank. Here are some essential questions to ask, whether you’re asking Google, the team at Aquacadabra or your local pet shop.

Ray’s ‘essential questions to ask’:

  1. What are the specific care requirements for this fish? Knowing the ideal water parameters (like pH and temperature) and how to achieve them, tank size requirements, and dietary needs is crucial. This will help you determine if you can provide the right environment for the fish.
  2. Is this fish compatible with my current or planned tank mates? Ask about the temperament and social behaviour of the fish. This is to ensure it will get along with others you intend to keep or already have. Size is a big factor – if one species will fit in another’s mouth, they’re not good tankmates!
  3. What is the adult size of this fish? This is crucial as some fish sold as juveniles can grow significantly larger and may outgrow your tank.
  4. What is their current diet? Knowing what the fish have been fed at the store can help you provide a consistent diet initially. This is something you can then gradually adapt if needed.
  5. How long has the fish been at the store? Fish that have acclimated to the store’s tanks are generally more stable. Avoid buying fish that have just arrived. They might be stressed from transport, and it could be detrimental to stress them further.
  6. What is the return policy? Understanding the store’s policy on returning sick or incompatible fish can give you peace of mind and a safety net.

By asking these questions, you’ll be better prepared to select fish (or crustaceans!) that are suitable for your aquarium, leading to a more stable and healthy aquatic environment.

Final Thoughts

Thank you so much to Ray for sharing these secrets and discoveries with us! We are always looking to learn more from others personal experience in fishkeeping, and lived examples can be crucial in setting up your First Fish Tank.

We hope to provide the most accurate and in depth information on all aquarium species, leaving no stone unturned. So, if you are looking to learn more, especially about lesser known topics, be sure to check out other articles such as these nano tank fish suggestions. Furthermore, you can look at the other exciting interviews we have done for Aquarium Spotlight.

Sydney Perry

Sydney Perry has loved fish since she was a child and has enjoyed keeping many varieties over the years, ranging from black moors and shubunkins to betta fish. As a lover of nature and of Japanese culture, her dream tank is an Iwagumi aquascape, combining fish with carefully crafted aquatic landscapes in miniature.