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14 of the most colorful saltwater aquarium fish in existence

colorful saltwater aquarium fish header
When I was 10 years old, my father took me to our local fish store for the first time.

Right after we entered the store I was dazzled by a colorful saltwater aquarium filled with all kinds of exotic fish.

I’m sure my dad regretted that day for some time, as I didn’t stop nagging him to buy me a marine tank just like the one we had seen.

Even though he was a stern man, he couldn’t withstand the pleading look on my face (one I was practicing for at least a week) and he finally set up a 10-gallon marine aquarium in our living room.

Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with collecting all kinds of bright-colored fish and playing around with different combos.

In this post, I’ll offer you a detailed account of my favorite species.

The 14 Most Vibrant Saltwater Aquarium Fish in Existence

A fish with a fun personality is a joy to watch and have in your tank, but a colorful fish makes the whole fish-keeping experience that much more enjoyable. Although saltwater tanks take a little more effort to maintain they provide more interesting and exotic fish options.

To make things a little easier for you, I made a list of the 14 species that can take your tank’s appearance to the next level.

Here are the 14 most colorful saltwater aquarium fish:

1. Yellow Boxfish – Ostracion cubicus

yellow boxfish

by skejcior

Maximum size: 17.7 in (around 45 cm)
Recommended tank size: 125 gallons
Suitable for beginners: No

The yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus) takes the cake for the largest fish on this list at 17.7 inches (45 cm) in size with one of the biggest tank requirements at 125 gallons.

This adorable-looking fish has a boxy shape and bright yellow scales with black spots on them.

Their spots get smaller with age and their bright yellow color fades to become more brown or greenish with time.

I personally love the look of these fish, but their natural mechanisms make them difficult fish to own. These types of fish are peaceful by nature, but they have a unique body feature that releases a deadly toxin when they become stressed or pass away.

Yellow boxfish are such fun to look at, but without proper experience in their care, you could end up risking the health of your whole tank.

2. Humuhumu Triggerfish – Rhinecanthus rectangulus

humuhumu triggerfish

by ReefFrenzy

Maximum size: 10 – 12 in (25.4 – 30.5 cm)
Recommended tank size: 100+ gallons
Suitable for beginners: No

This peculiar-looking fish is not the most colorful on the list, but it can easily captivate your attention nonetheless.

When describing the colors of the Humuhumu Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus rectangulus), I would say pastel orange and purple hues are covering the upper and back half of this fish with variations of white, black, and yellow as well.

This isn’t the biggest fish on the list at 10-12 in (25.4 – 30.5 cm), but it is fairly large compared to some of the other ones listed.

Keeping on trend with the size of this fish, they will need a larger tank of at least 100 or more gallons to properly house them with enough space to freely swim around.

Unfortunately, despite how cool this fish would be to see swimming around in your tank, they are not a good option for beginners.

They require a fairly large tank which can be hard to set up and they are aggressive and territorial to not only other fish but to you as well.

Author’s note: The Humuhumu Triggerfish is the official fish of Hawaii and is named Humuhumunukunukuapua’a which reflects the native language of the state.

3. Red Lionfish – Pterois volitans

red lionfish

by DRBean

Maximum size: 15 in (38.1 cm)
Recommended tank size: 120+ gallons
Suitable for beginners: No

I would be surprised to find anyone that can walk past this exotic-looking fish without doing a double take.

Pterois volitans, more commonly known as the Red Lionfish, is a red and white striped fish with long spines and fins that give it the appearance of something out of a space movie.

It seems almost impossible to get bored watching a fish like this with such a unique and captivating appearance, and it’s easily one of the coolest fish on this list.

However, as nature says, sometimes the prettiest or craziest looking things are the most dangerous.

Although it is pretty rare for a Red Lionfish to kill you, their venomous spines are a fairly painful experience for anyone unfortunate enough to find out.

Keep in mind that they also get pretty big as well at 15 in (38.1 cm), so they will need a tank of at least 120+ gallons to house them properly.

Author’s note: If you decide to get a Red Lionfish for your tank, do not house them with smaller fish because they will see them as food rather than friends.

4. Royal Gramma Basslet – Gramma Loreto

royal gramma basslet

by xM3THODx

Maximum size: 3.5 in (9 cm)
Recommended tank size: 30 gallons
Suitable for beginners: Yes

The popular Royal Gramma Basslet is a hit amongst aquarists because of its friendly personality and rare color combination of neon purple and yellow.

The Royal Gramma Basslet, also known as Gramma Loreto, has gorgeous bright colors that stand out against the dark blue water in the tank and grab the attention of anyone passing by.

They are peaceful for the most part, but they have tendencies to become aggressive to their own kind, so house them with other peaceful fish of different species.

This is a fairly small fish at only 3.5 inches (9 cm) in length, so they only need a 30-gallon tank to be happy. Their generally peaceful nature and basic needs make Royal Gramma excellent for a beginner that is looking to grow a saltwater aquarium.

5. Pajama Cardinalfish – Sphaeramia nematoptera

pajama cardinalfish

by Polarcollision

Maximum size: 3 in (7.6 cm)
Recommended tank size: 30 gallons
Suitable for beginners: Yes

These nano marine dwellers have quite a unique look with their crazy patterns and bright eyes that stand out amongst their peers.

The Pajama Carnidaldish, from the Sphaeramia genus, have a yellowish hue on their head that gradually transforms into a white tail with brown spots and a midsection that appears like they have a built-in corset in their design.

They need a tank of at least 30 gallons so that they can school together without running into other competing species.

The Pajama Cardinalfish will reach about 3 inches (7.6 cm) at its adult size.

They are fairly small and non-confrontational, so make sure to include plenty of hideouts across your tank’s aquascape for them to retreat to when they feel overwhelmed. They are a great choice if you are just starting out in the hobby, but make sure to buy enough to fill a school so they don’t get stressed from solitude.

6. Clownfish – Amphiprion Ocellaris

clownfish

by Sustainable Marine

Maximum size: 3.5 in (9 cm)
Recommended tank size: 20 gallons
Suitable for beginners: Yes

Probably the most familiar and loved fish on this list is the Ocellaris, also known as the Clownfish.

There are a few fish on this list that you can recognize from the popular movie Finding Nemo, but the clownfish is without a doubt the star. They are one of the best options for a beginner trying to decide what type of fish to get for their aquarium.

They are rather peaceful and friendly to coral reefs while not taking up a lot of space at only 3.5 inches (9 cm).

The clownfish’s orange and white colors are pretty to look at without being overwhelming for the aquarists that prefer less rainbow-looking fish. These fish don’t need a large tank either, 20 gallons should be enough for them, so even people with limited budgets can afford to add one of these lovely little creatures to their aquarium.

7. Falco Hawkfish – Cirrhitichthys falco

falco hawkfish

by Murrel

Maximum size: 2.5 in (6.4 cm)
Recommended tank size: 30 gallons
Suitable for beginners: Yes

The Falco Hawkfish is the smallest fish on this list coming in at only 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) at its adult size.

The white, brown, and orange color combinations of this fish make it really pretty to look at along with its delicate fins and curious eyes.

Falco Hawkfish are nano fish that only need a 30-gallon tank to be happy, but keep in mind that they are somewhat aggressive.

Falco hawkfish (Cirrhitchthys Falco) are beginner friendly, but they do attack fish that are smaller than them and even some that are bigger. To keep them as peaceful as possible, make sure you don’t overcrowd the tank and only stock fish that are compatible.

8. Firefish Goby – Nemateleotris magnifica

firefish goby

by Sustainable Brymac1

Maximum size: 3 in (7.6 cm)
Recommended tank size: 20 gallons
Suitable for beginners: Yes

If you are a beginner looking for a unique little fish to join your underwater community, the Firefish Goby – Nemateleotris magnifica – is an excellent choice.

Their color variations are not the most eye-catching on the list, but their yellow, white, and red hues make them very enjoyable fish to observe.

They have a sleek appearance with their long, thin bodies which makes the Firefish Goby look somewhat elegant in a way.

This species is a very small and cute nano fish at only 3 inches (7.6 cm) of full body length, so you don’t need a large tank to keep them. A 20-gallon aquarium will work just fine.

Firefish Gobies are friendly to the other inhabitants of the tank, but like all fish, they can get aggressive if they are overcrowded with limited space.

Author’s note: The Firefish Goby tends to jump out of the tank, so take precautions to safely keep them inside.

9. Palette Surgeonfish – Pomacanthus hepatus

palette surgeonfish

by ColdOceanReef

Maximum size: 9.8 to 12.2 in (25 to 31 cm)
Recommended tank size: 75 gallons
Suitable for beginners: No

Do these striking blue and yellow fish look familiar to you at all?

If you have seen the popular Finding Nemo movie or its sequel, you might see the palette surgeonfish as somewhat of a celebrity.

Despite their widespread recognition, they aren’t the best option for first-time fish owners.

They require quite a big tank of around 75 gallons due to their larger size of 9.8 to 12.2 inches (25 – 31 cm), plus they tend to fight other males that become aggressive.

A fun fact about them is that they will “play dead” if threatened by laying flat on the bottom of the tank, which might be alarming for new owners.

Palette surgeonfish, or Pomacanthus hepatus, like to be in groups or schools within the tank, so it’s important not to buy this fish if you can’t provide them with the proper space they need to thrive. I understand the temptation though, their electric blue and yellow scales are hard to resist, but there are plenty of great options out there if this fish is a little too advanced for you.

10. Emperor Angelfish – Pomacanthus imperator

emperor angelfish

by Wen

Maximum size: 12 in (30.5 cm)
Recommended tank size: 125 gallons
Suitable for beginners: No

As is the case with some of the other fish on this list, the emperor angelfish is not a good option for someone who is just starting in the marine world.

Not only are they semi-aggressive to fish around them, but Emperor Angelfish are also susceptible to a lot of illnesses.

On top of that, they will eat certain reef corals if you include the wrong ones.

Due to Pomacanthus imperator‘s somewhat abrasive nature, they need a large 125-gallon tank to be able to swim around comfortably without feeling confined.

If you can manage some of their specific requirements, Pomacanthus imperator is an incredibly gorgeous fish with combinations of blue, black, and yellow and thin light stripes going down their body.

They grow to about 12 inches (30.5 cm) as their maximum adult size, which also explains why they need a larger tank with more space to roam.

11. Striped Mandarinfish – Synchiropus splendidus

striped mandarinfish

by @ECLS Reefer

Maximum size: 3 in (7.6 cm)
Recommended tank size: 50+ gallons
Suitable for beginners: No

The striped mandarin fish, Synchiropus splendidus, is easily one of the best-looking and most colorful fish on this list.

That’s if you want a single saltwater fish with body colors ranging from blue and green, to orange and purple.

Not only are their colors captivating to look at, but the designs and patterns on their body also succeed in creating a visually appealing canvas to admire throughout your day.

When fully grown, they reach about 3 inches (7.6 cm) at their biggest, so they only need a display tank of about 50+ gallons.

Unfortunately, this is not a beginner-friendly fish because of its diet.

They can be called the picky eaters of the fish world due to the training they need to consume the food you want them to.

So, I would only get this fish if I had the time and patience to cater to its specific dietary needs.

12. Moorish Idol – Zanclus Cornutus

moorish idol

by reddo-tan

Maximum size: 7 inches (17.78 cm)
Recommended tank size: 125 gallons
Suitable for beginners: No

Just when you thought you learned about the whole cast of Finding Nemo, Gil, a Moorish idol joins the list.

Before you get too excited about adding them to your tank, you should know that they aren’t suitable for a novice aquarist.

They require a large 125-gallon tank at minimum to be happy and swim freely, and they are also incredibly picky when it comes to what they eat.

Moorish Idols don’t adjust well to change and captivity and have even been known to starve to death because of their picky and stubborn personality concerning food.

However, if you think you can take on the challenge of Zanclus cornutus, then you will find them to be a wonderful addition to a colorful saltwater tank.

Their disk-like shape and black, white, and yellow striped bodies make them look exotic when swimming through the dark blue waters.

They aren’t the biggest fish on my list, but they reach 7 inches (17.78 cm) in adulthood.

13. Scott’s Fairy Wrasse – Cirrhilabrus Scottorum

scotts fairy wrasse

by OrionN

Maximum size: 6 in (15.2 cm)
Recommended tank size: 55 – 90 gallons
Suitable for beginners: Yes

This multicolored fish is one of the most colorful on the list and looks like it came straight out of a child’s imagination.

The colors of a Scott’s Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus Scottorum), seem to rival that of even the brightest rainbow.

Depending on the color variation you get, you can see splashes of orange, green, blue, pink, red, or purple on their scales.

Cirrhilabrus Scottorum are average in terms of size coming in at 6 inches (15.2 cm) in length.

Their adult body size and their swimming patterns result in them needing a slightly bigger tank of at least 55 gallons.

However, you can go up to 90 gallons depending on certain factors, and, generally speaking, that’s always the better approach in fishkeeping.

If you are new to this hobby – no worries – this species is hardy and peaceful, which makes them a great addition for a newbie. There are so many cool traits about Scott’s Fairy Wrasse, but if you’re just discovering it, I strongly recommend researching Wrasse fish in general.

14. Flasher Wrasse Fish – Paracheilinus spp.

by Lynnmw1208

Maximum size: 4.5 in (11.43 cm)
Recommended tank size: 50 gallons
Suitable for beginners: Yes

You may not find a more suitable beginner fish for a saltwater aquarium than Paracheilinus spp., more commonly known as the Flasher Wrasse fish.

They are easy to take care of, peaceful, small, and brightly colored, which makes them a great choice for anyone who is just getting started.

Flasher Wrasses grow to about 4.5 inches (11.43 cm) at their adult size and need a 50-gallon tank to feel comfortable in a home aquarium.

In my opinion, the vivid red and purple colors on this fish make it look like it came out of a volcano, which is pretty cool to look at. They are also friendly to corals, so you won’t have to worry about the aquascape in your reef tank.

How to enhance the colors of your pet fish?

The last thing you want when trying to create a colorful saltwater aquarium is to find your fish with dull lackluster colors.

Not only is this visually unappealing, but it could also indicate that your fish are sick or not getting the proper nutrients that they need.

If you want bright and vibrant-looking fish, you need to make sure you’re feeding them a diet of vitamins and minerals that will support and improve their overall health. What a fish eats has a direct impact on its well-being and healthy fish display their coloration best.

There is also food that has been designed specifically for enhancing color, so just make sure to research whatever you decide to feed to your pet fish.

My Personal Favorites

I think every fish on this list is unique and amazing in their own way, but the Striped Mandarin fish and the Clownfish are my two favorites for different reasons.

The Mandarin Fish is beautiful and striking with its rainbow colors and the Clownfish is an all-around enjoyable presence in any aquarium.

Overall, there are so many great colorful fish out there and many of them have infectious personalities to match their appearance.

To learn about more beautiful fish that you can get for your saltwater aquarium, I suggest skimming through this article next.

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