How To Setup Saltwater Shark Aquarium (Beginners Guide)

Saltwater shark aquariums involve a solid understanding of water chemistry to maintain stable conditions. Without the right equipment and proper maintenance, your fish will not survive.

The following material is intended to be an introductory description of these factors, as well as the basic installation steps. The text is not intended to be a comprehensive and exhaustive list or set of instructions, but rather an introduction to initiate a more detailed investigation.

Saltwater Tank Size And Weight Determination

The minimum recommended tank size to maintain true shark species is 6 ‘x 2’ (1.82 m x .61 m), enough volume to hold 180 gallons of water (681.37 liters).

A more ideal arrangement would be an 8 ‘x 4’ x 2 (2.43m x 1.21m x 0.60m) tank, which would hold 480 gallons (1,817 liters).

It is extremely important to calculate the weight of any tank you are contemplating designing. A single gallon of water weighs 8 pounds. (3.63 kg), therefore:

  • 180 gallons of water weighs 1,440 pounds. (653.17 kg)
  • 480 gallons of water weighs 3,840 pounds. (1741.8 kg)

Don’t skimp on the support for your tank, or the base it will sit on. It is highly likely that a tank large enough to hold a shark cannot be placed on the second floor of a structure.

Even when placed at ground level, unless the unit is sitting directly on a concrete slab, it may be necessary to reinforce the floor underneath.

Expect to dedicate approximately 12-26 square feet of floor space to your shark tank. (1.11m2 – 2.41m2).

Essential Equipment Saltwater Shark Tank

Aquascaping, the art of creating an authentic and realistic underwater environment in a tank, is an art form. Underlying that art, however, is some much-needed mechanics.

You’ll need to learn about each of these pieces of equipment in detail and how they interact with each other to create a fully functioning saltwater environment in which saltwater sharks can live.

  • However, one point cannot be emphasized enough, you cannot simply fill a tank with saltwater and put sharks on it.
  • Your tank must be fully designed and working and must have adequate water chemistry to support marine life long before any shark is introduced to the water. This can take up to two months.

In that period, you will look at an empty and bubbling aquarium. However, this is your chance to learn everything there is to learn about your tank and the fish that will call it home.

Whenever you are setting up a shark aquarium, your best bet is to move slowly and deliberately to perform each step of the process correctly.

Protein Skimmer

A protein skimmer creates small bubbles within a reaction chamber. The waste materials adhere to the bubbles, which rise to the surface, carrying the debris with them. There, they are removed to a collection cup that will be emptied daily.

The bubbles also serve to replenish oxygen throughout the tank, which in turn helps maintain a stable pH level. (At night, carbon dioxide can build up in the water and lower the pH.)

Always buy the largest skimmer you can afford. The larger the unit, the more efficiently it will operate and the easier it will be to maintain the tank.

Expect to pay approximately $350 (£223) for a protein skimmer enough for a 180 gallon (681.37 liters) tank.

Note: Equipment prices vary widely. All estimates included in this text are for mid-range, high-quality units and are understood only as “ballpark” numbers. Creating a viable saltwater environment involves a great deal of research, both on your livestock and on the equipment that will support their habitat.


The pumps or powerheads circulate water inside the tank. Your goal is to “turn over” the water anywhere from 6 to 10 times per hour.

Again, some of these “flow rate” calculations depend on the type of shark you are raising. Bottom dwellers, for example, are not going to like sitting in a moving current.

The equipment will come with a GPH (gallons per hour) or LPH (liters per hour) rating. However, you should consider any element that creates resistance to that flow.

You want good water movement, especially since the water will have to be lifted through the sump and into the tank. Consequently, it is better to err slightly on the upper side of the water’s movement capacity.

Depending on the number of powerheads your tank will need, the costs for the 180 gallons (681.37 liters) water moving equipment could range from $100 to $500 (£64 to £319).

Note: If you are new to aquaculture, you may not fully understand the “culture” part of that word. People who maintain high-level tanks can talk nonstop about the equipment and the equations involved. It is a very good idea to make friends with more experienced saltwater aquarists. The Internet has enabled us to connect with enthusiasts around the world who have the knowledge to keep all kinds of fish.


Salt for use in aquariums is an ongoing expense. As a rough estimate, 5 gallons (18.92 liters) of salt is enough to produce around 150 gallons (567.81 liters) of saltwater, at a cost of approximately $50 to $75 (£32 – £48)

Reverse Osmosis Deionization (RODI System)

A RODI system purifies the water that will be used in your saltwater tank. It is far superior and more reliable than dechlorination chemicals.

These systems not only neutralize chlorine in tap water but also deal with other impurities such as nitrates and phosphates that enter the system through plant fertilizers.

If these materials aren’t removed from the water, you’re essentially fueling algae growth every time the tank is filled or the water is changed.

Since the lights used in marine tanks are very bright, aquarists need to be careful about the number of nutrients being added to the water to prevent algae growth from getting out of control. First, it is much easier to prevent algae than to get rid of it.

Drinking water can be contaminated with everything from petrochemicals to pharmaceuticals. What could be considered safe for human consumption can easily kill sensitive fish like sharks and corals and invertebrates that live in the tank with them.

A RODI tank gives the aquarist the peace of mind knowing that they are using the best water they can create.

The system consists of five steps of progressive filtration:

  1. The sediment filter removes large pieces of impurities such as dirt or rust.
  2. Two carbon blocks and then take out chlorine and reduces soluble and volatile organic compounds.
  3.  RO membrane eliminates 96% -98% of total dissolved solids. In this phase, the water molecules pass through the membrane, which rejects the largest impurities and sends them through the wastewater line.
  4.  Water passes through DI cartridge, which is filled with small positively and negatively charged ion beads.
  5. This last stage results in 0 TDS water (Total Dissolved Solids)

Impurities in the water have a detectable electrical charge. A TDS meter reads that electrical conductivity, which returns a purity rating.

A RODI configuration for a 180 gallon (681.37 liters) tank will range from $150 to $250 (£95 to £160).


Any standard saltwater light bulb will work well with a shark tank. The desired “blue” effect can be created with 50/50 style bulbs with a 10k element and an actinic element.

However, newer LED lights will last longer and are more energy-efficient. They also create a nice shiny effect in the water.

Since lighting is an important aesthetic element of aquaculture, costs can be surprisingly high to achieve the correct “look”. Expect a price range of $250 to $500 (£159 to £318).


Obviously, live rock is not, in itself, living. However, it is inhabited by micro and macroscopic marine organisms. This element of a saltwater tank can be composed of:

  • Coral or coral rock: pieces of real coral or coral rock that has detached itself from the outside of a reef and is encrusted with organisms that include things like sponges and coral algae.
  • Inshore Rock: Taken from inside a reef and densely covered in things like mussels, clams, shrimp, crabs, and macroalgae.
  • Dead Base Rock: Rock that is devoid of external life that can be used as a base on which to place live rock.

The most likely combination is a layer of dead base rock topped with coral or “reef rock”, which, in turn, will seed the dead rock over time.

Live rock is the primary means of biological nitrification or filtering in your tank, and is a major aesthetic enhancement in creating the natural appearance of the sea bottom.

The sand, which will cover the bottom of the tank, further enhances the natural look and plays a minor role in infiltration. Most tanks incorporate .25 to 4.0 inches (.63 to 10.16 cm) of sand.

For 25 lbs. (11.33 kg) of live rock, expect to pay $75 to $100 (£47 to £63).

Please note that some shark species are not appropriate for a reef tank because they can seriously damage their sensitive bellies in the rock.


The proper temperature in a saltwater tank must be maintained at all times.

Depending on the location of the tank in your home or business, the climate control systems in the building, and the climate of the region, you may need a heater and chiller.

Keep in mind that insulating the tank can significantly improve temperature control and save electricity since both heaters and chillers use a lot of energy.

Obviously, the choice, size, and combination of this type of equipment vary widely. Heaters that can handle the needs of a 180 gallon (681.37 liters) tank cost around $200 (£127),  while a chiller will cost around $500 (£319).

Saltwater fish, especially sharks, are very sensitive to changes in temperature. Don’t skimp on heating and chilling equipment. Maintaining a stable temperature is essential.

The greater the amount of water, the more heat it will maintain. Think of it this way. A cup of coffee cools faster than a bathtub filled with hot water. Therefore, aquarium coolers have to work harder than heaters.

Water Monitoring And Testing Equipment

Water monitoring and testing is a regular and vital aspect of maintaining a saltwater aquarium.

The main device for testing and maintaining salinity is a refractometer. A good quality unit that yields reliable measurements costs around $150 (£95).

Test kits for various chemical levels include (but are not limited to) retail ammonia, phosphates, and nitrates for $20 to $40 each (£13 to £25)

Keep in mind that this is an ongoing expense, as proper water quality is a big part of maintaining a successful and healthy tank.

Computer-based Tank Control

Increasingly, aquarists are turning to computer-based monitoring systems that measure all tank parameters through a network of sensors and probes.

This approach enables highly specific tank management, with trends and benchmarks recorded over time.

If you can afford a setup of this nature, it will save you a great deal of time and effort, and you will likely be able to spot and fix problems the first time they happen.

These systems manage:

  • pH control
  • Temperature control
  • Salinity
  • Water level
  • Water flow

… and a host of other factors. Most are expandable and can be remotely monitored over the Internet and through smartphone interfaces.

Prices vary widely depending on the degree of sophistication you plan to incorporate and the extent to which you can use the equipment you already own (computer, smartphone, Internet connection, etc.)

If you are interested in this route, budget from $500 to $1000 (£319 to £638).


The sump is a secondary tank. It is configured and connected to the main or “display” tank for the purpose of retaining preconditioned water capable of supporting marine life.

Not all aquarists use a sump, but it does increase the total volume of water and can create a healthier tank by increasing water flow and helping with filtration.

(It is very common for the area around the sump to become a “hidden” place to store all tank management equipment.)

A sump capable of handling 250 gallons (946.35 liters) of water costs approximately $280 (£180).

Auto Top Off system

Auto Top Off Systems maintain the water level in the tank by filling the aquarium with fresh water when a predetermined drop level is reached. (Freshwater is used to maintaining adequate salinity.)

In its most basic design, a float lowers and activates the pump when an activation point is reached.

Then when the correct water level is reached again, the pump turns off.

Expect to pay approximately $175 (£112).

Backup Generator

Installing a backup generator that will automatically activate in the event of a power failure is absolutely optional. However, if you take into account the time, effort, and expense of all the other equipment, plus the effort to condition the tank, not to mention the life of the fish, the additional cost may well be worth it.

For a 7,500-watt standby generator, expect to pay $700 to $1000 (£4467£638).

Overflow Box

In addition to these components, some aquarists also choose to use an overflow box for obvious reasons.

If something goes wrong with the pumping components of tanks of this size, the water damage to a home can be considerable.

Most overflow boxes retail for around $150 (£96).

Tank Component Installation Order

Although there are certainly no “rules” to installing a saltwater tank, the following items are the main steps to take, in more or less the “correct” order:

  1. Buy the tank.
  2.  Install an appropriate stand or foundation
  3. Connect the RODI system.
  4. Install the sump system.
  5. Mount the skimmer, heater, chiller, and auto top off system.
  6. Place the sand substrate on the bottom of the tank.
  7. Add rock if applicable
  8. Fit the powerheads.
  9. Fill the tank with premixed saltwater.

However, you are NOT ready to introduce fish at this time. Water must first be conditioned to become a viable marine environment.

Popular Saltwater Sharks

Marine or saltwater sharks are considerably larger than freshwater shark fish. They require more intricately balanced saltwater tanks that are significantly larger.

In general, these creatures are not easy to maintain and only experienced aquarists should try.

Black Banded Cat Shark

A black banded cat shark will reach a maximum length of 3’6 “(1.06 meters) and requires a minimum tank size of 180 gallons (681.37 liters).

This aggressive fish should be kept only by expert aquarists.

It is a handsome carnivore with a creamy body marked with broad black stripes. Faded streaks may be present between the streaks as the fish matures, and the mouth has barbels or “whiskers”.

The cat shark is a bottom dweller that will eat any crustacean present in the tank. Since its abdomen is easily scratched, it needs sand at the bottom of the tank.

Never expose a cat shark to any medicine that contains copper. When first introduced in an aquarium, a cat shark may refuse to eat and will need to be enticed with pieces of squid or live saltwater feeder shrimp.

Once its diet is established, a cat shark will eat shrimp, scallops, and fresh pieces of marine fish species.

  • Ideal water conditions: 72-78 ° F (22.22 – 25.55 ° C), KH 8-12, pH 8.1-8.4, sg 1,020-1,025

Horn Shark

Horn Shark, also known as Port Jackson or Bullhead Shark, is an indigenous, peaceful creature in the intertidal waters around Australia.

They are suitable only for aquarist experts, reach a maximum length of 5 feet (1.52 meters) and need
as much as 1000 gallons (3785.41 liters) of water to thrive.

They are difficult to acclimatize and may refuse to eat when first introduced to them in an aquarium.

They should be tempted with squid or feeder shrimp at first. These nocturnal feeders take advantage of smaller sleeping fish.

The Horn Shark is olive green with darker green or black markings in irregular patterns. They require sand for a substrate due to the sensitive nature of their abdomen, which can be susceptible to infections.

This shark should never be exposed to copper.

  • Ideal water conditions: 57-70 ° F, KH 8-12, pH 8.1-8.4, sg 1,020-1,025

Wobbygong Shark

The aggressive Wobbygong shark (Wobby, Wobbegong, or Wobbygone) is an aggressive green and brown shark that reaches a maximum length of 4 ‘(1.21 meters) and requires a 300 gallon (1,135.62 liters) tank.

A bottom-dweller with a flattened appearance, it features a mottled body and a ruffled mouth.

Due to the sensitivity of the Wobbygong’s belly, it needs a fine sand substrate. A finicky eater, it has the typical sensitivity to copper toxicity of most sharks of this size and type.

  • Ideal water conditions: 72-78 ° F (13.88 – 25.55 ° C), KH 8-12, pH 8.1-8.4, sg 1,020-1,025

Epaulette Shark

A relatively small bottom dweller, the Epaulette Shark reaches a maximum length of 3’6 “(1,066 meters) and needs around 360 gallons (1362.75 liters) of water.

It is an aggressive yellow and tan shark, suitable only for expert anglers.

Like most benthic fish, the Epaulette shark needs a soft sand substrate.

It exhibits typical reluctance to feed when placed in a tank and is sensitive to copper.

  • Ideal water conditions: 72-78 ° F (22.22 – 25.55 ° C), KH 8-12, pH 8.1-8.4, sg 1,020-1,025