So you just got done watching “Tanked” on the Animal Planet and now you just have to have a Shark Aquarium. Well that or you’ve wanted one for a long time, you wondered how hard it actually is and searched or you just saw one for the first time and just have to have one. Either way, I am here to help by giving you the rundown on what you’ll need to setup a proper shark aquarium and what kind of sharks you should and should NOT purchase for a home aquarium.
Imagine having this size Shark Tank in your Living Room. This tank is at the Atlantis Aquarium, in the Bahamas.
For starters you’re going to need an Aquarium, and if you bought it at any normal store or basic pet store I will start right now by saying, sorry, it’s not gonna be big enough. Well that is unless you happen to be able to buy 6′x2′ 180 gallon aquariums at the corner store. As that is about the minimum size I’d suggest anyone start with who wants to keep Sharks in a home aquarium. Depending on the type of Shark you want that 180g tank may not last long at all before it outgrows it. Bigger is certainly recommended, with something like 8′x4′x2′ being more ideal for many of the smaller species as a long term home. That is a 480 gallon aquarium, which bought new will cost nearly as much as a new car. So if you’re on a budget you’re gonna need to find some good deals on used tanks. However if you’re that limited on the budget and even a used big tank is out of reach, then I am sorry to inform you that owning a shark probably is too. As the cost to keep a Shark tank running is not cheap at all and that is not even considering the price of the tank itself and all the stuff you need to set it up right, which we’ll be going over shortly. Also note, you’re going to need to run a sump system so the tank will need to have drains installed into it or already have them. You can run the return lines over the back if need be or drill them too for a cleaner look.
So now we’ll assume you’ve got yourself an Aquarium, along with an appropriate stand. Each gallon of water weighs 8lbs, so even if you get the minimum 180 gallon aquarium I suggest above it’s going to weigh in at nearly or over 2,000lbs once you add the weight of the tank itself, rocks, and so on. So you need a quality stand, do not skimp here. It doesn’t have to look nice, well depending where you are putting the tank it may need to look nice but that is up to you. The main point is that it needs to be strong above all else.
So now you’ve got a tank and stand, you think you’re ready to go? Not even close. I unfortunately will not be able to go over every single detail of setting up a saltwater tank in this post but if you don’t understand certain things or steps, let me know in the comments and I can write an article to explain or link you to one. Along with the tank and stand this is a list of things (in no specific order since you need it all) you’ll need to have a properly setup Shark Aquarium in your home or business.
- Filter/Protein Skimmer – To clean and filter the water, simply put. The “filter” will actually be live rock for the most part, put it in the tank and sump, the rock in the tank should be smooth if possible. Using jagged or sharp rock inside the tank itself can injure the shark if it darts across the tank quickly and hits the rock. For a Shark tank I suggest as big of a sump as you can possibly fit this way you can cram it full of live rock. You’ll also want a big skimmer, rated for well over the actual gallons of your tank since your bio load will be large. You’ll empty the skimmer every other day or so, depending how much skimmate it produces. This stuff will smell like death and garbage, all rolled up into one.
- Pumps/Powerheads – To move the water inside the tank as well as lift it back up to the tank from the sump, a lot of turnover is suggested. Now, I don’t think the bottom dwelling sharks will appreciate living in a rapids so be reasonable but you do want good water movement.
- Salt – A crap load of it. You’ll need a few buckets to start with, then more each time you do water changes. The 5 gallon bucket of salt sitting in my garage makes 150g of Saltwater if I recall correctly and was around $75. This isn’t your average table salt here folks.
- RODI System – You’ll need this to make new freshwater, unless your tap water is PERFECT and trust me, it isn’t. You’ll add the salt to this water to make new, perfect saltwater. These systems can be built or bought and come in very basic forms and very advance forms, much like anything. RODI = Reverse Osmosis De-Ionization
- Lights – Nothing really special needed for a Shark only tank but you gotta be able to see it, right? Any standard Saltwater type bulbs will give you that “blue” look as most are 50/50 style bulbs with a 10k element and an Actinic element. The Actinic portion of the bulb is what gives off the “blue” color. I highly suggest checking out the new LED systems offered by some companies. They use way less power and the LED’s can last much longer. The Shimmer effect from the LED’s is also extremely appealing.
- Sand/Rock – You need live rock in a Saltwater tank, it helps filter the water and keep everything balanced. You also need some sand for the bottom of the tank. Some people argue it’s benefits but at the end of the day, the ocean is a sandy bottom and we try to recreate nature as best as possible for our finned friends. Some will say you don’t need live rock either, and well, there are ways around it but to me, why bother. It is more natural and looks good.
- A lot of good, fresh food - Sharks don’t eat goldfish flakes, OR GOLDFISH FOR THAT MATTER. They need Shrimp (not cooked, well it can be but it may lose some nutritional value so I stick with raw if possible), Squid, Smelt, Crabs, Scallops, Fish pieces (or whole small fish) and so on. Any natural live (or dead) prey item is great. Keep it varied and keep it fresh. Do not feed your Shark live Goldfish or Rosy Red Minnows, neither are a natural item and not really beneficial to them and can possibly be detrimental to their health. If you want to feed them live to watch the show just buy some live Shrimp. As you can see, your Shark will be eating better than you.
- Heater/Chiller – The tank needs to maintain proper temperatures, depending on your home you may need a heater or chiller or in some cases, both. These items will both draw a ton of power, so try to insulate the tank if possible or put in a room with steady temperature to keep costs lower.
- Water monitoring and Testing equipment - From the basic thermometer, water testing kit, and salinity meter (get a refractometer, not a cheap in tank type) to a full blown PC based system that monitors all water parameters via sensors and probes. Obviously the more advanced the better here, but the basics can still get the job done.
- Water changing and mixing equipment - With a large tank, it requires large water changes. So you’ll need other tanks (Rubbermaid Stock Tanks work great) to store your RODI water in. You’ll need a pump in this to keep the water moving as well as mix the salt in thoroughly along with a heater to match the tanks temp.
- Auto Top off System – When water evaporates from your tank the salt does NOT go with it. So the salinity rises as the water evaporates, you do not want this. Therefore you can either buy or build a system that tops off with FRESHWATER (Not Saltwater) to replace the freshwater that evaporates. This is usually done with a float and pump, when the float lowers, it triggers the pump. Once full, the float lifts and the pump shuts off. You can place the auto top off pump in your RODI storage tank, as this is the water you’ll want to top off with. But make sure it’s only freshwater, topping off with saltwater will only raise the salinity even more.
- Backup Generator – This is optional but highly recommended. If the power is out for an extended time, you can lose everything. Simple as that.
- Time – Do not forget to think about how much time this will take to not only properly setup, but to maintain. Do you have hours to spare a week?
Make sure before you begin that you’re putting the tank somewhere that can handle it. The best being a concrete slab, be it a ranch or slab in the basement. If you want to put it upstairs make sure your floor can handle it. Fulled loaded aquariums that are big enough for Sharks are as heavy as cars. Typically sitting on a 12-26 sq/ft space on your floor. Depending on your stands dimensions. If you put it on the main floor and have a basement or crawl space you may need to add extra supper to handle the weight. I am not a builder so I can’t really consult on the specifics but I know it’s not difficult in most cases. It is typically just a matter of adding some type of base and a couple support posts usually. One extremely large post may also suffice if the load isn’t that great as well.
Once you’re sure you can set it up in your chosen location make sure you’ve got power, water, and drains easily accessible. If not, consider adding them or choosing another location. You’ll need all of these things on a more or less constant basis. If you live somewhere that has a septic tank DO NOT dump your old saltwater down your drain though. It is bad to dump saltwater in a septic system as it will harm or kill the beneficial bacteria that break down all the nasties and keep your septic tank from overflowing. So you’ll need to drain it somewhere on your property that will not be affected. Once you’ve got all those essentials covered and can setup your tank somewhere with all the stuff you’ll need put your stand in place. Stick a level on it and make sure it’s level, if not add the shims needed to get it level. If your tank is Acrylic lay down some foam for good measure, unless your stand is really flat and perfectly clean then may omit it if you wish. It’s not going to hurt anything though so you may as well for insulations purposes if anything. I use 3/4″ foam as the thinner stuff will can compress under the load of a large tank. If it is a glass tank you can just set it down on the plastic frame. If it is a frameless tank then do whatever the manufacturer of that specific tank suggests, as they can sometimes suggest different things.
Once you’ve got the tank on the stand you are ready to get started on installing all the good stuff. You need water before you can do anything. So you’ll want to connect your RODI system as referenced in Part 1. All of them setup differently but unless you make it from scratch it will come with instructions, so just follow them. Note that unless you got a zero waste system you’ll need to have a spot to drain the water that didn’t make it. RODI systems have 2 outlets, the clean water you want as well as waste water. You can drain this to anywhere but a nearby garden or tree is a fine place if you can, especially if you live in a dry climate. Once you’ve got your RODI system setup you’ll almost be ready to fill your tank up. If you have your water storing tank already, which you should. You can start filling it up and getting it warmed up. As well as mixing in some salt per that manufacturers directions to achieve a 1.022 – 1.026 specific gravity. You can do research on specific gravity and what keeping it slightly lower or higher can do. I personally go for 1.025. I am not an expert on Sharks to the point I can name the specific gravity for every Shark so make sure to research the location of the specific Shark you choose. Some Oceans have much higher or lower salt contents and you want to match the original location of your Shark as much as possible.
Nurse Sharks require extremely large tanks, so if you want one you’ll need a Monster Aquarium.
You’re gonna want to setup your sump system at this point as well as all the equipment, because you can’t fill the tank all the way without it being connected. This will be the sump, drains from the tank into the sump, pumps in the sump connected to the tank via hoses or pvc pipe. You can do a pcv spray bar or get flexible nozzles and drill the tank. Obviously a pcv spray bar with flexible hoses being the quickest and cheapest where as a bulkhead kit, pcv piping, and flexible in tank outlet nozzles is on the more expensive side. Not to mention being more time consuming and complicated. It is not that hard to drill a tank but takes some patience.
Once the sump is setup you’ll want to mount the skimmer, heater(s), chiller, and auto top off system. You will need to follow the directions for all these as they are all different. The Auto top off will go in the sump because it is the low point so the sump level will drop from evaporation and the tank will always remain the same. Make sure to keep the level of the sump low enough that the tank can drain down in the event of a power failure to the level of your in tank overflows and not overflow the sump in the process. You can also put the live rock and any refugium setup you want to do in your sump now too. You can even have a separate tank for the refugium and a pump to circulate the sump water to it, with drains back into the sump.
Now you’re gonna want to put your sand in the tank, some people choose to put down plastic egg-crate (light diffusing panel at the hardware store) to help balance the load of rocks but I personally never have. You will put the sand in and spread it around evenly to coat the bottom with a good 1/2″ of sand. Some will choose to do a 4″ deep sand bed but if you have sumps full of live rock and other forms of filtration such as a refugium a deep sand bed isn’t needed and just eats up vertical tank space. At this point you can put the rock in the tank and set it up the way you’d like it. Before putting any water in the tank at all it will be much easier. You can use reef safe glue or putty to get rocks to stay together and to build large formations. You can also mount in tank power heads now as well. Once you’ve got the tank setup you can finally start filling it with the premixed saltwater from your storage tank and you’ll need to mix more to get it full unless your storage tank is the size of your tank. If you do not have a storage tank just let the RODI system fill the tank directly at this point and mix in the salt when it’s full. Remember you can always add more but not take any out without a water change. So go slow and follow directions to avoid wasting expensive salt.
So your tank should be filled at this point. You can cycle it four ways.
- Source of Ammonia (Fish food, piece of shrimp, etc.)
- Live Rock
Chemicals are exactly what the name implies. It is bottles of specific chemicals designed to cycle your tank. There are numerous manufacturers of instant cycle and cycle in a bottle formula. I don’t really use these as it can get pricey so I can’t recommend one specific brand but they must work at least halfway decent if they’ve been around this long. Make sure to do research on the specific one you are considering buying to make sure it’s got a good reputation. Some work faster than others as well, some claim it’s instant and others take a bit longer.
Source of Ammonia is similar to chemical but the time to cycle it is longer. You’re adding fish food or a piece of shrimp to rot and make ammonia to start the cycle but you’ll have to wait for it to complete. This means the beneficial bacteria must convert the ammonia into nitrite and then into nitrate. It can take around 35 days to complete a cycle. You want 0 Ammonia and Nitrite with as little as Nitrate as possible at all times, 0-5ppm is great. The cycle is complete once you’ve seen an Ammonia spike, Nitrite spike and then an appearance of Nitrates. Once this happens and the Ammonia and Nitrite drops to 0 it is complete. It doesn’t hurt to add a little more of the ammonia source if you only started with a small amount in order to keep the cycle it going. If you stuck a chunk of shrimp in and it’s still rotting then you’re fine. You just remove it when you put fish in since they’ll then be the source of Ammonia.
Damsels are small, inexpensive, and hardy saltwater fish. They can be used to cycle a tank with nothing else. Make sure you treat the water and let it settle in PH and Temperature first but otherwise you just put them in. 3 fish per 100 gallons is plenty to cycle it. Some people consider this mean as the fish must live through an Ammonia spike but in a massive tank destined for Sharks, that is the least of their worries. The water volume is so large the Ammonia will be diluted quite a lot and not spike as high in a smaller tank. Plus if you use some live rock like mentioned in the previous articles it should have some beneficial bacteria already and can handle the load of the Damsels anyway. You can also use water conditioner to make the Ammonia nontoxic to fish, to ensure there is no harm done. The Damsels may get eaten by your Sharks eventually but they are cheap and easily replaceable if it does happen. Just think of them as slightly more expensive feeder fish. They are fast though and can evade quite well. The cycle is complete once you’ve seen Ammonia and Nitrite spike and both have settled to 0. You’ll do water changes to keep the Nitrates as low as possible. This applies to any method of cycling.
In a saltwater tank you may also cycle it with live rock. There will usually be some dead and some live creatures by the time you get it home. So the dead ones will rot and start the cycle as it is. These will mostly be tiny little things living within the rock but it does the job. If you bought all dry rock this does not apply. I personally prefer live rock; you always get some neat surprises. Some people worry about nuisance anemones and other animals but everything is fixable if it gets out of control. Once you’re cycled it’s time to choose a shark.
A pair of Chain Catsharks in an Aquarium.
Here is a short list of sharks you should and should not keep plus a brief description of what kind of setup you’ll need to keep them. You need to match temperature zones, so if you want a cold water shark you will have to dismiss any warm water sharks and vice versa. Not all species in the same temperature zone are compatible either, so make sure to do your research on specific sharks before combining them. This is not a conclusive list by any means. I tried to cover some of the common and not so common. If you know of any I missed that you feel should be added let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to this list.
- Coral Cat Shark – One of the common sharks kept by home aquarists. They stay small enough to be raised in a 180g tank but will eventually need moved to a larger tank when they are adults. I don’t like making claims for the minimum size so I’ll just state an 8’x4’x2.5’ (600g) tank would be great. They need a hiding place in the tank as well. This is a warm water shark, over 72 degrees is needed. They will dine on small fish, shrimp, squid and crabs among other things. They get to be around 2’ long when mature.
- Bull Shark – While the fact that these can live in Freshwater may be tempting the massive size potential should scare anyone away. At an adult size of over 10’ leave the keeping of these giants to public aquariums with the proper resources. Not suggested for private aquarists.
- Brown Banded Bamboo Shark (Brown Spotted Cat Shark, Bamboo Cat Shark) -These are also common smaller sharks available to private aquarists. They adapt well to captivity and can be raised in a standard 180g tank. They will outgrow it eventually though and a 10’x4’x3’ tank will be suggested for these. They like warm water, around 75 degrees and will eat squid, shrimp, and mussels among other items. The Brown Banded Bamboo Shark will reach a length of up to 40” when mature.
- Reef Sharks – Not recommended unless you are already an experienced Shark keeper. The White tip can breathe without swimming; the Black Tip must swim constantly in order to breathe. These are very active sharks; you really do need a massive tank. You could raise a small one in a 10’x4’ tank (preferably with rounded corners) but a much larger oval or rounded pool is really needed eventually. Somewhere in the 20’-30’ diameter or larger would be great. The White and Black Tip Reef Sharks can reach up to 5’+ long. The Caribbean and Grey Reef Sharks are not as common in Home Aquaria, they also get larger so it’s best to stick to the smaller Black and White Tip Reef Sharks if you want to keep a Reef shark. The White Tip comes from deeper water as well; while you can keep them in shallower tanks it is worth mentioning that they may prefer deeper water. The White Tips will rest due to their ability to breathe while stationary so give them a hiding spot and they might use it. These are large predatory sharks, they will eat a wide array of prey including but not limited to shrimp, squid, fish, and crabs.
- White Spotted Bamboo Shark – A good shark to keep in captivity due to the relatively small adult size. They are small enough to be raised in a 180g tank but will eventually need moved to a larger tank when they are adults. A 10’x4’x3’ tank would be great but slightly smaller will suffice. They prefer warmer water, over 72 degrees. The females can reach roughly 3.5’ while the males will get to 2.5’. They eat crustaceans and small fish like most other smaller sharks. The White Spotted Bamboo shark also enjoys having a hiding spot.
- Wobbegong Sharks- These lazy bottom dwelling sharks range from medium sized to pretty large sizes. Some can be kept in captivity in large tanks but they are not that common. There are also cool and warm water Wobbegong Sharks, so research the specific one you’re interested in. They are not the most active Sharks either, simply lying around a lot of the time.
- Epaulette Shark – These are a good choice for a Home Aquarium. They stay fairly small and will even breed in captivity. A standard 180g Aquarium can be used to raise a small one but the larger 10’x4’ would again be suggested as a nice size lifelong home. They do well in water in the mid 70’s and eat the same fish, shrimp and crustacean diet as many others. Adult size will range from 2’-3.5’.
- Horn Shark (California Horn Shark) – Another commonly seen smaller shark that is suitable for captivity. They do reach up to 3’ so a good sized tank is needed. They also tend to stay in deeper water, so it’s ideal to have a deeper than normal aquarium if you want to recreate the natural habitat. They prefer water over 70 degrees and eat sea urchins, crabs, shrimp, and most things that live on the ocean floor.
- Nurse Shark – Get very large, not recommended unless you have a Sea World size tank. Some people do choose to keep these monsters. They can reach up to 10-14’ so this is why I would not suggest one. Well unless you have a tank the size of a house.
- Bonnethead Shark (Shovelhead) – These are the smallest species of Hammerhead Shark, staying under 4’ long. You will need a large tank or pond but keeping one is possible. A pond is preferred but a very large custom rounded corner tank can also suffice. They move constantly in order to breathe, thus my suggestion for a very large pond or pool. They prefer water over 70 degrees and eat small fish and crustaceans. This is not the easiest species to keep but they are extraordinary fish. They scan the bottom searching for food, moving side to side like someone with a metal detector walking on the beach.
- White Shark (Great White Shark) – No. Not possible. Even massive aquariums have tried and failed. Just in case you wondered. Shark Week is a good White Shark fix. A few more not to consider for home aquaria would be Whale Sharks, Tiger Sharks, and Sand Tiger Sharks.
The 10’x4’ tank mentioned in most cases above would be 3’ tall, this is a 900 gallon tank. You will need another 200+ gallon tank/tub/pool to use as a sump as well. Unless the species you chose likes deeper water, then you can go taller. Keep in mind the taller the tank the more difficult it is to clean and access the bottom. It will also be a larger water volume and therefore need more heat and larger pumps. The 900 gallon tank will be a big undertaking, especially in the time and money department. So do the math, add everything up, make sure it’s right for you. One of the largest factors is heat, if you’ve got 1,100 gallons of water you’ll need 4,000 watts or more of heat depending how much you need to increase the temperature. 4,000 watts is a lot, it will increase your bill substantially if it has to run even 10% of the time. So choose wisely when picking tank location along with what is going into the tank. If you can put the tank in a location where the ambient temperature is stable year round and near the desired water temperature you can save yourself some money. Insulating the tank is also a good idea. The pumps and skimmers will also use a significant amount of power as well because they run constantly. I’m not trying to scare you but it’s the reality of having a large aquarium at home. Also keep in mind that sharks are very sensitive to copper along with other things, so don’t put any chemicals or decorations in the tank before checking to make sure it’s safe for your sharks. Lastly, make sure to buy quality pumps and heaters that do not leak stray electrical current into the water as it is not healthy for the sharks. Thanks for reading, we hope this helps you on your quest to set up a Shark Aquarium. Don’t forget to bookmark this page in case you need to check back in the future.