The Trials and Tribulations of Mail Ordering Corals and Fish
Mark McDowell, Ph.D.

The author's reef tank
The author's reef tank.

This article is about something many a hobbyist has done or has thought about doing, taking the chance at mail ordering corals and/or fish. I have spent thousands of dollars over the past several years mail ordering corals and fish for my home aquariums. This all started when I got frustrated that I could not find any of the nice corals and fish that I see in books at my local aquarium shops. It got so bad that I would travel up to 100 miles on the weekend looking for aquarium stores just to try and find a variety of corals and fish. I picked up one aquarium magazine after another and began compiling a list of mail order companies that seemed to have the best overall quality and value. I quickly realized that "one size fits all" when it comes to mail ordering corals and fish. I learned to ask the actual size of a small, medium, and large from this point on. This started my trials.

I placed small orders with the top three companies on my list, then my tribulations began. I realized that I did get a good price on most items, however, when I added the shipping cost to each item, I was surprised that I actually paid much more than I would have at my local aquarium. I learned next that you have to order a certain quantity of corals or fish to save money.

I will give an overview of each including pictures of a few corals and fish purchased via mail order.

Mail Ordering Corals
The first thing you want to ask is the actual scientific name of the coral since many corals have similar common names. Ask the company the size of the coral (in inches) if possible, don't settle for the words small, medium, or large. This will avoid confusion when you receive the specimen. Ask them if they have a live arrival guarantee. I personally will not deal with a company if they do not have a live arrival guarantee. This is your protection against unhealthy or damaged shipments. If they do not have a live delivery guarantee, then ask them why.

If you are ordering hard corals, ask if the skeleton is completely covered with the coral (no voids). If it is not, there is no guarantee that it will fill in over time. This could be a dying or unhealthy specimen. If you are ordering soft corals, then I would recommend that the coral be attached to a rock. This will be ideal since it if very difficult to try to attach a coral to a piece of rock by yourself. I know that there are "magic potions" that claim to do it for you, but it is a lot harder than you think.

Don't be afraid to ask questions about how the specimen was handled, where it was shipped from, how long has the company been in business, etc. If you can't get any strait answers, then I would try the next company. The next thing to do is to get a agreement for shipping. Don't go by estimated charges, get the actual shipping rates for your order. The actual cost of mail order corals is the price of the coral plus shipping. Compare this to the cost of the coral in you local aquarium stores plus tax and you will see that the more items you order, the more you can save.

Corals should be placed in a quarantine tank, if possible, before adding them to your main tank. I say if possible since most people buy corals and just put them in their tank right away. Corals should be acclimated just as if they were a fish. I use a drip method and it takes about 30-45 minutes in order to acclimate the coral to my tank conditions. Once the coral shows no signs of stress from shipping (this can vary from hours to a few days), then I introduce the coral into my main tank. I usually have a certain place in my tank picked out for any new arrivals. Once in the main tank , I check for signs of stress and give it some extra TLC if necessary. After all of the above is done, then you can say welcome home to your new coral!!! There are several species of coral to avoid.

Mail Ordering Fish
As with corals, you need to ask the scientific name of the fish. There is even more common names and general categories for many types of fish. The most important question to ask is if the fish is eating. If they do not answer this question , then you know to go elsewhere. Fish that are not eating in the holding facility, rarely survive for long in the home aquarium. The fish must be net-caught in order to

guarantee that it has not been drugged just to get it to our tank to eventually die. There are a few companies that will not ship a fish unless it is eating and doing well and these are the companies that I always order from. When ordering fish, you usually get what you pay for and choice specimens are very expensive. Always ask for sizes of fish because the gap between small, medium, and large is even more severe than corals. I have yet to find consistency with any company when it comes to proper sizing of fish. Size seems to be relative to what is currently in stock and not in inches when it comes to fish. Follow the same rules for live arrival guarantee listed above for corals. Be aware that fish are usually more expensive than corals to ship because they have to be totally submerged in water.

There are several advantages to mail ordering fish. One major advantage is that you can get exactly want you want and not have to settle for what the store orders, while waiting weeks to get a certain fish only to find out it was sold a few hours ago. Another advantage is that you can cut out one more level of stress by sending the fish directly to your home instead of to the aquarium shop where they may not have the staffing or facilities to properly quarantine the fish. You can provide more TLC than most of the local aquarium stores can offer.

Fish must be quarantined before being introduced into your aquarium. One of the major reasons for the high mortality rate of fish is improper acclimation. When I receive a fish via mail order, I acclimate it using the drip method in a large container. Once this is done, I place the fish in my quarantine tank and watch for signs of stress and try to feed the fish in the first few hours. If the fish accepts my food offering, then I know it has a very good chance of surviving. A successful feeding may take several days. Once the fish is eating on a regular basis and swimming normally (usually a week to ten days), I then wait another week to ten days before introducing it into my main fish-only or reef tank. This assures me that it has a good chance of surviving once the other tankmates realize that there is a new kid in town and all come to greet it. Once this is done, I put out the welcome home mat for my new fish.

Do's and Don'ts when mail ordering corals and fish

  • Always use a major credit card when purchasing livestock. This is your only security against damage and DOA's. Your credit card company is your only friend when it comes to disputes between companies.
  • Always ask for actual shipping charges and any hidden charges such as boxes and heat packs. Calculate shipping into the price of the coral.
  • Always ask about live arrival guarantee.
  • Always acclimate and quarantine any new specimen.
  • Always try to ship the coral or fish the quickest and safest way possible which is usually to your front door.
  • Never buy from a company C.O.D. This is a red flag and you have no one to turn to but yourself if things do not go the way you planned.
  • Never dump a coral or fish straight into your tank from its shipping

    container. You are asking for big trouble and could be introducing more than you bargained for into your tank.
  • When you see a price of a coral or fish that looks too good to be true, then it probably is.

    Final thoughts
    Mail ordering corals and fish can be a pleasant experience if you do your research, read up on the compatibility of species, know exactly what to expect, and have a lot of TLC to give. I have had my trials and tribulations and have expressed them above. The pictures are shown to let you know that it was all worth it. Till next time…Peace!!!

    Note: I did not include the names of companies on purpose since it may be viewed as a conflict of interest. If you want specific information about companies, please visit my web site at

    Photography: Mark McDowell, Ph.D.

    Copyright © 1997-1998 Mark McDowell, Ph.D.