Marine Science Labs

How to Build An Aquarium

A group of campers during Aquarium Design & Maintenance.

One of the most popular activities campers do here at Catalina Sea Camp is build aquariums! This lets our campers get a hands-on look at what kind of environments sea creatures live in, and the importance of our role in helping keep their habitats clean for the future. They’re pretty easy to make, too—all you need are a few materials and some creativity! Here’s how to build an aquarium at home with your child.

Design An Aquarium

It’s easy to want to jump right in and start building, but making a functional home for sea animals requires some careful thought and planning. Ask your child this question: What kind of animal or fish do they want to have in the aquarium? 

Not every animal can live in every water environment. For example, hermit crabs need sand and things to hide behind, like shells or driftwood pieces. Fish like to hide in tall plants, but some plants can be toxic to certain fish. 

You will also need a bigger tank for bigger animals or perhaps a smaller one for smaller fish. Does your child want a common clownfish like from Finding Nemo? Try to have about 5-10 gallons for smaller fish like that. For larger fish, like royal gammals, try 30-60 gallons. 

Some fish live in saltwater, others in fresh. Some like warm water, others cold. Some need specific balances of certain minerals. Sit down with your child over a book or your laptop and figure out what will be best and the most fun to do together!

A camper looking into a fish tank.

Build Your Aquarium

Since aquariums hold water, you need to keep your aquarium sealed. Smaller tanks and plastic ones might come as one piece, but chances are you’ll need to assemble the tank yourself. Silicone sealant, a caulk gun, and masking tape could save you from costly leaks and water damage. We recommend you do the assembling with or for your kid, just to be safe!

As for the glass, make sure you get the proper dimensions and especially the proper thickness. Water’s weight will put a lot of pressure on the sides. The taller the aquarium, the thicker the glass should be. For the dimensions, if you’re making a rectangular glass, two of the pieces will need to be different sizes from the other four, with the lines still matching up. And you’ll need a lid to close the tank—if you want one. 

Gather Your Decorating Materials

With your aquarium assembled, it’s time to decorate! Bring in all the pieces you researched earlier. Fill the bottom with sand or gravel, then add some plants, rocks, driftwood, shells, or other items to make the perfect sea creature home. Try to get natural, living decorations instead of plastic ones—it’s better for the fish and makes a more authentic environment! Take a trip to the beach if you’re getting a saltwater fish or to a local pond or river to find your materials. It’s much more fun than going to a store!

You may also need a thermometer to monitor the water temperature. Most importantly, don’t forget a filter system if you have freshwater fish. You’ll also probably need to dechlorinate or treat the water for them, or add certain fish-safe chemicals to keep the water at the right balance.

Add Animals and/or Fish!

With everything ready, it’s time to bring in your new scaly or shelly friends and watch them enjoy their new home! Carefully acclimate them to the tank. Float the sealed bag with the fish in the aquarium for 15 minutes. Then slowly add tank water to the bag about every five minutes until full. This will let the fish adapt to the water so they aren’t shocked by the new changes. This will require some patience on your child’s part, so help your child understand how important this is for their new pet!

How to Maintain an Aquarium

Now that there’s water and living creatures in your tank, it will need some maintenance from time to time. Plan to replace 25% of the water in your tank once a month. This will keep the water clean and balance nitrate concentrations. Keep an eye out for algae buildup too, as this will decrease the oxygen in the water and make your tank a sticky mess. You can use a tank scrub brush to clean it. Show your child how to take care of their aquarium so they can learn all the skills necessary for caring for their new scaly friend.

Build an Aquarium at Catalina Sea Camp 

Campers not only get to build aquariums with quality materials and expert advice here at Catalina, but they also get to collect ocean wildlife for their new ecosystems! If your child wants to be an aquarist someday, Catalina is the perfect place for them to spend the summer. Check out our summer camp’s dates and rates, and enroll today to help your child have the summer of their dreams.