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Tending to the sea creatures at the Long Island Aquarium with tenacity

Phil Argiros, director of life support at the

Phil Argiros, director of life support at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, dives in with the sharks to clean their exhibit of algae on the morning of July 8, 2015. Credit: Newsday/ Thomas A. Ferrara

Phil Argiros busily scrubbed the algae off a rock monolith in the "Lost City of Atlantis" shark exhibit, forming a fog and blowing bubbles out of his scuba mask into the path of eight gray-eyed sharks. The creatures, some as heavy as 250 pounds, roved around like sentinels, watching Argiros with their pale eyes.

The scene at the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center in Riverhead -- where Argiros, 40, has worked for four years -- may be worth its own special cost of admission.

"We always have to have our guard up," said Argiros, the aquarium's director of life support systems. "But at the same time, you can't be tense about it. If you're afraid and tense, they [the sharks] can read into that."

Argiros and 14 other trainers and caretakers, in addition to about a dozen summer interns, nurture nearly 5,000 animals and maintain their habitats at the more than 3-acre facility. Nearly 150,000 visitors come to the aquarium in the summer, almost half the annual total.

On a recent busy Tuesday, Joe Yaiullo, better known as "Joe Fish" by his staff, tirelessly walked -- and sometimes jogged -- around the facility to help.

Yaiullo, 52, the aquarium curator and co-founder, has a bachelor's degree in marine biology like many of his animal specialists, and has managed the aquarium for 15 years. Being humble and flexible is key, he said.

"I mop, you mop," said Yaiullo, recalling what he told an intern about how everyone must chip in.

Of the nearly 40 exhibits, he takes special pride in the 20,000-gallon coral reef tank, which houses a plethora of corals and fish -- mostly from the tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans -- and which Yaiullo said is responsible for all his gray hairs.

The next morning, he jumped into the tank in his wet suit to wipe the glass. He also pinched off small chunks from large corals and planted them around the vibrant underwater garden to expand it. It was a tranquil task, unlike when Cecil, a seal weighing almost 200 pounds, sank his dog-like teeth into Yaiullo's right forearm during a veterinary exam last year.

There's no likelihood of that in the Penguin Pavilion, where Maggie Seiler raises 16 African black-footed penguins amid hilly terrain and a 4-foot-deep central oasis.

"I'll sit down on the floor and they'll jump in my lap," said Seiler, 29, who has been at the aquarium 13 years. She fed them small fish as one of the seven young penguins affectionately nipped her shoelaces and nine older penguins lounged nearby.

"We really do have a good bond, the younger ones and I."

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