CORAL Interview: Joe Yaiullo
10 Sep, 2009
Originally posted: September 2009
By Daniel Knop
Joe Yaiullo, “justjoe” in his online identity, is co-founder and curator of the Atlantis Marine World aquarium in Riverhead, New York. Unlike the curators of many public aquariums, however, Joe is also an ambitious coral-reef aquarist in his private life, and started as a hobbyist like thousands of others. Perhaps this is why Atlantis Marine World includes a gigantic reef aquarium, which contains 20,000 gallons (75,000 L) of seawater and the largest aquarium-grown biomass of stony corals in the world. Perhaps most exciting, the exhibit is now witnessing regular spawning events of many reef fish species from anthias to large tangs and wrasses.
CORAL: Joe, may I ask you about the origin of your surname, which sounds really unusual? Where does the name come from?
Yaiullo: Well, my ancestors came from Italy. The “-llo” part of the name is Italian, but there is no “Y” in Italian. When my grandfather arrived in the United States from Italy, via Ellis Island, his name was probably Aiello, which is a fairly common name in Italy. But, like the names of many others who migrated to the U.S. at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was spelled incorrectly by immigration officials. I often had problems with the name at school—some people thought it was Hawaiian, and the question of how to pronounce it was often an excuse for joking. Questions like “Are you Joe Yellow-Yellow?” were among the kinder jokes. That is the reason for my nickname, “Just Joe.” For the record, it is correctly pronounced “Why-oo-low.”
CORAL: You are a passionate reef aquarist, like most CORAL readers. When and how did your passion begin?
Yaiullo: As a child, I spent a lot of time catching fish in the waters around Long Island, New York, and keeping them in aquariums. After earning my Bachelor of Science degree in marine biology at Long Island University, Southampton College, I began an internship at the New York Aquarium (NYA) in Brooklyn, and after six months I got a job there maintaining the aquariums. At that time a colleague, Werner Schreiner, was maintaining a 95-gallon (360-L) invertebrate aquarium with a few corals. Some of the soft corals, such as Clavularia, were growing and reproducing. Nowadays that doesn’t sound very spectacular, but in those days it was really unusual, and from that time on I became a “coraloholic.”
CORAL: I well remember the first reports about the success of a 1,500-gallon (5,600-L) reef tank that you set up in New York—it must have been around 1994 or 1995. In the mid 1990s, a reef aquarium of this size was still far from commonplace. Can you please tell us a bit about this aquarium?
Yaiullo: Since 1989, I had been running a 185-gallon (700-L) reef aquarium in a dark room in the cellar of the NYA, where I had been experimenting with corals—about which very little was known. I had “borrowed” some ordinary lights from the NYA car park, as that was the only source of HQI lighting available. At the beginning of 1993, I revamped a 1,500-gallon (5,600-L) tank at the New York Aquarium that had originally contained a fiberglass reef base decorated with lifeless coral skeletons that were taken out every week and bleached. I removed the coral skeletons and increased the lighting from 1 x 400 watts to 4 x 400 watts. The current was also increased, and the sand filter was removed and replaced with a prototype ETS—or down-draft protein skimmer. (Today, 15 years later, I am still using one of these skimmers.) The fiberglass décor was covered with a layer of live rock and supplemented with a number of corals, including the first colorful Acropora specimens ever seen in a U.S. aquarium. The livestock thrived, and when I left the NYA at the end of 1995, the aquarium was one of the finest of its size. It was home to numerous LPS and SPS corals, some of which are still alive today.
CORAL: How did you get the idea of founding a large public aquarium with private funding? And who is behind it?
Yaiullo: By the time I had been working at the NYA for around a year and a half, two things had become clear to me: first, a career in the aquarium hobby was the right way for me to go, and second, I didn’t want to do it in Brooklyn. At the end of 1991 I gave the staff of the Holtsville Ecology Center in Holtsville, Long Island, a guided tour of the NYA. They were planning to expand their center to include a number of small display aquariums, and they were accompanied by one of their sponsors, Jim Bissett, who is a hard-working, self-made businessman with a great passion for aquariums. Jim and I “talked shop” and asked ourselves why we shouldn’t make plans to set up a public aquarium of our own at some point, given that we lived on an island where none yet existed. In 1992, we outlined a proposal to the village of Port Jefferson, New York, but this was turned down. Nevertheless, Jimmy and I stayed in touch over the years, and, to make a long story short, we revised our plans and in 1999 put them to the town of Riverhead. After an eventful 11 months, we opened Atlantis Marine World in June of 2000. In order to build the facility, we engaged a contractor, Joe Petrocelli, who was so taken with our project that he became a partner. An art lover, Joe made a major contribution to the aesthetic aspect of Atlantis Marine World. During the construction, both Jimmy and Joe were on hand with advice and practical help, so they were true partners. Everything—concept, design, and construction—originated with us. Atlantis Marine World has doubled in size since it opened.
CORAL: After my personal visits to Atlantis Marine World, where I snorkeled in the big reef tank myself, I am convinced that it is one of the best aquariums in its size category anywhere in the world. To what extent are you personally involved in the maintenance of the aquarium?
Yaiullo: The aquarium is my “baby” and my great love. I perform all the daily maintenance tasks, and my colleagues at Atlantis Marine World, Chris Paparo and Todd Gardner, take over these jobs on my days off and when I am out of town. The maintenance work is a permanent requirement and is undoubtedly responsible for some of my gray hairs. Some of the corals have been in my care for more than 18 years. In April 2007 I had the honor of giving a lecture at the 1st International Symposium of Coral Husbandry at the Burgers’ Zoo in Arnhem, Netherlands, and I got a lot of positive feedback from members from many countries, who said that they now knew which was the best reef aquarium anywhere. That was one of the happiest moments of my entire life.
CORAL: Can you tell us something about the problems that such a large reef tank entails? Are they the same ones you might have with an aquarium of normal size?
Yaiullo: Yes, by and large we do actually encounter the same problems that aquarists experience with their home aquariums. But the solutions can be totally different. Because the tank is so large and is seen every day by visitors, any problems that do occur must be handled without any interruption in its operation. If it were smaller and not in the public view, then we could, if necessary, take it out of commission and start again from scratch. Because of its size, the tank has a dynamic all its own and is sometimes difficult to manage. To give just one example: a partial water change of 20% represents a volume of 4,200 gallons (16,000 L). Cryptocaryon infections and the like are always latent, but with good water quality, healthy food, cleaner shrimps, and cleaner wrasses, they can easily be kept under control. We once had a serious infestation of gnathiid (isopods) of some kind, which attached themselves to the fishes at night, sucked blood, and disappeared again in the morning as soon as the lights came on. We were able to combat them successfully by leaving part of the lighting on around the clock for a few weeks and also adding more cleaners. These parasites haven’t been totally eliminated, but right now they aren’t causing any problems. The current-producing equipment requires ongoing attention, especially since the corals have become so large. In addition to various normal pumps, I also use special propeller pumps (some have an output of 525 gallons [2,000 L] per minute) as well as a Carlson Surge Device with a capacity of 315 gallons (1,200 L), which fills in 8 minutes and empties in only 35 seconds. Additional propeller pumps are planned. Unfortunately, there are also Turbellaria in the aquarium. But we have brought them well under control by washing the Acropora corals with fresh water in the tank itself with a hose. Initially, the Turbellaria were a catastrophe for us, but by now, combating them is a normal part of the aquarium maintenance. Siting the corals, taking cuttings, cleaning the acrylic panels, and removing scratches all have to be done by diving. But in practice, diving in a reef aquarium is great fun—especially now that I have an underwater case for my iPod. I keep lots of fishes, including some that grow very large (one Turbinaria reniformis in the tank is now 80 inches [2 m] in diameter), and the filtration requirements are correspondingly high. Accumulations of detritus keep us busy, no matter how strong the current is. We have to clean the large corals by hand while diving, in order to remove any deposits of sediment. A few times per week I use a propeller pump with a turnover of 525 gallons (2,000 L) per minute and create a “storm” in order to set the detritus in motion so the sand filter and protein skimmer can capture it. The growth of the corals also causes problems. A number have quite simply grown too large and have to be pruned back. We could use the prunings as cuttings, but because nobody wants brown Acropora, their skeletons are simply added to the calcium reactor and dissolved again. Other corals are allowed to grow so that they can create large formations such as are seen on coral reefs in the wild. It is important to respond appropriately to the “behavior” of the aquarium: sometimes massive assaults are necessary, but in other cases a gentle shove in the right direction is sufficient. At the time of this interview, problems have just arisen with maintaining the calcium concentration at the correct level. I need to review my methods and recalculate the dosage, as the demand has risen enormously.
CORAL: If you could have the one thing you wanted most—improvements to the big aquarium, a new project, a new aquarium, or anything else you might desire for Atlantis Marine World—what would it be? Is it possible for a reef aquarist running a fully functional, 21,000-gallon coral reef tank in a public aquarium to have any unfulfilled wishes?
Yaiullo: If I had no unfulfilled wishes and dreams, then I would look for another job or start to do something totally different with my life! But it is still far too early to write my memoir about my work on the 21,000-gallon aquarium. The possibilities are far from exhausted—and my partners see things the same way. Initially, the aquarium was devoted to the corals, and the fishes were something of a sideline. But many of them are now full grown and spawn regularly. We have just begun to collect the eggs of Yellow Tangs (Zebrasoma flavescens), Purple Tangs (Z. xanthurum), and Pacific Blue Tangs (Paracanthurus hepatus), also known as Palette Surgeonfish. In addition we have already seen angelfishes of the genus Genicanthus and various anthias, damsels, and wrasses busy spawning, and in future we would like to collect their eggs as well and try to breed these fascinating fishes. Looking back, if we had been able to build the aquarium back in 1992 as originally planned, then for 15 years it would have been the largest reef aquarium in the United States. Even so, it claimed that title for seven years and blazed a trail for the current largest reef tanks, at the Georgia Aquarium and the Steinhart Aquarium. But let me tell you and CORAL readers a little secret: in the near future, the title will be coming back to Atlantis Marine World.As far as curator Joe Yaiullo is concerned, the daily maintenance of his 30-foot-wide (9-meter) reef aquarium is “a job for the boss.”