Dive in with SAFS undergraduate alumna Sarah Yerrace

Sarah Yerrace giving a dive presentation to guests at the South Carolina Museum. Ryan Yuen

Less than two months after taking my last final exam as a SAFS undergrad, I packed two small duffel bags and left Washington. I flew across the country to Charleston, South Carolina, to start a dive internship with the South Carolina Aquarium (SCA). I was completely on my own in a brand new city, nervous, but beyond excited. From day one at the aquarium, I was feeding sharks and endangered turtles who I would eventually all know by name. At 42 feet, the Great Ocean Tank at SCA is the deepest tank in North America. I could dive the tank as much as I wanted, up to five times a day, five days a week. As a task-oriented and scuba-obsessed individual, working underwater is extremely gratifying. Above water, I learned gear maintenance for the commercial dive equipment standard at most, if not all, aquariums. Surface supply diving, where air is delivered to a diver via an umbilical, is common in the zoo and aquarium industry. Learning to operate and dive surface supply systems at SCA was an invaluable experience.

As my internship approached its last few months, I started applying to other zoos and aquariums around the country. I ended up turning down a few offers that weren’t dive related on a gut feeling that something better was out there. Patience and perseverance paid off when I was offered a dive technician position at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden. I was told my experience with surface supply diving at SCA was imperative to landing the job. The zoo is conveniently located in Columbia, two hours from Charleston. I packed up once again for a new start at my first official full-time job. A dive technician is exactly what it sounds like: A diver and a technician. I can be in the water maintaining exhibits or supervising those dives as a “tender.” Dive tenders keep track of air on the surface and are the first responders in an emergency. As a technician, I work meticulously to make sure that all of the life-sustaining equipment we use on a daily basis is properly cleaned, maintained, and fixed when needed. 

Less than six months into my job at Riverbanks, the coronavirus pandemic started to take hold in the United States. Non-profit zoos and aquariums were put in an incredibly difficult position as most facilities were forced to close as non-essential businesses. However, animal care never stops. Facilities had to maintain operations with tremendous overhead without their primary source of income: admission. Zookeepers and support staff, like maintenance teams, were essential in continuing to provide top-level care for animal collections across the world during the shut-down. In this way, I was very lucky to have job security during the pandemic. My daily work has not been greatly impacted by the virus because the quality of care and animal routines must remain constant. Dives still need to happen, and I’m here to make sure they can continue to happen safely. The biggest changes have been adding a mask to my uniform and washing my hands countless times a day. I can’t say the same for our dedicated housekeeping staff or other animal keepers. Housekeeping staff are working double-time to frequently disinfect high-touch areas. Animal staff, who were already incredibly careful about cross-contamination and spreading diseases, have expanded the use of PPE.

It’s been just over one year since my move to South Carolina. I never really thought the move would become permanent. Leaving my friends, my family, and my home was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. However, this leap outside my comfort zone has made me grow as an individual and rewarded me with incredible experiences. Now, I literally walk past lions and tigers and bears on my way to dive with the sea lions.

Yerrace and a group of volunteers practicing their rescue skills in the Great Ocean Tank. Ryan Yuen
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