Organizational Spotlight – Riverbanks Zoo & Garden, Columbia, SC


By Casey Fissel, Felicia Silva, & Allison Shafer

The Zoo

Riverbanks Zoo and GardenIntroducing Riverbanks Zoo & Garden, a premier attraction nestled in the heart of Columbia, South Carolina. Established in 1974, the zoo has come to average over one million visitors each year, but this  year, we are excited to announce that they are celebrating their 50th anniversary! Congrats Riverbanks!

Riverbanks has won numerous awards for exhibit design and breeding programs. Understandable, as the zoo features a menagerie of numerous mammals, reptiles, and fish, but they are also home to a thriving 70 acre botanical garden that houses over 4,000 native and exotic plant species! Wild, right?! Because of its participation in animal management and conservation, Riverbanks consistently has ranked in the top-five North American zoos in terms of support for American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) programs, of which they are an accredited member. 

Recently, Riverbanks has completed a full renovation of their Aquarium & Reptile Conservation Complex, an accomplishment that now reshapes their underwater experience. Throughout this transformation, the dive team continued to splash, play, and maintain three of their habitats utilizing both surface supplied and breath hold diving as means of routine operation. 

The Dive Program

The Dive Program ensemble comprises 17 staff, 5 divers in training, and 2 invaluable volunteers, who collectively completed 648 dives last year. While the pandemic did affect the numbers of their volunteer dive team (as many other institutions can relate), they are excited to start welcoming new divers and return back to normal dive operations. 

Their operations however are quite impressive as they strive to make an impact beyond the edges of their habitats. Collaborations flourish outside of the zoo as the Riverbanks Dive Team partners with a local dive shop and a local nonprofit, Keeping the Midlands Beautiful, to dive and recover trash from their nearby lake. Committed to aquatic ecosystem health, their team has helped reclaim over 400 lbs of submerged trash!

Inside the park, Riverbanks operates completely under commercial dive standards primarily via surface supply and full face masks with communications, with the occasional breath hold diving in their shallower exhibits. The dive program operates in four areas of the Zoo, including within the aquarium building, in the seal and sea lion exhibit, the penguin exhibit, and the otter exhibit. Occasionally, they even dive in the river behind the zoo to check on the river water intake! In addition to managing diver training and operations, the Riverbanks Dive Ops team is also responsible for the maintenance of all equipment, everything from cylinders and compressors to umbilicals and full face masks. 

Riverbanks has a mission to create meaningful connections, and their Dive Team stands by that mission through their provided training and opportunities for continued education. They welcome new staff who have yet to receive dive training and empower them to build on their watermanship skills. Their in-house training sets a strong foundation and a well catered introduction to the world of open water diving! 

DSO Spotlight

Casey Fissel first discovered her love for diving in high school when she did a “Discover Scuba Dive” as part of a marine science class. It wasn’t until her sophomore year of college at the University of South Carolina, however, that she was able to complete her open water certification at a local lake through the campus’s Scuba Club. She was hooked!  Following the course, Casey started coordinating classes for the USC Scuba Club with local Scuba John’s Dive Shop, which led to her working at Scuba John’s, and the rest is history! Casey has been working in the dive world ever since, and to this day ensures that her local dive shop and Riverbanks work together on collaborative projects like the Keep the Midlands Beautiful lake cleanup days. Her favorite dive to date is her very first ocean dive – 60 miles offshore of the South Carolina coast and complete with glassy conditions, great visibility, and several wreck sites. She saw a goliath grouper, massive stingrays, dolphins, and even spearfished the state record lionfish(A record she believes still holds!).

Casey’s entry into the occupational diving world began straight out of college when she joined Riverbanks’ dive team as a Dive Technician. She immediately fell in love with the fact that every day she gets to interact with such a wide variety of animals! She’s not just in it for the otters and sea lions, though – she also really enjoys interacting with guests while she’s in the exhibits. She says it’s always fun to play games through the acrylic and see a child’s face light up with wonder when you give them attention! Casey is now the Dive Program Manager and Diving Safety Officer for Riverbanks; congrats!

When not diving, Casey can be found hunting or fishing (or just generally enjoying the outdoors,) but also won’t turn down a good book or movie. 

Dive Staff Spotlight

The Riverbanks Dive Ops team consists of 1 DSO and 2 Dive Technicians. Daily diving and equipment maintenance is shared equally between the 2 technicians, and all members are certified to work on equipment. 

Rebekah Fink is a dive technician with a background in aquarium husbandry who received her first dive certification in 2016. Her favorite parts of the job are tinkering with dive gear and diving with a large variety of aquatic animals. Her favorite leisure diving is in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. 

Michael Peak is a dive technician who started his diving career at the age of 12, and who recently completed his Divemaster certification. He enjoys being able to dive for a living as well as learning proper maintenance and care for dive equipment. His favorite dive site is Kicker Rock in the Galapagos Islands.

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