What do Florida manatees, Molokini Crater and Rachel Carson have in common? Well, they all spark notable stories and memories for Dr. Sara McDonald, the newest member of the South Carolina Aquarium family! Sara is our new director of conservation at the Aquarium. We’re excited to see where we go in the world of conservation with Sara’s guidance, and we can’t wait to involve you in our journey to protect water, wildlife, wild places and one another. Want to get to know Sara a bit more? Read all about her below!
Where are you from?
I grew up in Lawrenceville, NJ. It’s between Trenton and Princeton. George Washington marched through my town. Our biggest celebrity is Jon Stewart.
Degrees? And from what universities?
I have a PhD in Marine Science and Conservation from Duke University, an MS in Marine Biology from Florida Institute of Technology and a BS in Zoology from Duke University.
What are some notable roles you held before coming to the Aquarium?
I’ve worked for the state of Florida as a manatee biologist and for the federal government as a fisheries scientist. I’ve also worked as a researcher and project manager in academia, and worked and volunteered for many nonprofit organizations.
What’s a fun fact most people are surprised to learn about you?
I have milked a manatee!
What inspired you to pursue a career in conservation work?
In one of my undergrad classes called “Animal Diversity,” we talked a lot about the loss of biodiversity in the world. Those lectures, I think, were the beginning of my interest in this field… in addition to a love of all things related to the ocean and learning to SCUBA dive! I then studied lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center and also spent a summer at the Duke Marine Lab.
What is your favorite dive/location?
One of my first jobs was taking underwater video at Molokini Crater in Maui. It’s one of my favorite dives – both day and night.
What animal are you most excited to see on a dive?
I love seeing sea turtles, moray eels, octopuses, Hawaiian monk seals and just reef fish in general.
What’s your favorite career memory so far?
I have three favorites: 1) watching a raccoon sitting in a mangrove looking down at three manatees that were eating the mangrove leaves, 2) mentoring students, and 3) co-creating the Seafood Social Risk Tool (a business facing tool that assesses the risks of forced labor, human trafficking and hazardous child labor in seafood).
If you could sit down and have a conversation with anyone from conservation history, who would it be?
Rachel Carson. She is probably best known for her book “Silent Spring,” in which she connected industrial waste to both environmental and human health. She was one of the first science communicators who, as a woman during this time, faced enormous hurdles. She challenged the agricultural and chemical industries and used her voice and knowledge to ultimately influence U.S. environmental policy.
What is one subject you could talk about for hours on end?
It’s a toss-up between manatees and bycatch (the unintentional capture of marine animals in fishing gear).
What’s your favorite ocean creature?
I would have to say it’s a tie between manatees and octopuses. They’re both so amazing!
What’s your favorite seafood dish?
I love seafood paella, my husband’s shrimp jambalaya and boiled crawfish.
What are you looking forward to most about being in the Lowcountry?
I’m excited to start exploring the beaches and islands and learning more about the Gullah culture.