Great Lakes Aquarium – Connecting with Water, Wildlife +

Fish, shipwrecks, raptors, mammals, and more. These are just a few of the species and special interests to be explored at Duluth’s Great Lakes Aquarium (GLA).

Featuring fifteen exhibit galleries, GLA guests of all ages can observe animals and habitats native to the Great Lakes, the Amazon River, and other bodies of water around the world. GLA’s mission is to “Connect all people to the water and wildlife of Lake Superior and beyond.”

Exhibits and Programming

The GLA’s Executive Director, Jay Walker, explained more about the Aquarium’s wide array of exhibits. “Our Isle Royale exhibit is dedicated to the Great Lakes, so it is filled with native species, including lake trout, brown trout, brook trout, and lake sturgeon. The St. Louis River Gallery features walleye, muskies, northern pike, sunfish, and crappies,” he noted. “It also has ducks.”

“Our ‘Shipwrecks Alive’ gallery showcases shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and other parts of the world,” he added. “We have touch pools, featuring corals, anemones, jellyfish, and sturgeon. We also have a possum, skunk, two river otters, and an exhibit called Raptor Ridge, featuring Bogey the bald eagle and Horus the turkey vulture.”

Additionally, GLA guests can observe a special dive team hand-feeding the sturgeon; watch the frisky otters (named Agate and Ore) play; and interact with GLA staff, who often walk around the Aquarium with a variety of critters.

Great Lakes Aquarium submitted photo.

Many of the animals at GLA aren’t able to live independently in the wild. Bogey the eagle and Horus the vulture, for instance, have been deemed “non-releasable” due to flight issues, and wouldn’t survive on their own. So, they will live the entirety of their lives as educational ambassadors, safe and comfortable at GLA. Each animal’s habitat and other needs, including diet and enrichment, are well-researched so they all receive the best care.

The Great Lakes Aquarium is also a huge proponent of teachers and education. There are a complimentary teacher (and home-schooling) resource kits available, and plenty of early childhood programs and day camps for kids.

More About the Leader

Jay Walker, the Executive Director of the Great Lakes Aquarium.

Walker is originally from Alexandria, Minnesota. He had planned to pursue a career in music until one momentous day when he visited an aquarium with his then-girlfriend, now wife.

“I was a music major originally,” Walker explained. “My girlfriend Michelle had family on the east coast. I traveled to meet her family in Baltimore and visited the National Aquarium there, and I was absolutely floored. I loved the exhibits; I loved what we learned. Ultimately, I switched my major.”

Walker has an associate’s degree in aquaculture from Alexandria Technical & Community College, and a bachelor’s degree in fisheries from the University of Wisconsin-Superior (UWS). He began his career in 1996 working for Underwater World at the Mall of America.

While his official title was aquarist, Walker prefers the tongue-in-cheek industry term, ‘fish janitor.’ “We cared for the fish, prepped their food, monitored water quality, did record-keeping, and dove in to clean the tanks,” he explained.

When Denny Krenner, a consultant in the industry, told Walker about a new aquarium opening in Duluth, Walker jumped at the opportunity. He was hired in 1999 as GLA’s curator, a role he held from 1999-2007. He was promoted to Director of Operations in 2007 and promoted again to Executive Director in 2019.

Duluth Transplants

As “Duluth transplants,” Walker and his family have ultimately made Duluth their permanent home. “When thinking about Duluth as a place to live, initially it was just about my career,” he noted. “We had considered only staying here for about five years. But it was such a perfect place, and the longer we lived here, the more we loved it.”

Walker and his wife, Michelle, have two children: Cassidy (22), and Ian (20). The Walker family also includes a cat, dog, African Grey Parrot, Cockatiel, and a milk snake. “I love my job, but you will never find an aquarium in my house,” Walker said with a laugh. “It’s kind of like a chef who doesn’t want to go home and cook.” The family lives in the Observation Hill neighborhood.

When he isn’t working, Walker enjoys music, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, and fly fishing. “Duluth is so great,” he emphasized. “Just last weekend, I was at the DSSO. Then, we went out to eat, and within minutes, I could be out in the woods. That is one of the absolute charms of Duluth: there are plenty of cultural amenities, but you can also get away from it all.”

Walker maintains plenty of other professional affiliations, too: he is the finance chair for the Visit Duluth Board; a Board member for the Lake Superior Marine Museum Association and is also an Eco-Rotarian.

Memberships at the Aquarium

The Great Lakes Aquarium, a non-profit organization employs over 50 staff members and receives most of its funding (approximately 80%) from guest visits and memberships. Members can visit the Aquarium an unlimited number of times, and also receive invitations to new exhibit openings and other special events. The GLA receives the rest of its funding (about 20%) through donations, grants, and tourism tax.

The Aquarium is open 364 days per year (every day but Christmas) from 10 am – 6 pm. In addition to regular visits, GLA is available for private parties and weddings, too.

Great Lakes Aquarium submitted photo.

Transformative Experience Possible

Walker is mindful of the transformative experience that a visit to an aquarium can provide. And this knowledge helps him plan future exhibits, events, and the total guest experience. “I always keep in mind that someone could walk through the doors and have the same experience I did,” he said.

Working at GLA continues to be a personally fulfilling career for Walker. “It’s so rewarding to see the people who work for me achieve their goals,” he said. “It gives me such joy.”

“And, I love knowing what we do to promote place-based education, and help people learn about our own backyard,” he added. “Here, you can see it, feel it, and touch it – and these experiences help you understand the world.”

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