Faces of Duluth: Jay Walker

Faces of Duluth tells the stories of the people behind Duluth’s iconic attractions, hidden gems and everything in between. Traveling to Duluth? Learn the locals’ tips and tricks for seeing all the city has to offer.

For more than 24 years, Jay Walker has been a fixture at Duluth’s Great Lakes Aquarium. He’s served in various roles, leading to his current position of Executive Director. Though his day is often filled with meetings (the fun kind!), he is sure to find ways to stay connected to the animals, staff and guests. And when he’s not at the Aquarium facilitating learning about natural resources, you’ll probably find him out enjoying them throughout Duluth.

What’s your Duluth story?

Growing up in midwestern Minnesota, my family would take summer vacations to Duluth.  It was such an adventure and vastly different than any other place I had been. I distinctly remember large breaking waves and the seabirds in Canal Park and watching the ships pass under the lift bridge while plugging our ears as the boats blasted their horns in salute. I really enjoyed learning about the rich history of Duluth visiting the Lake Superior Marine Museum and Glensheen Mansion.

Years later while visiting friends in college, I experienced a different side of Duluth hiking along Chester Creek and skiing on all the fantastic cross country ski trails. I had so many great experiences and memories that when I got the chance to move to Duluth, I jumped at it.

What do you love about Duluth?

There are so many great things, but mostly I am lover of the outdoors. Every season offers unique experiences. Cross country skiing, biking, SCUBA diving and fishing are a few of my favorites. I really love the people that live and visit here. I enjoy having the opportunity to share what I like, and watch people fall in love with the area.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Lake Superior. It’s relaxing to sit on the shore, listening to the waves and looking out into the infinite horizon over the lake. Our view of the lake has some of the best sun rises; truly beautiful and awe inspiring especially when the Gales of November come.

We live on the shores of 10% of the world’s useable freshwater which really drives home how important it is to respect and conserve this valuable resource.

How long have you been with Great Lakes Aquarium and what is your role?

I have been with the Aquarium for 24 years. My role has changed many times from when I was hired to lead the animal care department to Director of Operations. Currently I have the opportunity to lead this incredible organization as the Executive Director. I work with Great Lakes Aquarium board of directors and staff to create a vision and set the direction for the organization and ensure that we have the resources needed to get there.

What is a typical day like at your job?

Mostly meetings. Though they are usually a lot of fun (yes, you read that correctly). I work with my leadership team on developing exhibits, programs and on our strategic plan. I do still find time to work with the Aquarium animals or an education group as well as clean up after an event. The job is never boring.  

What do you love about working at Great Lakes Aquarium?

Promoting regional education and seeing the enjoyment guests get out of learning about Lake Superior and the natural world is my biggest joy. My second biggest joy is working with my team. Every day I learn something and am inspired by their talent and creativity.

Great Lakes Aquarium has something for everyone of all ages. Can you tell us about some of the current and upcoming exhibits and events?

The H2O exhibit opened in 2021 and is an excellent hands-on exhibit that focuses on the physical properties of water, how water moves through our community and how precious of a resource it is. The highlight is a water table in the shape of the five Great Lakes, where guests can move a toy boat through the locks to the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Jellyfish touchpool and Sturgeon touchpool are always a highlight as well.

Currently, we are working on a new exhibit for 2024 that focuses on Lake Superior’s connection to the world’s waters which will have some interesting animals and interactives. One of the new animals will be a Giant Pacific Octopus which I am very excited to showcase.  

Is there anything about Great Lakes Aquarium that you think would surprise people?

We have many unique ways that guest can interact in the Aquarium, from the touch pools and animal encounters to opportunities to feed the fish. Most of the positive feedback comes from guests interacting with our Animal Ambassador team.

Can you share more about the Aquarium’s mission and how it’s paving the way for freshwater conservation?

Place-based education is so important for understanding the world around us; the relevance helps engage learners on issues directly related to conservation. Many of our school programs are based on research that is being done by local scientists. We can then take this high-level information and make it accessible to a wider audience.

In our exhibit galleries we strive to create an emotional connection with our animals. This connection can drive people to action in helping preserve and protect the natural world.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Duluth with guests from out of town?

Bring them to the Great Lakes Aquarium, of course! I like to grab some lunch from the Northern Waters Smokehaus and have a picnic on the beach, visit our various attractions and quaff a few pints of ale at our excellent breweries.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Come visit! There really is something for everyone in Duluth!

Posted on September 14, 2023