The lifelong aquarist, Amanda Murray


Photo Courtesy of Amanda Murray

Murray pictured at her job at Belle Isle Aquarium.

Dean Vaglia, Staff Reporter

Amanda Murray has always found the natural world fascinating. As a child, Murray went around with her wagon collecting insects and fishing with her father at a cottage north of Traverse City. She enjoyed the time spent casting lures and lines into the lake, but not for the thrill of the catch.

“I love getting to see the fish [and] interact with the fish,” Murray said.

As an aquarist at the Belle Isle Aquarium, the Oakland University graduate now gets to work with all the fish she could ever dream of.

Murray’s road to working as an aquarist began with her mother, who raised angelfish and encouraged Murray’s curiosity toward nature. When it came time to choose a college, Oakland University’s biology program stood out as the best fit for her.

Her interest in biology was furthered by working with Dr. George Gamboa, who she worked with while pursuing both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“He is probably the strongest influence on me,” Murray said. “He is such a great guy, and I learned so much from him and the classes I took. He worked with me doing research and made sure that I had everything I needed for that.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s in biology and a focus on ecology and animal behavior for her master’s, Murray worked as an educator at the Michigan Science Center for several years. The science center allowed Murray to develop her skills working with children and with informal education, as well as allowing her to use other sciences she picked up through her studies like physics and chemistry.

But while she enjoyed working at the science center, Murray’s heart was always in biology. When a job opened up at the Belle Isle Aquarium, Murray did not hesitate to apply.

“I wanted to work with animals in any capacity,” Murray said. “I applied for [the aquarium job] not having a ton of specific fish experience, but having a lot of experience in behavior in animals and a lot of knowledge of that.”

At the aquarium, Murray works with fish from all over the world, from lungfish from Africa to the alligator gar of North America. Most of the fish are freshwater, though some in the collection are saltwater fish.

“My favorite fish at the aquarium are the Great Lakes fish because I grew up with them,” Murray said.

An average day consists of checking up on the fish and the tanks, making sure fish are fed, and generally maintaining the health of the fish and cleanliness of the tanks. Visitors were only allowed in on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays before COVID-19, and the lack of visitors during the pandemic has allowed the aquarium to expand and redecorate the tanks.

One aspect of the job that keeps work interesting are the various personalities of the fish, especially between individuals of the same species.

“We have two largemouth bass here and they are completely different in the way they act,” Murray said. “One of them is very friendly, he likes to come up and take food away from you, and the other one is aloof and stays out of the way.”

To OU students unsure about what to do after graduation, Murray says to find a job doing what you love.

“Do internships or volunteer,” she says. “If you want to be an aquarist, work at a pet store and get that experience. Having the education is a great foundation for everything, but you want to find the experience in what you want to do.”