Macduff Marine Aquarium occupies a circular building right next to the sea in the fishing port of Macduff on Aberdeenshire's north coast. The shore here looks out onto the Moray Firth, the broad inlet of the North Sea that bites deeply into north eastern Scotland and whose coastlines extends west from Fraserburgh and south west from Duncansby Head before (almost) coming together at Inverness.
But while it is possible to gaze out over the Moray Firth, gaining an understanding of what goes on beneath the surface is rather more difficult. Unless you visit the Macduff Marine Aquarium, whose role is to allow visitors to see much more of the sea life of the Moray Firth.
The layout of the aquarium is fascinating. Think "doughnut". The doughnut is sliced into by a glass roofed segment on its car park side, and this is where you find the visitor reception and shop. The rest of the doughnut is a structure roofed in grey slate, and this is home to most of the exhibition areas, through which visitors move in an anti-clockwise direction.
But what really makes Macduff Marine Aquarium special is what is happening in the centre of the doughnut. As you approach the aquarium you get the impression that it has some sort of volcanic crater at its core, surrounded by a lining of artificial rock. In fact, the core of the aquarium is home to a cylindrical tank of seawater, open to the sky and holding 400,000 litres of water. Welcome to the deepest seawater tank in Scotland, and one of the deepest in Europe. The seawater used in the main central tank, and in the other tanks within the aquarium, is pumped from the sea into underground reservoirs and filtered and cleaned before use.
Once you are inside the aquarium it takes a little time to appreciate the significance of the central tank. You start your tour in the first segment of the doughnut, which provides an introduction to the coastal habitats of the Moray Firth, and the life within them. Here you can view tanks that are home to fish whose free-range cousins can be found immediately offshore. There is also a display about life on the cliffs at the Troup Head Nature Reserve. The second segment looks at life in shallow waters and takes a particular look at jellyfish. It also includes a remarkably lifelike wave effect in one tank.
From here you move on to the third sector of the doughnut, and suddenly you begin to appreciate the unique features of the aquarium. Here you find an Audio Visual Theatre in which the entire front wall is glass and looks into the central cylindrical tank. The scale of this is amazing and it is possible to become totally enthralled by the life swimming past in front of your face: and all the more so as you know what you are seeing is a microcosm of the real sea that lies just yards away.
When you are able to tear yourself away from the AV Theatre you find that the remaining two segments of the aquarium have even more to offer. In the first you find tanks whose residents you are encouraged to touch, and others that form the aquarium's nursery, and where many of its residents are reared. Most striking of all, however, is the final segment, which looks at deep water and reef life, and is home to the aquarium's second largest tank, which you can walk around, look down into, or view through its glass sides. A particularly attractive element found in this sector is a curved "bay window" that projects into the central cylindrical tank and which is large enough for a couple of people to stand inside and wonder at the life that - almost literally - surrounds them.
Other attractions include watching the fish being fed, something that happens five or six times per week. It is also, especially at weekends, possible to find divers in the central tank ensuring that the algae encouraged by the direct sunlight through the open top is cleaned off the glass.