Everyone knows that St Andrews is the home of golf. But close to the Royal and Ancient Golf Clubhouse and to the British Golfing Museum is another attraction that focuses on a very different world. On the shore where the town of St Andrews meets the broad expanse of linksland that is home to its most famous golf courses you find St Andrews Aquarium.
The first thing to say about St Andrews Aquarium is that you shouldn't be deceived by its appearance as you approach. From the landward side the aquarium looks for all the world like a stone bungalow, and it is difficult to imagine how it can possibly be large enough to house an aquarium.
The answer is revealed in the header image. Like an iceberg, only a small portion of the aquarium shows "above the surface" from the west. Everything else is built in a series of layers that drop below the main entrance and reception, down towards the shoreline.
The beauty of this arrangement is that it allows the aquarium to take advantage of the sea itself. At its lowest level are the two outdoor pools fed by seawater in which the resident seals live. Laurel and Hardy are Common Seals who were both found as abandoned pups in 1991 at separate locations near Oban. They would normally have been returned to the wild when old enough, but at the time many Common Seals around our coasts were suffering from seal distemper and, when the disease had receded enough to make it safe to release them, they had become too used to the easy life offered by the aquarium.
An observation deck allows visitors to watch the seals being fed at various times each day. And it allows Laurel and Hardy to observe these funny two-legged creatures they have trained to applaud simply by eating their favourite sand eels or herrings. Or sometimes it just allows them to tease us by acting as if they are hungry, then retreating to the far corner of the pool and pretending to be uninterested when the food shows up.
Elsewhere within what is actually quite an extensive complex is the Catch Restaurant, which is ideal for hungry humans wanting lunch and comes complete with an outdoors terrace for summer dining. Seafood is a speciality and the restaurant can be used without buying a ticket for the aquarium itself. Elsewhere within the aquarium is a gift shop, and an aquatically themed play zone for younger visitors.
But for most visitors, the highlight of any visit is the series of galleries looking at different themes and different environments. The "Coastal Cousins" area contain a series of beautifully presented and maintained tanks containing sea life you might well find off our own shores. Here, too, you can find out everything you really do need to know about not buying fish that are too large for your own fish tank at home.
Other areas look at coral reefs and other tropical settings, at the wildlife that might gather around the wooden piles of a Scottish harbour. Or you can try to outstare the resident lobster (you'll lose) or marvel at the sheer range and diversity of marine life, from the amazingly beautiful to the... well, let's just say, to the amazingly not beautiful.
The "Amazon Adventure" area comes with a rather steamy setting, and a large free standing tank with glass sides. Signs warn visitors that the fish will bite: then you remember that piranhas come from the Amazon. The free standing tanks used in several areas of the aquarium that allow you to view the fish from above or below water level really are superb.
This is especially true in the very large "native shark" tank on another level within the complex: an exhibition that helps set sharks in context, pointing out that most are totally harmless and the smallest are only 10cm in length: and that far more sharks are eaten by people each year than people eaten by sharks. Meanwhile a large fibreglass model "Jaws" hangs above the tank just to balance the message!