Claire Matthews must have thought that her life couldn’t get any better when she was given the chance to travel to California to study marine life.
After waking up every morning to the sun glistening on the blue waters of the Pacific she went to work as parts of the research team based at a world famous aquarium.
There are few who could imagine a more perfect way of life or place to live, but if you fast forward 15 years, you will find that Claire now calls Macduff home, and not Monteray.
Claire was lured back across the Atlantic by the seabirds, diverse marine life and dramatic landscape of the Banffshire Coast in the north east of Scotland, and she is now staying put.
“It truly is a fantastic place; there is nowhere like it,” said Claire, who is manager of Macduff Marine Aquarium. “People from the UK travel thousands of miles to visit beaches and to see wildlife when they don’t need to travel further than their own front door.
“It always makes me smile when I’m out on my boat and see a minke whale surface through the waves. People pay thousands of pounds to go to Canada to see these animals, and there they are in the Moray Firth on a Saturday afternoon.”
Claire, originally from North London, visited her grandparents in Aberdeen as a child before returning to study for a zoology degree at Aberdeen University. When she was eight-years-old, a family friend who worked as a researcher studying otters invited Claire’s family to visit him in Shetland: Claire didn’t see any otters, but she did catch her first glimpse of a porpoise and became hooked on watching seabirds wheeling at cliff edges.
“At that moment, I knew that I wanted to work with animals. I later did some work experience at a veterinary college, but learned very quickly that what I actually wanted to do was work with healthy animals in the wild,” said Claire (40).
“While at university, I discovered the Banffshire Coast as one of my closest friends came from the area and I jumped at every invitation I got to visit for the weekend.
“Everything about the place was so beautiful: tiny villages perched at the bottom of rugged cliff faces full of brightly painted cottages and then these huge expanses of long, sandy beaches where you hardly see another soul. As someone who was studying zoology, I was fascinated that one place could be home to so many marine animals and sea birds. I remember thinking this family was really lucky to live in such an incredible place – I never thought at the time that one day I would be lucky enough to live here too.
“After completing my degree at Aberdeen, I went to the University of California in Santa Cruz to do marine science and was involved in a research project studying the feeding habits of sea otters. It was a great experience, but when my student visa ran out I made the decision to come back to the UK.
“I moved back to Aberdeen and heard that Aberdeenshire Council was opening an aquarium at Macduff, and before they even advertised for staff I sent them an application. I was fortunate to get a job as an education officer, and I’ve been here ever since.”
The aquarium gives visitors the chance to delve into a world only ever seen by scuba divers who slip below the chilly waters of the Moray Firth. Open to the elements to allow natural daylight so that kelp can grow, the aquarium’s central tank exhibit is unique in Britain. At a depth of five metres and holding 400,000 litres of seawater, it is home to over 100 fish and countless invertebrates.
“Absolutely everything in the tank can be found in the Moray Firth,” explained Claire. “People are always amazed by the diversity of the species in the aquarium’s exhibits and assume they must come from other parts of the world. People have this idea that our sea life is a bit drab, so they are genuinely surprised that many species are so colourful and that some are almost tropical in their appearance.”
The aquarium sits right next to the sea and is one of the best areas on the Banffshire Coast to spot the area’s most famous residents – the bottlenose dolphins. The Moray Firth is home to a population of around 130 dolphins and their frequent appearances offshore have led to Banffshire being named Scotland’s Dolphin Coast. Visitors have been known to sit for hours at viewpoints at quaint fishing villages like Cullen, Gardenstown and Pennan in the hope that maybe, just maybe, they will catch a glimpse of one of these enigmatic creatures.
Claire has notched up her fair share of sightings over the years, but has a little bit of an advantage over most other spotters. She is also co-owner of North 58 Sea Adventures and spends most of her spare time taking people out onto the waves of the Moray Firth on board a rigid inflatable boat (RIB), Buchaneer. She runs the business with her partner, Dean Southall, with help from friend Ian Page.
Claire said: “The dolphins are a huge draw, but people who are not regular visitors just don’t realise how diverse the wildlife is on the Banffshire Coast. It’s only when they come here that they discover they will be able to see thousands of seabirds such as gannets and puffins at the RSPB reserve at Troup Head, seals, whales and even the occasional basking shark.
“Buying the RIB was probably the best decision we ever made because it means we are able to get into all the nooks and crannies at the bottom of the cliffs. All of a sudden we were able to explore this hidden world that we couldn’t see before – we were as thrilled as our passengers. As well as introducing people to the marine life we tell them about the social history of the area, pointing out harbours, castles and old forts along the route.
“I’ve been to many other coastal resorts on holiday, but in my opinion the Banffshire Coast cannot be beaten. It has everything you could possibly want apart from, in some villages, a mobile phone signal! But when you are surrounded by this natural beauty and wildlife, modern technology is the last thing you need.”
For more information about accommodation, activities and attractions on Scotland’s Dolphin Coast, visit www.banffshirecoast.com. Further details about Macduff Marine Aquarium are available at www.macduff-aquarium.org.uk. North 58° Sea Adventures has trips running throughout the summer months – to find out more, visit www.north58.co.uk