NZ attraction celebrates 25 years under the sea
06 Jan 2010
It’s 25 years since Kiwi inventor and marine explorer Kelly Tarlton created an underwater adventure that has become one of New Zealand’s best known tourist attractions.
To celebrate the milestone, Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World on Auckland’s waterfront is staging a memorial exhibition featuring personal memorabilia that’s on show for the first time.
The 25-year anniversary exhibition opened Christmas Day, and runs until Auckland Anniversary Day on 1 February, 2010.
As well as displaying the treasure trove of Tarlton memorabilia, there is a tribute to the Kiwi legend who was simultaneously inventor, passionate advocate for marine protection, salvage expert and a treasure hunter.
Kelly Tarlton’s today is an expanded version of the original underwater world that includes an Antarctic Encounter where visitors can take a snow-cat ride through New Zealand’s only colony of sub-Antarctic penguins. This season’s baby gentoo penguin chicks are a major highlight.
Other attractions include getting face-to-face with Phoebe the enormous stingray in Stingray Bay, fierce inhabitants in the Shark Tank, and a myriad of species in the Oceanarium.
Kelly (Kelvin) Tarlton was born at Te Kopuru near Dargaville - in New Zealand’s Northland region - on 31 October, 1937.
Tarlton moved to Auckland as a child, and later to Christchurch where he became interested in photography.
A definitive moment came when the young Kelly Tarlton saw French marine scientist and explorer Jacques Cousteau’s film, Silent World.
Tarlton was so moved by the unexplored beauty of the sea that he copied parts of the diving equipment, pieced them together and built his own scuba gear.
As an adult, Tarlton formed a commercial diving company to develop his experience in marine archaeology and deep sea treasure hunting.
Kelly Tarlton worked his way through some of New Zealand’s famous shipwrecks, and established the Museum of Shipwrecks at Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands.
He gained a reputation as an adventurous underwater photographer, and his diving adventure stories and photographs from unusual locations appeared in magazines worldwide.
By 1978, Tarlton’s explorations meant that he spent a lot of his time overseas. During this period he was involved in recovering Captain Cook’s lost anchor in Tahiti, working on a Spanish treasure galleon in Florida, and surveying the Lutine wreck in the Netherlands.
In 1982 Tarlton visited aquariums in Hawaii, Hong Kong, USA, Canada, Japan, Singapore and Australia, researching the establishment of his own underwater tourist attraction.
His vision was to create an underwater world where visitors would travel by moving platform around an enormous tunnel, marvelling at the creatures swimming around and overhead.
Tarlton found the ideal site for that in redundant stormwater and sewage tanks at Takaparawha Point on Auckland’s eastern waterfront.
Takaparawha Point - the ancestral home of the Māori tribe of Ngati Whatua - had originally been gifted to the New Zealand Government as a defence area.
Construction of the 2.4m-diameter tunnel and moving walkway that runs for 1.14km began in April 1984.
Made from 31 large moulded acrylic sheets, each weighing 1000kg, the underwater tunnel was the longest of its kind in the world when built.
To reduce the huge expense of prefabricating tunnel sections, Tarlton imported thick sheets of acrylic which were sized and heat-moulded to the correct curve.
Skilled craftsmen created cave and rocky reef settings out of concrete inside the tunnels, while aquarium staff spent months capturing a variety of fish and sharks to populate the aquarium.
Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World opened on 25 January 1985.
In the first year, visitor numbers exceeded all expectations, reaching one million by August 1986.
Just seven weeks after opening - on 17 March 1985 - Kelly Tarlton personally greeted the 100,000th visitor. Tragically, that was also the day that Tarlton, aged 47, died.
However, since then, Kelly Tarlton’s legacy has lived on, and the aquarium has expanded with several new attractions:
- 1995 - Antarctic Encounter featuring king and gentoo penguins, replica of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 hut, and a snow-cat ride
- 2000 - Niwa Discovery Room featuring touch tank and interactive displays
- 2005 - Stingray Bay is a 350,000-litre open top tank
- 2005 - a window, featuring acrylic from the original construction, was cut through the seawall to provide a connection with the city and harbour.
To date, more than 11 million visitors have marvelled at Kelly Tarlton’s exhibits. Education is a strong focus, and 50,000 school children visit every year to learn about the importance of protecting the oceans and marine life.
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