You might not guess it, but New Zealand has been home to many inventors, pioneers, and explorers. The small South Pacific country developed a well-regarded do-it-yourself mentality during its long period of isolation in the 19th century. Kiwis were long regarded as ingenious problem-solvers due to the fact that, early in their nation’s history, you had to be self-reliant. Kiwis invented the jet-powered boat, the electric fence, and bungie-jumping, among others, and were well-known as explorers and adventurers. And of course, the country’s favorite son was Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mount Everest and who is now immortalized on the New Zealand $5 bill.
The country’s adventurous spirit has sparked many other unconventional and inspirational figures over the years — like Kelly Tarlton.
Tarlton was born in 1937 in Dargaville, a small town in the North Island of New Zealand. An only child, Tarlton moved with his parents to Christchurch, a large city in the South Island, when he was a boy, where he developed a love for mountaineering and mountain-climbing. In 1956, at the age of 19, Tarlton was set to join some friends on a trip to the Andes.
Unfortunately, the group’s plans had to be canceled at the last minute — Peru was facing political unrest at the time and closed off its borders. Left at a loose end, Tarlton walked around town and wandered into a movie theatre that was screening the Jacques Costeau film Silent World.
Tarlton was captivated by Costeau’s film — a documentary that focused on underwater diving — and decided to go about learning more. He built much of his own scuba diving gear and purchased a quality underwater camera while building protective camera casings himself.
Several years later, Tarlton had developed a well-regarded reputation as a photographer of sea life, and even got into treasure hunting. In 1967, he traveled to the Three Kings Islands off the coast of the North Island in order to collect marine specimens, but stumbled upon the wreckage of the SS Elingamite, an Australian steamer that sank in 1902 while carrying large amounts of gold. Tarlton ended up leading several expeditions to the Elingamite after his initial discovery and recovered much of the gold (although it was much less than had been assumed previously).
Tarlton was also celebrated when he discovered the SS Tasmania, another Australian ship that had sunk off the coast of New Zealand in 1897. Tarlton’s intricate research led him to recover a number of lost jewels onboard, many of which belonged to one of the survivors, Isadore Rothschild. Tarlton put several bits of the treasure on display at the Museum of Shipwrecks in the tourist town of Paihia, but they were stolen by a former staff member and the jewels’ whereabouts are currently unknown.
While many would be satisfied by securing a reputation as a scuba diver and treasure hunter, Tarlton’s interests didn’t stop there. By the 1970s, he was onto his next hobby — marine archaeology — and had paired it with his love of shipwreck-hunting. The task at hand was to recover three lost anchors that had belonged to the 18th century French ship St Jean Baptiste, which lost the anchors during a bad storm off the coast of the North Island. Tarlton and his team of researchers dug deep into the official accounts of Captain Jean François de Surville, discovering that the ship had drifted dangerously close to a large rock and was no further than “a pistol shot” from the shore when the anchors were dropped. By calculating the distance, wind speed, and other factors, Tarlton ended up finding all three anchors, which were put on display at Wellington’s Te Papa Museum — the national museum of New Zealand.
In the early 80s, Tarlton’s attention shifted to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, where he desired to build a full-size aquarium. However, he ran into some challenges right away, as he lacked the funds to buy molded acrylic, which were needed to build the transparent tunnels. Still, Tarlton was unfazed, remarking that if he could build his own underwater camera casings, he could build tunnels, too! And he did just that, forming an innovative and skilled team of engineers to construct them. The job took its toll, with Tarlton and his men frequently working 18-hour days in order to get the project finished within a 10-month time frame.
The aquarium — officially titled Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium — was opened in January 1985 and is located in the seaside suburb of Orakei, less than four miles east of Auckland’s downtown area. It was an instant hit with the public, with exhibits focusing on South Pacific marine life, an Antarctica discovery zone, and much more.
New Zealanders flocked to the aquarium from near and far, and after seven weeks, Tarlton was photographed shaking hands with the 100,000th visitor. Sadly, that image was the last time he was photographed — he died that very night of a heart attack at the age of 47. Today, the aquarium honors Tarlton with a bust that is inscribed: “Diver, dreamer, explorer, inventor, instigator, worker, storyteller, father — a man who linked us all with his love of the sea.”