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"Diver, dreamer, explorer, inventor, instigator, worker, storyteller, father, a man who linked us all with his love of the sea." This inscription on the bust of the celebrated figure that stands in the eponymous Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World reveals something of the man whose charisma and vision knit together a team of fellow adventurers.
In 1956 Kelly Tarlton was set to join a climbing expedition to the Andes. When political unrest in Peru canceled the trip, he was left at loose ends. Bored, he went to see the Jacques Cousteau film Silent World and thought diving looked like more fun than climbing, with no politics to worry about. With typical Kiwi No. 8 fencing wire ingenuity (aka a do-it-yourself mentality), he built much of his own diving gear, got an underwater camera, and devised housings for the camera and flash.
In the 1960s, Tarlton focused on photographing marine life. In 1967 a trip to the Three Kings Islands to photograph and collect marine specimens whetted his appetite for treasure hunting. He and companion Wade Doak found the wreck of the Elingamite, which had foundered on the islands in 1902 with thousands of pounds in gold bullion on board, much of which they recovered.
One of Tarlton's most celebrated finds was the jewels of Isodore Rothschild on the Tasmania, which had sunk in 1897. Through his characteristic detailed research, Tarlton pinpointed the whereabouts of the wreck and succeeded in salvaging most of the jewelry in the late 1970s. The treasure was put on display in his now defunct Museum of Shipwrecks in Paihia but was then stolen by a staff member. Though the thief was imprisoned, he has never revealed the jewelry's fate.
Tarlton's interest broadened to marine archaeology. His first major success was finding the first de Surville anchor. Jean François Marie de Surville sailed the St. Jean Baptiste into Doubtless Bay in Northland in 1769, where three of his anchors were lost in a storm. Tarlton plotted their whereabouts from crew accounts of the ship's dangerous proximity to a "big rock" and its position "a pistol shot" from shore, and by calculating the magnetic variations and wind directions from the original maps. The anchor is now in Wellington's Te Papa Museum.
But Tarlton is perhaps best known for the aquarium he built on Auckland's waterfront. Not having the funds to buy ready-molded acrylic to build his planned transparent viewing tunnels, Tarlton said that if he could mold his own camera housings, he could create his own tunnels, too. And do it he did, with a team of skilled and loyal friends, building an "oven" for the molding and inventing a gluing technique to form the curving tunnels.
Opened in January 1985, the aquarium was a huge success. After only seven weeks Tarlton shook the hand of the 100,000th visitor, an image captured in the last photo of him. Tragically, he died that very night, at the age of 47, of a heart complication.
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