Dave Moran

Kelly Tarlton

Although he is best remembered for the Underwater World on Auckland’s waterfront which still carries his name 22 years after his death, that project was just the last in a life brimming with adventure, discovery, originality and zest.

Written by       Photographed by Dave Moran and Rosemary Tarlton

Off the Netherlands’ north coast, near the island of Tershelling, the 54-me­tre tug Yak strained at its four-point mooring, its solid rectangular hull trembling from the onslaught of the gale and from the sea currents harp­ing at the anchor cables. On board,four divers waited for a break in the hellish weather. Even the slightest of spells would allow them to confirm, perhaps even to claim, their prize.

Somewhere below, buried beneath the constantly shifting black sands, lay one of the greatest treasure-troves ever lost. When the 32-gun frigate Lutine had struck a sandbar during a similarly violent storm on the night of October 8, 1799, she had perished with her entire crew of 200 and a reputed cargo of 914 gold bars, worth, at the time of this salvage attempt, an estimated $NZ25 million.

Some of the treasure had already been recovered, the four men knew. A year after the sinking, 58 gold and 38 silver bars plus over 40,000 coins had been scooped up with iron nets before the wreck had become smothered by sand. More gold had been salvaged in 1858 with the use of a diving bell. But the bulk of it was still there, awaiting the lucky, the prepared and the daring—and the four certainly saw themselves as such.

Their leader was Kelly Tarlton, instantly recognisable by his bald pate, with its wild mane of peripheral hair, his beard, and the thick spectacles that framed his friendly face. It was the northern summer of 1980, and Kelly was by now a world-renowned marine archaeologist and treasure-hunter. Only two years earlier he had been in the Carib­bean with American treasure-seeker Mel Fisher, looking for the fabled riches of Atocha and Santa Margarita, Spanish galleons that had sunk with Inca gold in their holds.

Despite an early fl irtation with climbing, it was the sea and the mysteries it contained which dominated Kelly’s life. He was either in it, near it or thinking of it most of the time. Here he is showing coins from the Elingamite.
Despite an early fl irtation with climbing, it was the sea and the mysteries
it contained which dominated Kelly’s life. He was either in it,
near it or thinking of it most of the time. Here he is showing coins from the Elingamite.

But Lutine had drawn him away. This was his project­ the biggest to date, the best organised and financed, and with the highest stakes. He had with him his most capable and trusted veteran diving buddies: fellow New Zealanders Steve Macintyre and Willy Bullock, and Britisher Peter Oselton.

Two years earlier, Kelly had commissioned an electronic survey of the search area, which had pinpointed a string of 120 possible targets scattered over some 5 km2. To cope with the sand cover, he had designed two prop-wash units—tubes that could be used to redirect the outwash from the ship’s propellers—capable of moving 3000 t of sand in 20 minutes. They could blast craters in the seabed 12 m wide, which would then serve as prospecting shafts. All Kelly needed was some decent weather, but this was proving a tall order.

The diving conditions were desperate, even by profes­sional standards. Steve Macintyre recalled: “It was the only diving job I remember when your fellow divers would not take your turn for you. When we left, none of us was ever going to go back there again, except maybe Kelly. He didn’t say.”

The water was only 6–7 m deep, Macintyre continued,but they were well off-shore and in horrendously rough seas. It was like being on the bar of the Manukau Harbour. We worked in holes dug 20–30 ft [6–9 m] deep in the sand, with the walls collapsing and fluidised sand settling around you. It was like being in a bog, usually with no visibility at all. Kelly was the only one to prefer an aqualung—perhaps he thought it saved time. We reckoned that if you were on a hose [whereby a diver trails an air hose reinforced with a rope] and the sand caved in, you’d live another 10 minutes and the guys on board might be able to follow the hose down to you. If a 20 ft wall of sand collapsed on you when you were wearing a ’lung, that would be it.

Kelly Tarlton and his wife, Rosemary.
Kelly Tarlton and his wife, Rosemary.

But it was equally dangerous to be tethered to the ship, which pitched and rolled violently as it was buffeted by waves and wind. And yet, despite the setbacks and dangers, under Kelly’s leadership the work of blasting holes, div­ing into them and moving on to the next target proceeded with such professional efficiency that observers concluded it would be only a matter of time before the gold was found. Kelly was even called off to Amsterdam and asked to pay advance VAT (equivalent to GST) on the soon-to-be-sal­vaged gold and silver. The Dutch officials estimated the tax at $NZ3–4 million. In his diary Kelly fumed: “…the ridicu­lousness of being asked to pay duty in advance, before we’ve even found the goddamned gold, is beyond belief.”

Here he is seen recovering an anchor from Cook’s Adventure in Tahiti.
Here he is seen recovering
an anchor from Cook’s Adventure in Tahiti.

Earlier, using the smaller and faster Zeehond while Yak was undergoing repairs, the team had found a wreck. Kelly wrote:

Stephen [Macintyre] and I descended the shot-rope, and in the murk we could make out the shape of huge timbers of a sailing ship. Our excitement mounted as we could see in the beams of our torches the flat floor timbers of the hull scattered with bal­last stones. Big copper bolts protruded through the timbers. It was 10 days before they got Yak over the find, and when the weather finally allowed them to dive their spirits soared. Kelly again: …it is a huge piece of ship…more than 30 feet [9 m] in beam and at least 100 feet [30 m] in length. We exposed this whole section…in one day’s digging, which indicates that if we found a ship semi-intact we would empty it out of sand in no time at all. If we could find a section of Lutine with gold in it, we could have the whole job finished in 12 hours.

But it was not Lutine: evidence dated the wreck to around the 1850s. They continued the search but all they found was junk from previous salvage attempts. Eventually, with their budget allowing only 40–50 days’ tug charter, black liquid sand pouring back into the holes the moment they stopped blasting them, and Yak retreating to port for yet further repairs, Kelly had to admit defeat.

The final straw came when, for the second time, Yak lost two anchors and the cables of the other two became crossed, putting such a strain on them that “a winch weigh­ing tonnes was ripped right out”.

They limped to port, where repairs were to cost $NZ100,000. After two months of searching, they had nothing to show but a few bits of shipwreck debris. Such failure would have been enough to dampen anyone’s enthu­siasm but Kelly’s. He returned home and began dreaming up an even grander project. With this one he would succeed beyond anybody’s expectations. It was the one for which he’d be best remembered—and which would arguably also claim his life.

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There were no early indications that Kelvin Tarlton, born near Dargaville on October 31, 1937, as the only son of Ewart and Elsie, was to become a larger-than-life figure in the New Zealand maritime com­munity, that his future dreams and exploits were to touch and inspire so many. As a child he was neither scholarly nor especially healthy, although, when the family moved to Christchurch, Kelly showed a focused passion for climb­ing. He joined the Canterbury Mountaineering Club and quickly progressed through its training programme.

Then, in 1956, fate played its trump card. Kelly was about to join a climbing expedition to Peru when that coun­try was swept by a wave of political unrest and closed its borders. Legend has it that, with a few hundred pounds of hard savings and nowhere to go, Kelly wandered into a cin­ema that was showing Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World, one of the first underwater films ever made. It was a turn­ing point in Kelly’s life.

In his diary he wrote: I tore down the road and ordered an aqualung. I could not get one straight away, but then found that one of my friends living in Auckland was using one.

Kelly travelled to Auckland to learn how to use the equipment, and his first diving experience was, like most of his future underwater missions would be, an off-the­-deep-end and make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair. His diary continues:

He [the friend, Robin Hall] did not tell me anything about how to use an aqualung at all. We went out on a local boat; he put the thing on my back, put a mask over my face, gave me some fins and leapt over the side. I leapt too. He grabbed me by one hand and dragged me in 18-inches visibility to about 30 feet down. He had not told me about clearing ears or getting water out of my mask. I was getting this tremendous pain in one of my ears…and my mask was slowly filling up with water. I thought I was going to drown.

But he survived. He was a diver. The earache, the flood­ing mask—these were just “details” to be worked out later.

Back in Christchurch, Kelly met Wade Doak, who, equally eager to dive, had made an underwater breathing apparatus of his own devising out of an ice-cream tin, a garden hose and a bicycle pump operated by a buddy on the surface. Together the two young men formed the nucleus of a diving fraternity that began to explore and document New Zealand’s hitherto unknown silent world.

Scuba diving was still in its infancy, and what gear the pair couldn’t buy they made themselves, cannibalising parts and ideas, brainstorming to come up with the missing links, and putting it all together into workable units. Their innovations included a regulator made of aircraft parts, diving masks fashioned from tyre tubes, several versions of a camera housing, and air tanks in the form of converted industrial oxygen cylinders.

Thus Kelly found his calling, both in the ocean and in the tinkerer–inventor’s tool shed. Never bothering to pat­ent anything, he designed and made, or had made, whatever was required for the task at hand.

When confronted by problems in his marine recovery work, Kelly often came up with novel solutions. These included suction devices and powerful underwater jets for clearing sediment from wrecks, and using a recompression chamber to allow more bottom time for divers in deep water.

He constructed the first buoyancy compensator seen in New Zealand, using waterproof canvas for the body and a piece of garden hose to connect this to the snorkel mouthpiece. He played with the design and testing of manta boards—underwater wings on which a diver could be towed, exercising a degree of depth control and ma­noeuvrability, in order to explore the seafloor. One manta board, like something out of Jules Verne, was a shark-proof perspex wing that enclosed the diver. Its windscreen func­tioned as a down-thruster, and “flight” was controlled with a joystick. Kelly crashed this particular invention against a reef after ploughing into a school of sardines and losing visibility.

With Doak, he perfected a Venturi suction dredge for vacuuming the sand and sludge from shipwrecks. (The first version used air recycled from the operating diver’s regula­tor and was soon abandoned, since it required the operator to breathe like a farrier’s bellows.) Roger Grace, who subsequently joined Kelly’s bunch, recalls: “If anything was possible Kelly would do it. If something wasn’t working, Kelly would fix it. If a wreck or any other marine object was somewhere on the seafloor, Kelly would find it.”

John Dearling, a close associate and partner in Kelly’s innumerable projects, adds: “If something broke down Kelly could fix it with a broom handle and a bit of wire, whereas everyone else would have to get an electrician or an engineer. He was a wizard with electronics. He could make things out of nothing.”

At 21, in Cousteau-on-a-budget style, Kelly led his first diving expedition. To attract publicity he organised a pub­lic demonstration of ice diving under the frozen surface of Lake Ida (just north of the much larger Lake Coleridge), and then set the New Zealand free-diving depth record in Queen Charlotte Sound, reaching 24 m. (He bettered this later with 34.7 m).

To begin with, his team of four (Ron Crockel, Andy Lawrence, Dennis Fowler and himself) were undecided where to go, but that was quickly settled when, following their publicity campaign, an invitation arrived from the Hermit Islands, off the northern coast of New Guinea. For Kelly and his friends this was a dream come true—five months in a remote and rarely dived tropical paradise re­splendent with coral reefs, sharks and rays.

Their plan was to produce a movie like The Silent World, one that would jump-start their careers as underwater film­makers. Unfortunately, in the tropical heat the emulsion on their film stock melted and the colours became psychedelic, rendering most of the footage unusable. Yet despite the fail­ure of the film project, the expedition was a magical jour­ney that cast a potent and enduring spell. After the Hermits there was no going back.

For a while Kelly’s bunch confined their attention to tropical reefs, organising annual trips to New Caledonia. Then they found an equally exciting location closer to home, one that Jacques Cousteau himself would later pro­claim among the top 10 diving destinations in the world.

Although treasure—usually in the form of jewellery or coins—appealed to Kelly, he was always interested in natural history and was one of a group of divers who discovered a number of fascinating new species at the Poor Knights in the 1960s.

The discovery of the underwater riches and architec­tural splendour of the Poor Knights Islands caused so much excitement in the diving community that both Kelly and Wade Doak promptly moved up north to be near them. They dived the Knights in their every spare mo­ment—Doak does to this day—discovering new species, exploring underwater caves, photographing their finds. Meanwhile, Kelly had married Rosemary Hastie and was to soon quit his technician’s job with the Post and Telegraph Department to launch, at 29, a commercial diving venture, Underwater Construction Ltd. It was in his new capacity as professional diver that his inventor’s genius would realise its full potential.

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Commercial diving is the antipodes of recreational scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) diving. Kelly recorded the conditions he encountered when he was contracted to put in a caisson wharf at Port Chalmers: “…visibility was usually zero and the temperature often just above freezing…in the winter… we were going under water before daylight and…coming out after dark.”

At the beginning the going was tough. Kelly also free­lanced as a writer–photographer, and he and Rosemary often had to rely on her veggie garden and the pipi beds outside their front door. Spear-fishing wasn’t so much a hobby as a necessity.

The diving jobs varied from looking for a lost engagement ring and raising a sunken fishing boat to burying pipes and cables under the seafloor and survey­ing coastal waters for sand and gravel deposits. Some of the industrial contracts involved major feats of engineering.

Seen here are Rothschild jewels recovered from the Tasmania and coins from the Elingamite (below9.

Engineer Ian Mellsop remembers one such: “There was a water intake structure for the Waikato River for which we built this 350 t concrete structure. We built it on the bank and had to winch it out into the river, where we had dug a big hole. It was a horrendous job…after two weeks we were using inch-and-a-half wire ropes and 300 tonne winches. We finally got this thing down the slope and it took off at about 30 miles an hour down this big, greasy slope. Kelly was standing eyes agog. It went down, hit the bottom and then stood upright in exactly the right spot…Kelly shook his head and said, ‘Remind me, Mellsop, never, ever, ever to do another job with you.’”

Kelly soon developed a reputation for getting hard jobs done without a fuss. Known as “No Bullshit Tarlton”, he was soon in demand: before long, too much so. As he con­fided in his diary:

Everything is happening at once. They want the Mt Maun­ganui pipe finished urgently; I’m being asked to bury two miles of…water pipe across Tauranga Harbour; Fullers want the Kerikeri River deepened by three feet for half a mile; the harbour board at Whangarei wants to talk to me about burying power cables to the harbour beacons; and I want to work on wrecks.

Shipwrecks—their research, exploration and salvage­ had become a major part of Kelly’s life, his favourite pur­suit. He worked on many, returning again and again with more knowledge, improved tools and new ideas.

His first major wreck was Elingamite, which had sunk in heavy fog off the Three Kings Islands on November 9, 1902. She had disappeared in 20 minutes, first coming to rest on a rock ledge at a depth of 16 m, then sliding deeper, stopping only when her nose had become planted in the bottom 40 m down. She had taken with her a consignment of 4000 gold half-sovereigns and 1.5 t of silver coins, a hoard which, because of the bends-inducing depth at which it rested, would claim the lives of several future salvors.

Kelly first visited the Three Kings on a spear-fishing expedition in 1963. He returned two years later and located the wreck. It wasn’t long before he started finding gold and silver coins and treasure fever was upon him.

Wade Doak, Dave Moran and John Pettit were his sal­vage partners. Later, in his book The Elingamite and Its Treasure, Doak wrote:

With picks, crowbars, screwdrivers and knives we levered out silver coins. Some, neatly stacked in vertical seams, could be chipped out one by one. Others came out in great black chunks of tumbled half-crowns, florins and shillings. The immense pressure of the collapsing wreck had flattened some coins to wafer thinness, or doubled them…Some coins were found ad­hering by their edges to the roof of the cave.

But underwater treasure-hunting is rarely as simple as picking gold coins off the bottom, for the sea guards its secrets, moving them around, burying them under sand and encrusting them with marine growth. Finding them requires a technical and pragmatic mind, like Kelly’s.

“We’ll need a three-inch air lift driven by a piston-type compressor,” his diary records. “We lift off all the heavy rubble, loosen the whole area with explosives, airlift it to the boat and sort it out through chicken-net screens.”

Kelly became known for his trigger-happy approach towards the use of underwater explosives such as gelignite to clear obstacles, earning the insider nickname “Jelly Kelly”.

During one of his Elingamite expeditions he wrote: As master blaster, my diving time has consisted mainly of dig­ging holes and cramming in charges which grow progressively bigger as we try desperately to uncover the mother lode. The site now looks like a battlefield, with bomb craters gaping at regular intervals among the wreckage.

Despite the employment of increasingly complex equip­ment, much of the gold eluded Kelly and his team. Partly this was owing to extremely limited bottom time at the depth at which they were operating—about five minutes a go according to modern recreational diving tables. To over­come this problem and to make the diving safer, in 1979 Kelly designed a two-person recompression chamber.

Kelly established a Museum of Shipwrecks, first at Whangaroa, then in the modified lighter Tui moored at Waitangi.

Pettit recalls “Our divers always worked in pairs and, after about 70 minutes’ bottom time…would come slowly back to the surface. The helpers on deck would literally tear their equipment off them so that within two minutes the two divers would be inside the air lock…[they] would take seats in the main chamber…and breathe pure oxygen through mouthpieces for 20 to 25 minutes at two atmos­pheres’ pressure. It was the quickest and most efficient method of defeating the bends.”

Though their pickings, spread over a decade of diving, were impressive, Kelly and his mates never found the moth­er lode of gold half-sovereigns. Kelly saw this as a failure. “If I ever go back it would be with a good system for mov­ing boulders,” he wrote after his last dive on Elingamite, in March 1981. “…the coins must be there somewhere, unless there was extensive salvage in the 1908–1915 period that we do not know about, and that is unlikely.”

Elingamite was one of two signature wreck projects for Kelly. The other was Tasmania. This 86 m passenger steamer had foundered in gale conditions while rounding Mahia Peninsula on the night of July 29, 1897. Diving on Tasmania was just as hard as on Elingamite but the potential rewards were much greater on account of one Isodore Rothschild, who had travelled aboard the ship with a case of jewellery he intended to sell in New Zealand. Rothschild had sur­vived the ordeal, including the capsizing of his lifeboat, but had left the jewellery in his cabin.

Many of the artefacts and treasures he had recovered from diving on wrecks around world were displayed there.

In 1973 Kelly found the wreck, 30 m down and buried under sand. A year later he returned with a home-made suction dredge and salvage rights acquired from the Roth­schild family. He wrote:

When we measured the ship, we found that where the [Rothschild’s] cabin should be was covered with four metres of sand. We sucked at this sand with Venturi dredges and cleared it off; but the cabin wasn’t there. It had completely broken up. So we started searching to the side of the ship, sucking up more sand. Then we found the floor of the cabin. It was in one piece.

On the floor were five pieces of gold jewellery.

Better gear was needed to remove the mud with which the wreck was smothered, and after a stint in his workshop Kelly came back with a blower that harnessed the outflow from his jet-boat motor. The jet stream, redirected through a fire hose to a nozzle operated by a diver, created an under­water mud storm that was then swept clear by the current, revealing the wreck.

The work was tough and dirty, the sea boisterous, the water cold, the visibility nil. Kelly referred to that dive as his most difficult, but the Venturi dredges kept picking up pieces of treasure one after another. Kelly catalogued 103 items recovered between October and December 1976: rings, brooches, studs and cuff links. It was his best haul ever and it kept him coming back until February 1983. By that time, he estimated, he and his diving buddies had recovered about a third of the jewellery.

Wrecks were now Kelly’s driving passion, and he was looking for the most attractive way of displaying his finds to the public—which is how his Museum of Shipwrecks at Waitangi came to be. First he found Tui, a 100 ft (30 m) sugar lighter with a kauri hull. Then he salvaged the rig­ging from a wrecked Canadian barque, Endeavour II, and had local kauri milled to make up the broken and missing spars. Then, as if by providence, a master boat-builder and expert on square-rigged ships, Ian Barrett, came sailing into the Bay of Islands and in no time threw himself into the work Kelly needed doing. (It was typical of Kelly to enlist help in this way—he could enthuse anyone about his projects.) On January 12, 1970, the first visitor walked over the gangplank into the museum, whose collection included artefacts from Wairarapa, Wahine, Elingamite, Tararua and Tasmania.

The museum gave all the more impetus to Kelly in his pursuit of further wrecks. He dived on more sunken ships than any other New Zealander. On one of his road trips, from Paihia to Stewart Island, he and Dearling explored over 30. By 1971, Kelly had charted and researched some 1200 of them around New Zealand, assessing their poten­tial and making a “to do” list of some 300. He compiled files on all major wrecks around the world and acquired salvage rights to some of them.

Huge old tanks for storing sewage at Orakei in Auckland (top) were the improbable site Kelly hit upon for realising his dream of giving the general public something of the underwater experience of the diver.

He took on challenges that had defeated many before him. For example, through sheer detective power he located the enormous anchors lost by French sailor Jean de Sur­ville, who visited the New Zealand coast in 1769. Though the Frenchman left precise records of his tribulations, in­cluding co-ordinates, all previous searches for the anchors had failed. It was Kelly who deduced this was because those looking hadn’t allowed for magnetic variation, which in 1769 was 12º 40’. With the new co-ordinates—which point­ed to a spot near Whatuwhiwhi, on Karikari Peninsula­ Kelly found the first anchor after a mere 12 minutes under­water on his manta board. The anchor remains the oldest authenticated relic of European contact with Aotearoa.

More perilous was Kelly’s quest for the remains of an­other French ship, the frigate Alcmène, which in 1851 came to grief in the pounding surf off the coast of Dargaville. She was easy to spot from a light aircraft flying low over the breakers but nothing was easy after that. “Diving in the surf is a completely new experience,” Kelly wrote.

The lack of visibility and turbulence mean that often you do not even know if you are right way up. The sea is not water but liquid sand. If you turn side on, it will knock off your mask; if you turn into it, your face is plastered with sand. There is a strong rip. Lifelines become a must; two of our divers lost theirs, one was swept away and was lucky to be carried ashore again down the beach.

With winches and tow-trucks the salvors dragged their prizes ashore—anchors and cannons, which Kelly rushed off to preserve. He was already more of a marine archae­ologist than a treasure-hunter; in a Perth museum he had undergone an intensive training in the treatment of under­water artefacts.

There were more wrecks, more adventures: two unsuc­cessful attempts to locate the remains of General Grant along the treacherous west coast of the Auckland Islands, then the memorable search for Lutine. And all the while Kelly was doodling plans for what would become his great­est undertaking, his legacy to the nation.

Sketches for an underwater conveyor required that it operate in a perspex tunnel which Kelly’s team moulded locally.

His dream was to give the public an opportunity to ex­perience undersea wonders from the diver’s point of view. The result was Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World.

The project began on April 2, 1984, with the backing of a finance company and the acquisition of some mucky, disused sewage tanks on Auckland’s waterfront. Important as these things were, the key components of success would prove yet again to be Kelly’s preternatural “don’t worry, it’ll be all right” enthusiasm and his ability, as his biographer E.V. Sale phrased it, “to persuade people that the impossible was really nothing unusual”.


It was a homespun project from beginning to end, real­ised on a shoestring budget of $2.2 million. (Cousteau was later to say that he couldn’t have built anything similar for less than $14–20 million.)

The greatest challenge was the transparent acrylic tun­nel, extending 120 m underwater, from which visitors would view marine creatures swimming above and beside them, just centimetres away, in a purpose-created habitat inside the tanks. The acrylic came in sheets 7 cm thick, which had to be bent to fashion the tunnel’s curved ceil­ing and joined with utmost precision. Failure in this regard could have jeopardised the entire project.

The technical details of how to work with the acryl­ic—the temperature to which it should be heated for bend­ing, the timing of the various stages of the process—were perfected in the Tarltons’ kitchen oven. Then Kelly and his team built a 60 kW furnace the size of a small house. The sheets of acrylic were heated for eight hours, placed in a mould with the correct curvature, then left to cool for another 12 hours. The result was a world first, and even before the aquarium was finished Kelly received how-to enquires from several marine parks overseas. Rob Davy, who perfected the technology for Kelly, went on to install similar tunnels around the world.

For nine months they toiled, working 15–18 hours a day. The finance company put crippling pressure on Kelly. As he said, every hour the place wasn’t open cost them $1000. The Tarltons sold their Paihia house and put the proceeds into the project. Failure was not an option.

They made it, though exactly how remains the domain of the supernatural. Mellsop remembers that “the guys were painting walls and putting the carpet down…at six o’clock in the morning and we were opening at eight”.

And open they did, on January 25, 1985. In the first hour, 200 people came through the door. The place was an instant success.


Kelly wanted his main attraction to be big sharks and during construction a billboard outside proclaimed THE SHARKS ARE COMING. However sharks proved nerv­ous and fragile creatures. Kelly had to “walk” them for hours through the aquarium (sharks have to swim to breathe), and even then several died from stress. But Kelly knew he was on the home stretch and he gave it his all. He spent 24 hours at sea catching three grey nurse sharks near White Island, then kept them alive on the back of a truck from Whakatane to Auckland. His legs were raw from rub­bing against sandpapery shark skin, but in the end the big fish swam about outside the acrylic tunnel and thousands of visitors gaped in wonder.

The success of the aquarium was so overwhelming even Kelly found it hard to believe it. One day the cashiers took $27,000. For the first time ever Kelly was financially in the clear. It would take no time at all to pay off the loan. With the steady profits he could finance any expedition that took his fancy, cast his eyes towards distant attractions—the treasures of the Spanish Armada, perhaps; the secret riches of the Indian Ocean pirates.

Within 18 months of the Underwater World opening, the millionth visitor would pass through the doors. Sadly, its creator wouldn’t be there to greet him. On March 17, 1985, after he’d welcomed the 100,000th visitor, Kelly looked even more tired than usual. He went to bed early. Sometime during the night his heart gave up. He was 47.

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If there was any blame in the matter, both Kelly’s family and his friends agreed it lay entirely with Kelly himself, for even though he knew he had a heart problem—a dicky ticker as his mates called it—he con­tinued to be his own worst pacemaker. Dave Moran, now publisher of Dive New Zealand magazine but in those days the aquarium’s electrician and later its manager, says that Kelly always had time for everyone. Everyone, it seems, except himself.

His death created an enormous vacuum among his friends and fans. He was irreplaceable. Rosemary Tarlton found herself the majority shareholder of the Underwater World but it wasn’t long before, in the murky waters of corporate machinations, a public float of the company, and the share market crash of 1987, she lost the lot. Today, Kelly’s aquarium continues to rate as the country’s top tourist attraction.

But what of Kelly the man? What of the legend? His ashes were scattered at the Poor Knights—fittingly, for he himself was something of a poor knight, chivalrous and kind, always crusading, forever unconcerned with things material. As friend and diving buddy Quentin Bennett recalls: “I don’t think he ever looked at the economics of things. That was one of the great things: even when Tui was going really well and Kelly could have just stood by the door and taken the shekels…he kept on and on and on, finding more stuff and doing more wrecks.”

Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World opened in January 1985 and became an instant success. Millions have now passed through its doors and it is considered the country’s leading tourist attraction.
Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World opened in January 1985 and became an instant success. Millions have now passed through its doors and it is considered the country’s leading tourist attraction.

For him it was the hunt itself, not the treasure, that counted most, and even through his time of fame and high achievements he remained the quintessential Kiwi bloke, with a shed full of tools and inventions and a sketchbook filled with dreams; a man who, as E.V. Sale put it, took the whole world for his friend.

“He had the mana,” says Pettit, noting that doors that were closed to others would miraculously open for Kelly. “He seemed to be able to walk up to people and they would want to help him.”

Moran adds: “His charisma could gather people around him, and because people believed in him, because Kelly was going to do it, we all just went in and made it happen for him.”

Peter Pettigrew, who also dived with Kelly regularly if infrequently, says: “He led from the middle of the pack and took everybody with him. The reason he achieved what he did was that he was just not frightened at all about taking on a project. He wasn’t technologically, mechanically or scientifically frightened by anything, even though to begin with he might not know everything about how he was go­ing to do it; he’d just go out and teach himself.”

This is perhaps the closest we can now get to defining the phenomenon that was Kelly Tarlton.

For a long time after his death, when faced with a problem or a challenge, his friends would find themselves thinking, “What would Kelly do?” Unconsciously, perhaps, some of them already knew the answer: he’d doodle something in his notepad, scratch his head, doodle some more. Then he’d nod, smile and say: “Don’t worry, it’ll be all right.”