Story: Tarlton, Kelvin Ewart

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Tarlton, Kelvin Ewart

1937–1985

Diver, explorer, treasure hunter, photographer, inventor

This biography, written by Lynette Townsend and Sarah Burgess, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2020.

Kelly Tarlton was a pioneer in underwater exploration and a successful tourism entrepreneur. Energetic and innovative, he adapted a passion for scuba diving into a successful career as an explorer of shipwrecks and maritime construction engineer. Eager to share his discoveries with others, he established two museums, the Boyd Gallery and the Museum of Shipwrecks, and later an aquarium, Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World.

Early years

Kelvin Ewart Tarlton was born at Te Kōpuru, near Dargaville, on 31 October 1937, the second child and only son of Elsie Alexander and her husband, engineer Ewart Fritz Tarlton. Tarlton spent his early years at Te Kōpuru, where his father taught him to swim and encouraged him to develop a do-it-yourself attitude and skills of improvisation and self-sufficiency. When Tarlton was 12, the family moved briefly to Auckland. There he attended Pasadena Intermediate School, but his education was interrupted by a kidney condition and a severe reaction to the penicillin used to treat him. He spent nine months in Auckland Hospital. The family subsequently moved to Christchurch, where Tarlton attended Christchurch Boys’ High School. He was an uninterested scholar and left school to join the Post and Telegraph Department’s Christchurch office. He qualified as a telephone exchange technician in 1961.

Diving career begins

Tarlton developed a love for outdoor adventure during his teens, going on hunting trips with his father and attaining the Queen’s Scout Award, the scouting movement’s highest achievement. He hiked and climbed with friends, and belonged to the Canterbury Mountaineering Club until a couple of near misses dampened his enthusiasm for climbing. In 1956 he was preparing for a mountain climbing trip in the Andes when political unrest in Peru forced its cancellation. With time on his hands he watched The silent world, a film by the pioneering maritime explorer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau, which introduced him to a new and exciting world underwater. He bought an aqualung using money he had saved on the Peru trip, and a friend took him for his first dive soon afterwards. He joined the Canterbury Underwater Club, where he made lifelong friends who included Wade Doak, Rob Davy and Jim White, all of whom became diving pioneers.

Scuba diving was then in its infancy, and diving equipment was expensive and difficult to obtain. Tarlton and his friends were forced to craft much of their own gear out of reclaimed machinery; regulators were made from old aircraft parts and masks from tyre tubes. These improvisational skills would be a hallmark of Tarlton’s career. A keen and talented photographer, he built an underwater unit for his camera, and his award-winning photographs appeared in local and international publications. He also took up spear fishing, and in 1959 set a New Zealand free diving record at Curious Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound, making it to a depth of 24 metres. A few years later he achieved a new personal best, diving to a depth of 34 metres off the Northland coast. He developed a passion for exploring shipwrecks.

Underwater exploration

In 1959, aged just 21 and only three years after his first dive, Tarlton organised an expedition to the Hermit Islands in the Bismarck Archipelago, north of New Guinea, the first of many international diving trips. Over four months he and a small team of fellow divers collected marine specimens, in association with Canterbury University College and the Canterbury Museum, along with ethnological material from Wuvulu Island and the Hermit Islands. Tarlton also planned to make an underwater documentary, and built a waterproof case for the camera using parts from an old DC-3 propeller. He had to abandon his plans after the film stock, featuring footage of huge manta rays, was damaged by the heat.

The quality of diving conditions around the Poor Knight Islands, off Northland’s eastern coast, convinced Tarlton to obtain a transfer to Whāngārei, where he lived with diving friends. There he met Rosemary Hastie, whom he married at Ōkaihau on 7 March 1965. They would have two daughters, Nicole and Fiona.

Diving at the Poor Knight Islands, Tarlton and his companions discovered many new species of fish and shellfish, which Tarlton documented in photographs he sold to news outlets to help fund his diving activities. He also developed a creative partnership with Doak, who wrote the articles which accompanied Tarlton’s photographs. The two families shared a house at Matapōuri which became a social hub, with divers staying for a night before heading out again next day.

Professional diver

In 1966, aged 29, Tarlton quit his Post Office job to take up diving full-time. The decision marked the beginning of an incredibly busy period, when he juggled multiple projects, both professional and personal. He preferred to explore shipwrecks, but the financial rewards were unreliable, so he took on underwater construction, demolition and salvage work to make ends meet; with Davy, Bernie Keenan and Allan Kircher, he formed Underwater Construction Ltd in 1966.

Over the next two decades, Tarlton organised and led dives on shipwrecks around New Zealand and the world. Weeks of historical research and meticulous dive planning preceded each expedition. Tarlton returned to sites when further research, technological developments, or financing made another trip possible, leading to overlapping projects, many weeks or months in duration. Rosemary and his daughters joined him when time and finances allowed, but the family spent many weeks at a time apart.

One of the first wrecks Tarlton dived on was the Elingamite, off the Three Kings Islands, in 1967, where salvaged items included a large consignment of valuable coins. In 1968 he salvaged cannon balls and other items from the historically-significant wreck of the Boyd, which was burned and sank in Whangaroa Harbour in 1809. These and relics salvaged from other wrecks formed the basis of the Boyd Gallery, a small museum he established in a former shipping store on the Whangaroa waterfront. Though it only made a profit over the summer months, the museum’s popularity convinced Tarlton that a larger shipwreck museum could be successful.

Tarlton did not have the funds necessary for such a venture, but a friend saw value in the project and helped him secure finance. In 1970 he opened the Museum of Shipwrecks at Waitangi, located, appropriately, on an old barge. Among the objects eventually displayed there were the Rothschild jewels, salvaged from the wreck of the Tasmania, off Māhia Peninsula, in several dives starting in 1974, and a cannon he salvaged from the Alcmène, off the coast near Dargaville, in 1977. The museum, run by Rosemary, was sustained by a regular trickle of paying visitors, and eventually helped provide the financial security which allowed Tarlton to continue exploring shipwrecks.

The quartet behind Underwater Construction Ltd remained busy with contract work around the country, often for the government. Tarlton and his team worked on the construction of the container port at Port Chalmers, raised the fishing trawler Jay Belinda from Mangonui Harbour, constructed a water intake for New Zealand Steel in the middle of the Waikato River, and laid pipeline into the seabed across part of Tauranga Harbour. Tarlton disliked these paid jobs, many of which involved unpleasant or difficult working conditions, and he resented the distraction from more rewarding personal projects.

The expert and innovator

From the 1970s Tarlton took on increasingly ambitious projects, many of which stretched his abilities and technical expertise. In 1970 and 1975 he made unsuccessful searches for the General Grant off the Auckland Islands, a remote subantarctic environment of rough seas, dangerous cliffs and poor weather. The salvage of anchors and cannon from the Alcmène in 1977 was similarly perilous. The wreck lay in the surf off an exposed beach, and Tarlton was constantly buffeted by heavy waves and struggled with the lack of visibility and strong rip tides. His attempt in 1980 to locate gold and silver bars from HMS Lutine, off the coast of the Netherlands, was equally hazardous. Working in rough seas and windy conditions, Tarlton and his team dived into holes dug deep into the sand while the walls collapsed around them. He worked to ensure the health and safety of his collaborators, and while there were no fatalities there were a few serious cases of decompression sickness; Tarlton experienced one himself while diving on the Tasmania in 1977. Shortly afterwards he was diagnosed with a heart murmur, which he had probably had all his life. The diagnosis did not convince him to slow down.

Extreme working conditions stimulated Tarlton’s ingenuity and provided opportunities to test new techniques for salvaging items from wrecks. Diving on the Boyd in 1968, he developed a suction dredge to clear mud from the wreck and suck any finds up to the surface for sorting. He used this on other wrecks, including the Elingamite, where it helped to clear the wreck and secure items for his museum collection. Tarlton also became an expert at shifting sand. In an expedition to the Tasmania in 1976, he developed a sluice system powered by the jet motor of his launch to blow sand off the wreck. Searching for the wreck of the Lutine in 1980, he used massive prop-wash units to excavate 6- to 9-metre holes in the seafloor sand to allow divers to search for debris. He applied his inventiveness to his contract work too. On a project to sink a sewer pipe deeper into the seabed near Mt Maunganui, he built a machine to pump pressurised water into the seabed, turning it into quicksand and allowing the 950-metre pipeline to be laid in two weeks.

Tarlton grew increasingly interested in locating and preserving items of historical significance. One of his most significant finds came in 1973 when, after a thorough archival search, he located one of the anchors dropped from Jean François de Surville’s St Jean Baptiste in Doubtless Bay in 1769. The second was found soon after by another diver, and Kelly located the third in 1982. Another significant project was the search for cannon from the trading vessel Endeavour, New Zealand’s first recorded wreck (1795), which he found and helped retrieve in 1984. Tarlton also did his best to preserve items he found, and in 1977 he completed a course on marine archaeology and conservation in Perth, Western Australia. Tarlton regularly presented papers at conferences on his archaeological finds and marine experiences. He was a charismatic and engaging public speaker who generously shared his knowledge in academic and public forums.

Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World

Tarlton had dreamed of building a large aquarium from his earliest days as a diver. He consulted on the development of two New Zealand aquariums, and regularly helped the National Aquarium in Napier to source live fish, but he wanted to share the excitement and wonder of sea life with others. Rosemary was concerned about the physical and mental toll such an ambitious project would take, but supported Tarlton when he began to pursue this dream in the late 1970s. They visited leading aquariums around the world to study their designs.

Tarlton considered several possible aquarium designs before settling on a structure that incorporated a viewing tunnel running through the middle of a large tank. He initially intended to build it at Paihia, where he and Rosemary were living, but encountered resistance from local bodies. Instead he found disused sewage tanks in Auckland’s Tamaki Drive, which provided an ideal site. He altered his plans accordingly, and began building the aquarium in 1984. With a small $2.2 million budget, Tarlton designed much of the aquarium and built many components with the help of family and friends, including the moulded 7-centimetre-thick transparent acrylic viewing tunnels. The family home in Paihia was sold to help finance the project, and Rosemary joined Tarlton in Auckland. He worked up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

Acquiring and housing hundreds of marine creatures presented major challenges. The sharks, which were to be a major drawcard, proved particularly fragile and difficult to keep alive; Tarlton caught many himself and, after several failed attempts, eventually succeeded in introducing them to the aquarium. When Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World opened in 1985, following 10 months of construction, it housed 20 sharks and 1000 fish. The aquarium, with its viewing tunnels and travellator which allowed people to view aquatic creatures as if they too were travelling through the sea, was an instant success. Seven weeks after opening, the Underwater World welcomed its 100,000th visitor.

On 17 March 1985, the morning after the aquarium reached this notable milestone, Tarlton died in his sleep of heart failure, aged 47. His excessive workload probably contributed to his early death. In 2012 he was posthumously inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in recognition of his life’s achievements and an ongoing legacy that has enabled people to learn about the ocean, marine life and conservation. In 2018 he was honoured by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions with inclusion in their Hall of Fame for individuals whose work has made a significant and lasting contribution to international tourism. The aquarium has received many tourism awards, and an estimated 11.5 million people had visited by the time of its 30th anniversary in 2015. Tarlton’s innovative aquarium design has since been copied around the world.

How to cite this page:

Lynette Townsend and Sarah Burgess. 'Tarlton, Kelvin Ewart - Biography', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2020. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6t10/tarlton-kelvin-ewart (accessed 10 August 2020)