Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World

Engineering Work (eg road, bridge, sawmill, dam)


Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World, opened in Janaury 1985, is a fine example of entrepreneurial engineering. Innovatively created inside disused sewage holding tanks beneath Tamaki Drive, it is one of Auckland’s major tourist attractions.

Kelly Tarlton died in1985 aged 47, not long after welcoming 100,000th visitor to the aquarium. He was a world renowned diver with an impressive list of achievements in the underwater sphere.

The aquarium is designed to recreate the world divers experience on a typical Hauraki Gulf volcanic reef. Spectators move through this world inside a clear acrylic-covered tube set in a trench in the base of the aquarium. They travel on a conveyor belt, stepping on and off to watch colourful fish life around and above them.

Until the opening of Kelly Tarlton’s in 1985, conventional aquaria used acrylic panels in flat sheets in viewing galleries. The construction techniques developed to construct the acrylic tunnels were unique and have since been successfully used internationally.

The project showed that New Zealand engineers are not afraid to try something new. After research into new materials and methods, such as acrylics and silicones, waterproofing and fish care, Kelly Tarlton's team evolved techniques to overcome the problems encountered. They developed ways of bending of acrylic sheets into arches, forming horizontal bends using ‘lobster-back’, and adapted a baggage conveyor for the transport system. The mechanical services and water-filtering equipment were all designed and built to meet the particular requirements of the project.

The subsequent companies formed by Kelly Tarlton’s associate, consulting engineer Ian Mellsop, have played major roles as specialist consulting in five ‘underwater world’ complexes in Australia and Asia. In 1990 they had four more aquaria in the initial planning stages in Australia, Hong Kong, Hawaii and Europe.

Concept: Kelly Tarlton
Architectural – Structural – Mechanical Design: Bruce Wallace Properties Ltd
Construction: Kelly Tarlton and Precast Construction Ltd

Heritage recognition
IPENZ “Engineering to 1990” project

This item of New Zealand’s engineering heritage was recognised as part of the IPENZ “Engineering to 1990” project which the Institution organised to help celebrate the country’s sesquicentenary in 1990. A plaque was unveiled to mark the significance of this underwater world as part of the development of the nation.

Karen Wrigglesworth, 'World-first Fish World,' Engineering Insight, Vol. 13:2 (2012), pp.24-26. See attachment below.


Wrigglesworth, Engineering Insight Vol13.2 2012, pp.24-26 (2.4 MB).pdf


23 Tamaki Drive, Orakei, Auckland


Access Info
Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World is open to the public from 9.30am to 5:30pm daily. Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World website (

Nature of Engineering
New Zealand Innovations, Building and Construction


Tanks under Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World, in 1911. Photograph: collection of Watercare Services Ltd.

(Click image to enlarge )

Lat: -36.845629 Long: 174.817328