|Skindiving in Australia's Associate Editor Peter Stone interviewed Kelly in September 1977 at Beacon Island, (Abrolhos Islands, Western Australia) and in June 1978 at his home in Paihia, Bay of Islands, New Zealand. Kelly had made an enourmous reputation for himself as an achiever, enhanced by the public's impression of a genuine treasure hunter. Here was a man whose dedication was infectious, and who at all times, maintained a wonderful sence of humour, compassion and understanding. He was a remarkable man. Sadly, Kelly Tarlton died on 17 March 1985, aged fifty-seven.|
|Had it not been for a revolution in Peru,
Kelly Tarlton may have followed in the footsteps of another great New Zealander,
Sir Edmund Hillary, rather than be one of the most enterprising divers
in the world today. Kelly was 18 years old and about to leave for the Andes
when the 1956 revolution broke. His visa was cancelled. At a loose end,
he saw Cousteau's ‘Silent World' and decided this would be his life. With
funds saved for the Peru adventure he bought an' aqualung'.
"I found a nucleus of divers already in Christchurch. Three or four guys were making their own gear, regulators out of old aircraft parts for example. But you could actually buy gear then - Atlas had just come on the market - made by the same guy who now makes Moray suits, Alf Dickeson. The first reg I had was a twin hose single stage - leaked like a bloody sieve - damn near drowned me several times".
Kelly learnt to dive the hard and dangerous way - he taught himself. He dived with the Canterbury Underwater Club which included Wade Doak, Jim White and Rob Davey. "I had been a keen photographer while I was mountaineering, so the first thing I did was build an underwater housing for a Paxett 35mm camera. It was made out of sheet copper with a perspex window. Like the reg, it leaked like a sieve - I had a piece of blotting paper stretched between two contacts. When it got wet, a buzzer rang and it was time to come up".
The expedition fever was still there so Kelly decided to take off for New Guinea with three other divers. That was late 1958. "I made another housing for another Paxett -a cast aluminium one - and bought a Bolex 16mm electric drive movie camera. I put that in a housing made out of a propeller dome from a DC-3 aircraft with a glass port.". The group spent six months in the islands and were the first Europeans to dive Wuvulu. The main objective of the trip was to make a saleable film but when they returned home they found that the High Speed Anschrome (160 ASA) used was unstable in the heat and the result was ruined by green and blue patches.
Success may have seen Kelly in the movie business. Instead he rejoined the Post Office as an exchange technician. Kelly kept diving and took every opportunity to go on long trips, particularly to New Caledonia. He was one of the first to dive the Poor Knights Islands and decided to move up to Whangarei. After a particularly unfortunate incident with a flooded camera Kelly threw in the underwater photography and became "a mad keen spearo - out to spear the biggest and the best". His ultimate aim was to spear a marlin.
Fortunately he lost interest in the scheme when the Nikonos camera came on the market, and he went back into underwater photography as a semi-professional, whilst still working at the Post Office. At the suggestion of one of his diving buddies, Kelly helped form a company called Underwater Construction Ltd. They received several good contracts, one in Dunedin, but it was cold, hard work so Kelly moved back up north and concentrated on commercial photography, both underwater and topside. In the meantime Kelly had been in a spearfishing group in the Three Knights islands which found the Elingamite, and later he participated in a trip back to the wreck to find its treasure. The syndicate of four, Wade Doak, John Petit, John Gallagher and Kelly, found $12,000 in gold and silver coins. Not only was this financially rewarding but it gave Kelly a saleable subject for his photography. Wade Doak and Kelly collaborated on several assignments including a book, 'The Elingamite and its Treasure'.
Kelly then worked on the Boyd wrecked in 1809 in Whangaroa Harbour and in 1968 he set up a small museum in an old customs shed overlooking the harbour, displaying relics from the Boyd and some of the coins from the Elingamite. The small museum was not economical during the winter months so he closed it and decided to build a shipwreck museum at the Bay of Islands where there is a constant flow of tourists.
"I chased around New Zealand and eventually found an old sugar lighter called the Tui which was being used as a houseboat by a potter. I bought it and eventually got a lease on a piece of foreshore at Waitangi and set up the museum there." Initially the Tui had one mast only and was in a pretty rough state - and so were Kelly's finances. By taking on several underwater contracts he managed to survive the first critical year. Soon after the museum was opened Kelly joined another syndicate to search for the General Grant in the Auckland Islands. They didn't find the wreck. To boost his artifact display, Kelly did a trip around New Zealand diving on many wrecks. The museum display was improving but externally the Tui looked much the same.
Someone elses misfortune gave Kelly the chance to set up his ship the way he wanted. In 1971 the three-master barque Endeavor 11 was returning from a re-enactment of Captain Cook's landing at Botany Bay when it was caught in a north-easterly storm off North Cape, New Zealand, and wrecked. Kelly bought the masts and rigging from the wreck but ended up flat broke so they lay near the Tui until he could afford to have the ship rigged as a barque. At least he had the material - but where do you find the expertise to rig an old sailing ship? Enter one lone yachtsman. "He came sailing over the horizon one day in a catarmaran - came from England. He had owned a square-rigged ship and was a master boat builder. In fact his father and grandfather had worked on square-rigged ships and he knew the game backwards. Ian Barrett was his name - he was a godsend". Barrett supervised the full rigging of the Tui. Standing there proudly with her three masts aginst the evening sun, the Tui brought in more tourists and her skippper's finances improved.
After a dive in 1974 on the Tasmania Kelly did research on the ship and found that Isadore Rothschild, a jewellery merchant, had lost a chest of jewellery when she went down off Mahia Peninsular in 1897. Kelly organised several expeditions to the ship which lay heavily buried in sand in 105 ft. of water some four miles offshore. Up to now (1978) Kelly had worked on the wreck for a total of eleven diving months and had recovered over three hundred pieces of jewellery. He managed to track down Rothschild's daughter in Melbourne. The ninety-three year old widow had no interest in the jewellery so he bought the rights to the jewellery, and the ship, from her. The elderly lady was the legal owner as Isadore Rothschild had bought the rights to the ship after it sank, with the intention of raising the vessel with 2,000 rubber balloons. Fortunately for Kelly, he did not succeed.
Kelly has the jewellery insured for $30,000 but believes it is worth much more. The collection is on display in a large armourplate glassfront safe on the Tui. Kelly has been involved in several maritime archaeology projects over the past few years. In 1974 he discovered the anchors lost by French explorer De Surville in 1769; he was responsible for locating the French frigate L'Alcmene on the west coast of the North Island and found a bronze swivel gun and an iron anchor; and he worked on the historic, and tragic Boyd where the crew were supposedly eaten by Maoris. In May of this year (1978), Kelly was invited to Tahiti to raise an anchor reputed to be lost from one of Cook's vessels in 1773. Film producer David Lean (Dr Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter) made a documentary of the lift to publicise two new films he was making. Despite the fact that the film was a documentary, Kelly was amazed that every action had to be rehearsed and the timing perfect. He had in fact become an actor.
S.I.A.: There seems to be a contradiction here.
He wants to do a perfect f ilm, but what he is making is not genuine.
S.I.A.: Would you regard yourself as a treasure
hunter or a maritime archaeologist?
S.I.A.: You are obviously putting your artifacts
to good purpose. What is your attitude towards scavenging by amateur divers
- wreck bashing as it was coined at Oceans '78.
S.I.A.: With the upsurge in amateur interest
in maritime archaeology, do you see yourself using amateurs for some of
S.I.A.: Are there any wrecks around New Zealand that would warrant some sort of maritime archaeology discipline. Kelly: Yes - there are plenty of wrecks - any wreck over 100 years old should only be excavated under a strict code of ethics and management.
S.I.A.: Even if they contribute little to general
S.I.A.: What is the purpose of plotting in
details where the artifacts lie in relation to the ship remains.
S.I.A.: At one stage of your life you spent
quite a number of years spearfishing. What is your attitude toward spearfishing
S.I.A.: What have you got planned for the future?
S.I.A.: Will the museum keep you supported?
Kelly did go overseas, working briefly with Mel Fisher off Florida, and on his own expedition to find the Lutine treasure off The Netherlands. Neither of these jaunts were particularly profitable. Kelly's museum went from strength to strength and still remains in the family. His major project during his last years was the establishment of Auckland's Underwater World, a remarkable project and a wonderful monument to Kelly Tarlton's initiative. It is tragic that his enthusiasm and drive led to his early death from heart complications that could have been rectified if attended to. He is sadly missed by his family, wife Rosemary, and daughters Nicole and Fiona, and all who knew him.
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