Kelly Tarlton’s unveils attraction expansion plans

Sea Life aquarium Kelly Tarlton’s is preparing to undergo a $1.1 million redevelopment of an exhibit to rejuvenate its underwater attraction.

The new cave and rock pool themed attraction, which is set to open to the public in December, is inspired by the Hauraki Gulf native marine life. The attraction will be immersive and allow children to get their hands wet as they learn about local species of hermit crabs, starfish, crayfish, eels and octopus.

Work will begin on the attraction dubbed the Sea Cave Adventure in September, with just a two-month turnaround period after deconstruction of the existing Fish Gallery exhibit begins in May.

The project has been in the pipeline for two years and was supposed to have been completed by the end of last year, but delayed due to disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic. Specialist tanks from overseas have been imported for the exhibition.

“From an investment perspective it is the biggest project that we’ve undertaken for at least eight years,” Dan Henderson, general manager of Sea Life Kelly Tarlton’s, told the Herald.

“To do a whole new zone for us is a big undertaking and it has been a couple of years of planning to get to this point, and we’re excited to give an area of the aquarium, which has served it purpose but now past it’s used by date, a new breath of life.”

The Fish Gallery was built in the early 90s.

Kelly Tarlton’s was founded by avid diver Kelly Tarlton in 1985, however, he tragically passed away just six weeks after it first opened. The aquarium has had multiple owners since then and was acquired by Merlin Entertainment and rebranded to Sea Life Kelly Tarlton’s in 2011.

Henderson said the development and roll-out of the new exhibit was a huge logistical task for the attraction’s 50-staff team as they would have to co-ordinate the movement of animals as well as construction work.

The design and interior fit-out of the exhibit has been developed by Thoughtful Design and will mimic sea caves and rock pools found in the gulf.

The purpose of the exhibit was to teach people about native species and issues facing local marine life, said Henderson: “We’ve got this great marine park right on our doorstep but the awareness of it is quite low.”

Last year was a challenging year for Kelly Tarlton’s as it faced fallout of two mandatory lockdowns and a closed attraction. It was forced to lay off four staff members and sales revenue is still down 30 per cent.

While international tourists would not be able to visit the revamped attraction any time soon, Henderson the investment now in quieter times would reap gains in the future.

“Our domestic visitation has certainly increased but that doesn’t make up for the big gap in international visitor numbers, but we’re fortunate enough that we’re a local visitor attraction in main. Without international visitors we will be okay and we’ll get through this period; like all businesses we’ve had to look at how we operate and make some changes.”

The operating costs to run an aquarium were high, which was reflected in its ticket admission pricing, Henderson said.

The attraction received a $500,000 Strategic Tourism Assets Protection Programme grant from the Government last year following the onset of the pandemic.

Kelly Tarlton’s is currently closed to the public on Tuesday and Wednesdays.

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