When visiting Sydney in January this year, we bought annual multi-pass tickets that gave us access to ten great attractions in Australia and … one in Auckland! So today we drove down to the big city and waved our photo-ID cards at the nice lady behind the glass at Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Experience & Underwater World.

Built by a Kiwi diving enthusiast in the 1980s, the aquarium is situated in what used to be sewage-water treatment tanks to the east of Auckland city. Kelly Tarlton pioneered the heating and curving of acrylic to make his underwater tunnel, a technique now used in aquariums around the world.

Tarlton was a deep-sea treasure hunter and retrieved many valuable objects from the waters around New Zealand. He opened the Museum of Shipwrecks near his home in Paihia and recognised that the personal effects of the past were more interesting than more valuable treasures from the sea. “A toothbrush that has come off a wreck from 1872 is more interesting than a steam-valve,” he said in an 1977 interview. Tarlton used his funds from his previous dives to build the Auckland aquarium, and it opened in 1985 after just ten months of construction.

From the exterior, all that’s visible is a small entrance hut. All the interior of the aquarium is underground, with one room containing a large pane of glass which is covered by the water of Okahu Bay at high tide.

Our girls were very excited to be at the aquarium, and they embraced all the exhibits, rode in all the replica vehicles and danced to the music as we spent about five hours at the aquarium, with a break in a nearby park for lunch.

After our disastrous first visit to Sydney Aquarium we’ve also learned to relax into the experience and follow our children’s lead. It doesn’t matter if we dawdle in the foyer or linger in the loos — as long as our children are having fun, the fish can wait!

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
Brioni and Aisha imagine themselves speeding along the top of the polar cap.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
We browse through the first exhibit — a replica of Captain Scott's Antarctic hut which was established in 1911. I was surprised to see a pianola was hauled to Antarctica, but I guess it helped provide entertainment while the explorers and scientists were snowed in.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
One of the fun interactive exhibits is a short tunnel that mimics the squeeze of an octopus' tentacles. Although it doesn't contain moving parts, in walking through the narrowing space, you start to feel claustrophobic as the space gets tighter and tighter and are happy to emerge unscathed on the other side.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
Our whole family likes climbing into and over the mouth of a megalodon — the model of an enormous ancient shark. Aisha was chuffed to see the multiple rows of teeth which have lent their name to her own developing shark teeth (when a second tooth starts growing before the first tooth has fallen out).

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
A microscope is on hand to examine shark skin, coral and shells. As the girls manipulate the zoom and focus settings, they watch the large screen display the results.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
Brioni picks up the Playstation controls to try out the Happy Feet game. This is the first time she's ever used a Playstation console, and somehow she figured out all the controls without any help from her parents.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
Two large boxes in a corner provide a range of dress-up options for children. Rather than dressing as Antarctic explorers, our girls prefer to be animals.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
Brioni dons the full penguin suit. The flippers and wings would be easy to make for a costume at another time.

And so it took us about an hour before we started seeing live animals. But we were certainly having fun!

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
Delaney watches the fish and large stingrays swim in a circular tank.

Aisha and Brioni were particularly looking forward to the touching pool after their fabulous experience at Oceanworld Manly in Sydney. Sadly, this is probably the only exhibit that disappointed us, although everything else was first-class.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
The touch-pool remains one of the girls' favourite experiences. They love to feel and discuss the creatures.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
The penguins are currently held in a temporary enclosure as their new home is being constructed.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
A gentoo penguin says hello to our family. I wonder if he was looking at his own reflection in mirrored glass or if he could see us.

Although the penguin exhibit was so-so, we look forward to seeing what the new enclosure will be like when the renovations — $5.5 million worth of them — are finished in September. Because we have an annual pass, we know we can come back again the next time we’re in town.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
A moving walkway enhances the excitement at being in the fish and shark tunnel. Stools are thoughtfully provided to give small children added height. Because of the refraction caused by light travelling through water, and the acrylic sheets used in the creation of the tunnel, the fish appear to be one third smaller than they actually are.

Our family loved the moving walkway. The girls ran around and around in the viewing tunnel as David and I stayed on the track. The stools were probably as much of an attraction as the great quantities of fish and sharks.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
By careful hoarding and with the help of her sisters, Delaney ends up with *all* the available stools.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
David and Delaney watch as the sea turtle approaches them. When Dell sees this picture, she says the turtle looks like a rabbit (she's imagining its flippers to be long, floppy ears).

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
Aisha examines the egg pouches of the carpet shark, while little baby carpet sharks lie on the sand in the same tank. A carpet shark baby remains in its egg for about nine months before chewing its way out of the sac.

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
David can't resist petting the eel, emerging with all fingers intact. (The eel, however, may need therapy for several months.)

At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Experience, Auckland, June 2012
The spiny seadragons keep us fascinated.

In the early afternoon, we took a break outside to get some food and let the girls run in the sunshine (and drizzle). Mission Bay is only a short drive away, and the playground features a hexagonal swing like the one we saw at Oberon in NSW, Australia.

Mission Bay Reserve playground, Auckland, June 2012
There are enough swings for everyone at this hexagonal swingset at Mission Bay.

Even after we returned to the aquarium (without the camera), the fun wasn’t over. We drove though a carwash for the first time, although it’s possible that I was the only one thrilled by that event! This current climate doesn’t invite me to hose and sponge down our muddy van!

Our day at Kelly Tarlton’s was so much fun! The aquarium is equal to or surpassing the ones we’ve seen in Sydney, and we found the staff to be pleasant and non-obtrusive. It’s a very family-friendly attraction although the gift shop is a sneaky trap at the end. If you’re in Auckland or passing through with your children, this is a must-see. You won’t be disappointed!