1. When did you first see Jaws?
I only saw the trailer, when I was about 7. That was enough. We were going to see The Gumball Rally and the Jaws promo came up. We usually went to Hahei for holidays but after that, my brother and I said we should go to Taupo, [the sea] was so scary. My parents just told us not to be silly. "There's no sharks down there, this is New Zealand." Ha! They were swimming around us all the time. I thought I wanted to keep my activities as separate from theirs as much as I could so I learned everything I could about where they were and what they ate.
2. Did you grow up at the beach?
I grew up in Howick, at Bucklands Beach sailing club, with summers in the Coromandel. We'd rent a bach down there and my brother and I had a 12ft Parker Craft [dinghy] and we went snorkelling and fishing off rocks and wharves. I caught my first parore when I was about 5 or 6. I was pretty into it. All of it. Being out there, waiting to catch something and when you do there's this little line, a connection to the thing you're looking for, a thread between you. We'd stay at my uncle's place and I'd get up to go fishing in the morning and be told, "It's too early, go back to bed."
3. Does fishing seem more like work now?
I travel a lot for work - Hong Kong, Beijing, Australia, all over - but if I'm in New Zealand, we'll be fishing and diving on the weekends, all year round. I turn on the boat motor and start heading down the Tamaki River at Half Moon Bay, out to the Hauraki Gulf. It's amazing. You can be out fishing 50 minutes from the boat ramp, at Gannet Rock down the back of Waiheke, and there might be four other boats there. In a city of 1.5 million people. You just can't do that anywhere else in the world.
4. Do people have different attitudes to fish and the sea, in the other countries you work in?
No. It doesn't matter what culture or country you live in, people want to look after animals. They often just didn't realise they weren't. I'm a story-teller, and when you use narratives, you see light-bulb moments happening for people. When people are [pillaging beaches] that's about access. They have come from places where the population density means all resources are scarce and it's grab what you can before it's all gone, because it will all be gone. We think about what will be left for our kids in 50 years, but they're thinking about feeding their kids tomorrow. When I see that happening I just talk to them, and explain, look, this will be here tomorrow. You don't have to get it all today. New Zealand's a really special place where we look after our foreshore communities and all these animals will still be here.
5. How did you get into marine science?
My dad was an engineer - he can build pretty much anything. He and I worked together on the extension of Kelly Tarlton's. But none of us boys followed him into that. I loved school but didn't find it easy. I watched a lot of Jacques Cousteau, did my dive course at 16, knew I needed to go to uni and I had to pass. I failed my first year - too much recreational stuff - but that changed my outlook entirely. The way I learn is I have to take everything apart, break it down into its simplest components so I really understand it. And that takes time. But I got there. And when I was at uni, Kelly Tarlton's opened. I came down here on my own, bought a ticket and spent hours looking at the fish. Then I asked the lady in the gift shop if you could volunteer. She gave me the curator's number.
6. What lessons did your parents teach you?
Really strong family values. Work ethic. Self-reliance. I try to give that to my kids too, to always give them choices, that things are cause and effect. I encourage them to be in charge of their own results. If they want to do something, I'll say, "Well here's three ways you can do it." My son got his dive ticket this year, he's 17, but I said he couldn't do it until he could rescue me. No point having a dive buddy who couldn't rescue you.
7. That's an enormous job, looking after the welfare of 10 aquariums: do you get stressed?
It's an enormous challenge but I never get really low. You sometimes go, "Shit, life's hard," but it is just hard and you have to accept that's what it is sometimes. It's not wrong. My other great philosophy is that you have two choices for everything: you can look up or look down; walk forward or walk back. Break it down to small parts and see what can be done.
8. What are you scared of?
Nothing in the water really. No, I've never had any real shark bites. No stitches anyway. I do remember being at Hahei with my daughter when she was about 10 and I went for a morning swim out and around a buoy with her kayaking next to me. She said, "What kind of a shark do you think that is, Dad? I think it's a bronze whaler but I can't really tell." I immediately thought, "Don't panic. You know lots about sharks," but I had to have that thought.
9. Why are we so scared of sharks?
Because they can eat you. And you can't see them. They are our lions, and the ocean is the grassy savannah. If there was a lion in the long grass we'd be pretty scared of that too. I tell kids: you might not have seen a shark but sharks have seen you. But of the 400 or so species around, you have to worry about only five, and not all of them are even in New Zealand.
10. Are there lots more of them around though?
We just don't know. And there isn't really a good benchmark to compare it with because they live for 70 or so years and that's well before they were protected. If you talk to fishery scientists they'll say more and more people are in the water globally but there is not proportionally more and more shark attacks. In Western Australia now there's a big push to cull numbers. It's crazy. They're trying to get a bill passed which would say if you see a shark, it's a threatening shark and it can be shot. That's Jaw's material. It's 1972. They need to realise Jaws is not a documentary.
11. Does all that time underwater make you a more spiritual person?
Only from the point of view that I really believe in interdependence. A doctor friend talked to me about it once and it really stuck. I depend on my wife, she depends on me, we depend on our family, our community. You can't get by on your own. He basically told me, don't teach your kids independence, that they can do it all alone, focus on teaching them interdependence and that will make them a much better person, a better citizen. I'm still working on how to do that.
12. What about when you're down in the water - what does that feel like?
It's a very personal experience, it's personal time. But when you're with a dive buddy, even though it's silent, you acknowledge that time together. Just through the eyes, through looking.
Kelly Tarlton's Sealife Aquarium in Auckland celebrates its 30th anniversary in January. www.kellytarltons.co.nz