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Ministry of Education.
Kaua e rangiruatia te hāpai o te hoe; e kore to tātou waka e ū ki uta

The age of aquariums

Specialising in aquariums, Mike Murphy has worked from a modest office in his Manurewa home for clients around the world – Kelly Tarlton's in Auckland, Manly Underwater World in Sydney, others in China, Hawaii, Spain and Vanuatu. He has designed underwater windows for the filming of the Xena-Hercules TV series, a new sea lion pool at Auckland Zoo, and also came up with bubble wall-tanks for the SkyCity Casino in Auckland.

A barge with a 300 – tonne crane transported the structure from Singapore.

A barge with a 300 – tonne crane transported the structure from Singapore.

Currently, he's working on one of the largest ever shark tanks, at 3,500 cubic metres, for a US$40 million aquarium in Palma, Spain, and has been approached about a semi-submerged hotel. However, his latest effort could perhaps be his most mouth–watering – an underwater dining room in the Maldives.

COP brief development - Underwater restaurant

"Instead of fish it's people in the tank, looking out at the fish and the coral," he explains. "The initial idea was for flat-panel windows. It didn't look that exciting to me, so I suggested an arch structure." And not just any old arch, either – it equals the world's largest, in a Murphy designed aquarium in Kuala Lumpur, which is twice the width of the arch at Kelly Tarlton's. The result is a five-by-ten-metre "bubble" enclosing the underwater dining area for an exclusive restaurant in a Hilton hotel resort on Rangali Island, about half an hour's flight from the capital Malé. Diners walk along a narrow wooden jetty to a grass hut in the middle of the lagoon. Here they enjoy pre-dinner drinks before descending a spiral staircase to the seating area, the top half of which is transparent, allowing diners spectacular close-up views of coral and sea-life.

The financial backers of the project, who came across Mr Murphy on the Internet, loved his ideas. But the question was how exactly to build it. The original plan involved a concrete structure with acrylic windows – but it proved "a bit hard to do" in concrete, given the issues of cracking, water-proofing, and quality control. "So we ditched that and went for a painted steel sub-structure with an acrylic arch."

The project got the go-ahead in February last year. Mr Murphy spent the next couple of months crunching the numbers and working out the details – and checking out the location. "It was hell," he says with a smile. "I had to go there a few times and swim around to find the best spot to put it." Sunburn and coral cuts aside, one of the biggest challenges was partially submerging the whole structure, which had to be weighed down with an efficient mass. "If you only use light-weight material, you need more volume," he explains, "but, of course, the more the volume the more water it displaces so you need more weight. Bloody Archimedes! I ended up filling the base and the ends with concrete – about 50 cubic metres in total. This was just enough that the crane could lift it and it would still float, three-quarters submerged."

This case study is reproduced with permission from e.nz magazine. Subscriptions to e.nz are discounted for schools and TENZ members.

The age of aquariums

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