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Ticket to paradise

Meet the owners of one of Fiordland’s most trusted charter operators.

By Jason Harman

Seán Ellis and Maria Kuster are the owners of Pure Salt Charters. Together, they form a balanced duo of doer and thinker, mover and shaker. They’ve built Pure Salt from the ground up, with a love of people and the natural environment at its core.

Maria is a firecracker of energy, optimism, and passion. When she speaks, it is with a slight German accent laced with Kiwi diction (she’s been living in New Zealand for over 20 years now) and a big, affable smile that she shares generously with anyone who comes within her orbit.

Séan is a working man — a salty sea dog who exudes mana and purpose. He’s the type of guy you’d happily follow into battle, not because he’s alpha or effuse (he’s not), but because he carries himself with a quiet confidence.

Together, Seán and Maria are on a mission: to give back to Fiordland, to share its beauty and bounty responsibly with all Kiwis, and to be the inspiration for a new wave of conservationists in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“I love the perspective Fiordland creates,” Maria says. “It places you firmly where you are: as part of the ecosystem, and you realise just how tiny your part really is.”

Seán jumps in: “Fiordland has something for everyone. It’s a special place, and it attracts passionate people; wonderful people. But it needs looking after, which is why we do the conservation work, and that just grows the passion and attracts more amazing people.”

“It’s not just a business for us; it doesn’t feel like work.”

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“Yeah I totally agree, it’s not just a job,” Maria says. “We love connecting other people to the place so they can experience it in the same way we have, and so they can help us give back. Everything else just kinda spins around that.”

The conservation work Seán and Maria are involved with is centred around the Tamatea / Dusky Sound restoration plan, with the ambitious vision “for Dusky Sound to be one of the most intact ecosystems on Earth, and New Zealand’s largest ‘biobank’, a source of endangered native species that can be sent to pest-free locations throughout the country.” It is a bold vision they share with DOC and many others; a vision that includes Breaksea Sound, Acheron Passage, Wet Jacket Arm and Dusky Sound itself, including over 700 islands and New Zealand’s fifth largest island, Mauikatau / Resolution Island.

“In previous years, we had witnessed notable differences in the local islands, particularly in how often we would encounter native birdlife. So we reached out to DOC and said, ‘How can we help?’ They said, ‘Hey, there’s this little island (Mamaku/Indian), see what you can do there’. Within eight months we had a whole network of traps up and running, just in time for the mast year. We went from 30 per cent rat tracking when we started to between 0-5 per cent now, which is the magic number to start re-introductions.”

“However that was only the first piece of the puzzle,” Maria continues. “I often struggle to paint the full picture. We now work on 2000ha Long Island, history-rich Pickersgill Harbour, and Pigeon Island, as well as 21000ha Mauikatau / Resolution Island organising, funding and carrying out the work as part of Pure Salt. Essentially functioning as a social enterprise.” And it is not just about doing the work on the ground for predator control, but also about collaboration and developing new tools, such as sonic lures and AI training.

Maria and Seán are passionate about getting the next generation excited through TamateaLEARNZ — working with the Ministry of Education to get their vision and action into New Zealand classrooms through virtual field trips — and looking after what is “under the reflections” through TamateaBLUE, with underwater clean-ups, full utilisation and education around what we catch for the table.

Pure Salt are also involved in biosecurity work and tool development with the Ministry for Primary Industries around Undaria, and connect people and generate funds through TamateaART, an ongoing project which artists to join Maria and Seán onboard Flightless to connect with Tamatea / Dusky Sound.

“Fiordland has given us so much over the years, we just wanted to find a way to give back.”

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