Elisabeth Easther chats to the owner-operator of Gulf Eco Adventures

Our early family holidays were mainly to Waiheke. Loaded up, we'd take the old ferry over, and it seemed to take about a day, with the ramshackle old boat loaded to the gills. We rented a house there from an old lady who lived on the section behind, it was a very basic weatherboard cottage with old fittings, like a concrete bathtub. We'd catch the bus to Onetangi, which was just a sleepy little community surrounded by bush, and we'd spend all our days at the beach. It was very "back to basics", with one general store that wasn't open Saturdays and Sundays, there was no TV or phone. In the evenings it was all about board games and family.

When I was 6, we hired a campervan and did a six-week trip around the South Island. It was one of those old campers with a sleeping area above the cab and my sister and I bunked up there, looking out the window as we drove along. It was the first time I saw snow.

At 18, by myself, I jumped on my first international flight and flew to the UK. The cheapest airfare was with Garuda Indonesia and the plane felt like it was going to fall apart on take off and landing. When we landed in Bali, all the passengers applauded.

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Getting to Europe, I loved the idea of being in charge of where I was going. I bought a European bus pass so I could wake up each morning, look at a map and say, "that looks cool". I loved Venice, architecture has always been a passion; Athens and Rome were amazing. But being one of tens of thousands of tourists milling about in small areas, as I got more confident dealing with currencies, languages and cultures, I flagged the buses and went off the beaten track and got to places where I was the only tourist. One day I realised I only had a couple of hundred bucks left, so I headed back to the bus circuit and to the UK to find work.

I went to London and worked in a bar before travelling again. I remember Nice being a bit scary. We were approached by a group of Moroccan kids who wanted to sell us drugs. When we said we didn't want any they got pretty aggressive. With two of us and 10 of them, it was one of those moments when you realise you could easily get into serious trouble.

I've always had a soft spot for marine mammals and had a life-changing experience when my wife and I went to Tonga to swim with humpback whales. Getting in the water, I saw this massive humpback whale sleeping semi-suspended about 20 or 30 metres down. It was about five metres away when its eye opened and it crested the surface and looked at me and it was just amazing.

Closer to home, I saw a southern right whale with her calf in Goat Island Bay. I took the kayak and paddled around them as they were lolling around underwater. Another time, we were walking along the coastal track when someone said there were orca at Matheson's Bay. We got home, got the kayak and hauled it down to the beach, I put my son in his lifejacket and we paddled with four orca in the shallows of Matheson's Bay. My poor little son was terrified, but I knew he'd thank me later.

Travelling so young really helped me appreciate New Zealand and part of me always thought I'd get into tourism. I started Gulf Eco Adventures, and we've been operating for almost a year, taking people to remote islands in the Hauraki Gulf where we go snorkelling, kayaking and paddle boarding. Wildlife is a big part of what we do, we have such beautiful coastline, the water's so clear and we see a lot of marine life. I love what I do, and it feels like I'm making a real difference, opening people's eyes to conservation.

Further information: See gulfecoadventures.co.nz