When Rosemary Currie sees the sea, she imagines a coastline put to use transforming our well-being and appearance. A place where thalassotherapy centres dispense treatments and skincare using what the underwater world offers.
"My passion for the sea goes back a very long way," says the elegant veteran of the New Zealand beauty industry. "My grandparents were lighthouse keepers around New Zealand." With a grandmother who collected and ate seaweed, it is no wonder that Currie is happy to immerse herself in its extracts.
She is a leading advocate of marine-based skincare and distributes it to spas and beauty salons across the country through the aptly named Infinisea company she founded with husband Ken.
After 45 years in the beauty business - she began in pharmacies, he in the pharma-ceutical trade - the couple's distribution business is seeing growing interest in skincare with marine ingredients, including the long-established French brand Thalgo, which they have championed for 25 years.
The brand may not have the retail name recognition factor here of the pricy La Mer, but there are now 200 trained Thalgo therapists in New Zealand and it is widely used in luxury hotel spas overseas. This includes the Hotel Royal Thalasso Barriere at La Baule, on the coast of Brittany, where the bulk of France's marine algae is harvested.
Places such as this in Europe, and now Indonesia, are what have given Currie her ambitious visions.
"I look around our beautiful nation and see key areas where thalassotherapy could be a huge earner."
In Nelson and Northland, she envisages luxury facilities where customers could book to enjoy a week of sea-based cures and marine cuisine.
Taking the waters has a long history, stretching back to the Greeks and Romans, and has recognised health benefits. Here we have thermal facilities, but not the sea-based ones that thalassotherapy is about.
Currie says setting up a genuine thalassotherapy centre would cost at least $35 million. Often they are sited hundreds of metres from the coast, with water pumped in, warmed to body temperature and filtered into bathing pools
In France, doctors prescribe algal extracts in various guises, and Currie says mineral-rich marine algae stands out as being that rare thing, a 100 per cent natural product endorsed in a French medical textbook.
It can penetrate capillaries and help remineralise the skin, she says, and is promoted overseas beauty-wise as a treatment for anything from dandruff, to acne and oily skin to soft cellulite.
"It smells a bit like the tide has gone out, but you can add essential oils," she notes.
The sort of algal extract that ends up in skincare has the same natural origins - typically grown in seaside ponds, harvested and sun-dried - but it is much refined. In Thalgo's case, rather than simply being crushed, as is the norm, the dried algae is put in a wind-tunnel and micronised for easier absorption.
Researchers have identified more than 50 forms of exclusive ingredients. The company's research head works with the University of Marseilles and Currie says the French have looked at New Zealand as a source of marine-based beauty bounty.
New Zealanders are starting to the do the same. Wellington-based company Obiqo is making skincare, mostly exported to North America and increasingly Asia, that uses a local brown kelp extract taken under licence from pristine waters off the East Cape.
Obiqo was set up by Phillippa Fletcher after she returned from a long stint overseas where she was awakened to the potential of combining European anti-ageing expertise with nutrient-rich kelp.
"I love the fact that marine ingredients, particularly seaweeds, have been used in beauty products for thousands of years, and modern research enables us to understand why the skin responds so well to them. In addition, the use of peptide technology in some of our marine ingredients enables the goodness to more easily penetrate the skin."
Fletcher says that although securing retail outlets here has not been a business focus, she thinks New Zealanders are open to the value of marine ingredients and through a few outlets she has developed a loyal following.
Currie says marine-based skincare is here to stay and the dietary and beauty benefits of the likes of fish oils are not yet fully appreciated. Not surprisingly, she also sees a bright future for an expanded aqua-culture industry.
As well as harvesting our unique species such as paua and green-lipped mussel, she says fish oils are another area ripe for development. Fish oil supplements are better tolerated by many people, she says, than flax seed oil.
New Zealanders, with their sun-damaged, lipid-dry skin, have much to gain from the balancing effects of marine ingredients, she maintains.
These are less likely to cause allergic reactions and unlike some plant-based ingredients they have not been exposed to pesticides. Her own beautifully maintained skin helps explain her enthusiasm, but the affinity with the sea, runs deep.
"We are a giant aquarium - we are 75 per cent water," she laughs.