Our award-winning environmental educators introduce thousands of Kiwi kids to the underwater world
November 26, 2019

Annika Andresen and Courtney Davies have spent 2019 winning awards – and winning thousands of fans for the marine environment.

The environmental educators have taken BLAKE’s groundbreaking virtual reality programme in to almost 100 schools across Auckland this year. Launched in February, NZ-VR is BLAKE’s newest student outreach programme. Through a partnership with New Zealand Geographic, it utilises rich 360˚ footage of marine environments around the Hauraki Gulf and Northland. Children wear virtual reality (VR) headsets to explore the world beneath the ocean’s surface.

Annika says while many children they’ve met this year have never been to the beach, almost all of them have tried VR technology before and are enthusiastic about getting the headsets on. For those unfamiliar with the ocean, or hesitant about water, the VR programme offers an exciting and non-confrontational introduction to marine environments.

As if juggling kids and technology isn’t exhausting enough, both women have this year been recognised for their extra-curricular contributions to the community.

The judges noted that she had been a BLAKE Antarctic Ambassador, working on conservation efforts on Sir Edmund Hillary’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition Hut, and that she had given substantial voluntary time over many years to causes such as the Northern NZ Seabird Trust and Ghost Fishing NZ.Annika won the young leader category at the prestigious 2019 Westpac Women of Influence New Zealand awards.

They were impressed by her enthusiasm for introducing people to ocean environments. Through summers working at Dive!Tutukaka, Annika guided more than 600 divers.

And as president of the Auckland University Underwater Club (only the third woman elected to the top job in 65 years), she oversaw a massive growth in numbers to membership of more than 400 active members.

“I like to just help out and volunteer, and have a few things on,” she says.

Annika, 25, says her Masters in Architecture is not wasted in her work introducing people to the underwater realm. In fact, she did her Masters thesis on using design to better connect people to their environment. In architecture, she set out to change the way people saw an environment – and that’s exactly what she’s doing at BLAKE.In the same 24 hours as she scooped the Women of Influence award, Annika became the first-ever recipient of an international scholarship. She was chosen as the inaugural NextGen Scholar by international not-for-profit Global Underwater Explorers. The scholarship offers Annika a year of free training, travel costs and gear so she can attend courses around the world. She will complete her Cave 1 course in the underwater cave systems of Mexico and Florida, and will pick up other coveted qualifications such as the Tech 1, which covers diving to depths of 50m.

“This is using the skills I learnt in architecture to make a difference. The scientists know what is going on; it’s about translating that for communities. I’m doing work that really is helping and making a difference.”

Annika says she grew up sailing around Northland in a yacht built by her father. She first put on dive gear aged 7, in a metre of water at Kawau Island, and that year she got a tank for Christmas. She’s invigorated by a job which helps her introduce children of a similar age to the ocean.

“A lot of people, when they see the surface, can’t imagine what’s beneath. There are a lot of steps to taking your child snorkelling – it’s not as easy as doing a walk in a forest – but my aim at the end of each class is to convince at least one kid to want to go snorkelling. Association with the ocean breeds empathy for the environment, and then these young explorers will want to protect it.”

Meanwhile, microbiologist Courtney Davies recently won both the Innovation Award and overall Supreme Award in the North Harbour-region AIMES Awards. The awards recognise outstanding young people who are achieving in arts, innovation, music, education, sport and service to the community (AIMES). With the Supreme Award, Courtney won the Sir Peter Blake Trophy and a cash grant – for her work as a microbiologist, cattle breeder and BLAKE environmental educator. Sir Peter was founding patron of the North Harbour Club, which runs the awards.

Courtney, now 23, set up her own Ayrshire cattle stud in 2011, aged 15, having raised cattle since she was 5. She currently has 15 cattle, led by her favourite girl, Inca Bur Piper. Piper has won numerous major A&P Show titles around Auckland enabling Courtney to claim several national titles along the way, but she is also the reason Courtney started looking in to alternatives to antibioti

“Piper had a type of mastitis which was impacting her health and we weren’t seeing a quick response to treatment that antibiotics would have provided in the past.” That was when, with one eye firmly on an antibiotic-resistant future, Courtney started wondering if bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) could be used in place of antibiotics. She bio-engineered lytic phage proteins to a very small biodegradable nanobead, which could be used to help protect healthcare workers in remote locations as a portable antimicrobial. For instance, the mask of someone treating tuberculosis patients could be sprayed with antimicrobial nanobeads, meaning the bacteria would die as soon as it made contact with the mask, as an additional barrier of defence.cs – a field of research in which she has had huge success.

This was the topic of Courtney’s thesis for her Master of Natural Science at Massey University. She received distinction for her thesis and was also crowned the national champion in the coveted 3 Minute Thesis competition for Masters students.

Courtney only arrived home hours before the awards, fresh from the Bayer Youth Ag Summit in Brazil where she represented New Zealand alongside 99 other young innovators from around the globe. Her selection for the Youth Ag Summit followed many awards and accolades throughout her studies. She was a NIWA freshwater Ambassador (a type of BLAKE Ambassador) in the summer of 2016, was the only non-American to attend the Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science Symposium at the Janelia Research Campus in America last year, the first Massey student to ever attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Voices Youth Summit, which was held in Peru in 2017 and was selected last year as the sole New Zealander to participate in the Red Sea Summer Programme of marine biology at KAUST in Saudi Arabia.

Annika and Courtney have recently taught their 20,000th student through BLAKE NZ-VR. Next year, they will expand in to Northland and the Bay of Plenty, as the New Zealand Geographic footage available also expands to cover marine environments within those regions.

“It was a fantastic opportunity to be offered this position a few years after my Ambassador role,” Courtney says. “I thoroughly enjoy science communication and think it is vital that we are educating our next generation on poignant issues and ways to solve them.”