Combining a love for design, environment and marine life with skill and passion


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  • Hamilton
September 30, 2020 Abigail Uttley

If Annika had a superpower, it would be to have gills so she could breathe underwater. This is not surprising considering she was raised on a 30ft yacht, spending summers living on the water with her family. Her favourite hidden gem in Aotearoa would be Cape Brett peninsula, where you can watch the sunset over the Bay of Islands and rise in the morning over the horizon.

Annika had never travelled outside of Aotearoa until she was 19, however, she has made up for this by having now traveled to 17 countries. She also has lived at Scott Base in Antarctica for 6 and a half weeks, working on Sir Edmund Hillary’s Hut. But Aotearoa is still her favourite place!

Annika was the first ever global scholar winner of the NextGen Global Underwater Explorers Scholarship to support her diving and underwater projects. The opportunity to represent New Zealand and females in this global industry was an exciting and awesome experience for her.

Kindly taking time to answer some questions for us, we were delighted to get to learn more about Annika, her achievements and her aspirations. 


After studying a Masters of Architecture, do you relax in the evenings with a Grand Designs episode or two, or does another show grace your TV screen?

To be honest, I don’t watch that much TV, my kind of relaxing would be anywhere outside. But on a rainy day I love to watch design shows like Grand Designs and George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces. I have always been fascinated by design because you are always trying to create a solution and it normally involves thinking outside the box. This is one of the many reasons why I studied architecture, because it’s a form of problem-solving in a creative way and making something better than it was. Architecture involves history, maths, people, their social interactions, and most importantly experience. I must say, I did love watching Lego Masters in lockdown, especially the underwater episode.


You seem to have merged together two spheres that most wouldn’t draw a link between: architecture and marine environment!

How have these two passions and interests partnered together effectively?

It’s always been a dream being able to combine my two passions together. During my time in architectural school, I was constantly weaving the environment into my designs. One of my design papers explored how to design to create experience and atmospheres, which I became really interested in. This inspired me to investigate scientific communication with visual storytelling to enhance knowledge and understanding of our environment in my thesis. When I finished my master’s degree, BLAKE (formally known as the Sir Peter Blake Trust) approached me about their new programme ‘NZ-VR’ that they wanted to launch.

Understanding issues facing our oceans is difficult if you have never had the opportunity to see beneath the surface. Through virtual reality (VR) technology, the BLAKE NZ-VR programme allows students to experience the rich biodiversity that exists below the surface of the ocean, as well as the damage that has been done to the ecosystems. Through this programme, I have been able to combine my passion for design, which allows me to create experiences that enhance people’s understanding of our incredible marine environment. Since starting the programme last year, my colleague and I have taught over 30,000 students across Northland, Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty region. Alice and I are now in the process of creating an extension programme which we will be piloting next term, which is really exciting. Watch this space!


You are passionate about what lies beneath the ocean and strive to encourage the protection of all marine life.

What sparked your interest and involvement in this arena?

I have been extremely lucky to have been raised on a 30ft yacht - spending my summers living on the water with my family, sailing the East Coast of New Zealand. Consequently, I have always seen the ocean as my home, both above and below the surface. From as young as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the underwater world, taking my first breaths underwater at the age of 14. 

After witnessing a constantly changing environment, I have always wanted to share this with the people around me to help build awareness and tackle the wider issues facing our ocean.


You were the President of the Auckland University Underwater Club.

What did this club achieve under your presidency?

In 2016, I was successfully nominated as president, initiating and implementing new ideas to allow the Auckland University Underwater Club to expand and provide more involvement for members. To establish new connections within Auckland’s diving community, we organised a series of presentations, events and a diving safety talk. This was published in the NZ Dive Magazine and New Zealand Underwater Association newsletter. 

The club organised over 100 dive courses for students and our dive safety presentation with the NZ police dive team had 121 participants attending. The club achieved the highest number - of 458 members within a year - during the club's history since 1961.


What are some quick simple goals, or tips, you would share with people who do want to make a positive difference and impact on ocean-life or environmental concerns, but don’t know where to begin or how they as an individual can help our ocean and its occupants?

Remember, we don’t all have to be perfect to make a difference or have an impact. Having some achievable and realistic goals will last longer than becoming overwhelmed and deciding not to do anything.

Some practical ideas include: meat-free Monday, reusable items, period undies or a moon cup, choose more sustainable seafood options, look at how the fish is caught - line and hook is the best method, tree planting, carpool or walk instead, and eating local produce.

Whatever you decide, make it work for you, keep it local, and start small. 

This year, my own personal goal was to only eat seafood I catch, and make my bathroom plastic free.

If every person in the world made a small change, that is 7.5 billion people creating a big difference!

Has the film Jaws, or anything else of similar material, played through your mind during your dives?

I have never been asked this question before but it would be a lie if I said no! It’s hard because those films play on the fear of the unknown, and the ocean is an environment that isn’t our natural habitat - where we are the top predator.

When I was younger, I was really scared of sharks and stingrays and refused to go anywhere near the water if I saw them. It wasn’t until I was working with the sharks and stingrays at Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium where I got to understand these amazing creatures. This understanding turned my fear into love and fascination. Now, if I see them in the water, I am so excited. I have learned to read their behaviour and give them their space. After all, it is their home and I always consider myself lucky to be part of it in these moments. 


If you could change one thing in your lifetime, what would it be?

To remove any fear from someone around the ocean and to reveal how incredible our marine environment is. Through this understanding and connection, my aim would be for everyone to step up and take responsibility to protect our ocean.


Lastly, has anyone guided or supported you so far? Can you share who and how they have helped you?

I have had so many incredible people who have supported me and shaped who I am today. 

My biggest cheerleaders are my parents, who taught me their love for life and passion for the ocean. I watched them give everything for our family, opening their home for anyone that needed it and sharing their love without hesitation. They worked extremely hard to provide for my brothers and I, and we are so grateful for the life they gave us. 

 A special mention to my amazing partner and best friend Josh, who has always been by my side through everything, all my ups and downs and has helped me heal through the last few years. He has the biggest heart and the best cuddles!

And to all of my family, friends and mentors above and below the water, this list could just keep continuing, but I am so grateful for the love they have shared and the belief they all had in me. I would not have been able to do this journey without each and every one of them. 

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