Diving into New Zealand's 'most inaccessible places' in new virtual educational experience

From the pristine Poor Knights Islands to the pollution-muddied Hauraki Gulf, an engaging new project is allowing Kiwis to immerse themselves in New Zealand's environment.

NZ VR launched earlier this week, a collaboration between New Zealand Geographic and the Sir Peter Blake Trust.

Captivating 360 videos were filmed in a variety of unusual locations and now, they're free for anyone to take a look.

"Everybody understands their world best when they can experience it for themselves," NZ Geographic's James Frankham told Newshub.

"I think that VR [virtual reality] is uniquely powerful in reconnecting us with our natural world. It doesn't matter whether [the location] is fragile or really hard to access - anyone can get there on their phone, or their iPad."

Students at Kedgley Intermediate check out the VR headsets.
Students at Kedgley Intermediate check out the VR headsets. Photo credit: Newshub.

While people can check it out on their phones, tablets or computers, the footage really shines through virtual reality headsets. Filmed underwater, the 360 videos let viewers swim with whales and relax with stingrays - all from the comfort of their own home.

"Being able to transport New Zealanders, from where they are now to some of our wildest, most inaccessible, fragile places, is why VR is so powerful," Mr Frankham said.

Screenshot from a VR video of dolphins swimming around and in front of the viewer.
The immersive videos travel to parts of New Zealand most Kiwis never go. Photo credit: NZ Geographic / Supplied

Kelly Bleakley, head of community engagement at the Sir Peter Blake Trust, told Newshub they want to continue the Kiwi explorer's educational legacy.

"He wanted people to experience the wonder of the environment and be inspired to take care of it," she said.

"It's pretty amazing, the kids get blown away when they get to experience it. Some of them have never been to the ocean, let alone see what's under the surface."

Kelly Bleakley, head of community engagement at the Sir Peter Blake Trust.
Kelly Bleakley, head of community engagement at the Sir Peter Blake Trust. Photo credit: Newshub.

For its launch, NZ VR was brought into south Auckland's Kedgley Intermediate, a decile two school. It was a dream come true for some of the students who spent the morning virtually diving in New Zealand marine reserves.

At one point, the students ducked for cover, seeing a shark slowly cruising over their head.

"It looked really realistic," one student told Newshub.

Ms Bleakley said while they hope to bring the full virtual experience, headsets and all, into as many schools as they can, making the videos and other educational material publicly available helps more students get involved across the country.

"We hope that students get to really experience and fall in love with the environment, and get some actions that they can take to help protect it."

New Zealand Geographic's James Frankham.
New Zealand Geographic's James Frankham. Photo credit: Newshub.

For these students, it was an experience like no other.

"I liked the stingrays - it was close and it was a beautiful sight. I want to see one in real life," one girl told Newshub.

Mr Frankham is hopeful the experiences will make a positive difference.

"The process of reconnection builds empathy, and it's a way that we can value our natural world more, care for it better and understand the mechanisms that govern it better."

The interactive VR videos can be found on New Zealand Geographic's website.