Antarctic adventures

21:38, Feb 17 2009

When Darren Atkin saw an advertisement for a teacher with a sense of adventure, which promised a trip to Antarctica as part of the job, he was quick to apply.

He won the role and began working for Learnz, a Canterbury company that offers virtual field trips to unusual places over its internet website, in July.

Since then, the Rangiora man has been to a Wairarapa dairy farm, the Spring Creek coal mine on the West Coast, and a sheep and cattle farm near Darfield, as well as spending a week tracking kiwi at Mt Bruce in the Wairarapa.

However, his first trip to the ice has been the highlight so far.

"It was virgin territory for me, and part of the reason for applying for the job in the first place,'' Atkin, a former Rangiora High School teacher, said.

"Antarctica is such a difficult place to get to and if you get the opportunity then you just take it.''

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Antarctica is also a popular destination for users of the Learnz website.

Atkin's Antarctic adventure created "massive'' traffic on the internet, with about 3500 students from 130 schools logging on to the Learnz website _ twice as many hits as the company had experienced before.

The expedition was a repeat of a trip that launched Learnz in 1995, when the company's founder, Pete Sommerville, of Prebbleton, made the first of his six journeys to Antarctica.

Atkin actually spent 15 days on the ice, because Antarctic blizzards extended the original 11-day visit and ruled out flights by the United States Air Force Globemaster on which he was travelling.

"It was longer than planned, but at least we were stuck at Scott Base, where it was warm and there was plenty of food.''

A trip to the international Andrill rig on the sea ice was a feature, with telephone links between students logged into Learnz and scientists involved in the drilling project.

Other direct links by telephone and by video-conferencing were made with New Zealand staff at Scott Base and American scientists at McMurdo Station's Crary Lab, named after Dr Albert Crary, the first man to set foot on both the North and South Poles.

"We tried to have as much live contact with students as possible,'' said Atkin, who still sees himself primarily as a teacher, but one who makes science accessible to students.

"To me, the most interesting thing we saw was the drilling site. The rig is only 20m high, yet it has gone down through the ice and the sea and drilled through the seabed rock down a whole kilometre. It's hard to get your head round that and it's such a huge project.''

Atkin likened being in Antarctica to living in a space station, because every time anyone ventures outside they have to put on all the appropriate gear.

"But the cold was a wake-up call. My eyelashes froze together one time, and you're surrounded by blinding whiteness everywhere.''

With a blizzard blowing, the wind chill brought the temperatures down to about -60degC on one occasion.

Atkin said the trip to Antarctica for himself and Learnz founder Sommerville was paid for by the Ministry of Education and Antarctica New Zealand.

English born _ he grew up in Nottingham and came to New Zealand 12 years ago _ Atkin retrained to be a science and physics teacher in Rangiora before moving to his new job with Learnz in July.

He is now preparing for a trip to a wind farm in the Tararua Ranges to film and put material on the Learnz website.