x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Dubai pupils thrill to Antarctic chills

Ten teens took a two-week environmental expedition to Antarctica last month with the first man to walk both the north and south poles, Robert Swan.

Nargish Khambatta, in brown jacket, the principal at Gems Modern Academy with Grade 12 students Anvi Bahl (from left) Priyanjali Guha, Shruti Manglik, Pooja Balaji, Isaac Joy, Sarthak Kumar, Devashish Diddi, Poojitha Janarthanan and Shivangi of Gem students who have returned from a trip to Antartica. Ravindranath K / The National
Nargish Khambatta, in brown jacket, the principal at Gems Modern Academy with Grade 12 students Anvi Bahl (from left) Priyanjali Guha, Shruti Manglik, Pooja Balaji, Isaac Joy, Sarthak Kumar, Devashish Diddi, Poojitha Janarthanan and Shivangi of Gem students who have returned from a trip to Antartica. Ravindranath K / The National

DUBAI // The moment she saw large pieces of ice and snow break off from a summit and drop down a steep cliff below, Pooja Balaji quietly panicked.

The 16-year-old had been descending the frozen slope in Antarctica after completing a four-hour climb to the top, roped together with nine classmates from Gems Modern Academy. They had just concluded a flag-raising exercise at the peak.

“On the way down, I was very unsure of my footing,” said Pooja, who is a Grade 12 pupil.

One wrong step and she risked finding herself knee-deep in snow, or possibly worse.

“You could see the rocks rolling down the cliff, and it was a sharp drop. It was just whoop,” she said. “That’s when I kind of came to terms with my mortality and the fact that any day can be your last and that we only get one chance at this, so make the most of it.”

Making the most of life is one of many lessons the pupils said they took home after their week-long trek to Antarctica last month.

The expedition was led by Robert Swan, a British explorer and environmental leader known for being the first man to have walked to the north and south poles. The pupils were inspired by Mr Swan’s campaign to protect the area after he gave a motivational talk at their school about his adventures and subsequent 2041 initiative.

Named after the year that the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty could potentially be threatened, 2041 aims to encourage younger generations to preserve Antarctica. The treaty designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”, by restricting human activity and prohibiting exploitation of its mineral resources.

“The class above was supposed to go but they couldn’t go, but they were so determined to make it happen for this lot, they organised the entire thing,” said the Gems principal, Nargish Khambatta, who accompanied the pupils.

The senior pupils who were unable to take the trip won praise for organising events to raise the funds and sponsorship needed to send their 10 classmates on the expedition.

“It’s because of them that we are here, because they are the ones who started this process,” said Priyanjali Guha, 17.

The pupils were selected from a group of 120 who had to complete a quiz, make a two-minute presentation on why they should be chosen for the trip and pass a final interview conducted by school leaders.

They winners spent their Saturdays building up stamina and strength through physical training at the school. They climbed Ski Dubai and hiked in the rugged Shawka region.

Still, nothing could prepare them for the rough seas of the Drake Passage – the body of water between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica – where they were buffeted by hurricane-force winds.

“The waves were so high, they would crash up to deck four,” said Poojitha Janarthanan, 16.

But the pupils said the bumpy ride was thrilling. “We were really stupidly excited,” said Anvi Bahl, 17.

From there, the journey only got better. They slept under the stars one night as curious penguins waddled around them. In the morning, they were surprised by humpback whales. The youngsters jumped into Zodiac inflatable boats to get a closer look.

“When we were out there, there was this one particular humpback whale who just kept on going around and round and round our boat for about 45 minutes,” said Shruti Manglik, 16. “The whale would go under our Zodiac, and I think at a time it was like we were practically on the entire whale.”

The pupils said they developed a new appreciation for nature and the need to protect the environment. They came home armed with ideas on how to promote conservation and recycling in their school so that it could be a model green school for other schools to follow.

“They’ve come back so passionate, they’ve totally come back inspired,” said Mrs Khambatta. “They made a pact. They said that if we forget about Antarctica, we’re going to remind each other and we need to make sure that we are on track and we’re going to execute this.”

rpennington@thenational.ae