A Sarawakian in the Antarctic
EVER WONDERED HOW it would feel to be in the Antarctic? Some – most? – may be afraid to even think about it, while others may be excited to know what an extremely cold and desolate place like the Antarctic is like, and would be keen on learning something that can’t be found anywhere else and definitely out of their comfort zones.
For Helena Erin Dodge-Wan, 20, her experience in the Antarctic was such a fantastic opportunity that she will always remember and be thankful for.
Held from March 8 – 21, the expedition to the Antarctic jointly organised by Prudential Assurance Malaysia Bhd (PAMB) and Prudential BSN Takaful Bhd (PruBSN) gave her the experience of a lifetime, and it all began with her friend who had introduced her to the PRU4Antarctica contest that ran from Oct 7 – Dec 3 last year and told her that she had what it took to win it.
Born in England, Helena is the youngest of two children and is of Berawan (her father hails from Long Terawan) and British parentage. She grew up in Miri and is currently studying Medical Bioscience at Monash University Malaysia.
Inspired by her parents, Helena was taught to have a good work ethic, since both of her parents are incredibly hardworking. They are the backbone supporting her and her brother in their interests.
Before she applied for the PRU4Antarctica Contest to join the International Antarctic Expedition (IAE) 2014, she already displayed determination and leadership as she has always been active in extra-curricular activities and leadership opportunities from high school to university.
In pre-university, she joined the Student Action Team at Sunway College which organised events for fellow students. “Now in university, I volunteer to help with events such as orientation week for incoming new students and last year was elected to be the School of Science representative in the student association.”
To join the competition, Helena submitted a 50-word essay to PRU4Antarctica Contest listing the reasons why she should be picked to join the IAE2014 team that would make the 14-day expedition, among them being her love of science, “in addition to my hopes for becoming a better leader and helping others to believe in their dreams.”
When she advanced to the semi-final round,she had to submit a video to convince the judges that she had what it took to make it, which for her, was her passion for science and her leadership capabilities.
She progressed to the final round and was shocked when she found out she had won the competition despite many other great semi-finalists but she was very excited to join the expedition under the leadership of Robert Swan who was the first person to walk to both the North and South Poles.
Besides an advocate for the protection of Antarctica and renewable energy, Swan is also the founder of 2041, a company which is dedicated to the preservation of the Antarctic.
“Robert Swan is an amazing example of excellent leadership. He had achieved so much in his life in so many aspects but he is still very down to earth and approachable. He really knows how to motivate everyone and keep the team focused and thinking positively. Some of the best advice he gave me was that the best way to spread motivation and inspire change is through a positive message,” Helena said when interviewed by The Borneo Post SEEDS.
Besides Helena, the other two Malaysian finalists were Paul Koh Zhu Kwang, 22, a freelance photographer and Faisal Ariff, 31, a finance manager and volunteer with Mercy Malaysia. The three young Malaysians were among 88 members from 27 countries who made up the IAE2014 team.
“We left Kuala Lumpur late at night around midnight and we were so excited. We spent a good portion of the flight talking about what we hoped to experience on the trip and how incredibly excited we were,” she said.
With stopovers in Dubai and Rio de Janeiro, they reached the start of their journey in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world surrounded by peaks and glaciers.
“Once we landed, I think it really sank in the fact that we were very close to reaching some of the southernmost parts of the world!”
From there on, the day-to-day programme during the trip to the Antarctic mainly consisted of excursions and hikes where they got to see lots of Antarctic wildlife including the Orca, Humpback and Minke whales, Gentoo penguins, leopard seals, Antarctic fur seals, Weddell and Crabeater seals. They also had talks on sustainability, environmental action as well as leadership building.
For Helena, “The biggest highlight of the trip was definitely getting up and close with a humpback whale. A humpback whale that we had been observing came up to our group and circled our boats for over an hour. It was such a sight to behold the huge yet graceful creature in its natural habitat being so curious and friendly with humans.
While she describes herself as quite a shy and reserved person, the experience had taught Helena to be a bit more vocal and to come out of her comfort zone. For her, the most important trait required to be a part of IAE2014 was not physical but mental strength and the belief in one’s self.
To get herself mentally prepared for the trip, Helena read up on the history of various polar explorers who journeyed to Antarctica such as Robert Swan and Roald Amundsen. Learning about the bravery of these pioneers got her very excited about the trip although she was quite fearful about being away from home and being among people she had never met. Fortunately, everyone she met was interesting and welcoming.
When asked what she learned from the expedition, she said that, “The greatest lesson that I have learnt during the expedition is that it is vitally important to have a positive mindset because it is the most valuable thing to have.”
Along the expedition, Helena learnt that everyone was stronger than they realised; that they all had the potential to work towards and achieve their personal goals and that nothing was impossible if they persevered to overcome challenges.
“Some of my goals in life are to continue my education and hopefully complete a Master’s and a PhD in a science-related field. Education is such an important part of working for a bright future!” she added.
When asked how her journey on IAE2014 will inspire the youth of Malaysia, she said: “I hope that my journey on IAE2014 will inspire and teach Malaysian youth to believe in their dreams and work towards achieving them as they may often doubt their capabilities when instead they should be building and improving themselves. I also hope that they would realise that there is a bigger world out there with problems and issues that they need to be aware about because in the end it will affect them too.”
On one of their very last days, heading back to Argentina from Antarctica, their ship passed a massive iceberg. Swan called them out on deck to observe it and explain that it very likely came from a melting glacier.
“Most of us were quiet as we watched this huge block of ice floating in the sea and it was a very visual reminder that climate change is a very real problem for us all.”
Photos credits: Helena Erin Dodge-Wan and Paul Koh of Kezerk Imaging.