By Helena Kiseleva
Moscow, 23 August 2010. Just some years ago I was an ordinary Russian student. But recently I had an opportunity to become a member of the community that connects young people from all over the world and take part in international environmental expedition led by South African explorer Mike Horn.
Mike is a unique person. He descended a 22-metre waterfall in Costa Rica on inflatable rubber dinghy, completed solo the 20,000 km route around the Arctic Circle, subjugated the Himalayas without an oxygen mask... These are just a few of his achievements.
In 2008, Mike Horn started a worldwide voyage called the Pangaea taking young explorers with him. The main idea is to unite young people from different countries who are passionate about environment and want to make a difference in their communities and beyond.
At first, his team chooses sixteen guys between the ages of 15 and 20 thanks to their applications (pangaea-yep.com) to the selection camp in Switzerland. Then, eight or nine of them join Mike Horn's expedition at various points.
So, in late January 2010, I was selected as a young explorer, and together with young people from Switzerland, Germany, Italy, India, USA, Australia and South Africa departed for the Andaman Islands, India.
The Andaman Islands, located in the Bay of Bengal, can be called "the pearl of India". In former times Marco Polo, a famous Italian trader and traveller, reported that little cannibals with dog muzzles inhabited these islands. When India became a colony of British, many political prisoners were exiled to the Andamans.
These days, some of the islands remain uninhabited, while the others – like Port Blair where we found ourselves in the first day of the expedition - remind us of the 60s era with oriental fragrances in the air. Having discovered the yacht Pangaea, our new home for the next twelve days, we have prepared for the incredible adventure.
Focus on ecology
One of the most significant plants of the Andamans is the mangrove, the tree that grows in saline coastal habitats. As an important part of local biodiversity, they protect coastal areas from erosion, tsunamis, and hurricanes as well as host different kinds of fish and crustaceans.
Some mangroves were damaged by the destructive tsunami in 2004. At the same time, human impact worsened the situation: plastic bottles and packets that accumulate on the shores become a challenge. We tried to do our best to clean up the beaches, but of course, this problem could not be solved without help of the locals.
The Andaman & Nicobar environmental team or ANET, an environmental NGO, assisted us in our exploration of the islands. Each of us, the young explorers, got an opportunity to feel like a child of the jungles: we came to be in the heart of the tropical rainforest full of lizards, spiders and frogs. Some of the creatures we met were endemic.
Every year ANET welcomes volunteers to join their environmental projects like mangroves study, biodiversity documentation or rural environment education. Also the team pays a lot of attention to underwater research. It seems that the Andaman Islands were created specially for lovers of snorkelling and scuba diving: there is an abundance of different types of corals, sea cucumbers and fish. I was delighted to witness them with my own eyes.
Under the direction of Mike Horn and his team we enjoyed snorkelling and then started to learn scuba diving. For a person who had never tried it before, it was extremely exciting, but at that moment unbelievably scary. However, in a several days we dived with 16 metres depth and even had a night diving.
As a part of research, we divided into diving groups, and each team searched and counted different inhabitants of marine world.
Just for a day we were back into civilization. Havelock island is one of the most beautiful places on Earth I ever saw: there are snow-white beaches, giant palms, exotic flowers. The real paradise! But trash has reached this place as well. In order to promote an understanding of the environmental problems of the local community, we visited a secondary school and gave a speech about the Pangaea expedition and how to get involved.
One of the most incredible parts of the expedition has to do with Barren Island. After a long sail, the yacht approached that unique place, the only confirmed active volcano in South Asia. The most recent eruption started in May 2008 and still continues. We had to spend one night near the island and slept on the deck of Pangaea as usual, but the volcano gave us a surprise. At 2am in the morning a black sandy dust covered the boat in view of a new eruption!
New destination to Calcutta
Some days later we left Pangaea and said good-bye to the Andaman Islands: a flight to Calcutta was waiting for us. Our next point was the Sundarbans National Park, famous as a tiger reserve and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Now about 274 Royal Bengal tigers live there but they are not in a hurry to meet with man, although they can watch him. Locals even have a saying: “If you don't see a tiger, a tiger sees you”. We navigated down the channel on a small boat. Although we didn't manage to see any tiger, our team had a chance to watch a crocodile, deers, monkeys and birds of all sizes and colours.
On the way to Calcutta we walked through the villages, got to know the locals, tried different types of transport like Indian tuk-tuk, boat and train, and tasted glorious food. I completely fell in love with Indians.
The last day of the expedition was spent in Calcutta, visiting Udayan Care, an NGO focused on working with children who have suffer from leprosy. Unfortunately, in some parts of India this disease is still widespread.
On the whole the Pangaea expedition taught me that there are no limits for human responsibilities: even a small group can act and try to make a difference. We came back from India over six months ago, but our team keeps developing the ideas of possible environmental projects on the Andaman Islands.
Our work for a better environment isn't over. It is just the beginning.
Photography by Dmitri Sharomov
Check out Pangaea's Young Explorer Programme
Read related article on Gaia Discovery on Mike Horn.
Helena Kiseleva is a fourth year student of journalism department of Moscow State University, Russia. She was part of the Pangaea expedition to India led by South African explorer Mike Horn and ambassador of this project in Baikal Lake, Syberia. In 2010, she was the best student of Russia («Obuchenie i kariera»magazine competition). Helena is interested in environmental issues, international relations, volunteering, foreign languages and cultures (especially Southeast Asia).
Contact Helena Kiseleva: hkiseleva AT gmail AT com