Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt (all photography by Sib O’Connor).
Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt (all photography by Sib O’Connor).

SocietyJune 15, 2024

Photo essay: In Case of Emergency, portraits of a haunting and beautiful polar world

Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt (all photography by Sib O’Connor).
Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt (all photography by Sib O’Connor).

I joined an expedition to South Georgia island, a remote and ecologically vulnerable place, with camera in hand. This is what I saw.

In October of 2023, I was one of 22 “Inspiring Explorers” who ventured to remote South Georgia, a sub-antarctic island, as part of the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s Inspiring Explorer programme, with support from Royal Society Te Apārangi and Te Ratonga Tirorangi MetService. The expedition connects young people with the spirit of exploration, encourages them to explore the world, and creates ambassadors for the Trust’s work to conserve the historic explorer bases of Scott, Shackleton, and Sir Edmund Hillary.

In this photo series, I’ll takes you along for the ~9,000km ride.

It feels dystopian to stare through a camera viewfinder with so much life right in front of me, particularly when such sights of bountiful biodiversity are increasingly rare. We can all relate to being inhibited by technology in places deserving of our undivided attention, and South Georgia is definitely one of them.

This incredible opportunity comes with a responsibility to tether the feelings, sights, and lessons from South Georgia to our communities back in Aotearoa. While many have looked through the lens of a camera, not everyone has a chance to stare into a penguin’s eyes or witness a towering iceberg in person. Everyone deserves the opportunity to connect with the raw state of climate and biodiversity through more than graphs, politically charged narratives, and dissociating discourse.

Officially, I’m part of the video outreach team on this expedition, and yet the allure of photography has already taken over. At the push of a button, physical moments are frozen and packaged up for more people to connect with, contemplate, and interpret from afar. While robbing it of the dynamism video content allows, the stillness of a photograph leaves space for our minds to seek possibility beyond a predefined reality. When it comes to exploring themes of hope and fear in the climate and biodiversity crises, this space is a welcome and necessary respite.

This is my personal lens on South Georgia, a place that continues to teach me about our inextricable connections to the polar world and to one another. Themes of hope and fear naturally emerge from her shores, mountains, species, and explorers.

Pick a Side



Our first landing on this remote island introduces us to two penguins poetically posing in parallel. Their contrasting postures make me think of the choice each of us has: to proactively look forward through a life of action (left) or bury our heads in the sand and opt for one of ignorance (right). A choice not offered to all.

Fog and Mirrors



It can be quite overwhelming to make sense of our place and responsibilities in the world amidst compounding crises. The waters between individual and collective action have been fogged by those with vested interests in keeping them separate. The former is lonely and less effective, keeping the cogs turning in an unviable and inequitable system. The latter is filled with hope and the building blocks for everything we need to turn this ship around and head for calmer waters (10 metre swells are not for everyone, as many on our expedition came to realise).

Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt



I will not exhaust the details and severity of climate change or biodiversity loss because we have known enough to warrant immediate action for a long time. We are approaching our 29th year of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP). Three decades of conversations later, and our relationship with nature (including one another) remains in desperate need of a fundamental paradigm shift.

Red Flag



Many quotidian things in life humble us. Sprinting after the bus you missed, your friend spontaneously smashing out a marathon, or dying on a hill for an argument you realise midway through you’re definitely on the wrong side of. Then, there are the more philosophical examples presented by species and places that make us feel insignificant, like the random assortment of atoms and cells that we are.

In a world where we have perilously positioned ourselves at the centre point, seeking true perspective is one of the most important things we can do. It is a paradox that we are individually so small and yet collectively so large. This is where our power and pitfalls exist in curious conflict; like red flags plonked into an ethereal landscape.

Comedy of the Commons



In the late 1900s, the Comedy of the Commons posed the question of what would happen if we contributed knowledge to the good of the community more than we extracted “resources” for ourselves. Humans played the ultimate role in last century’s wide-scale depletion of species in South Georgia in a classic case of the Tragedy of the Commons (over-exploitation of a common “resource”). Only when the local whaling industry became economically unviable did humans cease hunting in South Georgia. But we don’t always have to wait for this exploitative and reactive inevitability.

On the flip side, we are now playing a role in the epic comeback of such species through predator-free initiatives, ongoing scientific monitoring, and storytelling for the public good. There is no immediate economic gain from its protection (except for the likes of visiting tourism operations), suggesting humans have reshaped our relationship with nature here to be one of contribution more than extraction.

This slice of a rookery provides a glimpse into an abundant future that is possible. To witness hundreds of thousands of animals such as King Penguins, Southern Elephant Seals, and Giant Petrels, existing in their chaotic beachside CBD with unfamiliar (and sometimes brutal) etiquette reminds me that community is more than the mere ability to co-exist. It is about compromise, connection, and collaboration over a shared goal; in this case, survival.

Three Wise Pen(guins)



As these three king penguins approach me and assume their self-initiated photoshoot positions, I wonder what they would say if I could follow up with an interview. They provided the pose, but interpreting their dialogue is up to us.

Melting Man



The final resting place of a personified iceberg. This was once part of Antarctica’s Ronne Ice Shelf before calving into iceberg A76A, the largest in the world at the time, measuring 135 km by 25 km (Just under the size of South Georgia at 165 km by 35 km). Three years later, its components sit stagnant in these waters; perhaps this one is contemplating what else it could have done to prevent its own peril?

A fellow explorer retrieves a small piece of detached ice to take back to the boat for closer inspection. Our feelings of loss and grief are quickly challenged by the presence of abundant microscopic life existing in its form. Even in their dying days, such pieces of Antarctica still bring offerings of new life.

Day in the Life



To be taken seriously by the locals, our fragile human bodies are covered head-to-toe in anthropocentric innovation. Sub-zero clothing has to compensate for our lack of evolutionary prowess in this environment that is intolerant of anything less. Settling for mimicry, I try to imagine an elephant seal perched at an office job for some reassurance that every species has its limits.

Yin & Yang



I witness several penguins waddling past their decomposing peers with aloof ease, something that is a far cry from my Western-instilled discomfort at an open casket funeral, yet eerily similar to the unsettling human capacity for compartmentalising in times of crisis.

The intricate details of this sleeping penguin mirror the mix of complementary and contrasting feelings that form our perspectives. We can’t ignore our well-warranted fears, but they must be paired with hopeful possibilities. When one is out of balance, as it was for me before this expedition, paralysis may keep us stuck in a perpetual cycle of fear. A monochromatic penguin just doesn’t fit here, and neither do climate doomers or fatal optimists.

Rusted Ranges



Pieces of the past sit stagnant and dismantled in stark contrast to the blubbery bursts of life that regenerated populations of seals and penguins present. How can we courageously venture away from the comforts of our present reality, and toward the confronting chaos of change, just as generations prior have done?

We witness remnants of human exploitation littering the mountainous shores of South Georgia through whale vertebrae and rusting whale processing stations. Grytviken Historic Whaling Station sits as a reminder of the 53,000 whales that were processed at this very location between 1904 and 1965 by British, Norwegian, Argentinian, and Japanese companies. Whales were so prevalent during the first season that their hunters didn’t even have to leave the bay where we anchored to kill them. There are fleeting sights of these ancient beings during our journey, but a far cry from what our ancestors must have witnessed.

Far from Disappointment



While slowly making our way through Drygalski Fjord, we see glaciers creeping into the waters below. Encapsulated by remarkable feats of nature, we are positioned in a perfect pocket for pondering. Nearby sits Cape Disappointment, inappropriately named by Captain James Cook in 1775 as he realised the island was not another continent to colonise (a failure many may wish had been replicated elsewhere).

South Georgia was casually claimed by Cook and the British until formal enforcement almost 70 years later, and has been officially recognised as disputed territory since 1927. Geographically nearby, Argentina remains steadfast in its political intention to recover the Islas Malvinas/ Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands from the British following attempts in the 1982 war.

Claws Out



Nine hundred thousand king penguins are scattered around South Georgia’s shores, forming numerous rookeries that aren’t too dissimilar from our own residential hubs. Established highways keep up the freedom of movement, crèches keep fluffy newcomers safe, and waste is not effectively managed (need I say more?).

It’s easy to get caught up in the big stuff, but these feathers reaching from within the ice encourage me to stop for a closer look. Pieces of our collective form the claws with which we might climb out of crises, and it’s a great reminder to look for a way out in even the most unsuspecting of places.

Survival Sleep



If there’s one animal that grasps the concept of a good snooze, it’s the elephant seal. Embracing rest without guilt about capitalist-driven notions of productivity reinforces the fact that we are humans, not just modes of production. We have needs that extend far beyond our capacity for work, and rest is right up there with the most important.

Lurking Below



Sailing through icebergs, it’s clear that a lot that lurks below the surface here. Much of the island’s biodiversity is hidden from the human eye, and not everything needs to be witnessed to be worthy of our consideration.

Here, a scientific instrument is deployed to assist our Te Ratonga Tirorangi MetService Science team gather oceanographic data. Such data is only as useful as its application, which is why pairing such scientific understanding with artistic outreach is so important for real-world influence.

Window to the Wise



During the expedition, we dodge sleeping seals, stand beneath the flight of pintail duck flocks, wait patiently to cross penguin highways, and witness cracks forming in architectural ancient ice. We oscillate through time and contemplate what the future of exploration requires of us 100 years on from Ernest Shackleton’s death.

Now I’m settled back home in Aotearoa, High Pathogenicity Avian Influenza has begun to claim its first victims in South Georgia and Antarctica. New Zealand is one of the last places in the world to remain free from HPAI, but our beloved feathered friends will not be immune forever. With a few human cases of HPAI emerging, perhaps neither will we.

A Covid-19 response lecture during our journey from expedition special guest and patron of Antarctic Heritage Trust, former prime minister Helen Clark, spoke to the importance of proactive, collaborative responses in times of crisis. It also emphasised the need to focus on building social cohesion. It is a humbling reminder of the intersecting roles of politics, science, and civil society in securing a future for those to come.




Despite how it feels sometimes, none of us are alone in this. Forever connected to a beautifully complex web of life on, in, and around us means we never will be. The present state of climate and biodiversity can often elicit fear, but the very presence of a community with shared values and visions for the future can balance this paralysing feeling with a demonstration of hope.

Conversations over the dinner table during this expedition point to the diversity of thought and action that are required of us for the journey ahead. Candid explorations of our places in the world become part of the symphony of clinking glasses and knives and forks. No one person has answers, but it becomes evident we all hold a few clues.

You can purchase Fine Art Prints or explore more of Siobhan’s work at

Keep going!