It is deep winter and seven miles of heaving sea and weather obscure the mainland; the pin-lights of civilization fading slowly into the lowering sky. Shreds of snow lie about as if grated sparingly over the islands - sitting in the ruts of the grass but melted from the rocks. It’s twenty degrees, sunny, and blowing fifteen knots from the Northwest. A young male eider duck sits on a rock, his feathers still somewhat blotchy but with the bold black and white pattern becoming visible beneath. He looks about as he grooms, seeming thoroughly pleased, and I can’t help wondering what he’s thinking or experiencing. If this were a cartoon, the bubble over my large-brained head would contain a question mark as I watch him; the bubble over the eider's, perhaps just an exclamation point. Who’s to say what’s better, but I suspect…
A seal scouts the water of the inner harbor, pushing a snout wave, keeping a low profile. She ducks, and simply disappears… no flash of a long dark body, no other glimpse. I hold my breath for a moment watching, and then remember that I’m not underwater… and I breathe again.
As the winter caretaker on Star Island for over twenty years, I’ve watched the animals here for a long time. I’ve seen many different species crowd in amongst each other during storms - weathering them together. I know that bathing ducks can inspire gulls, and before you know it there can be a large crowd of flopping, flapping, feathered bodies filling a large swath of the harbor, and the contagion of their exuberance always makes me laugh. I’ve even seen a snowy owl inspired to bathe in the same puddle that sandpipers had just enjoyed.
I’ve been asked if I ever get lonely, if the “solitude” of winters here on the Isles of Shoals might not be a bit too much. It isn’t and here’s why: Even though there are no people, there is still community. The snowy owl sits atop a nearby roof watching the scene just as I watch from my perch on this rocking chair. I walk the islands among animals who take note of me as they would any other living inhabitant. I am respectful of their space, and they become accepting of my near and harmless presence. Seals, ducks, geese, gulls, sandpipers, owls, muskrats… and me.
If their fellowship inspires in me a fuller sense of connection, of shared experience and – ultimately – of contentment, then these animals are my community; those waves too, these rocky islands.
Alexandra de Steiguer
Alex worked as crew aboard research and sailing school ships for many years when she first started photographing the sea. She now lives and works as the caretaker on the Isles of Shoals each winter, and has been photographing these islands for many years during the deserted winter months. All of her images have been personally hand developed and printed in her darkroom. Because of the traditional methods used, each image has its own unique qualities. They are printed, mounted and matted to archival standards and have been signed, dated and numbered.