You will recall, I recently wrote about an adventure I participated in, with One Ocean Expeditions, to our Maritime Provinces. One aspect of this trip was most moving for me, for I have felt the urge, almost the need, to visit one marvelous place for most of my adult life. I’m not sure really why, as it is only a narrow strip of land stuck well out in the Atlantic Ocean. I knew a lot about it, from my reading, but really wasn’t prepared for how I would feel when I finally got there.
Sable Island is administratively part of Nova Scotia, but is separated by a vast expanse of ocean. It is a protected National Park Preserve overseen by Parks Canada staff. Likely discovered in the early 1500s, many explorers have visited it and many have perished as it is a dangerous obstacle to sailing vessels, appearing as if out of nowhere in the north Atlantic. Over 350 shipwrecks have been documented off its remote shores.
A brief attempt at French colonization at the end of the 16th century failed, but the island was inhabited sporadically by sealers, shipwreck survivors, and salvagers thereafter. A rescue station was established here in the 1800s to help survivors of shipwrecks find safety and cover, while they awaited rescue.
Sable Island is a narrow, crescent-shaped sandbar, with a surface area of about 34 km2 and measures 42 km in length, with an average width of < 1 km. Due to its location, it is frequently buffeted with intense storms and extreme fog. There are several freshwater ponds on the south side of the island that attract shorebirds and some waterfowl. A former lake (Lake Wallace) has now filled in due to shifting sands. Marram grass dominates the landscapes and only one tree survives on this island!
Harbour and Gary Seals breed on the island in the thousands. Historically, sadly, a walrus colony was extirpated by hunters. One of the island’s other claims to fame is being the only place in the world where the Ipswich form of the Savannah Sparrow breeds.
But the real draw is the fact that over 550 free-roaming and fully protected horses live here! Their origin is unknown, but it is speculated they arose from confiscated stock, left behind during the Great Expulsion of the Acadians from the Maritime Provinces, from 1755 through to 1764.
So here’s our story … As we approached the island, our anticipation rose and ebbed, as we watched the weather forecasts, and weren’t sure if, after travelling almost 100 miles into the Atlantic, we could even land. We had two guests aboard, from Parks Canada, who also wanted to get to shore, for they had work to do. In anticipation, all of us waited, each for our own reasons.
Would we be able to land or not?
Due to the skill of the Zodiac drivers, we were, in fact, able to get ashore, albeit it was a bit scary, as the waves crashed against the sandy beach. We scurried up to the high water line, like so many crabs donning our hiking gear, as we anticipated this rare opportunity to explore this incredible sanctuary.
Before we had even left the beach one of the horses, a gorgeous mare, wandered down off the dunes and nonchalantly fed on the Marram grass. We watched in awe as she went about her business. Eventually, she disappeared over the dunes and we finally started out.
Soon, we were to see several more horses in small herds, each indifferent to us, and none realizing the impact they had and would have for years to come.
And yes, we did see the Ipswich Sparrow, but I must admit that although it was scientifically significant it was underwhelming in its physical impact, a small brown drab sparrow. But now, I’ve seen one, and more importantly I’ve walked the shores of Sable Island with the Wild Horses! Check!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.