Sable Island: where fantasies come true

Goldilocks!

Goldilocks, a Sable Island beauty


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I spent a memorable few hours alone on an island with an enchanting platinum blonde today.

We first set eyes on each other as she was having her lunch – nibbling on some exotic greens.
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I asked her if I could make some portraits and she just gave me a look of nonchalance which I took to be a sign of permission. Once in a while she would cast me a gaze. I was left in a state of infatuation and fascination, wondering how long she had lived on the island and if she had family nearby or on the mainland.
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It looked like her flowing mane had been tinted by a professional. She hoofed it along the dunes and I was thrilled to join her observing from a respectful distance (60 feet as per Park rules).

I was intent on capturing her essence with my camera when a massive male appendage suddenly telescoped and drooped almost to the ground. 
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She was a he… a well endowed stallion with a stunning feminine mane! I was dumbfounded by this profound moment of biological reality.

Shortly after, we met up with a band of horses which seemed to be his band or harem as I like to think.

Sable- Mike Beedell (8)

Horses seek naturally occurring fresh water on Sable Island


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We parted company as I was drawn to the sight of a mare and frisky colt on a distant dune. A band of fog was moving in from the southwest and before long I was bathed in dense fog. As I dropped into a valley I came upon a band of horses in the mist, munching and crunching in harmony.
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Tiny little purple shoots were poking out of the sand and the horses focused on cropping these off but they seemed to be eating a fair bit of sand with every nibble.

The fog ebbed and flowed like a river, swirling & eddying in different directions. The light was diffused by the mist but it allowed me to make beautiful monochromatic images of the horses engrossed in their intense browsing.

Sable- Mike Beedell (3)

Fog provides fascinating photographic opportunities on Sable Island

These equine spirits disappeared in the mists and for a time I was left utterly alone with my thoughts, the perpetual pounding of the Atlantic waves in the distance. I lay down in the warm sand and curled up in a ball and went to sleep. Walking in the loose sand for many kilometers with 40 pounds of camera gear on my back had inspired a well deserved nap.
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When I awoke I was chilled by a breeze but bathed in beautiful light. The wind had blown away the fog and the sun was dropping quickly. I never did find that mare and colt who had melded into the labyrinth of dunes. I saw instead the exciting opportunity to get silhouettes of the horses on the high sand dune ridges.

Horses in silhouette

Horses in silhouette

It seemed that late in the day many horses would be drawn to the top of the dunes with these incredible views. So I ascended the dunes and waited for the right light to illuminate these hardy beasts.
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After an intense half-hour of shooting I watched a red ball of fire being extinguished by the sea and I began the long trek back to park headquarters along North Beach. As twilight engulfed me I heard moaning and sighing. This was the sound of masses of Grey Seals on the beach pulling themselves from the sea.

Sable Island sunsets are magnificent

Sable Island sunsets are magnificent

I walked for about an hour and a half (4 km) and I was flanked by a solid  line of seals, ten or more abreast for my entire walk back to the main camp. I estimate I encountered several thousand seals of the variety sometimes known as horsehead seals. This was the most memorable pinniped walk I have ever done in my life.

Sable- Mike Beedell (11)

Gray seals, also known as horsehead seals, loll on Sable Island

I had walked among the members of the largest Grey Seal colony on the planet! A perfect coda to a day of fantasies on mystical Sable Island.

Life and death among the dunes of Sable Island

Sable Island's iconic horses live with freedom - and challenge

Sable Island’s iconic horses live with freedom – and challenge


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I am at 43 55′ 59N & 60 01′ 40 W standing on the beach, mezmerized by the pounding surf and in a state of bliss on Sable Island.
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With my feet planted firmly in the wet shifting sands I am about 300 kms off the Nova Scotia coast -nearing the edge of Canadas’ territorial waters. There are ten humans on this island paradise, hundreds of horses, hundreds of Ipswich sparrows, 50,0000-plus very smelly Grey seals and one tree.
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Grey seals vie with horses for 'handsomest mammal' on Sable Island

Grey seals vie with horses for ‘handsomest mammal’ on Sable Island

I have already spent time with this gnarly little tree ( a pine) reaching an epic height of 3 feet. Its top had been broken off & its branches were broken & bruised from abrasive sand-blasting all winter. I did not know it was the only tree on Sable & so initially did not give it the respect and reverence it deserved.

A rare bird in a lone tree: the Ipswich Sparrow

A rare bird in a lone tree: the Ipswich Sparrow


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I was initially drawn to this wee pine on a quest for the rare and endangered Ipswich Sparrow. I could hear one warbling and calling for a mate. I found him perched atop this one tree, broadcasting his whereabouts to all that could hear him.
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I took out my powerful 500mm Nikon lens and made some wonderful portraits of this wee little fluff-ball who had recently flown all the way from Florida to the one and only nesting ground in the world of his ilk.
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Fortunately the wind was in the right direction for me to hear his romantic overtones—for the powerful winds here can suck the words out of your mouth and cast them out to sea, never to be heard again by another living creature.

Sable Island is like a stretched crescent moon which is oriented east – west. The upturned crescent faces north and catches the force of the north winds that lambaste it regularly.

Huge dunes rise hundreds of feet on the north side and taper off to broad expanses of flat beach on the south side.

Sable Island's spectacular dunes change constantly

Sable Island’s spectacular dunes change constantly

The island is roughly 48kms long; at its widest it is roughly 1.75 km across. But below the waves it extends for its entire length again on the east & west points, so that Sable Island measures some 160 kms in its entirety.

It is a shape-shifting entity that transforms every day, as the wind blows and the seas pound at its shores. Sable Island also sculpts and transforms all those who have been here since people first set foot here in the early 1500’s.

Today I witnessed the challenges for animals that live amid the “dunsescape” called Sable. For some creatures, depending on the season there is a life and death struggle to survive.

As I walked the beach yearning to know Sable as best I can in the short week that I am here, I began to feel its remote qualities. Although I flew in a few days ago during a window of good weather
you can never be sure of getting here when you planned. Nor can you plan on getting out when you would like ! I have been shrouded in fog for a lot of my time so far. Sable may be up for a fog award – it receives over 100 days of fog a year.

So this is not the place to go when you are in a hurry to get elsewhere. Only specialized twin engine planes can land on the beach strip which also changes day to day, often being obliterated by the waves crashing in from the surf surge from the south.

I counted 50 horses today on my peregrinations about the island. There were a few one-year-olds and many mature horses that looked in rough shape after a long, cold winter. I spent time at a distance observing their body language and photographing their behaviour then moved a little closer and sat down to keep a low profile. They are very accepting of me, and intent on feeding themselves on the fresh green shoots that are shyly poking their heads out of the sand for the first time in eight months.

As I crested a dune I came upon a motley looking band of horses; some were looking quite healthy and others were showing their ribs through their skin. Some were lame and others had misshapen hooves and limped along like injured war-horses from First World War battles.

But then a black stallion crested a ridge and the sight took my breath away. He stood atop a dune with the ocean in the background, his mane and tail blowing in the wind.
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This regal creature on that ridge looking out to sea epitomized a powerful sense of freedom for me—but shortly thereafter, a more sombre reality set in as I began to find carcasses of horses that had not made it through the winter. The first body I found was partially subsumed by the shifting sands. This was a young horse and it appeared almost freeze-dried from the incessant winds.

Dead-Horse

Mike inspects the remains of a victim of the winter of 2014

It was also close to a pond where it would have been searching for water before it died. As I made my way through the dunes I found more bodies—all from last winter, for they were not yet decomposed. So it was with a heavy heart that I returned to Station Main ( Parks Headquarters) pondering the freedom that these horses have along with the challenges & starvation they face as every winter approaches.
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A frolicsome foal is a sight to lift the spirits

A frolicsome foal is a sight to lift the spirits

My spirits were uplifted, however by the sight of a young foal prancing about with its gangly, klutzy legs looking like a drunken marionette—while mother munched away contentedly. My day ended as a spectacular sun plummeted into the sea.

Tomorrow I would go and find this frolicksome foal and document and celebrate this new life that had just recently been born to Sable Island.