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.

Sable Island: a photographer’s dream come true

View from remote, beautiful Sable Island

Sable Island: where every view is an ocean view


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As a guide, resource person and photographer for Adventure Canada I have had the joy of exploring many stunning parts of the world with participants who yearn for what I call “deep travel experiences”.

Sable Island has been beckoning to me for decades and it is a thrill to have Sable as our newest National Park to be protected for perpetuity – not only for Canadians but all humankind. For many months I have been in a standby mode with Parks Canada ready to jump when there was a window of possibility to reach the island.
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Finally, on April 30th, we took off from Halifax in our 1973 Islander STOL aircraft for the flight to Sable. I was in the co-pilot seat with Ted, our veteran pilot, who does a lot of over-ocean flying.
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Selfie: Sable Island bound

Selfie: Sable Island bound

I was wearing my life jacket but Ted was not wearing his. I love a confident pilot. Three other passengers were headed to the island to do technical work for Parks Canada on infrastructure projects. After an hour and a half we dove through the clouds, and Sable came into view.
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A colony of seals appears as tiny dots on West Spit

A colony of seals appears as tiny dots on West Spit

Before we landed Ted flew us over West Spit and I could not believe my eyes. As I looked at the coamers roaring into the beach, Ted said “Here come the seals!” There were tens of thousands of seals basking on the beach. The biggest colony of Grey Seals in the world (estimated at 50,000 pinnipeds) make Sable their home. We flew up the length of Sable, then banked sharply near Lake Wallace, and I could see the Parks buildings below me. As we prepared to land, I could see a vehicle with a wind-sock attached to its bumper on a massive expanse of wet sand. We dropped out of the sky and Ted laid us down gently, using about 600 feet of runway.
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As we stepped out of the aircraft the cold wind bit into us but we were warmly greeted by Aaron and Brent, Parks officials on the island. We jumped in a jeep annd were whisked off to our abode where we would stay for the next week.
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Members of the world's largest colony of Grey seals

Members of the world’s largest colony of Gray seals

I grabbed my camera gear and headed for the beach on a quest to see the multitude of seals. As I crested cautiously over a dune a potent smell assailed my nostrils. There in front of me, about 200 feet away was the largest group I had ever seen in my life at close range! Hundreds and hundreds all snuggled in together enjoying a very flatulent day at the beach. There were black ones, brown ones, fat ones and little ones all enjoying each other’s company. There were more coming out of the water to join the Grey seal throngs.

Greetings from a baby seal

Greetings from a baby seal

Suddenly I heard a snort near me, and I looked over to see a sand covered baby Grey seal just 20 feet away! He had been sleeping, and was camouflaged by the sand that had blown over him. I quickly made some portraits of him and then moved away to give him a bit of space.

Wild horses speckled the dunescapes too, so I pointed my Nikons in their direction next. A young colt lay nearby. He reminded me of some ancient horse drawings I had seen of pre-ice age creatures. He was wearing his thick winter coat which was more like fur than hair.
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Sable Island horse looking well despite a long winter

Sable Island horse looking well despite a long winter

Chunks of his winter coat were falling off, and he looked very healthy but others I saw were in rough shape —their ribs sticking through from a rugged existence and very cold winter. One fellow with a dreadlock mane nibbled away at the first shoots of the year. It will still be a month until the really nutritious grasses and sedges provide good volumes of food for these hardy equines.
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Seals are unconcerned by respectful human visitors

Seals are unconcerned by respectful human visitors

I scurried about with a sense of urgency to capture the essence of this place on this glorious sunny, windy day because I know weather here changes in an instant. Before I knew it the sun was going down. I had only been on the island for 8 hours but I was exhausted, sated and elated at absorbing and documenting this magical place.
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As I drifted off to sleep with my plans for tomorrow I thought of the island as a sentinel of sand dunes, guarding the coast of Nova Scotia.

Sable Island offers magnificent sunsets

Sable Island offers magnificent sunsets- fodder for a photographer’s dreams

Sable Island, Canada’s 43rd national park

It’s official: Sable Island, Nova Scotia, is Canada’s 43rd national park. We’ve been anticipating this moment of course; our two trips to Sable Island this coming spring have been filling up for months.

Still, it’s nice to see the legendary island with its beloved wild horses, seals, rare birds and plants make The National, CBC TV’s nightly news program. Sable Island is truly a place worth protecting, and we hope people across Canada are celebrating its new status with us.

As the above video report by Tom Murphy notes, Parks Canada and research scientist Zoe Lucas—who has worked on the island for years—are optimistic about the prospect of curious travellers visiting Sable Island under Parks Canada’s strict regulations.

While we didn’t get a personal mention from Peter Mansbridge, we’re delighted that Adventure Canada’s staff, Zodiacs and ship (the Sea Adventurer) appear briefly in this clip from The National on CBC TV. And we look forward to our inaugural voyages to Sable Island next spring!

Click the links for more information or to book your trip.

Sable Island, June 12-20
Sable Island, June 20-28