Don’t plan on visiting Sable Island if you are the impatient kind of traveler. The 42 km long sand bar, taking its name from the French word for “sand”, does not cater to human foibles and the wait for appropriate weather conditions to fly or boat in can be a long one.
The patient, however, are rewarded many times over. Our party of seven arrived by a Maritime Air twin engine Britten-Norman Islander on October 18th, 2011 the day after an accord was announced that would lead to the island becoming Canada’s newest National Park Reserve. Among us were three members of the Explorers Club, a 107 year old international organization devoted to field science and exploration. (Members of this Manhattan based group have included such luminaries as Sir Edmund Hillary, James Cameron, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Gene Roddenberry and virtually all the early polar explorers). Ironically, the one Explorers Club member, Zoe Lucas, who is also Sable Island’s longest standing resident, was off the island in Halifax for a short visit.
The day was a magnificent one and Debbie, our pilot made an uneventful landing on the beach. The flat area which serves as a runway was under water on the date of our first planned visit in September but was now dry and suitable for use. We had departed from Stanfield International Airport in HRM Halifax Regional Municipality) and ironically after over an hour in the air and a 300 km flight also landed in HRM. The most isolated part of the province shares the same municipality with Atlantic Canada’s largest city!
Al Wilson, the acting Sable Island Station manager greeted us and drove us to the guest quarters station for an orientation. Visitors can stay on the island overnight for $300.00 nightly (bring your own food and bedding), not bad when you consider the cost of supplying the island, but we were only planning to stay for the afternoon. Climbing bare dunes was out of the question, due to the risk of being buried alive under several tons of sand, but the grass covered ones are more stable, anchored by plant root systems. Approaching too closely to seals was not recommended as the adolescent males have been known to attack humans. Their mouths are so contaminated that a bite is considered a medical emergency.
Swimming is not a good idea due to the heavy waves and also the fact that more than a dozen species of shark including Great Whites and Greenlands, hover in huge numbers just off the beach waiting for unwary seals (or humans) to venture too close. I spoke with a ship’s mate who anchored off Sable on one occasion and who noticed a junior crew member feeding sardines to the “seals”. When my friend looked closer, he discovered that the young man was “hand” feeding huge porbeagle sharks that were snapping perilously close to his fingers!
Sable Island’s most famous denizens are the 400 or so ponies that wander the grassy dunes, surviving on the marram grass which grows abundantly on the island. They get their fresh water from myriad ponds and wander in herds of mares and foals, led by a stallion. There are also groups of bachelor stallions who have not yet formed a herd of their own. Sometimes two stallions will vie for dominance in a rather spectacular but usually bloodless confrontation. I had two mares come within a few feet of me, a pleasant experience until one mare felt the other had invaded her personal space and tried to kick her. One foal also approached me, seemingly curious, then decided to lie down and have a snooze.
The seals, mostly grey seals in large colonies, dot the shoreline and generally will flee to the water at the sight of a human. Adolescent males tend to be the exception and will hold their own or sometimes even attack humans in breeding season. One small male simply stared at me and hissed repeatedly as I passed by. Finally I tried hissing back. The seal stopped, then stared at me in seeming astonishment and indignation, as if to say: “Where the heck does this guy get off talking back to me?”
There are deposits of natural gas around Sable Island and at least one rig was visible today from the beach near the grey seal colony. No petroleum concern is allowed to drill within one kilometer of the island at present.
The north beach is the best spot for beach-combing, littered with thousands of sometimes quite large shells and also bleached and sand-blasted bones of every description from seals, horses and sea birds. About once yearly someone finds a walrus tusk, though they have been extinct here for hundreds of years. Sable is also known as “the graveyard of the Atlantic” with hundreds of wrecks documented from the 1700’s and on. You never know what might surface from the sand, uncovered by wave action. I did find an antique bottle likely washed in from a wrecked ship. Unfortunately there are also pieces of plastic garbage in evidence and Sable appears to be the place that all those helium balloons people release into the air end up, making it “the balloon graveyard of the Atlantic” as well. Zoe Lucas has inventoried thousands of balloons that have landed on Sable’s shores.
The south beach is also dotted with fishing buoys of every description, often not washed ashore but uncovered by wind action. They range from the oldest glass models, to steal, aluminum, Styrofoam and plastic.
Some of the grassy dunes reach great heights and provide great views. I mounted one which provided a great vista of the western light and the surrounding buildings as well as one of my fellow travelers who looked insect-sized down below.
By three o’clock I was just about hiked out, having wandered non-stop for over three hours. I headed back to the station to hitch a ride to the air strip. One of the stations trucks was fitted out with a wind sock and pylons and all the accoutrements to make it a mobile airport. We were soon airborne and on our way back to Halifax International Airport.
One of our party smiled and commented: “Well, another one crossed off the bucket list.” Yes, I thought, Sable Island is definitely one for anybody’s bucket list (especially if it’s a “sand” bucket).
For further information on Sable Island, see:
All Photos By George Burden – All Rights Reserved