Sable Island (French: île de Sable) is a small Canadian island situated 300 km southeast of mainland Nova Scotia in the Atlantic Ocean. The island is a year-round home to approximately five people (four Environment Canada station personnel and one resident researcher). In summer, this number swells to include seasonal contractors, research scientists, photographers, tourists, artists, and others. The island is notable for its population of feral horses. Sable Island is protected under the Canada Shipping Act, which means that permission must be obtained from theCanadian Coast Guard to visit the island. Sable Island is part of District 13 of the Halifax Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia.
Sable Island from the west
The Portuguese explorer João Álvares Fagundes and his expedition, who explored this region in 1520–1521, were among the first Europeans to have encountered the island. It is likely that he named the island Fagunda after himself ]but the identification of Sable Island with Fagunda is not certain. A brief attempt at colonization at the end of the 16th century by France using convicts failed. The island was inhabited sporadically by sealers, shipwreck survivors, and salvagers who were known as “wreckers”. A life-saving station was established on Sable Island by the government of Nova Scotia in 1801 and its life-saving crew became the first permanent inhabitants of the island. Two lighthouses, one on the eastern tip and one on the western tip were built in 1872.
Until the advent of modern ship navigation, Sable Island’s two light stations were home to permanent lighthouse keepers and their families, as well as the crew members of the life-saving station. In the early 20th century, the Marconi Company established a wireless station on the island and the Canadian government similarly established a weather station. Only two people have been born on Sable Island since 1920.
Sable Island on the Map
Although the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) first automated and eventually decommissioned the light stations, Environment Canada and DFO conduct routine atmospheric and meteorological studies from a permanently occupied station on Sable Island because of its unique isolated geographic position down-wind from the North American mainland. Sable Island is specifically mentioned in the British North America Act 1867, Part 4, Section 91 as being the special responsibility of the federal government (“…the exclusive Legislative Authority of the Parliament of Canada extends to Beacons, Buoys, Lighthouses, and Sable Island.”). For this reason it is considered a separate amateur radio “entity” (equivalent to country for award credit) and the occasional operators who visit use the special callsign prefix CY0.
Out of concern for preserving the island’s frail ecology, as well as sovereignty purposes, all visitors to the island, including recreational boaters, require specific permission from CCG. TheCanadian Forces continuously patrol the area using aircraft and naval vessels, partly due to the nearby presence of natural gas and oil drilling rigs and an undersea pipeline. Sable Island’s heliport contains emergency aviation fuel for search and rescue helicopters, which use the island to stage further offshore into the Atlantic. Should the need arise, the island serves as an emergency evacuation point for crews aboard nearby drilling rigs of the Sable Offshore Energy Project.
Sable Island Horses
The island is a part of the Halifax Regional Municipality, the federal electoral district of Halifax, and the provincial electoral district of Halifax Citadel, although the urban area of Halifax proper is some 300 km or 190 mi away on the Nova Scotian mainland.
In May 2010, the Canadian federal government announced plans to increase the level of protection the island receives, likely making it a national park and transferring governmental control from the Canadian Coast Guard to Parks Canada.
Sable Island is a narrow, crescent-shaped sandbar with a surface area of about 34 km². Despite being nearly 42 km long, it is only 1.5 km across at its widest point. It emerges from vast shoals and shallows on the continental shelf which, in tandem with the area’s frequent fog and sudden strong storms including hurricanes and nor’easters, have caused over 350 recorded shipwrecks. It is often referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, as it sits astride the great circle route from North America’s east coast to Europe. The nearest landfall is 160 kilometres to the northwest near Canso, Nova Scotia.
Sable Island is believed to have formed from large quantities of sand and gravel deposited on the continental shelf near the end of the last ice age. Some believe that Sable Island is actually slowly moving east: waves erode the western shore, and new sand is added on the eastern shore. The island is continually changing its shape with the effects of strong winds and violent ocean storms. The island has several freshwater ponds on the south side between the station and west light and a brackish lake named Lake Wallace near its centre.
Sable Island’s climate can be classified as either oceanic (Köppen Cfb) or humid continental (Köppen Dfb). There are frequent heavy fogs in the area due to the contrasting effects of the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream: on average there are 127 days out of the year that have at least 1 hour of fog. During winter months, the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream can sometimes give Sable Island the warmest temperatures in Canada.
Wild strawberry blooming in June, and with ripe berries in July.
Vegetation and Wildlife
Sable Island was named after its sand—sable is French for “sand”. It is covered with marram grass and other low-growing vegetation, and lacks natural trees. In 1901, the federal government planted over 80,000 trees on the island in an attempt to stabilize the soil; all died. Subsequent plantings resulted in the survival of a single Scots pine. Although planted in the 1960s, it is only a few feet tall.
The island is home to over 400 free-roaming feral horses which are protected by law from human interference. The best evidence for the origin of the horse population is that they are descended from horses confiscated from Acadians during the Great Expulsion and left on the island by Thomas Hancock, Boston merchant and uncle of John Hancock.
In the past, excess horses were rounded up and shipped off the island for use in coal mines on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, or to be sold, but the Canadian Government gave full protection to the horse population in 1960, and they have been left alone ever since. No human is allowed to interfere with any of the island’s wildlife because it is a wildlife preserve and is protected by the Canadian government.
Grey Seals greatly outnumber Harbour Seals on Sable Island.
Harbour and Grey seals breed on the island’s shores. Seal counts from the 1960s for the grey seal population estimated 200–300 pups born at that time on the island, but surveys from as recent as 2003–2004 estimated the number of pups born in that season at 50,000. The seals are occasionally predated by the various shark species that inhabit the waters nearby, including the Great White Shark. Unusual ‘corkscrew’ bite wounds on dead seals suggest that the Greenland shark is probably responsible for most attacks here.
Several large bird colonies are resident, including Arctic terns and Ipswich sparrows. The latter, a subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow, breeds only on Sable Island. Many other species of birds are found on the island—some are intentional visitors, migratory or otherwise, and some are small birds that have been blown out to sea in violent storms and have been fortunate enough to find themselves on dry land again.
It was formerly believed that the freshwater sponge Heteromeyenia macouni was found only in ponds on the island. However, that sponge is now considered to be the same species as Racekiela ryderi, which is also found elsewhere.
A Green-winged Teal with ducklings at the West Ponds.
Sable Island is famous for its large number of shipwrecks. An estimated 350 vessels are believed to have fallen victim to the island’s sand bars. Thick fogs, treacherous currents, and the island’s location in the middle of a major transatlantic shipping route and rich fishing grounds account for the large number of wrecks. The first recorded wreck was the English ship Delight in 1583, part of Humphrey Gilbert’s Newfoundland expedition. The last major shipwreck was the steamship Manhasset wrecked in 1947.
Her crew were all saved, the last major rescue of the Sable lifesaving station. No further wrecks occurred until 1999 when the three crew members of the yacht Merrimac survived after their sloop was wrecked after running aground due to a navigational error. The construction of two lighthouses on each end of the island in 1873 probably contributed to the decrease in the number of shipwrecks.
Few of the wrecks surrounding the island are visible, as the ships are usually crushed and buried by the sand. The large number of wrecks have earned the island the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic”,although the phrase is also used to describe Cape Cod, Massachusetts. and the Outer Banks area of North Carolina.
Sable Island Station
Sable Island Station
The Sable Island Station is the only permanently staffed facility on the Island. The Sable Island Station is managed and staffed by Environment Canada. Climatological record-keeping on Sable Island began in 1871 with the establishment of the Meteorological Service of Canada, and has been continuous since 1891.
Sable Island is the subject of extensive scientific research. A wide range of manual and automated instruments are used at the Sable Island station, including the Automated Weather Observing System operated by the Meteorological Service of Canada, an aerology program measuring conditions in the upper atmosphere using a radiosonde carried aloft by a hydrogen-filled weather balloon to altitudes beyond 40 km (25 mi), and a program collecting data on background levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), which began on the island in 1974. Research is done on Sable Island to monitor the long-range transport of pollution aerosols. Fog chemistry is studied, examining the transport and composition of atmospheric toxins carried in fog. Tropospheric ozone is measured and is analyzed by researchers in Canada and the United States along with 20 other North American sites.
Aircraft on Sable Island
The installation of the BGS Magnetic Observatory on Sable Island was funded as a joint venture between the British Geological Survey, Sperry-Sun Drilling Services, and Sable Offshore Energy. The data collected at the observatory aid scientific research into rates of change of the Earth’s magnetic field and increase the accuracy of the BGS Global Geomagnetic Model. Data from the geomagnetic observatory are used by the offshore energy industry for precise positioning activities such as directional drilling.
Supplies are delivered to the Sable Island Station approximately twice a month by a Britten-Norman Islander aircraft operated by Maritime Air Charter.
Although the island has a heliport, there is no runway for fixed wing aircraft; instead the Islander lands on the south beach. The Station Manager carefully selects a suitable landing area (with due consideration given to length and prevailing winds), tests it for firmness (thereby marking out the suitable area with his truck tire tracks), and conveys this information to the flight crew before the Islander takes off from Halifax. Crew changes for the station personnel, which occur an average of every three months, are also accomplished in this manner.
Seal Mother & pup
In 2010, a certain area of the south beach about 2 NM (3.7 km; 2.3 mi) east of the Coast Guard’s heliport (TC LID: CST5) was designated as the Sable Island Aerodrome and assigned the ICAO identifier of CSB2. No changes have been made (i.e. construction of any kind), however, by designating one of the landing areas as an aerodrome, it will allow a GPS approach to be created, thereby reducing the allowable minimum descent altitude (MDA) by 600 or more ft. Prior permission is required to land there, as the landing area is often unusable due to being underwater, too soft, ridged with sand, etc.
In the 2006 Canadian federal election media coverage, the Canadian Press reported a 100% voter turnout for Sable Island, with six ballots from all six permanent residents retrieved by the returning officer by Coast Guard helicopter.
Sable Island in popular culture
The unique landscape, history of shipwrecks and wildlife, especially horses, have made Sable Island an iconic place in Atlantic Canada and attracted considerable international following. Shipwreck survivors published early survival narratives about their experiences at Sable Island beginning with the sinking of the Delight in 1583 The first formal history of the island Sable Island : its History and Phenomena was written in 1894 by George Patterson. Many other histories of the island and its shipwrecks have been published about the island since, such as Lyall Campbell’s two books Sable Island, fatal and fertile crescent in 1974 and Sable Island shipwrecks : disaster and survival at the North Atlantic graveyard in 1994 and more recently A dune adrift : the strange origins and curious history of Sable Island written in 2004 by Marq de Villiers.
The island has also inspired works of fiction. Nova Scotia author Thomas Chandler Haliburton published “The Sable Island Ghost” in 1802, a fictional story about a ghostly woman inspired by the loss of the brig Francis in 1798. His story helped raise support for the establishment of rescue station on the island. Canadian writer James MacDonald Oxley wrote a youth novel The Wreckers of Sable Island in 1897. Frank Parker Day’s 1928 novel Rockbound features a vivid depiction of the sinking of the schooner Sylvia Mosher during the 1926 August Gales at Sable Island. One of the island’s most notable temporary residents was Nova Scotian author Thomas H. Raddall, whose early experiences on Sable Island (working at the wireless post) served as the inspiration for his 1950 novel The Nymph and the Lamp.
The island has been the subject of many Canadian documentaries by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board of Canada, beginning with the 1956 NFB film Sable Island by Allan Wargon and more recently the 2003 NFB documentary Moving Sands by Phillipe Baylanq. A number of international documentaries have also explored the island including the 2007 film “Ile de sable” made by Jean-Francois Ducrocq and Malek Sahraoui for France 3, French public television.
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A 2008 American documentary Chasing Wild Horses was filmed on Sable, although it propagated several fallacies about the island (such as the total banning of the general public from visiting and the mythical shipwreck origins of the horses). Sable Island is briefly featured in the 2000 feature film The Perfect Storm which depicts the sinking of the fishing vessel Andrea Gail near Sable, although the island is erroneously portrayed with trees and a giant stone lighthouse. Sable Island was the intended setting for the 2002 film Touching Wild Horses starring Jane Seymour, however, little attempt was made to mimic the natural landscape of Sable, with trees and rocks abounding in the background of most every scene.
A permanent exhibit about Sable Island is featured at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia which includes two rescue boats from Sable and numerous name boards and figureheads from Sable Island wrecks. A small exhibit about the horses is found at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History.
Canadian alternative hip-hop artist Buck 65 mentions Sable Island in his song ‘Blood Of A Young Wolf’.