Sable Island is an isolated East Coast sandbar also known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
There aren’t that many places in Eastern Canada that are as mysterious, out of limits and hard to reach as Sable Island. However, unlike most other remote communities or uninhabited islands, this one isn’t far north, hidden past mountains or way out to sea. In fact, Sable Island is actually surprisingly close to one large Canadian capital city. So close that this crescent-shaped island is technically part of the Halifax Region.
Just 290 km southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Sable Island remains a relatively untouched place of beauty and wonder, with spectacular views of sand dunes and sea. It is an island where its primary inhabitants consist of over 550 wild horses and many seals. There are some flora and fauna on the island that are not found anywhere else on Earth.
Travellers can only visit with official approval of Parks Canada during a short tourism season of June to October. Since the Sable Island National Park Reserve only opened to the public in June 2013, there have only been seven short tourism seasons that let curious explorers visit in recent years.
Even with the application forms filled out months in advance of the travel date, the onus is still on the tourist to arrange transportation to the 43rd National Park island. When I inquired about applying to visit nearing the end of this summer, I was told that, since the application process usually starts almost a year in advance and that the tourism season was at its end now, I should register soon if I wanted to secure a spot for 2021. I didn’t get to visit the island this year, but I sure hope to see it in person some day soon.
While it may be a long sliver of an island, and virtually tree-less (it has exactly one tiny, shrubby pine tree, planted decades ago!) it is certainly not walk-able. Sable Island measures only about 1.5 km wide but 42 km long.
It is still unclear where the wild horses came from, but they have lived on the island for centuries. Some say they survived a shipwreck and began repopulating the island to its current horse community. This is plausible since there have been at least 350 recorded shipwrecks off Sable Island, which led to its nickname “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Even though the island is still shrouded in fog for over 120 days a year, advancements in navigational technology have lessened shipwrecks over the last few decades. The most recent was in the 90s when a yacht sank.
Still, some others will say these shaggy, squat horses are the ancestors of horses that were purposely left behind by John Cabot or Portuguese or Norse explorers, or merchants hired to transport Acadians during the Expulsion.
These horses are now protected by the Canadian Shipping Act which prohibits anyone from interfering or removing them from Sable Island. That means you can look at the horses when you visit, but you cannot touch them. The law came into effect in response to a 1959 request from the federal government to remove the horses from the island and turn them into pet food after a cold, harsh winter. Children from all across Canada sent letters to former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, asking him to reconsider, so he did.
Besides horses, there are many birds on the island (including the ipswich swallow which has no other known breeding ground on the planet), as well as the world’s largest winter breeding ground of grey seals. Back in the 1960s, Sable Island’s seal population was just 8,000. Now it is 400,000. The fact that the island has no predators makes it an ideal spot for seals to pup and breed. An episode of Nature of Things called The Seals of Sable, directed and produced by Teresa MacInnes and Kent Nason, spotlights the life of seals on this island. It streams on CBC Gem.
Besides the local fauna, the only humans who stay on Sable Island are Parks Canada staff, the employees who run the weather station, and researchers. One such researcher is citizen scientist Zoe Lucas, who has lived on Sable Island for over 40 years, studying plastics, horse skulls and abandoned balloons that make their way to the island.
How To Plan Your Trip?
If you’re interested in visiting Sable Island, book well in advance. You can fly there with Sable Aviation 44 60 Inc. on a small charter plane. But this is only for groups of five people. This flight can take from an hour to 90 minutes, depending on the type of winds and fog on the day of your trip. Since each flight needs to be a group of five passengers, you must either already have four friends who want to go with you that day or you can find four others on the Sable Island Aircraft Charter Facebook Group.
You can also organize to charter the plane yourself or you can fly on a charter that Sable Aviation has organized. As well, to limit the number of visitors and protect Sable’s delicate ecology, only one visitor flight is permitted per week and only on the weekend. The cost of the flight is a bit pricey – in 2020, one seat on a charter totalled $1,864.97 – but, besides a $150 non-refundable deposit to book, you only have to pay the rest 30 days before the day of your flight. You can read more about the details and processes of arranging a flight on the home page of the Sable Aviation website, as well as on their Frequently Asked Questions page.
Typically, the charter flights are scheduled for Saturday mornings, but since weather can be wild on and near Sable Island, there can often be delays or changes in date. For that reason, if you are looking to plan a trip to Sable Island from somewhere outside of Halifax or Nova Scotia, make sure there is some buffer room in your itinerary just in case you have to wait a while in the city before your flight. Even if it looks sunny and calm in Halifax, the weather can be very different at the island – mainly windy and foggy. This is one reason why it is recommended to visit Sable Island between August to October, even though flights do run starting in June.
You also need to apply and be approved by Parks Canada before the visit in order to go to Sable Island, and since there is a Parks Canada aircraft landing fee and down payment required, those need to be paid separately from the Sable Aviation charter before your departure. You can read more about those specifics at the Parks Canada Sable Island fees page.
Another form of transportation option to get to Sable Island is boat and a popular way to do this has been a cruise through Adventure Canada. This is mainly for longer stays that are usually about eight days. It also includes other East Coast stops along the way, like the French island of Saint Pierre, off the coast of Newfoundland.
The cruise leaves St. John’s, NL for a day at sea before the ship docks offshore of Sable Island. From there, visitors take much smaller Zodiac-style boats from the ship to the island to spend the day exploring. Typically, the cruises hold about 100 guests, although it is unclear if COVID might alter that or other aspects of the cruise in 2021. At night, visitors return to sleep on the cruise ship and then head out again to the island the next morning. Guests do this for three or four days, able to see much more of Sable Island in a longer time frame than just a one-day excursion.
Taking the cruise ship option also allows visitors to have the chance to step out and explore Louisbourg, NS and Cheticamp, NS, Prince Edward Island, and Saint Pierre and Michelon before returning to Saint John’s.
Kattuk Expeditions has also offered its own cruise option.
The last way to get to Sable Island is to simply boat yourself there if you have your own vessel or know a kind sailor who would make the trip for you. However, since there is no wharf or mooring buoys at the island, you would have to anchor offshore and take a smaller boat to land on the beach. And, even then, you still have to read and follow Parks Canada’s transportation requirements on their website here.
It is no wonder Sable Island is considered a near-mythical place in Canada, even though it is so close to a capital city. The wispy sand dunes and idyllic feral horses make for stunning images and its remote, mysterious nature calls to the curious at heart. Add to all this the fact that some researchers say the island is moving in recent years. The windswept sands are causing one side of the island to apparently wash away. Other researchers say that, in fact, the island is slowly shrinking and may eventually vanish altogether.
Many accounts of those who go to Sable Island find that, with the wild winds and so much sand, no landscape ever really looks the same. Perhaps that is the most beautiful aspect of Sable Island – each time you visit, you get to see a slightly different place.
All photo creds: Creative Commons