Sable Island -- A Magical Place

October 01, 2016

MapMap I always wanted to go to Sable Island for as long as I can remember. I am not quite sure how I  got to know about the horses on Sable Island other than loving horses and ponies growing up and hearing stories about them. In the 1960’s people believed that horses on Sable Island should be removed. I remember references to turning horses into pet food or glue when I was young.  In response to the proposal, there was a public outcry and hundreds of children wrote letters to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, asking him to save the horses. A bill was passed and the horses were saved. The Canadian Government gave the horse population full protection from human interference. I was born in 1964 after that, but knew about it as a child growing up, through stories.

There is something compelling about Sable Island--It's magical, mystical, untamed, and known for it's wild horses. A crescent shaped sandbar southeast of Halifax in the middle of the Atlantic, with  remote access. Parks Canada Manager Jonathan Sheppard called it a “crocked smile in the Atlantic”.

Sable Island has always been a magical place. Growing up, Sable Island was a place I could only dream to escape to.  My life long dream of going to sable Island became a reality this past June with Adventure Canada. Such a privilege to visit  this magical place where horses roam free, amongst shipwreck ruins, and sand dunes, free as the wind--free to live, free to die.

There are only so many ways to get to this remote island 300 KMS southeast of Halifax. By Air or by sea. Before Sable Island became a National Park, people requested permission to visit through the Canadian Coast Guard, which was responsible for Sable Island under the Canada Shipping Act. Sable Island became a National Park Reserve in June 2013. There are restrictions on the number of visitors to the island and  is still hard to access. This year an opportunity presented itself and the next thing you know I was heading to St John’s Newfoundland to board the Ocean Endeavour with Adventure Canada on their Sable Island excursion. I am not related to the Swan family that owns Adventure Canada, although I wish I were.


I wasn’t sure if this was the way I wanted to experience Sable Island. The idea of traveling there with 100 other passengers didn’t  really appeal to me at first—but after hearing Jonathan Sheppard's briefing, he said, “Adventure Canada and visiting the island this way was sustainable, and was a low impact way to visit the island”.

Our nine day expedition included four scheduled days to visit Sable Island. That included three  excursions to shore by Zodiac, and a Zodiac Cruise on the last day. On our second day anchored about a few hundred metres from Sable Island—we could see Sable Island — it was right there—but the surf was too rough and made it impossible to land a Zodiac on shore. There are days that Mother Nature decides on weather or not you have access. She has also been known to delay planes from landing on the island due to fog.

Travelling with Adventure Canada is an an incredible experience. It is a learning expedition with so many experts onboard. The Ocean Endeavour is a small expedition ship. The number of passengers on our voyages was approx 100. I learned that this size vessel is best for expeditions as it allows us to gain access to places not accessible by larger vessels. It has a fleet of Zodiac’s that permitted us to navigate sandbars and sandy submerged ridges and access the island. 

DJC_0280DJC_0280 (Above: Dawson taking us for a Zodiac Cruise of Sable Island's West Spit. Photo Credit: Daniel J Catt) 

It was a privilege to have had the opportunity to travel with Adventure Canada. Our trip was enhanced with the involvement of Canadian Geographic/The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, I really enjoyed Canadian Geographic Quiz night--our team (Geoff, Doug, David, Stephen, and myself)  came in second! It was educational, interesting and lots of fun!  


On the Zodiac Tour, Sable IslandOn the Zodiac Tour, Sable IslandZodiac Tour of Sable Island, taken by my friend Kathy Knee

This incredible expedition reminded me of watching Jacques Cousteau's many televised voyages. He inspired so many with his interest in wildlife and natural history and his love for the sea, and most of all for adventure and exploration. I felt like an explorer! 

Lecture series offered by James Raffan, Explorer & Author; Don Bowan, grey seal researcher at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; Geoff Hurley, Environmental Consultant; Jill Martin, Author of "Return to Sable" and "Sable Island in Black and White"; Jonathan Sheppard, Parks Canada; Sarah Wong & Ree Brennin, Researchers and Danny Catt, Educator, Naturalist and Photographer--to name a few. There was ample opportunity to mingle onboard, sit with different passengers at each meal, and unlimited learning while on excursions to shore.  

Reasons to visit Sable:

There were so many different people on board that wanted to visit Sable Island for so many different reasons. I met photographers, artists, writers, musicians, storm chasers, naturalists, oceanographers, from the biologists, ornithologists, researchers and Parks Canada staff and people that just loved travel and nature. I met an Environmental Consultant that worked on the The Sable Offshore Energy Project, Geoff was looking forward to visiting resident researcher Zoe Lucas, again!

IMG_0021IMG_0021 (Above: I met so many nice people onboard. Another companion, meet Pam Griffiths, 85 years young,  "That was my dream vacation--I always wanted to go to Sable Island")

Sable Island is a “biodiversity gem” with 350 species of birds, Gulls, petrels and endemic Ipswich sparrows on Sable Island,  it’s only breeding ground, and Terns, including endangered roseate terns.


Flora and Fauna is another gem, 190 plant species and the world's largest breeding colony of grey seals. Did you know that Sable Island has the largest grey seal population. 


It was a pleasure to learn about Grey Seals by expert and guest speaker, Don Bowen, a grey seal researcher at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He has studied seals for several decades.


Some also come to study weather. Collecting climate data on Sable Island goes back to the 1800s, Sable Island weather is characterized by wind and fog. There are frequent heavy fogs in the area due to the contrasting effects of the the warm Gulf Stream and the cold Labrador Current.  I had coffee just about every morning with David Millar, he was stationed on Sable Island in his early years, collecting weather data, dating back to May 1967 to June 1969. He really enjoyed his return to Sable and was surprised by some of the changes that he saw to the landscape.


(Above: Adventure Canada Passenger David Millar and I, Photo Courtesy of David Millar)

The weather Network Mark Robinson and Stormchaser, George Kourounis were onboard to document the Wild Horses on Sable Island and to document the island that has been shaped by fierce Atlantic Storms. I was surprised to learn that Hurricanes are  more likely to strike Sable Island than any other place in Canada.


Be sure to view their Adventures on Sable Island by Mark Robinson and  George Kourounis for the Weather Network.

Another Fascinating thing about Sable Island is it’s human history. Shipwrecks capture our imaginations and evoke images of tragedy, heroism, mystery. Images of Disasters at sea painted in the  early 19th century and the tragedy of shipwreck became a powerful figurative image in 18th and 19th century painting.  Turner’s “The Shipwreck” and “The Wreck of a Transport Ship”, and Delacroix’s “The Shipwreck of Don Juan”  come to mind. Although the shipwrecks on Sable Island happened years ago… overtime, the pounding surf and the sand has consumed what was left of them.

2016-09-02_00012016-09-02_0001My beautiful picture

(Above: picture that David Millar shared of photographs he took dating back to May 1967 to June 1969, photo credit: David Millar)

I didn’t see any evidence of shipwrecks where we hiked, but I am intrigued by the stories.


For me, the horses have always been the magical aspect of it all. I wanted to visit Sable Island to photograph the wild horses. Sable Island Wild horses. There is something about horses that I just love, their movement, their grace, the power, their freedom of movement. Sable Island horses just seem the perfect fit, they are part of Canada's heritage, they have a special place in our hearts as they are a national treasure.

Wild horses are majestic, beautiful and exciting to photograph. The horses on Sable Island come in many colours: Chestnut, brown, black, and Palominos and stand anywhere between 13.2 to 15.2 hands high, appearing pony size. When we saw them in June, they were shedding out their long scruffy winter coats.They live amongst beautiful wind swept sand dune where predators are non-existent and were easy to spot amongst the dunes. The temperament of wild horses can range from extremely shy to approachable—as part of the ongoing stewardship and conservation of this remote island, and to protect the wild horses, visitors to the Island are asked to maintain a distance of 20 metres.

When our Zodiac first landed on the shore of Sable Island two bachelor stallions came trotting along the beach to see what we were up to. The horses seemed curious, appeared to accept us, then ran up a steep sand dune to graze on Marram grass, our presence didn’t seem to affect the wild horses on Sable Island.


Visitors to the Island are asked to maintain a distance of 20 meters from the horses, to avoid walking on steep dune slopes to prevent erosion and to avoid trampling rare plants in wetland areas and nesting areas. Parks Canada staff guided us on our hikes, we were divided into smaller groups, that focused on different levels of hiking the island, birding, Flora and Fauna, and the South Shore to view seals and they offered two photography groups. We walked across sand dunes and along horse paths in the vegetated areas. We hiked to Bald Dune, Fresh Water Pond, Hiked to the South Shore another time, and had free access to the Western Spit of the Island for a “free walk”.  We also cruised the Western Spit by Zodiac and I managed to get a few of my favourite shots, "Flehmen"​ (seen below) and "Surf, Sand, Sable Island Wild Horses".   


Stewardship of the island

Take pictures and leave footprints. "Parks Canada has a three-pronged mandate to protect each park's ecological integrity, to protect and provide education about its cultural and natural resources and to facilitate visitors who want to experience them".


With Adventure Canada and visiting the island this way is sustainable, and is a low impact way to visit the island—as we slept and ate onboard. We had a few hours on the island per visit. We were divided up into different groups. Long Hike, Short Hike, Beach Walk, Photography group. Passengers that travel with Adventure Canada are aware of the island's vulnerabilities, sensitivities and it’s history. Everyone that I travelled with were experienced nature lovers and want to preserve nature--conservation was key! After my trip to Sable Island and experiencing it first hand—I hope through sharing my Sable Island photographs it will  encourage others to explore and discover this beautiful Island  and I hope to inspire people to protect and preserve our National treasure. I will be an advocate for the ongoing stewardship and conservation of this remote Island and the horses that live there--they will always hold a special place in my heart.  

Farewell to Sable Island

As we set sail from Sable Island and headed towards St Pierre et Miquelon for our final days aboard the Ocean Endeavour, we had another exciting opportunity to explore “the Gully”. The Gully is a “Marine Protected Area”. It is a canyon—the size of the grand canyon on the Nova Scotia Shelf. It measures 65 kms long, 15 kms wide and up to 3,000 meters deep. With marine researcher, Sarah Wong and her special research permit to gather data for the Eastern Canada Seabirds at Sea program—we were allowed special access. Passengers whale watched and saw Blue whales, Sperm whales and Northern Bottlenose whales, and spotted birds to name a few.

We arrived in St Pierre et Miquelon

Who wouldn’t enjoy a day in France? Together with some fellow passengers we explored Saint Pierre et Miquelon on a bus tour, enjoyed some french culture and  had time for a cappuccino at Les Délices de Joséphine with Geoff — while we took time to unwind in a tiny slice of Europe situated in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean near Newfoundland. A lot of passengers also took the time to logon and use the “free wifi” after being at sea.

The last night aboard the Ocean Endeavour

The last night was a special night, I was invited to attend the Sable Island Table with our captain in the Polaris Lounge Restaurant, along with a few other passengers. One last final night of lounging in the Nautilus Lounge before heading to my cabin to pack. I have to say, I met some nice people on board. Travel allows me to explore and see new places and meet new people. Travelling with Adventure Canada was an incredible way to meet people I wouldn’t normally meet.


(Above: Stefan Kindberg, Member of the Explorers Club and Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and a Expedition Leader and myself. Photo Credit: Daniel J Catt) 

The next morning the Ocean Endeavour sailed through the narrows of the St John’s Harbour,  where our expedition ends. I am so thrilled to have had the opportunity and the privilege to step foot on Sable Island. Thanks to Adventure Canada’s expedition, Parks Canada, mother nature for allowing access, and an incredible husband that supports my passion for photographing horses at liberty. Sable Island will always be a magical place for me!  Sable Island is a place I escaped to. 

Heather Swan


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