Article | Atlantic Canada, Sable Island and Gulf of Saint Lawrence

A Smile in the Sea: Sable Island

Sable Island’s unique geography, plant life, maritime history, wild horses, and grey seal colony make it one of Canada’s natural and historical wonders. Learn more about why you should visit this special, off-the-beaten-path Parks Canada National Reserve.
Landscape of Sable Island with horses in the distance

© Dennis Minty

Before I had travelled there myself, I had always wondered—how did this little island come to be here, so far away from anywhere else? How did horses get here? And, how do they manage to survive?

A Unique Geography

Sable Island, a crescent of sand, is forty-nine kilometres from its western, tapering sand spit to its eastern one, but it is less than 1.5 kilometres wide. From a bird's-eye view, it looks like a smile in the sea. The concave side faces north, where the next land you would find is the south coast of Nova Scotia, some 156 kilometres away. Halifax is 290 kilometres to the northwest.

Grassy dunes of Sable Island

© Dennis Minty

Picture a mighty sand and gravel moraine pushed up during the last glaciation, with Sable Island as its tiny, low-lying apex. Like a massive iceberg, most of the landform is submerged. Influenced by currents and wind, it is an unpredictable shapeshifter, losing sand in one place while adding it in another, so that the island’s topography is endlessly changing. It once had a lake, but it gradually filled with sand and disappeared in 2011. Perhaps it will have another again one day.

Hiking on sand dunes

© Dennis Minty

The highest point—for now—is Bald Dune, which rises twenty-eight metres above the surrounding sea. From the top, you can see acre upon acre of dune grass, patches of sand, and, here and there, small groups of horses quietly feeding. There’s not a tree to be seen.

Creeping roots of dune grass

© Dennis Minty

Were it not for this dune grass, called marram, Sable would be a radically different place. But with it, the island is perfectly adapted for its shifting sand environment. The grass has an extensive system of creeping underground stems (rhizomes) that grow deep into the dunes and stabilize them against the eroding wind.

Some History

Sable is best known for its horses and shipwrecks, the latter of which number about 350. Shipwrecks are so numerous because of the frequent dense fog, powerful currents, shallow sand bars—and because Sable is in the middle of a major transatlantic shipping route and an important fishing ground.

Sable horses feed near wetland

© Dennis Minty

Because Sable Island presented such a hazard, people have lived there since 1801. This began with the Humane Establishment, a life-saving operation for shipwrecks that included refuge houses, crew to rescue stranded sailors, and, later, lighthouses and lighthouse keepers. The Humane Establishment lasted until 1958, by which time modern technology had greatly reduced the risk to ships.

The Meteorological Service of Canada operated on Sable since 1891 and can brag of having one of the longest continuous collections of weather data in the Maritimes. Parks Canada became the custodians of Sable Island in 2011 and it was designated as a National Park Reserve in 2013.

Zoe Lucas walks on Sable Island

© Bill Freedman

Adventure Canada expedition team member and long-time resident of Sable Island, Zoe Lucas, first arrived in 1974 as a volunteer cook and field assistant with a Dalhousie University seal study team. By 1982 she was spending eight to ten months a year on the island, studying such diverse topics as shark predation on seals, the natural history of the resident horses, stranded cetaceans, sea litter, oiled seabirds, mosses, lichens, and more.

During her time there, she has collected over twelve thousand littered balloons, which she keeps and uses as a compelling visual to discourage children from having balloons at their birthday parties, due to the extreme hazard they pose to marine creatures. She is now President of the Sable Island Institute. I believe Zoe was the first one to call Sable “a smile in the sea,” a name that reflects the charming effect this place has on all who visit.

Sable horse portrait

© Dennis Minty

The First Horses

There is no record that shows with certainty how the first horses arrived on Sable. The most likely scenario is that they came in the mid-1700s when the Acadians were being deported from Nova Scotia during the Great Upheaval. Thomas Hancock, a Boston-based merchant and ship-owner, had the job of moving Acadians from the Maritimes to the United States, and he likely bought—or brazenly took—some horses from the Acadians and left them on Sable. Perhaps he thought that they could pasture for free and be sold later. But there seemed to be no grand plan, because the horses were left to eventually become feral. In recent years, the total population has grown to between 400 and 550 animals.

Sable wild horses with shaggy coats

© Dennis Minty

Through the mid 1800s, some horses were captured and shipped to Halifax for sale. Some were kept and trained by island residents for hauling and riding. In 1959, there was a plan to round up all the horses and slaughter them for glue and dog food, until a public protest arose and the plan was quashed. Finally, in 1960, the horses were officially protected by Canadian law.

A 2007 study has since proved that the horses have been isolated long enough to become genetically unique. Nova Scotia declared it as the province’s official horse in 2008 and in 2011 Parks Canada took over its custodial role, which is to protect the horses, but not to manage them. Any intervention is illegal.

Horses nuzzling

© Dennis Minty

The small stature of the Sable Island horse is likely the result of its meagre food supply of marram grass. It is coarse and often coated with sand, so the horses' teeth wear faster than animals on finer, more nutritious feed. When I’ve visited in early summer, the island is a lush green, but winter would be a different story. When the grass fades to brown and becomes far less nutritious, winter starvation presents the horses’ biggest challenge to survival.

Grazing horses and colts

© Dennis Minty

More to Learn

Horses are not even the most abundant animal here. Sable also has the world’s largest colony of grey seals, numbering around 380,000 as of 2019. The population is booming, having grown from around 1300 in 1960. Up to 80,000 pups are born here each year. The seals are attracted by the good fishing grounds nearby and by the extensive sandy beaches that are conducive to hauling out, breeding, and giving birth.

Sable Island grey seals colony

© Dennis Minty

The Nature of Things has produced a fascinating documentary about the current scientific work on Sable’s grey seals called “The Seals of Sable”. It is well worth the watch!

You can learn more about the island, too, in this CBC “Land and Sea” short film, which was made while Parks Canada was first getting involved and considering their management options.

Blue flag iris

© Dennis Minty

But, surely, the best way to learn more about Sable Island is to travel there yourself—to meet people like Zoe, hike the dunes, watch the horses and the seals, and contemplate why it is so important to protect places such as this one.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.