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Dune Time: A Visit to Sable Island

Adventure Canada was the first ship-based travel company to ever visit the Sable Island National Park Reserve, and in this personal account full of wonder and nostalgia, photographer and naturalist Dennis Minty takes us along for a stroll across its dunes.
Horses feeding in misty air

© Dennis Minty

Our Arrival

As first light illuminated the eastern horizon, the inky sea stretched all around in every direction, calm and featureless. St. John’s, Newfoundland, where we had left about forty-eight hours before, was now over seven hundred kilometres to the northeast. We pushed on further to the southwest as the sky lightened on this clear morning and, ever so gradually, Sable Island—that sandy smile in the sea—rose above the skyline.

Ocean Endeavour sailing calm waters

© Dennis Minty

Thanks to Adventure Canada’s well-earned reputation as an ecologically responsible company, we were the first ship-based travel company to gain approval from Parks Canada to land passengers in this new National Park Reserve. We would be under the strict supervision of Parks Canada staff on our visit because of the ecological sensitivity of this very special place. It was to be an adventure of a lifetime!

Landing

As the ship approached, we were told to look for a Parks Canada 4x4 on the beach. We had to anchor well off because of the shallow, sandy bottom, but with our binoculars on the bridge, we could just make out the Parks Canada vehicle. And, thankfully, we could see little surf. Had it been otherwise our landing for that morning could have been compromised.

Parks Canada vehicle waiting on beach

© Dennis Minty

The official announcement came over the PA system: “Yellow colour group please proceed to the mudroom to prepare for Zodiac disembarkation. You will be followed by green, then red, and finally white.” There was a buzz of excitement amongst both staff and passengers as we hurriedly readied for our first Zodiac ride to the sandy shores, followed by our morning trek in this place where few others had ever set foot.

Parks Canada staff in dialogue with David Freeze

© Dennis Minty

The Adventure Canada staff went ashore first, to meet the Parks Canada representatives, receive their instructions, and prepare for passengers—which included setting up our “biffy”. There are no public toilet facilities on Sable Island, so we had to operate on a “pack in, pack out” basis.

Biffy set up on beach

© Dennis Minty

Then the first load of passengers came ashore. Usually we land the Zodiacs bow-first, but when there is surf, or potential surf, we land stern-first to keep the bow high and prevent the Zodiac from being swamped by a wave. This means that our landing team had to wade out, intercept the boat, and spin it around before hauling it onto the beach. What teamwork! The water may look tropical, but it was a cool 10°C.

Bringing in Zodiac by stern

© Dennis Minty

Not long after all passengers were onshore, a pair of horses ambled down the beach and checked out our biffy. Luckily, no one was in it at the time. Our instructions were always to keep about twenty metres between us and the horses. If they came closer, we were to back up—a tricky maneuver with your trousers around your ankles.

Two horses with biffy tent

© Dennis Minty

The adult grey seals, too, were friendly. They seemed to love swimming alongside the Zodiacs with their heads high out of the water and their dark, curious eyes focused on us.

Grey seals swimming

© Dennis Minty

Why Here?

Onboard, we had already learned about the unique natural and human history of Sable Island: about the importance of the dune grass to the sand bar’s ecology, about the long history of shipwrecks, the horses, and the grey seals.

We also learned that Sable is home to the endangered and endemic Ipswich Sparrow, a close cousin of the more common Savannah Sparrow. In all the world, this little bird only breeds on this tiny sandy island. They are quick and hard to photograph, but I managed to get a couple that met the grade.

Ipswich Sparrow Sable Island

© Dennis Minty

After wandering the island for much of the day, we happened on a small wetland, Iris Pond, abloom with blue flag irises and bull-head waterlilies. The horses had waded in and were munching on the succulent roots. These little bodies of freshwater, essential for the horses, are fickle things and can disappear and reappear somewhere else as the dunes migrate and change shape.

Horses at wetland irises and waterlilies

© Dennis Minty

As you might expect for a place out in the Atlantic, the weather was variable, but we managed to get ashore each day and experienced the island in its full range of summer flavours.

Crashing waves on beach

© Dennis Minty

Our last landing was a real stunner, where all the elements lined up perfectly. We stayed on the long beach under a dazzling blue sky and the horses came to the edge of the dune as though they were performers in a stage play. Other than the occasional gaze, they acted like we did not exist and showed us a range of natural horse behaviour that would delight the keenest observer.

Group of horses Sable Island

© Dennis Minty

Saying Goodbye to Sable

With a departing wave from a baby seal, we said farewell to Sable and headed northeast across the famous Gully, the largest underwater canyon in eastern North America that lies between Sable Island and the Nova Scotia mainland. It is especially known as the haunt of certain cetaceans who prefer deep water.

Grey seal waving flipper

© Dennis Minty

We were all on deck hoping to see a bottlenose whale, one of the deepest diving mammals known, reaching depths of about 1400 metres. We were not disappointed.

Bottlenose whale the gully

© Dennis Minty

In addition to the bottlenose, we also saw fin whales, humpbacks, pilot whales, common and white-beaked dolphins, and many shearwaters.

Shearwater in flight

© Dennis Minty

Continuing on towards Newfoundland, we also stopped at the little town of Francois tucked deep into one of Newfoundland’s remote fjords on the south coast. It is always a highlight to experience this roadless community of eighty or so warm-hearted and welcoming souls who put on a heck of a kitchen-party, which filled our evening with music, dancing and laughter.

View of Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Then it was on to the oh-so-French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon for an amble along the waterfront and among the narrow streets with their kaleidoscope of bold colours. Some paused for a taste of crusty croissants and fine local cheese.

Small wooden boats on Saint Pierre

© Dennis Minty

After leaving Saint-Pierre, we sailed through the night. Morning found us moving north along a daunting, rocky coastline, when a break in the cliffs appeared. As the narrow gap opened, the colourful, historic city of St. John’s, and its magnificent bowl of a harbour, gradually came into view. Passing through the gap, known as the Narrows, we sailed beneath the iconic Signal Hill and past the Battery—a distinctive, old section of the capital with its crayon-coloured houses clinging to the steep hillside. This trip was a bit like the old coffee commercial: “good to the last drop.”

The Battery neighbourhood among the Narrows

© Dennis Minty

As the days passed back on land, I had time to reflect and understand that our journey to the little “smile in the sea” provided a full-serving of memories that I would cherish for a lifetime.

Visitors watch horses from distance

© Dennis Minty

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. His latest book, Labrador: The Big Land was published in 2016 and a sister volume, Newfoundland: An Island Apart, came out a year earlier.

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

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