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North America > Canada > Atlantic Canada > Nova Scotia > Eastern Shore (Nova Scotia) > Sable Island

Sable Island

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Sable Island is an island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, and a Canadian national park reserve.

Understand[edit]

Sable Island from the northwest

Sable Island is a 31.6-km² (12.2-sq mi) island 300 km (190 mi) southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and about 175 km (109 mi) southeast of the closest point of mainland Nova Scotia in the Atlantic Ocean. The island is staffed year round by four federal government staff, rising during summer months when research projects and tourism increase.

The visitor season for Sable Island National Park Reserve is June to the end of October.

Mid- to late August until the middle or end of September seems to provide the best rate of success for visits by air charter. Spring and early summer are "fog season", while later in the autumn is hurricane season. In the winter, in-flight icing conditions will often delay or cancel flights.

The Sable Island Station, managed and staffed by Parks Canada and Environment Canada, is the only permanently staffed facility on the island.

Contact the park office at +1 902-426-1993 or email: sable@pc.gc.ca

History[edit]

The expedition of Portuguese explorer João Álvares Fagundes explored this region in 1520–1521 and they were among the first Europeans to encounter the island. A brief attempt at French colonization at the end of the 16th century using convicts failed. The island was inhabited sporadically by sealers, shipwreck survivors, and salvagers known as "wreckers."

A series of life-saving stations were established on Sable Island by the governor of Nova Scotia, John Wentworth, in 1801. The rescue station began the continuous human presence on the island which continues today. Wentworth appointed James Morris, a Nova Scotian veteran of the British Royal Navy as the first superintendent of the island. Morris settled on the island in October 1801 with his family. By the time Morris died on the island in 1809, he had built up the humanitarian settlement to include a central station, two rescue boat stations, several lookout posts and survivor shelters.

The Canadian government took over administration of the station with Confederation in 1867 and added two lighthouses in 1872, Sable Island East End Light on the eastern tip and Sable Island West End Light on the western end. Until the advent of modern ship navigation, Sable Island was home to the families of the life-saving crews and the lighthouse keepers. In the early 20th century, the Marconi Company established a wireless station on the island and the Canadian government established a weather station. Several generations of island staff were born and raised families of their own on the island, although a decline in shipwrecks gradually reduced the size of the lifesaving community. Only two people have been born on Sable Island since 1920.

Improvements in navigation led to a dramatic drop in shipwrecks by the mid-20th century. The rescue station on Sable was reduced and eventually closed in 1958. The Canadian Coast Guard automated and later decommissioned the light stations. However, during this period, the island's role in science grew, first in weather research. The Canadian government expanded the collection of weather data started by the rescue station into a full meteorological station operated by Environment Canada and Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The station conducts routine atmospheric and meteorological studies from a permanently occupied station on Sable Island because of its unique isolated geographic position downwind from the North American mainland. In addition to weather studies, research on the island expanded to a range of ecological and wildlife studies.

In 2011, the Nova Scotia government and the federal government agreed to eventually protect the island as a national park. Sable Island became a National Park Reserve on June 20, 2013 with approval of stakeholders. Full national park status is pending settlement of land claims of the Mi'kmaq First Nation.

Landscape[edit]

Sable Island is a narrow, crescent-shaped sandbar with a surface area of about 34 km² (13 sq mi). Despite being nearly 42 km (26 mi) long, it is only 1.5 km (0.93 mi) 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 km (99 mi) to the northwest near Canso, Nova Scotia.

Sable Island is believed to have formed from a terminal moraine deposited on the continental shelf near the end of the last Ice Age. It is slowly moving as waves erode the western shore and new sand is added on the eastern shore, and continually changing shape through 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, however, in recent years their protecting dune-line has been eroded to such an extent that they are changing from one year to the next. In prior years, a brackish lake named Lake Wallace existed in the center of the south beach. At its largest, it extended for many miles; indeed, during World War II, amphibious aircraft landed on it. Over the years, the lake shrank with an infilling of sand, until in late 2011, it filled in entirely and disappeared. Since the south beach is subject to flooding during fall storms, photos often show water in the area around the former location of Lake Wallace, however, this flooded area is relatively shallow (only a few feet at most) and is not a remnant of the lake. The original lake was of a significant enough depth that even during times when the area was flooded, the lake could be seen in aerial photographs as a darker (deeper) patch in the middle of the flooded area.

Flora and fauna[edit]

Sable Island derived its name from the French word for "sand". It lacks natural trees, being covered instead with marram grass and other low-growing vegetation. In 1901, the federal government planted over 80,000 trees 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.

Sable Island horse

The island is home to over 550 free-roaming Sable Island Ponies, protected by law from human interference. This feral horse population is likely 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, shipped off the island, and sold, many used in coal mines on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. In 1960, the Canadian Government, under the Canada Shipping Act, gave the horse population full protection from human interference.

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. 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 the Arctic tern and Ipswich sparrow, a subspecies of the Savannah sparrow which breeds only on the Island. Many other species are resident, migratory, or transient, blown out to sea in storms and returned to land out of their natural range.

Rabbits, cattle, and goats were also released on the island, with little success, at one point.

At one point, there was a walrus population on the island, until hunters drove the population to extinction.

Climate[edit]

Sable Island has a Humid continental climate, but its climate is strongly influenced by the sea. Winter temperatures average near freezing while during the summer months, daily maximum temperatures average around 20 °C (68.0 °F). The average annual temperature range in Sable Island is 18.6 °C (33.5 °F) owing to the influence from the sea compared to 24.3 °C (43.7 °F) at Halifax and 38.9 °C (70.0 °F) in Winnipeg.

Generally, February is the coldest month while August is the warmest month. Sable Island averages 1,372 mm (54.0 in) of precipitation a year, which is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, though October through January are the wettest months due to frequent and intense fall and winter storms. Being located in the path of major frontal storms and tropical cyclones year-round, most of the precipitation comes from these storms. 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. This makes Sable Island the foggiest place in the Maritimes. The foggiest season is during the summer months where July averages 22 fog days.

During the winter, Sable Island has the warmest temperatures in Canada apart from the Pacific coast, and can have the warmest temperatures in the country on some occasions due to the influence of the Gulf Stream. Summers are among the coolest in southern Canada though. It is also the most hurricane-prone part of Canada, also due to the Gulf Stream, and is the only place where Category 3 hurricane-force winds are likely in all of Canada.

Get in[edit]

Sable Island is a very remote island, and is only accessible by air and by sea. Sable Island often experiences a large variety of weather conditions, including fog, high waves, and wind. Due to poor weather or a lack of a safe landing area, you must be prepared for delays in transportation schedules, when attempting to arrive on the island and when attempting to depart. Normal delays might last a day or two, although significantly longer delays are not uncommon. You should ensure you have adequate supplies to account for unplanned delays.

By air[edit]

Air charter is the most common way to get to Sable Island, since most people only make day trips. Sable Aviation 44 60 Inc (+1 902 499-7941 or +1 902 860-3994, or e-mail office@sableaviation.ca) provides this service to Sable Island, with a 7-passenger Britten-Normand Islander plane. Individual seats are not sold: visitors must charter the entire plane. Based on normal wind conditions, the flight from the Halifax Stanfield International Airport is about 1 hr 15 min; the return is 1 hr 40 min.

As of Mar 2018, the cost of a flight with same-day return (regardless of the number of people on board), including airport and parks fees, and taxes is $6900 for up to 7 people. If the flight is cancelled prior to departure, you are not charged.

The plane lands and takes off on the south beach of the island. Flooding of this beach due to severe storm surges can interrupt air service to the island for days or weeks at a time.

By boat[edit]

The possibility of heavy fog, shifting sandbars, and rough seas in the waters around Sable Island can pose challenges to boat access. There are no wharf facilities or mooring buoys on Sable Island, and vessels must anchor offshore and have a zodiac or other small boat suitable for a beach landing. Visitors must register for their trip. Vessels should contact the Parks Canada Operations Coordinator on the island (at +1 902 492-4678) before departing the mainland to ensure that Main Station personnel are aware of their itinerary, and to ensure vessels are informed of activities or conditions on the island or offshore that may affect their plans.

Some cruise ships have visited Sable Island. Try Adventure Canada or Adventure Life.

Fees and permits[edit]

Fees for logistics and services associated with aircraft landings are included in the cost of the air charter.

Get around[edit]

To get around the island, you will have to hike. There are no vehicles for visitor use on the island.

See[edit]

Animal life on Sable Island includes horses, harbour seals and grey seals.

Do[edit]

The main thing to do on the island is hike: hiking across the island in a day would definitely be a challenge.

Buy[edit]

There are no shops on the island.

Eat[edit]

Visitors have access to a fully equipped kitchen, including a microwave, if you want to heat the lunch you brought with you.

Drink[edit]

You must bring everything but water with you. 1 Sable Station uses treated well water, so you do not have to bring drinking water out to the island, however, you should bring along a small bottle to fill with water after you have arrived, to carry with you for hiking in the hot sun.

Sleep[edit]

Other than certain groups such as researchers and documentary film crews that have been granted special permission, no overnight stays are allowed.

Connect[edit]

There is no cell phone/mobile phone service on the island, but a hike across Sable Island can be viewed on Google Streetview. The imagery was collected in September 2015 by a Parks Canada employee who carried a backpack version of the Street View car camera around an area on the centre of the island. The route follows a hiking route that Parks Canada staff uses to escort adventure tourists who visit the island.

Stay safe[edit]

It is not uncommon for poor weather and beach conditions to prohibit departure by aircraft or small boat from the island for several days. You should ensure that you have adequate supplies, including any prescribed medication, to accommodate unplanned delays.

Go next[edit]

This park travel guide to Sable Island is a usable article. It has information about the park, for getting in, about a few attractions, and about accommodations in the park. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.