The Allure of Sable Island


As a kid, I was always fascinated by a tiny little island floating in the Atlantic southeast of the Nova Scotian coast. Sable Island held a lot of mystery for me – no towns, no trees, and a really odd shape to boot. Couple that with the fact that there was nothing –nothing– around it, and that was enough to get me on the search to find out just how Sable Island came about. Decades later, I’m still fascinated; my interest reignited about this same time last year when the Canadian government announced its intention to turn the island into a national park.

So, what’s so special about this little speck of land (34 km2) floating in the Atlantic? Quite a bit, actually. The year 1520 is a good place to begin, for that was the year Portuguese explorer João Álvares Fagundes first encountered the island on one of his many voyages to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia (it is believed that Fagundes gave the island the imaginative name of ‘Fagunda’). Ultimately, it was the French name for the island (Île de Sable, meaning ‘island of sand’) that caught on. It was soon discovered that Sable was in the middle of one of the world’s richest fishing grounds, and once the fishers came, Sable began to get a fair amount of visitors. These visitors weren’t exactly seeking out Sable; rather, they were victims of geography.


Source: Treeman, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licence.

Sable lies near the edge of the North American continental shelf, 160 kilometres off Nova Scotia. Similar to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to the northeast, waters of the cold-flowing Labrador Current from the north mix with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream coming from the south. The waters mix, pushing up nutrients from the ocean floor to the surface.The abundance of nutrient creates an optimal environment for sea life, including fish and shellfish, to thrive. Being located further to the south than the Grand Banks, though, places Sable right in the paths of various nor’easters, tropical storms, and even hurricanes.Combine that with the frequent fog hovering over the island and the sandbars on either end extending dozen of kilometres from the island, and this has resulted in over 350 recorded shipwrecks on Sable since 1583 (click the link for a terrific map of the shipwrecks); many boats blown straight onto the island. In time, Sable Island would become known as the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’. For a time, small groups of ‘wreckers’ (people who made their livings stripping shipwrecked boats of their valuables) inhabited Sable Island. These wreckers were so known for their violence that the Nova Scotian government established a rescue station on Sable in 1801. Lighthouses finally came in 1872, along with lighthouse keepers to run them.

With the advent of modern ship navigation, there was no need for keepers to live on the island anymore. Today, the permanent human population is five: one researcher, and four people to man the federal weather station; these residents work together to provide stewardship for the island, as well as guard its sovereignty as representatives of the Canadian Coast Guard (foreign nationals occasionally try to gain entry into Canada via Sable). Supplies are flown in every two weeks.The most famous inhabitants of Sable Island are the feral horses, descendant of a population introduced in the late 1700s (as best as can be told, these were horses confiscated from Acadians that had been forcibly removed from the Maritimes by the British). There can be anywhere between 200 and 350 horses on Sable Island any given year. All of these horses are tracked and monitored (from a distance) in order to ensure their viability. There are also breeding populations of terns and Ipswich sparrows (Ipswich sparrows only breed on Sable Island).


Feral Sable Island horses feed from an ephemeral pond beside massive sand dunes. Source: Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.

Sable is an island literally on the move. As it is quite literally a sand island and has no trees, only grasses, it is easily eroded and shifted by wind and wave; slowly, it is being pushed to the east by the ocean currents and winds from the west. Small, brackish lakes dot the interior from times to time, including the semi-permanent Lake Wallace (sometimes nearly ten kilometres long). Understandably, it’s a rather fragile place; the major issues today on Sable Island are almost exclusively environmental, which prompted the announcement last year that the Canadian government intends to make Sable Island a national park. On paper, that sounds nice enough, but there are many who fear that official park status will attract boatloads of tourists and campers that would do more damage to the island’s ecosystem than under the current regime, where accessed is heavily restricted. Park or not, there are some issues that will not go away regardless. Despite its seemingly pristine nature, an astounding 8 kilograms of garbage per kilometre of beach washes ashore on Sable Island each month. The island also lies next door to one of North America’s largest natural gas fields, which has been in operation since 1999. The future of Sable Island is certainly up in the air, but the unique history and environment of the island will ensure that whatever happens, it will continue to intrigue.

Further Reading

CBC News (2010). Sable Island poised to become national park. 18 May 2010. Available at Accessed 24 February 2011.

CBC Nova Scotia (2005). Overview: Beautiful & Deadly Sable Island. 6 April 2005. Available at Accessed 24 February 2011.

Galloway, G. (2011). Animal-rights groups ready their cameras for Canadian seal hunt. The Globe and Mail, 20 February 2011. Available at Accessed 24 February 2011.

Lucas, Z. (2010). Sable Island Green Horse Society. Available at Accessed 24 February 2011.

Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Nova Scotia Museum (2011). Sable Island: Shipwrecks and Lifesaving. Available at Accessed 24 February 2011.

Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History (2001). Sable Island: A Story of Survival. Available at Accessed 24 February 2011.

Parks Canada (2011). Sable Island National Park Proposal. 25 January 2011. Available at Accessed 24 February 2011.

Sable Island Preservation Trust (2006). Sable Island Preservation Trust. Available at Accessed 24 February 2011.

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