Do you have childhood memories of a mystical island somewhere in the ocean where the horses run wild? It turns out, this island is a real place that you can actually visit. Sable Island is a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, 290 kilometers off the coast of Halifax. The island is Canadian and considered part of the municipality of Halifax. However, there are never more than 26 people living on the island at a time, all of them for only temporary periods.
The island, a 34 square kilometer sandbar, is a lush oasis for the horses and birds that call it home. While it is difficult to visit the island to see the fabled horses, it’s not impossible. Here is everything you need to know about Sable Island for you to start dreaming and planning your trip.
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The history of Sable Island is a long one, and in the end, nature won. There are many theories on where the horses came from, but the most widely accepted is they were dropped off by Thomas Hancock in the 1750s and 1760s. During this time, the British were in the process of removing the Acadian population from Nova Scotia. Seizing property, goods and livestock while evicting the entire Acadian population to the United States. Thomas Hancock, a Boston shipowner and merchant, dropped the abandoned Arcadian livestock off at the island with the intention of picking them up later. Of the horses, cows, sheep, goats, and hogs that he dropped off, only the horses survived.
A more romantic legend has the horses swimming to shore after a shipwreck caused by Sable Island. No evidence supports this story, but many a ship has found its end off the coast of this island. The fog, inclement storms, strong currents, and ever-shifting sand bars have caused more than 350 ships to be wrecked, giving the island the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
In 1801, Canada created a life-saving station on Sable Island. In 1867, Canada installed two lighthouses. Now, thanks to better navigation, far fewer ships crash on the shores. The last shipwreck was a yacht in 1999.
In the 1950s, the Crown Assets Disposal Corporation declared the growing number of wild horses on the island a surplus and rumours circulated that the horses would be removed from the island. Hundreds of children wrote to the Prime Minister asking for the horses’ lives to be spared. Their efforts were not in vain, and the horses were declared protected and preserved in 1960. The herd has been growing ever since.
Sable Island Wildlife
The legendary horses of Sable Island have grown from 150 to 579 as of 2019. Their small, sturdy builds and thick coats help them withstand the rough conditions of the island. In winter and during the frequent storms, the horses huddle together behind the dunes. For food, the horses feast on the beach grass covering more than a third of the island and drink from the freshwater ponds. When the horses are without freshwater, they dig their hooves in the sand in search of rainwater that collects underneath.
But it’s not just horses that you can admire on the island. The world’s largest breeding colony of grey seals is located here, thanks to the fertile fishing grounds of Grand Banks. This island is also the only place where Ipswich sparrows nest. Over 190 different types of plants and 350 species of birds call the remote land home. In addition to the Ipswich sparrows, you can see terns, gulls, ducks, as well as rare and tropical species blown north by stormy winds.
Sable Island Terrain
The vibrant community of flora and fauna make up the island’s delicate ecosystem, allowing the wild horses to flourish here. The many pools of freshwater enable wildlife to settle on the island. The fragile terrain supports life but is easily disturbed by too much human contact.
The weather is, on average, warmer than Nova Scotia’s, with cooler summers and warmer winters. Trees do not thrive on the island due to the raging ocean winds and scarcity of actual soil. 80,000 trees were planted on the island in 1901, and today only one has survived: a five-foot Scotch Pine alone in the sand, looking more like a bush than a tree.
It’s believed that the island was formed near the end of the last Ice Age. Since Sable Island is made out of sand, scientists have noticed the island slowly creeping further east as the terrain shifts with ocean activity and weather.
The only people who live on the island are researchers and the people who run the life-saving stations. There are never more than 6-26 people temporarily living on the island at one time.
How to Get to Sable Island
Sable Island officially became a national park in 2013, giving people the chance to visit the previously secluded island. With that being said, it’s no easy feat to reach, and only around 450 visitors are allowed each year so that the island’s delicate ecosystem is not disturbed.
To get to the isolated island, you can fly or take a boat. Before you book your tickets though, you’ll have to register and receive permission from Parks Canada.
Transportation Options to Sable Island
- Sable Aviation 44 60 Inc will take you on a small charter plane to the island. You’ll need at least four people to go with you. The flight only takes just over an hour, but the trip heavily depends on weather conditions and can often be postponed.
- Adventure Canada offers a cruise experience that takes you not only to Sable Island but St. John’s, NL and Saint Pierre, France, off the coast of Newfoundland. The cruise spends a few days docked on the shores of the island. Zodiac-style boats take you to the island to explore and back again at night to sleep.
- If you have the equipment and know-how, you could even brave the stormy seas yourself and boat out there on your own vessel. However, this option is for experienced boaters only!
Whatever mode of travel you choose, you’ll be awe-struck by the stunning and wild landscape of the island and the rugged ponies that call the place home.
Hero Image: @chuckwrathall