Sable Island is a small island located about 190 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. This remote and very isolated location is one of the farthest offshore islands in Canada. Although it’s almost 200 miles from the mainland, it is still part of the Halifax Region.
The island is famously known for its hundreds of wild horses that inhabit the island, as well as several other animals and birds that make this place so unique. There is, however, a darker history that surrounds the island, specifically the hundreds of shipwrecks that have occurred there over the years. In fact, the island is eerily referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
From the incredible wildlife that inhabits the island, to the French criminals who lived there centuries ago, to the horribly dangerous weather and hundreds of shipwrecks, this article will detail 10 of the most amazing facts about Sable Island.
10. The Location
The distant crescent-shaped sandbar is located almost 200 miles from Halifax in the Atlantic Ocean. Sable Island measures 26 miles long and is home to a considerable amount of wildlife, such as wild horses, seals, and numerous rare birds. In fact, the island is the world’s largest breeding colony for grey seals. The exceptionally strong plant life also attracts many insects that are found no other place on Earth.
The weather is highly unpredictable and the tides are continuously changing. There is much debate on whether Sable Island is, in fact, moving eastward. Some scientists believe that the western part of the island is washing away, while the eastern side of the island is gathering more sand. This makes the island appear as if it’s moving eastward; however, others argue that the island is not moving but it is actually getting smaller and could potentially one day disappear altogether.
9. First Settlers From The 1590s
In the 1590s, a Frenchman with quite a name – Troilus de Mesgouez, marquis de La Roche-Helgomarche, viceroy of New France – decided to harvest colonists for Sable Island to make money from fur and fish. He gathered criminals, vagabonds, and beggars from a French port and told them they would be going to an island where they would work for the colony. By the late 1590s, about 50-60 settlers, along with 10 soldiers, were living on Sable Island. They also had a storehouse.
The criminals, not surprisingly, committed crimes on an almost nightly basis, mostly by robbing each other. When the marquis, who had previously left to explore the mainland, tried returning to the island later that year, he couldn’t find it and ended up sailing back to France. While the settlers received living supplies annually, in 1602 they were cut off and had to fend for themselves. When a new supply ship arrived on the island in 1603, they discovered that only 11 of the settlers were still alive. They had resorted to murdering each other during that year alone on the island. The survivors returned to France, where King Henry IV rewarded them with silver coins. And the island, once again, became uninhabited by humans.
8. It’s Been Named A Canadian National Park
In December 2013, Sable Island was named Canada’s 43rd National Park. The island is home to a variety of animals and plant life. There are over 350 species of birds living on the island, with some listed as endangered. The world’s largest breeding colony of grey seals is found on Sable Island, not to mention the countless number of wild horses living there.
While there are nearly 200 different species of plants found there, there is oddly only one tree on the island – a small pine tree that stands at just three feet tall. The strong winds make it nearly impossible for trees to survive on the island, along with the fact that there isn’t much real soil found there.
There’s also plenty of history and cultural resources connected to the island, such as the many shipwrecks that have happened there. In fact, sometimes when the sand shifts, the remains from shipwrecks are found. Other important locations on the island include the life-saving stations, lighthouses, and telegraph poles.
7. The HMS Delight
In 1583 the HMS Delight, the first recorded shipwreck took place at Sable Island. The Delight was exploring the waters along with another ship named the HMS Squirrel when the commanders of each vessel got into a dispute about the safest course to sail their boats. Richard Clarke, who was the master of the Delight, agreed to obey Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s (the commander of the Squirrel) orders.
The HMS Delight, which was the larger of the two ships and carried the most supplies, ended up wrecking on one of Sable Island’s sandbars and sank. The HMS Squirrel was unable to rescue them as the water was too shallow to enter. The majority of Clarke’s crew members drowned and only 16 of them, along with Clarke himself, were able to get into a small boat and sailed the water for days, hoping for someone to rescue them. They were on the boat for a total of seven days when they finally reached the northern province of Newfoundland. Five days after that, a Basque whaling vessel found the men and rescued them.
6. The Merrimac
The most recent shipwreck on Sable Island – and the first one since 1947 – happened on July 27, 1999, and it was that of the Merrimac. The 12-meter fiberglass yacht with an auxiliary engine was owned by Jean Rheault of Montreal, Quebec. At around 2:00 a.m., after the ship had wrecked, they got into a life raft but quickly realized they were just a few meters away from Sable Island. Once the three-man crew (including Rheault himself) had reached the island, natural gas exploration workers rescued them. The crew members flew to Halifax the following day.
Although Rheault hired a fisherman to try to recover the yacht, they were unable to retrieve it. After just six weeks, the remains of the yacht were nothing more than tiny fragments of fiberglass caused by the sand and strong waves crashing upon the wreckage. A portion of the yacht’s Dacron sail is now on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which is located in Halifax.
5. It’s Home To More Than 350 Species Of Birds
There are over 350 different species of birds living on Sable Island. It’s believed to be the only nesting place in the world for the Ipswich Sparrow. Also found on the island are 2,000 pairs of Herring Gulls, more than 2,500 pairs of terns, and over 500 pairs of Great Black-backed Gulls. Other birds include American Black Ducks, Semipalmated Plovers, Red-breasted Mergansers, and sandpipers, just to name a few. In addition, there have been several migrant birds, along with exotic strays that have been found there.
There are three types of terns: Roseate, Common, and Arctic. While there are over 2,500 pairs of terns that live on the island, approximately 60% of them are Arctic Terns. The Roseate Terns are listed as an endangered species.
4. Horrible Weather Conditions
Sable Island is known to have extremely strong winds and a lot of fog. In fact, there is a daily average of at least one hour of fog on the island for about a third of the year (125 days). When the warm air from the Gulf Stream mixes in with the cool air from the Labrador Current, it creates fog throughout the island. It also has the strongest winds in the entire province of Nova Scotia. The temperatures, however, are not too severe, with the yearly average ranging between 26 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s believed that many of the shipwrecks that have happened on Sable Island were caused by the dangerous and severe weather. Prior to the more advanced modern day navigational equipment, the older instruments depended greatly on using the sun and the stars for navigation, making it impossible for the crew members to use when they reached the thick fog and clouds near the island — a perfect recipe for a shipwreck. In addition to the sometimes horrible weather conditions, Sable Island is also directly in the path of many storms (including hurricanes) that travel up the Atlantic Coast.
3. Human Population: One
We’ve talked about the high wildlife population on this remote island, but there is also one — and only one — person who lives there year-round. In fact, she’s been living there for over 40 years, by herself. Zoe Lucas, who is a 68-year-old scientist, first visited the island in 1971 when she was just 21 years of age and studying goldsmithing. While there are other workers and scientists who rotate shifts on the island, Lucas is the only permanent resident.
While it would seem that living on an island all alone would be terribly boring, Lucas claims that she’s never lonely and spends her time studying the ecology. She lives in a wooden house that’s settled within the sand dunes, and she has supplies flown in every two weeks. She’s found many strange things that have washed ashore, but the oddest one was a fake leg. While many of us couldn’t imagine living in solitude on a remote island, it’s obvious that Lucas really enjoys it, or else she wouldn’t have stayed there for over four decades.
2. It’s Nicknamed the “Graveyard Of The Atlantic”
With severe weather hiding the island from sight because of dangerous storms, large waves, and thick fog, it’s not surprising that many ships have crashed there. Since 1583, more than 350 shipwrecks have been recorded on Sable Island, which is why it has been given the ominous nickname of the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
One of the reasons so many ships have wrecked in that area is that it’s a very rich fishing ground, as well as being directly on the shipping path between North America and Europe, so a lot of boats pass by there every year.
In 1801, the first lifesaving station was developed on the island and by 1895 there were a total of five stations. This project was referred to as the “Humane Establishment.” There were two lighthouses on the island, where someone would always keep watch during the nights. There were also shelters in place where survivors from shipwrecks could go to keep warm and eat. However, after 11 years without any reports of shipwrecks, the Humane Establishment ended in 1958.
1. Wild Horses
When most people think of Sable Island, their first thought is usually of the many wild horses that inhabit the island. While there isn’t an exact count of the number of horses living on the island, it’s believed that there could be up to 400.
While some people assume that the horses ended up on the island by swimming there from one of the shipwrecks, historians believe that they were put on the island on purpose in the 18th century. In the 1750s or 1760s, a Boston merchant and ship-owner named Thomas Hancock transported Acadians to American colonies during their expulsion from Nova Scotia. He also brought horses, cows, hogs, goats, and sheep with him. In the end, it was only the horses that were able to survive on the island, and it’s believed that the horses today are the descendants from those introduced there centuries ago.
And when you consider the horses live on the remote island and have never had any veterinary care or antibiotics, it’s amazing that these animals have survived for centuries on their own.