(Click images to enlarge)
Sable Island is a narrow crescent-shaped sandbar located about 15.5 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. It is approximately 16 miles long and less than a mile across at its widest point. Because it's basically a sand bar, its shape and size have shifted dramatically throughout its recorded history. It emerges from 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". The nearest landfall is 100 miles to the northwest near Canso, Nova Scotia.
Since the time of the earliest European visitors to Nova Scotia, Sable Island has been the bane and saviour of sailors. Many of the sailors wrecked on the island's shoals survived by swimming or floating to shore to wait for rescue. The Sable Island Rescue Service existed for many years to help sailors caught in the treacherous waters.
The first recorded shipwreck off the Island occurred during a voyage in 1583 by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, whose expedition lost a ship and many lives when poor planning and lack of patience brought a small fleet to the island at night. This was to be repeated time and time again throughout history as sailors and ships ended their days on the sands and rocks around the island. (See shipwreck map.)
The island is home to 5 people--4 Environment Canada Station personnel and one resident researcher--but in the summer, seasonal contractors, research scientists, photographers, etc. come to the island. It is protected under the Canada Shipping Act, which means that permission must be obtained from the Canadian Coast Guard to visit the island.
Sable Island was named after its sand (Sable is French for "sand"). It is covered with grass and other low-growing vegetation. In 1901 the federal government planted over 80,000 trees on the island in an attempt to stabilize the soil; all died. Sable Island is believed to have formed from large quantities of sand and gravel deposited on the continental shelf near the end of the last ice age. The island is continually changing its shape with the effects of strong winds and violent ocean storms. It has several freshwater ponds on the south side between the station and west light, and a brackish lake (Lake Wallace) near its center. There are frequent heavy fogs in the area due to the contrasting effects of the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream. During winter months, the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream can sometimes give Sable Island the warmest temperatures in Canada.
The island is home to over 300 free-roaming feral horses, protected by law from human interference. They are descended from horses confiscated from Acadians during the Great Expulsion in 1755 and left on the island by Thomas Hancock, Boston merchant and uncle of John Hancock. In the past, excess horses have been rounded up and shipped off the island for use in coal mines on Cape Breton Island, or to be sold, but the Government gave full protection to the horse population in 1960 and they have been left alone ever since. No human is allowed to interfere with any of the island's wildlife because it is a wildlife preserve and is protected by the Canadian government.
A life-saving station was established on Sable Island in 1801, and its crew became the first permanent inhabitants of the island. Two lighthouses, one on the eastern tip and one on the western tip were built in 1872. Until the advent of modern ship navigation, Sable Island's two light stations were home to permanent lighthouse keepers and their families, as well as the crew members of the life-saving station. In the early 20th century, the Marconi Company established a radio station on the island and the Canadian government similarly established a weather station.