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Sable Island – “The Smile of the Atlantic”
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Sable Island – “The Smile of the Atlantic”

This blog was written by Sue Ratcliffe, Sue is a photographer with a deep passion for shooting wildlife, horses, birds of prey and people throughout her travels around the globe. Sue’s passion is capturing the beauty and grace of nature, and all that lives and thrives within it. Sue was one of the winners of the 2017 Nature Photo Contest, her beautiful photo of the Bald Eagle soaring over the clear water is the feature image of the Nature Canada Calendar this month. Feel free to email Cheyanne, at crichardson@naturecanada.ca if you have any questions about the Nature Photo Contest or would like to make a donation and get a copy of the Nature Canada Calendar.


Sable Island is a narrow, crescent-shaped sandbar, giving it the name “the smile of the Atlantic”. It is wild, windswept and remote, fascinating and mysterious. For years I have been entranced by the tales of Sable Island and passionately drawn to the wild horses that have long lived there. These famous horses lend a near mythical and ethereal quality to this elusive island whose allure is pure and magical and has long kept us captivated and spellbound. Sable Island is nearly 42 kilometers long and about 1.5 kilometers across at its widest point with shifting sand dunes that change from year to year. The island’s extensive beaches are home to the world’s largest colony of grey seals, and freshwater ponds that sustain rare plant life. Plants, birds, and insects have adapted to life on Sable, some of which are found nowhere else on earth. The island is prone to intense fall and winter storms, frequently making travel there difficult. The only way to get there is by air or by sea. I traveled there with Adventure Canada on “The Ocean Endeavour”, traveling to the island daily on a zodiac. Sable Island is the most hurricane-prone part of Canada and the foggiest spot in the Maritimes. I visited Sable Island in July and encountered fog three days out of the four days we permitted to visit the island. The federal government announced in May 2010 that protection of the island would be transferred from the Canadian Coast Guard to Parks Canada. Sable Island became a National Park Reserve on June 20, 2013. The island is home to over 550 free-roaming horses and are protected by law from human interference as by the 1950s they were in danger of extinction from round-ups. The horses likely descended from horses confiscated by the Acadians and released on the island in the late eighteenth century and soon became feral. Additional horses were later transported to the island to improve the herd's breeding stock. The horses are small and usually dark in color. The herd is unmanaged, constantly exposed to the elements and shifting landscape, surviving off the wild marram grasses that grow in the sand and what grows in the few freshwater ponds. Sable Island has a long and fascinating history spanning more than four centuries. 350 plus vessels have been wrecked due to rough seas, the fog, and sandbars surrounding the island, earning the title “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. Several bird colonies are resident there including the Ipswich sparrow which breeds only on the island. The unique landscape, the history and the wild horses have made Sable Island an iconic place in Canada. It is a photographer’s dream. Myself and my wild horse photography friends, affectionately referred to as “the pony girls” on our trip with Adventure Canada, photographed the horses and all that we experienced on the island. Each day was an adventure as we drank in the beauty of the landscape and sat with the wild horses. We were in awe but blessed for what we were experiencing … not knowing when or if we would have the chance to return. We were experiencing the wildest and most remote island in the world. As we slowly departed Sable Island watching the horses graze, we were in reverence of what we had experienced and the fact that we had finally lived our dream was the more astonishing … wild and natural Sable Island … live your dreams and visit the island that fables are made of.
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Sable Island – The Graveyard of the Atlantic (Part Two)
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Sable Island – The Graveyard of the Atlantic (Part Two)

[caption id="attachment_21100" align="alignleft" width="150"]image of sandy sharkey Sandy Sharkey - Photographer[/caption] This blog is written by Women for Nature Member Sandy Sharkey.  How did the horses get there?  The romantic notion is that the horses swam to the island from ships wrecked on sandbars, but today’s Sable Island horses are most likely the descendants of horses that were seized during the Acadian expulsion from Nova Scotia in the 1700’s. Acadian horses were brought to the island to help build a lifesaving station and eventually they returned to a wild state. When the government gave Sable Island the status of ‘National Park Reserve’, many Canadians worried that the island would be overrun with tourists.  I too had visions of newly built accommodations, perhaps a restaurant or two, and crowds trying to get selfies with the wild horses. Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth. Parks Canada’s new mandate to welcome visitors to the island while at the same time protecting the delicate environment led to an effective symbiotic relationship with Adventure Canada. With camera gear, bottled water and hiking boots packed, it was time to set foot on Canada’s iconic Sable Island. [caption id="attachment_28443" align="alignright" width="300"]Image of a Grey Seal by Sandy Sharkey Grey Seal by Sandy Sharkey[/caption] From the Ocean Endeavour’s anchorage one mile from shore, we climbed into Zodiac boats and landed on the southern beach. Nearby, a large grey seal lay on its side and slowly waved a flipper at us, and we couldn’t help but smile at this lazy welcoming committee. My husband Rob and I joined a small hiking group lead by a Parks Canada guide with Adventure Canada resource photographer Mike Beedell in tow. We knew the rules:  there would be limited time on the island, and we were to hike only on sand or established horse trails so as not to disturb the delicate foliage which also provided shelter for breeding birds. And, if we encountered wild horses, we needed to respect the minimum distance of sixty metres. The wild horses appeared almost immediately.  Two bachelor stallions descended from a grassy ridge to cross the beach and walk along the surf, paying us no attention whatsoever. It was a fleeting moment, the stallions turning back to the ridge, giving chase and disappearing over the hill.  Freedom. Wild. Raw. Nature. We hiked through a meadow of marram grass, a thick stemmed grass that is the primary source of food for wild horses.  Ascending Bald Dune, at twenty-eight metres the highest point on the island, the view is breathtaking: a freshwater pond dotted with water lilies, a mix of bayberries and blueberries skirting horse trails, grassy ridges, a glimpse of the northern beach with hundreds of grey seals, and a family band of wild horses. Arctic Terns and Herring Gulls flew overhead and the occasional sighting of the Ipswich Sparrow was especially rewarding, as this diminutive breed of sparrow is known to breed only on Sable Island. [caption id="attachment_28449" align="alignleft" width="354"]Image of wild mare and foal Wild Mare and Foal by Sandy Sharkey[/caption] We kept our distance as we approached the wild horse family band. Grazing quietly were two mares, still shedding winter coats, a yearling colt and a tiny foal who entertained us with his game of ‘peekabo’ behind his mother’s nuzzle. A magnificent stallion with a long tangled mane kept a watchful eye over his family. We photographed the horses, the tiny flowers, the birds, the seals, the sand dunes. We stood still. We took it all in, joyous, exhilarated, alive. We were experiencing one of the most beautiful places in the world. As we hiked back to the south beach and climbed into the waiting Zodiac, I couldn’t help but notice my footprints in the sand.  And with one gust of wind, they disappeared. Zero impact by mankind.  Like we were never there. Exactly as it should be. In Canada, we host a model for nature to be envied around the world. Wild, natural. Sable Island. It is truly fitting that the island is shaped like a smile. Sable Island.  It exists.  Follow your dreams and visit. To find out more about how you can get to Sable Island, email sandysharkey@rocketmail.com

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Sable Island – The Graveyard of the Atlantic
News

Sable Island – The Graveyard of the Atlantic

[caption id="attachment_21100" align="alignleft" width="150"]image of sandy sharkey Sandy Sharkey - Photographer[/caption]  This blog is written by Women for Nature Member Sandy Sharkey. 

‘It is far better to experience a place just once than to hear about it a thousand times’ ~ Mongolian saying
Sable Island. ‘The graveyard of the sea’. So steeped in Canadian lore that when I was a kid, I didn’t think Sable Island actually existed. [caption id="attachment_28446" align="alignright" width="300"]An Ipswich Sparrow by Sandy Sharkey. An Ipswich Sparrow by Sandy Sharkey.[/caption] On my eighth birthday, I unwrapped a book about Sable Island. Page after page offered grainy black and white photos of shipwrecks, sky high sand dunes and fierce ocean swells bundled with tales of human struggle.  But, it was the Sable Island horses that really caught my attention. Manes flowing in the wind, stallions clashing with each other atop seaside cliffs, herds thundering through the surf. This was the stuff of fiction. But of course, Sable Island exists. The stories of the shipwrecks, the sand dunes, the horses. All true. Like so many Canadians, it became my lifelong dream to visit this magical and mystical slice of geography. Three hundred kilometres east of Halifax in the Atlantic Ocean, Sable Island sits in the path of some of the most treacherous currents in the world. The island’s ‘smile’ shape belies its historical moniker, ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’, with over three hundred and fifty ships known to have perished off Sable’s sandy shores. Home to just a handful of meteorologists, scientific researchers, and Parks Canada staff, Sable Island is an irresistible dream for a nature lover. Sand dunes shelter the island’s interior where grassy fields and freshwater ponds teem with life. Over three hundred and fifty species of birds have been recorded on the island. It also supports the world’s largest breeding colony of fifty thousand grey seals. But, if there was a Sable Island wildlife popularity contest, the iconic wild horses would win hands down. [caption id="attachment_28445" align="alignleft" width="300"]Image of horses on a sand dune Horses on Sable Island. By Sandy Sharkey[/caption] The ever-shifting sands, fog, and unpredictable ocean swells have always made getting to Sable Island difficult, but that would change. In December 2013, the Canadian government officially declared Sable Island as Canada’s forty-third National Park Reserve.  Known for leading expeditions to the arctic, Canadian company ‘Adventure Canada’ was chosen to bring travellers to the land of horses and seals.  This past June, my husband Rob and I joined enthusiastic adventurers and nature lovers aboard the ship Ocean Endeavour, and under sunny skies we sailed out of St John’s harbour, past a postcard iceberg, and out to sea for our final destination. As we sailed the Atlantic Ocean over the next thirty-six hours we were treated to enlightening presentations by scientists, writers, and photographers. Topics included climate, wildlife and survival on the island. Sandy's story continues here
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