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By the time I reached the top of Bald Dune, a heavy fog had swept across Sable Island, obscuring my view. I could just make out the ghostly shapes of scruffy horses moving through the eerie black-and-white landscape.
Not many people know about Sable Island. It’s so remote that only 50 to 250 people visit every year with each individual needing prior approval from Parks Canada. We had journeyed from sunny St John’s in Canada’s Newfoundland, taking two days to reach the island by sea, facing challenging North Atlantic waters and a barrage of undercover sandbars.
Described as being as wide as a sprint and as long as a marathon, the island measures 42km long and 1.5km wide and is located 250km southeast of Halifax (Canada) in the Atlantic Ocean. It sits a few kilometres from The Gully, a large underwater canyon and marine-protected area where the ocean is seven-miles deep. It certainly earns its nickname ‘the graveyard of the North Atlantic’: I had lost all sense of direction in the fog, a stark reminder of the treacherous weather which can engulf the island.
The island was first visited by Portuguese explorers in 1520-21. Later, crews of American, French and British ships arrived, either intentionally or accidentally. Since shipwrecks began to be recorded in 1530, there have been 350 wrecks off Sable Island – the last one in the 1940s. The area is a nautical museum to shipwrecks and I saw remnants everywhere, even finding some 18th-century pottery in the dunes.
The only terrestrial mammals living on Sable are 550 feral horses – a figure which fluctuates each year. They have survived against all odds and without human interference, with a long and somewhat unknown story. Originally domestic horses brought to the island by man in the mid-18th century, they were abandoned in 1960 and have since fended for themselves. There were attempts to colonise the land and a life-saving station was set up to help sailors get to shore. But of all the animals introduced, only the horses survived.
They have shaggy coats, their manes and tails are wild-looking and so long that they touch the ground. Their hooves grow out and sometimes curl up like Aladdin’s slippers; they have learned to dig in the sand until fresh water appears so that brackish holes dot the island, some the size of a small lake. They eat seaweed and coarse marram grass, but the sand wears down their teeth so that some older horses starve because they can’t feed properly. Their average lifespan is short at less than ten years, and they’re in danger of becoming extinct due to inbreeding and the extreme conditions.
Some people argue that, as we put them in such an inhospitable environment, it is our responsibility to move them to safety. Paradoxically, in 1960 the Canadian Federal Government ordered the horses to be removed because they were damaging the fragile island: there was a public outcry and it is now illegal to interfere with them.
Sable Island has a global significance. It is a planetary fluke perched on the continental shelf; a slim slip of sand in the perfect shape of a smile that is part of a sand complex which has more land underwater than on the surface. It is a new national park and Parks Canada the new custodian, with staff staying a few months at a time to observe and research this mystical place.
We spent three days anchored just off the island, sleeping and eating on the ship. As the curtain of fog rose each morning, we crossed a choppy swell in a zodiac (inflatable boat) to the north beach, the most iconic part of the island thanks to the 30ft Bald Dune dominating the landscape.
We explored the dune and down onto the south beach where I saw the horses’ life cycles played out, from new-born foals to carcasses in the sand. As we clambered down the dunes a small herd grazed on the top of the neighbouring dune. Suddenly, the stallion, mare and foal ran down to the beach in a playful mood. The stallion spotted a solo seal on the shore and walked towards it, then lay down next to it for a good roll in the sand, legs flailing in the air, as the seal looked on – worried for its life – before soon moving away to avoid being flattened.
Indeed, as well as sharing the island with the world’s largest grey-seal colony, there are rare birds such as the Ipswich sparrow, and spider bees which aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Around 40 to 50 small herds of horses roam the island, each consisting of a stallion, a few mares and their young, with colts kicked out when it is time to mate. I observed one stallion as he stood in a perfect pose, sun on his body as a new foal slept in the grass behind. A young colt approached and the stallion took off towards it; they each reared up to display their strength until the imposter gave up and went away. The stallion returned to his herd and resumed guard, masculinity and pride intact.
Questions continue to be raised about the welfare of the fabled horses of Sable Island but for now they roam the narrow sandbar in the Atlantic where, on a sunny day, you’d think you were in the Caribbean. It’s no wonder they have made it their home…
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