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Visiting Sable Island, the 'Smile of the Atlantic' (31 photos)

HalifaxToday.ca reporter Katie Hartai was lucky enough to travel with Kattuk Expeditions to the wild and windswept island
It’s called the "Smile of the Atlantic" for good reason -- its crescent shape but also the wide grins its stories put on people’s faces.
 
The nearest point on Nova Scotia’s mainland to the island is Canso and even still, it’s about 160 kilometres from the coast, making the island only accessible by air and sea.
 
I decided to take the high road.
 
Sable Aviation flies out of Halifax Stanfield International Airport and is the most common way to get there.
 
The 7-passenger Britten-Norman Islander makes the roughly hour-and-a-half trip year-round about 50 to 60 times.
 
Sable Island often has a variety of weather conditions and delays are to be expected -- thankfully for us, the fog didn't stick around for long.
 
Sable Aviation’s chief pilot Debbie Brekelmans said a combination of both the weather and sand conditions determines if the flight leaves Halifax.
 
As there is no permanent runway on the island so Brekelmans needs to land on sand that isn’t too wet or too dry.
 
"The area of the beach is picked out on a per-flight basis. Maybe we can use the same one today as we did yesterday, but maybe not," she explained.
 
The flight is one of the best parts of the trip.
 
From the air you can see the entire sliver of sand stretching 42 kilometres long and about 1.4 kilometres across at its widest point.
 
As you get closer, you get your first glimpse of the island’s most well-known inhabitants.
 
The island is home to about 500 wild horses. We were lucky to see a great number of them around the freshwater ponds and grazing in the sand bowls.
 
They look like any other horse would, only their manes are overgrown and matted, and their tails drag through the sand. You can also sense their resilience just by watching them.
 
Andrew Hebda with the Museum of Natural History explained there are several theories about how the horses got to the island, but most likely they are thought to be descendants of animals seized by the British during the Acadian expulsion in the mid-1700s.
 
He said the grasses the horses graze on can affect them just as much as the shortage of food.
 
Hebda said they are high in silica which makes them quite sharp. This paired with chomping down on a bit of sand, tends to wear down the horses teeth.
 
"And because of that grinding, the teeth wear down very quickly which is why the horses do not live as long as a horse would on the mainland," he said.
 
Finding water isn’t easy either.
 
Hebda said horses will drink from shallow ponds or dig in the sand for freshwater that floats on top of saltwater.
 
"There is a water table so there is a freshwater lens that gets water from rainfalls that will percolate through the sands. Fresh water is actually quite light, salt water is dense so even if it permeates under the saltwater, it sits on top."
 
He said the temperature of the air, as well as the water, are more consistent on Sable than mainland Nova Scotia.
 
"The main difference between us and Sable, Sable is much more stable, less freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw."
 
The horses have been legally protected by the federal government since 1960.
 
Sandy Sharky of Ottawa is a wild horse photographer and has gone around the world capturing images of wild horses. She made the trip out to Sable with me -- but this was her fifth time there.
 
She said Sable Island horses have the kind of protection wild horse advocates wish was universal.
 
Sharky hopes her work will encourage people to add their voices to help wild horses elsewhere.
 
"I use my horse photos to talk about how lucky we are as Canadians that the island is ours and those horses are ours. There are horses around the world that aren’t so lucky. In the American southwest right now, a lot of wild horses are being rounded up and it’s kind of an ugly situation."
 
There’s no questioning the picturesque beauty of the horses, but it’s important to not get too caught up in their awe or you'll miss other special parts of the island, like the strong smell of the sand, or how soft it is between your toes.
 
And the seals definitely deserve more attention.
 
About 400,000 grey seals call the island home, making it the largest breeding colony of them in the world. At all times along the beach you can see heads bobbing somewhere in the massive waves watching you. They are curious but timid.
 
The island’s single tree also fascinated me. The federal government tried planting about 80,000 in the early 1900s but they didn't take. The tree currently living on the island is about about 50 years old but only one metre tall. It looked more like a bush to me.
 
It’s crazy to think all of this belongs to Nova Scotia, and better yet the Halifax Regional Municipality.
 
Councillor Waye Mason, whose district includes Sable Island, thinks a lot of people don’t know the island is officially in HRM but said it’s an important part of the municipality’s history.
 
"We have generation after generation of people in Halifax and Nova Scotia knowing about Sable Island and romanticising about it and knowing about how it is the 'Graveyard of the Atlantic,'" he said.
 
"I think it is important to acknowledge that history and the ecology that is out there, the unique nature, especially with the horses. We don’t want to forget it is out there. It's is a unique part of our story."
 
Sable Island was made a national park in 2013 and a national park reserve in 2014.
 
Parks Canada always has at least two team members stationed on the island throughout the year and there are also two employees from Environment and Climate Change Canada.
 
Park manager for Sable Island National Park Reserve, Alannah Phillips, said the island is now protected under the Canada National Parks Act, which is Canada’s strongest legislation for the protection of natural areas.
 
"The unique combination of the natural and cultural features makes Parks Canada ideally suited to protect and also to share this iconic offshore island, and to help connect people to the island that is so far off in the ocean."
 
Parks Canada’s mandate is to provide visitor experiences in their parks. On Sable Island it works with selected tour operators, limiting visits to daytrips.
 
"Currently visitation is low, we had less than 500 visitors in 2017. And excursions are only permitted in certain areas to avoid the sensitive vegetation and to minimize impact on the island."
 
This year there are four companies with permits to visit - Kattuk Expeditions is one of them.
 
Based out of Halifax, Kattuk organizes guided tours along Nova Scotia’s coast.
 
Fred Stillman founded the business in 2010 and said this is the company’s second season taking tourists to Sable. This year he is taking five groups of six people.
 
Stillman supports limited minimum impact tourism on Sable Island to help build awareness and support for its protection.
 
"I think if you are going to preserve things, it is good people can visit them. There is fear from some that say it will become overrun or a tourist destination, but if it is managed properly, which it is, then you have the benefit of both," he said.
 
Parks Canada is working to further define its long term goals for visitation on the island, its ecology and public education through a management plan which all national parks and historic sites have.
 
Before the end of the year, it will launch its first phase of public consultations for Sable Island National Park. You can help determine the direction of the management plan by participating in an online survey which will be posted in the next couple months.
 
"It is a national park reserve so the doors aren’t open like floodgates to let thousands of tourists in there and I love that. I think it is important to take people there but I think it is important it is managed in a way that is not overdone," Stillman said.
 
While the island itself is an oasis for wildlife, it also connects us to our history and holds a place in the minds and hearts of Nova Scotians.
 
I encourage you to provide input to the vision of Sable Island and if the opportunity comes to visit -- take it.


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Katie Hartai

About the Author: Katie Hartai

In addition to being a reporter for NEWS 95.7 and HalifaxToday.ca, Katie is the producer of The Rick Howe Show
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