The ghostly Sable Island has confounded sailors for hundreds of years. But while the outcrop and its constantly shifting bleached sands may look like paradise, in reality this perception couldn’t be further from the truth. You see, the haunting image of this strange island rising out from the Atlantic Ocean has been the last sight to be seared onto the eyes of a number of seafarers – and the area’s still a deathtrap today.
Nearly 110 miles off Nova Scotia’s coastline, a sliver of sand juts out of the Atlantic Ocean. This is the 28-mile-long Sable Island, which gets its name from the very material that forms its wispy, half-moon shape. But in spite of its small size and seemingly idyllic appearance, the location has a particularly disturbing history.
As you may know, a landmass made of sand can easily change its shape. And so whenever experts decide to take on the task of mapping Sable Island, they can see just how much it’s capable of morphing. For instance, a 2014 CBC report noted that sand had started disappearing from the island’s west end and accumulating instead at its eastern side.
Obviously, the ocean can easily erode and move sand dunes, so the landmass’ topography never remains permanent. As such, Sable Island has unsurprisingly earned its reputation as a shape-shifter – not least because its center regularly moves across the Atlantic. But this constant motion has proven to have deadly consequences for a number of ships attempting to sail from Nova Scotia.
Yet some lucky vessels have successfully traversed the seas and docked at Sable Island without incident. The Portuguese explorer João Álvares Fagundes, for one, is believed to have made landfall there in around the year 1520. And some Portuguese maps commissioned after his North American exploration identify an island off of Nova Scotia as Fagunda. Some say, though, that this outcrop is actually what we know as Sable Island today.
What’s more, a selection of other historical figures apparently came to Sable Island with sinister plans. One of them was the Marquis de la Roche, who became Governor of New France in 1578, and his territory stretched from Newfoundland to the Hudson Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Yet the politician decided that he needed to use Sable Island for a certain unpleasant purpose. And this had everything to do with whom he had chosen to colonize his country’s new, sprawling territory.
You see, de la Roche opted to bring convicts with him to settle in New France, although they refused to play along. Instead, the group revolted against their leaders – but the Marquis had a plan. He left them on the barren Sable Island, with no trees nor stone to provide any form of materials to help them eke out lives for themselves. So, the convicts resorted to using mud and shipwrecked timber to build dwellings – and managed to live in them for anywhere between five and 25 years.
The convicts’ island tenancy brings up another strange and scary facet of Sable’s history, too. You see, although ships managed to drop the unruly pioneers on the sandy landmass, many other vessels suffered a different fate while trying to reach the location. In total, a staggering 350 or so ships are believed to have sunk in the waters surrounding Sable Island.
Of course, Sable Island’s geography makes such fatal accidents more likely to occur. For one thing, the shape-shifting island has plenty of sand surrounding it, and this creates what’s known as an offshore bar or sandbar. These ridges build as waves move back and forth from the coastline, carrying sand with them.
And sandbars can prove devastating to ships – particularly as they typically hide just beneath the surface of waves. So, a cruising vessel wouldn’t necessarily slow down or steer clear of an ensconced sandbar. In fact, it may potentially plough straight through the ridge – meaning crew members may only realize the danger when it’s already far too late.
What’s more, Sable Island stands in the midst of two different flows of water, making conditions even more treacherous for sailors. And while the Labrador Current ushers chilly water into the area, the Gulf Stream funnels a warm stream toward the island. As such, fog can quickly appear in the area, and this has even been known to envelop the landmass entirely.
Finally, boats heading for Sable Island have to contend with its surrounding gyres. These dangerous currents create a vortex that has pulled vessels toward the landmass – and subsequently into dangerous territory. Jonathan Sheppard, the park manager of Sable Island, told the BBC in 2015, “I’ve read old sailors’ chronicles about being sucked into the island. That’s really not so far from the truth.”
So, as a result of these factors, Sable Island’s surrounding waters are supposedly choked with around 350 shipwrecks. An English ship called Delight counts as the first recorded calamity, meeting its demise in 1583. Then, nearly 200 years later, a vessel traveling to Prince Edward Island crashed into Sable Island, leaving the crew marooned there for winter.
Fortunately, Sable Island has since been outfitted with a pair of lighthouses that have helped to cut down the number of shipwrecks caused by its shifting shapes, hidden sandbars and circulating currents. Even so, a major wreck happened in the area as recently as 1947. In that year, the Manhasset was claimed by the treacherous waters.
Sable Island’s landscape has proven to be just as unforgiving as the waters surrounding it, too. No variety of tree naturally grows on the sandy landmass, for example. And although the Canadian government tried to correct this in 1901 with a massive tree-planting effort, every single one of the 80,000 saplings failed.
Since then, similar efforts have met the same sad fate. While a single Scots pine planted in the 1960s survives today, it has only grown a few feet in height since taking root. And other than this sole stunted specimen, Sable Island is sparsely blanketed with meager vegetation that doesn’t rise to any significant prominence. Marram grass – which appears on sand dunes – can also be found there.
Nevertheless, wildlife has managed to survive on and around Sable Island’s shifting shores. For starters, 18 species of shark swim in the waters that surround the outcrop. This part of the Atlantic also serves as a habitat for two different varieties of seal: harbor and grey. In fact, these creatures use Sable Island as a breeding ground.
And estimates from between 2003 and 2004 suggest that about 50,000 seal pups were born on the island during the breeding season. It seems, then, that the seals have had much more luck on Sable Island than the walruses that used to live there, too. However, these mammals’ demise was actually down to human intervention, as hunters caused the area’s walrus population to go extinct.
But perhaps the most successful of all Sable Island’s species is the wild horse. To some, in fact, the equine creatures are so representative of life on the island that they even serve as the mysterious outcrop’s symbol. And their relatively high numbers go some way to explaining this. According to a 2016 report, for instance, it was estimated that more than 550 horses roamed the island. Yet this number has since dropped to 500 – at least according to a study that started in 2017 and concluded in 2018.
So, how did these wild horses first find themselves on Sable Island? Well, humans initially brought the animals to the sandy outcrop in the 19th century. More specifically, they were first left behind by the Acadian people, who were descended from French colonists and, in some cases, the land’s indigenous population. British forces then pushed these people from their land, and many fled without their animals in tow.
As such, merchant Thomas Hancock – the uncle of one of the authors of the U.S. Constitution, John Hancock – gathered the horses together and shuttled them to Sable Island. It’s thought that he wanted to keep them and other livestock on the landmass until he could sell them. But, of course, the difficult conditions on Sable Island didn’t suit most of the creatures that had been left there.
Nevertheless, enough of the horses survived that they were put to work over the coming years. In the 1800s men stationed on the island used the animals to patrol the land or pull lifeboats and equipment around. Then, after this practice fell out of favor, some of the equines were taken away and sold for use in Canadian coal mines. But in 1960 the government stepped in to prevent further removal of the horses, which had become a wild species over time.
Yet even with the government’s protection, experts noticed a strange dip in the population of these wild horses. As previously mentioned, their numbers fell from 550 – as recorded in the 2016 study – to about 500 by the end of 2018. And after further investigation, it transpired that the horses had started disappearing for a multitude of unsavory reasons.
Still, it’s quite impressive that scientists managed to collect data on their dwindling numbers at all, as accessing the wild creatures is unsurprisingly rather difficult. Before the more recent studies began, the last time that veterinary experts had observed the animals was supposedly in the 1970s, in fact. And because of this, Emily Jenkins – a veterinarian and parasitologist on the latest research team – said this lack of knowledge left her and the others with only a meager foundation on which to base their work.
Specifically, Jenkins told CBC back in March 2019, “There was really very, very little that we knew about why horses would die on the island.” And with so much governmental red tape protecting the animals, it was hard for Jenkins and the other researchers to gather samples from them for analysis.
But the research team – comprised of experts from the University of Saskatchewan and Parks Canada – came up with a solution: they braved the dangerous trip to Sable Island and searched for deceased horses instead. And equine remains in tow, the group returned to the mainland to perform necropsies, during which they examined the animals’ bones, organs and any lingering parasites.
Jenkins said that she hoped she’d find at least a few horse carcasses when she reached Sable Island in 2017. As it turned out, the research team had plenty of samples to collect. In all, they found 30 viable sets of remains, although Jenkins told The StarPhoenix that they’d left behind a further 20 that they couldn’t use or safely access.
And the fact that the team had found around 50 carcasses immediately showed Sable Island’s horse population was under significant pressure. To put the event into perspective, Jenkins told CBC that the year following their initial visit, they had only found five equine carcasses on the island. In fact, the 50 dead horses spotted in 2017 represented 10 percent of the island’s entire population of the feral animals.
But after examining the 30 sets of remains, Jenkins and the rest of the research team could draw a handful of conclusions about why so many Sable Island horses had died. And Jenkins herself revealed a number of these reasons to The StarPhoenix. “The main finding was emaciation or starvation and hypothermia – especially for the young horses,” she said.
You see, many of the deceased yearlings – otherwise known as foals that had completed one year of life – hadn’t been able to put on enough body fat to make it through the winter. As Jenkins put it, “All of the young horses we looked at were basically out of reserves. They had nothing left; they were emaciated.” Foals that still nursed, on the other hand, had a better chance of survival, as they were receiving crucial extra nutrition.
And, interestingly, Jenkins also explained that adult horses were more important in the species’ social hierarchy. As such, the older animals got first dibs on Sable Island’s grazing grasses. Even if a fully grown horse had passed away, then, it would typically appear to be in better shape than the younger animals that had also perished. So, starvation wasn’t typically the cause of death for the mature horses – or so it seemed.
This could be because Sable Island tends to be carpeted with verdant green in the summer months – although it remains typically free of vegetation in the winter. Indeed, upon seeing images of lush grasses covering the area in July and August, Jenkins was left stunned. She later recalled, “I’m like, ‘Did you guys Photoshop this?’ Because it’s green, totally green. And when I go out, it is totally brown. There is not a scrap of vegetation.”
But a lack of vegetation wasn’t the only reason why so many Sable Island horses had died off in 2017. The researchers realized, too, that their beachy surroundings had also caused a great deal of damage to the creatures’ bodies. Tiny grains of sand constantly wore down the animals’ teeth, for instance, as they ingested these along with the island’s grasses.
So, without strong teeth, Sable Island’s horses couldn’t chew their food properly. It’s thought, then, that this ultimately prevented them from getting enough nutrients from the vegetation that they grazed upon. What’s more, eating sand proved dangerous to the horses’ health in another way: it occasionally caused blockages in the animals’ intestines.
Jenkins described the damaged organs in more detail to The StarPhoenix. She said, “In several horses that we looked at, there was quite a lot of sand. We were picking up the intestines and the stomach and saying, ‘These weigh a ton,’ because there was, in many cases, more sand than plant content.”
So, armed with the knowledge that Jenkins and the team had gleaned in 2017, the group shifted their focus when they returned to Sable Island the following year. This time around, they wanted to see if the deceased horses carried any diseases or parasites. And the researchers weren’t disappointed, either. Indeed, they found a whole slew of deadly possibilities within the remains, including respiratory diseases and other afflictions that could cause pregnancies to terminate in female horses.
Perhaps most shocking of all, though, was the fact that the small Sable Island horses tended to have extremely high amounts of parasitic worms. In fact, there were apparently about 1,500 eggs contained in just a gram of their fecal matter. Jenkins said, “I just about fell over, because we call a high fecal egg count in a domestic horse 500 eggs per gram.”
And Jenkins told CBC that a normal equine creature probably wouldn’t survive with so many parasites. “I think if our domestic horses had fecal egg counts as high as the Sable horses, they would just drop dead,” she revealed. As a consequence, then, the Sable Island horses could potentially help veterinarians who are continuing to fight domestic horses’ resistance to anti-parasite medications.
Ultimately, though, the researchers couldn’t establish a sole reason for the fatalities of the 50 Sable Island horses found in 2017. Indeed, it appeared that most had suffered from more than one fatal hardship. But by 2018 the death rate had dropped from 10 percent of the population back to 1 percent. And this was a much more regular reflection of how the island’s equine population typically functions, it turned out.
Plus, Jenkins has said that she remains in awe of the resilient creatures that she had studied on Sable Island – which has always presented itself as an unwelcoming and unforgiving land. She told the CBC, “I just couldn’t get over the fact that they were eking out this existence on a sandbar in the middle of the Atlantic. I’ve just total respect for how tough they are.”