Visitors perched in the sand dunes above the north beach on Sable Island, Nova Scotia - Image by Geordie Mott and Picture Perfect Tours.

Visiting Sable Island: Showcasing a Special Place

 

To a number of people around the world, Sable Island National Park Reserve seems like a mythic destination wrapped in a fog of numerous questions. 

 

Is it possible to visit Sable Island? How do you travel to this ‘Graveyard Of The Atlantic’? Does tourism damage Sable Island – and harm its infamous wild horses? How do these horses survive out there?

 

Questions swirl because so few people have ever visited the island, and many more don’t even realize that visitors are welcomed – and have been going there for centuries, and some people are passionate that no visitors should ever be allowed there. 

 

As the owner of Picture Perfect Tours, I’ve been leading tour groups to Sable Island since 2017 and, we understand all of these questions – and the controversies. 

 

I understand that not everyone will agree with this, but we want to explain why we feel it is extremely important to showcase this place in person while embracing the contradictions that this dynamic ribbon of sand in the North Atlantic creates.

 

As caretakers of the island, Parks Canada’s federal mandate is to share these types of natural spaces with Canadians in a sustainable manner that protects these environment and ecosystems for now, and future generations. So let’s talk about some of the key measures Parks Canada and partners like Picture Perfect Tours have taken to ensure that tourism does no harm to the Sable Island, and how experiencing this remarkably remote place can profoundly impact someone after they visit. 

 

Preserving the Flora and Fauna: 

 

To address the concerns surrounding the island’s delicate ecosystem, Parks Canada has implemented stringent measures to protect the flora and fauna of Sable Island. Even before stepping on Sable Island, all new arrivals must spray their footwear with a solution to minimize any biohazard risks with the transfer of germs or viruses from the mainland to the island. Visitors are asked not to bring any clothing that has recently been worn at a farm, zoo, or research area with animals. Again to keep germs and diseases at bay. 

 

Upon exploring the island, visitors are required to stay on the paths created by horses to minimize treading on the marram grass and other vegetation that binds the island together. For personal safety and dune integrity, visitors are required to stay 2 metres away from any dune edge, and all visitors must maintain a 5-metre distance from all freshwater ponds. 

 

Of course, the biggest protocol is to maintain a safe distance from all wildlife – including wild horses. Parks Canada has a rule that all people maintain a 20-metre distance (approximately 70 feet) from all wildlife. Both for the animals’ safety – and for the humans’ safety. It’s our responsibility, not the horses’ or seals’ job, to maintain that distance at all times. At the start of a visit, we use a 100-foot tape measure and a willing volunteer to demonstrate what that 70-foot, or 20-metre, distance actually looks like, and how reasonable that distance is for observing or photographing the wildlife safely.

 

These common-sense protocols are designed to minimize visitor impact, maintain the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem, and keep both wildlife and visitors safe. As tour operators licensed and trained by Parks Canada, we prioritize the welfare of the island’s wildlife, landscape, and the safety of our guests so we can keep low-impact tourism sustainable in the long run.

 

A History of Human Presence: 

 

Today the island seems like a pristine landscape because it’s been bereft of human habitation. But that is far from the reality. Sable Island has a rich human history that is documented back to the early 1600s when some of the earliest trans-Atlantic voyages discovered Sable Island’s treacherous shores. So many vessels were lost in the subsequent centuries that the island was given the name ‘Graveyard Of The Atlantic’. 

 

The number of shipwrecks and stranded sailors became so bad that in 1801 the colony of Nova Scotia established a lifesaving station, and ever since Sable Island has had a continuous human presence ever since. At the turn of the last century, just before the age of sail whispered away, the island would easily have 30-40 residents tasked with maintaining the lighthouses, life-saving stations, farms, gardens, boats, livestock, and more. Families with children moved to the island, my own family included in WWI. Young men and women went for work and adventure. And many tourists came and went as well – including Alexander Graham Bell. 

 

Today, there is a much smaller human presence of less than a dozen people. Residents are either scientists conducting research, or staff with Parks Canada working to maintain the island’s delicate infrastructure.  

 

This historical context highlights the enduring connection between humans and this remote island. Exploring Sable Island today allows visitors to immerse themselves in that fascinating history by touching remnants of old shipwrecks, picking up old debris, studying abandoned buildings swallowed by the shifting sand dunes, and of course talking to the scientists and staff who live there today. 

 

These experiences highlight the unique relationship people have had with Sable Island while residing there for centuries. 

 

Preserving Wild Spaces: 

 

Sable Island stands as one of the last remaining truly wild and remote places in North America. The possibility of visiting this environment devoid of a typical human presence allows visitors to witness its wild beauty and appreciate the wonders of nature in a remote place, even amongst the debris that washes ashore. This connection with nature and awe-inspiring experiences – watching a band of wild horses walk along a vast sandy beach – are now harder and harder to find. 

 

Yet, such experiences often ignite a strong connection to the natural world and a renewed dedication to preserving similar spaces from future development. By exploring Sable Island, visitors have become more vocal ambassadors for environmental conservation, sharing their experiences with others to talk about the importance of protecting these precious havens.

 

Educational Impact

 

Visiting Sable Island offers an opportunity for education and self-reflection because of the contradiction people witness firsthand. The island’s massive and beautiful shores are stunning, yet bear witness to the impact of our mundane choices of modern consumerism. Household garbage like plastics, bottles, balloons, and other remnants of our daily lives wash ashore on Sable Island. This firsthand experience serves as a powerful reminder of the choices we make and the effects they have on even the most remote environments. 

 

By having tourism on the island and not leaving a trace of their visit, guests can gain a deeper understanding of the importance of making sustainable choices and can carry this knowledge back home, informing their purchasing and disposal decisions. An experience like this can open a broader dialogue based on their eyewitness account of how our choices at home can impact even the most remote locations on the planet. 

 

Limited Visitor Impact: 

 

Perhaps the questions and myths we highlighted earlier about Sable Island are a result of so few people ever having visited. Parks Canada only became the custodian for Sable Island in 2013, and then slowly began to put together a master plan for island tourism that was released in 2019. Even with a plan in place, volatile weather and the expense of chartering a plane, helicopter or boat make Sable very difficult to reach. 

 

On average only 60% of visitor flights reach Sable Island each year from Halifax. These difficulties of cost, weather, and small groups in small flights, add up to just a few hundred visitors arriving each year. This ensures that the island’s delicate ecosystem remains protected from too many visitors throughout the year. 

 

These factors combined with logistical challenges, island infrastructure needs, research priorities, staffing concerns, etc. also contribute to this reduced access. It’s impossible to turn this into a beachfront resort. But with tour operators and Parks Canada maintaining this low-impact dynamic and not expanding beyond capacity, a sustainable number of visitors per year can experience Sable Island National Park Reserve while preserving its natural wonders for generations to come.

 

Conclusion

 

With the collaborative efforts of Parks Canada; the licensed tour operators; and the willingness of visitors to respect these protocols – and appreciate the difficulties of even trying to reach Sable Island – we can all ensure the safety of wildlife and the preservation of this magical place. 

 

We are lucky that Parks Canada is now the caretaker for the island and their vision and mandate allow visitors to connect with Sable Island’s intriguing past and ongoing human habitation, understand the significance of sustainable choices to be made at home, and appreciate the value of protecting untouched natural spaces for wildlife – and ourselves.

 

If you have any questions or comments surrounding Sable Island and the dynamics of tourism on the island please feel free to reach out and let’s continue the conversation about visiting Sable Island.

 

All the best, 

 

Geordie

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