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Sable Island’s wild horses, seals and 350 shipwrecks

PortandTerminal.com, January 28, 2020

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – Sable Island is a small Canadian island situated 190 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, stuck way out in the Atlantic Ocean.

Map of Nova Scotia with the location of Sable Island highlighted

The island, which literally translates from French to “island of sand”, is as its name suggests, a gently curving sandbar 20 miles long and 1 mile wide. There’s not a single tree on the island and its topography is made up of scrub brush and slowly shifting sand dunes.

Aerial view of Sable Island

The only people who stay on the island are Parks Canada staff, researchers, and the people who run the island’s weather station. There are rarely more than half a dozen people there at a time. Visitors are not allowed because of the island’s fragile ecosystem.

What there is a lot of though are horses, seals and shipwrecks. Let’s start with the horses.

Sable Island is famous for its wild horses, of which there are currently around 500. Winters on the island are severe though and the population has dipped as low as 150 in the past.

Wild horses walking along a sandy beach

Although popular legends claim that Sable Island horses swam ashore from the island’s many shipwrecks, or were introduced by 16th-century Portuguese explorers, this is not supported by historical or genetic evidence. In reality, the horses were deliberately introduced to the island during the 18th century.

The first recorded horses were brought by a Boston clergyman, the Reverend Andrew Le Mercier, in 1737. Most of them though were probably stolen by privateers and fishermen.

Dead, partially sand covered wild horse on a sandy beach
Starvation is of the key factors in the deaths of the island’s horses, especially for yearlings, who have lower social status and less access to prime grazing territory.

In 1760, Boston merchant and shipowner Thomas Hancock shipped another 60 horses to Sable Island. Acadian people were being deported from Nova Scotia by British authorities. Hancock was paid to transport Acadians to the American colonies. The Acadians were forced to abandon all their livestock. It appears that Hancock helped himself to some of their horses and put the rest to pasture on Sable Island. These horses stayed, survived and became wild.

A large population of grey seals on a sandy beach
Sable Island is home to the largest population of gray seals in the world

While the horses struggle to survive on Sable Island the seals thrive. The island is home to the largest population of gray seals in the world with approximately 400,000 visiting it each year.

There are no land-based predators on Sable Island, so after the seals dodge sharks lurking in the water, they find safety on its shores. Aside from small harvests, Canada has not culled the gray seal population over the last few decades, and the population has grown at its maximum rate. 


Hand-drawn map of Sable Island showing the location of its 350 shipwrecks

Since 1583 there have been over 350 recorded shipwrecks on Sable Island as the chart above details.

Why so many? The island lies near one of the world’s richest fishing grounds. It is also near one of the major shipping routes between Europe and North America so hundreds of vessels have sailed past each year. When you add notoriously bad weather, tricky currents and fog to the mix you end with a lot of shipwrecks over the years.

Shipwreck in sand dune

After World War II when radar and other advanced navigational equipment became widely used on commercial vessels the number of shipwrecks declined considerably and Sable ceased to be a major threat to shipping. Only one vessel has been lost since 1947, the small yacht Merrimac which sank on July 27, 1999.

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