22 Jul Grey Seal Research Program, Winter, Sable Island – Paul LeBlanc, 2019
Image above: Two Sable Island horses investigating fragments of beach grass and seaweed, and intriguing odors, as they wander among throngs of seals on the North Beach during the Grey Seal breeding season.
Stepping out of a small fixed wing aircraft onto a natural landing strip on Sable Island’s South Beach for the first time in late December 2014 is a moment that remains forever entrenched in my memory. After 25 years as a fisheries technician with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and a career mainly focused on freshwater systems and diadromous fish species in the Maritimes, I was making my first trip to Sable Island as part of the department’s long-standing Grey seal research program.
With the first sight of this new-to-me environment I immediately acknowledged that this place was like no other I had ever experienced. Having previously traveled for either work or personal reasons to several exotic, remote places, including the far reaches of the Canadian Arctic, the cold shores of Western Greenland, and the isolated island of Iceland in the North Atlantic Ocean, I found myself surprised to feel like I was now standing in one of the remotest and most unique locations I have ever been.
Standing on this island of sand on this cold winter day I was suddenly hit with a riot of sensations. Ask yourself if you have ever been to a place that stimulates all of your senses—sight, sound, touch, smell and taste—all at the same time.
The barren winter landscape of Sable Island’s sandy shores is blanketed by hundreds of thousands of Grey seals, so abundant that it is difficult to visualize where the beach ends and the cold Atlantic Ocean begins. The cacophony of moaning, hissing and snarling noises emanating from the largest Grey seal breeding colony in the world gathered together on this single spit of land 300 km off the coast of mainland Nova Scotia, and only 50 km long by 2.5 km at its widest location, is deafening, and mixed with low cries of new born seal pups searching for comfort, warmth and food as their mothers momentarily fight for space and solitude among the other protective mothers, while cautiously watching the male seals slowly approaching with the incoming tide, waiting for their chance to mate with the first available female.
If one were to face in either an east or west direction and waited for a momentary break in the clamor from the seal colony and accompanying brisk winds, one can actually hear the breaking waves greeting both the North and South beaches at the same time. The feel of the frigid Atlantic Ocean breeze in the midst of winter is almost welcoming to the bare skin on one’s face during a brief lapse in the gusts that pick up the island’s sand and whips it at you with such force that you swear your exposed skin is being polished with a large grit sandpaper.
The smell, I can say that this is something that can only be described by experiencing it yourself. The stench of thousands of mating and pupping seals is distinctive and powerful. And if you think the air smells bad, just wait until the seal colony is in full-on breeding season and you get your first taste as you take a breath of “fresh” air.
I was once asked what my favorite time of year is to visit Sable Island. Although I have now had the opportunity to experience Sable Island during all four seasons over the last five years, the winter season remains my favorite and fondest. How blessed I am to have had the opportunity to experience this natural phenomenon.
Assessment Technician, Fisheries & Oceans Canada
Prepared for the Sable Island Institute, July 2019