Sable Island – A Brief Introduction

Sable Island is politically a part of the Province of Nova Scotia, Canada. Coordinates currently used for the Island’s location are 43°56′N, 59°55′ W, which represent a point on Sable Island’s southern shoreline. The nearest landfall is 156 km away—that is the distance from the western tip of the Island to just southwest of Canso on the coast of mainland Nova Scotia. The Island is 290 km from Halifax, the provincial capital.

Being roughly 49 km long with a maximum width of 1.3 km, Sable Island has surface area of about 30 sq km (3000 ha). The island’s landscape is comprised of sand dunes and broad areas of heath and shrub communities, with small freshwater ponds and seasonal pools, and patches of cranberry in moist dune slack habitats. Five species of orchid grow in sheltered areas of vegetation and around the freshwater ponds. There are no native trees on the Island.

Sable Island is home to a population of wild horses, now numbering about 500—the number fluctuates from year to year. Two species of seal breed on the Island, Harbour Seal and Grey Seal. It is the world’s largest Grey Seal colony, with >50,000 pups born during the December-January breeding season. The Island is the only nesting location for the Ipswich Sparrow, a subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow. Other nesting birds include terns, gulls, petrels, shorebirds, and ducks.

The Island has a dramatic history of shipwrecks, loss of life, and rescues. For about 200 years Sable Island was primarily known as a serious hazard to navigation and is still sometimes referred to as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic”. The life-saving station—the Sable Island Humane Establishment—began operation in 1801, and continued until it was phased out in the mid-1900s when modern technology greatly reduced the risk of shipwrecks.

Climatological record-keeping on Sable Island began in 1871 with the establishment of the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC), and this data record has been continuous since 1891. In 1944, the MSC began construction of today’s Sable Island Station at its present location.

The Sable Island National Park Reserve was established in 2013. Access to the Island is restricted—people wishing to visit or work on the Island should contact Parks Canada for information about the park, programs, and visiting.

Zoe Lucas
Sable Island Institute, June 2018