It was Friday in early spring, 1971, the end of the first week in my new office and my new job at Dalhousie University. All was good, and the world was in bloom. I took off my tie, tossed it on the desk, reached for the bottle of Glenfiddich that I had been instructed to bring, grabbed my sports coat, an overnight bag, a sleeping bag and headed for the door. The taxi trip to the airport was a bit long and expensive but I was in a good mood and the new employer was going to pay the fare. In the corner of the airport reserved for private planes, there were two small planes near the hangar. I found the pilot inside the hangar and we were in the air within 30 minutes.
The flight was smooth. It was a clear sunny day. The Nova Scotia coastline, with its rugged, forested beauty, myriad lakes and small rivers was visible for miles. We headed East. As the coastline receded, the only things to see were the sun reflecting off the water and a couple of small boats. The small plane was noisy, so conversation was limited. After a little over an hour, a small strip of sand appeared in the distance. I grabbed my camera and took a dozen photos as we approached the island. As it turned out, this was the only time that I would ever have an unencumbered view of the totality of the island despite another dozen trips over the next five years.
After a 180-degree turn, the pilot brought the small plane down on a strip of hard beach sand, the engine stopped, and the only sound was the wind. Climbing out, I stepped onto a desolate beach. Making my first 360-degree scan of the horizon, I spotted a Land Rover coming from behind a dune and moving towards us. When it stopped, a very tall man with a full head of tousled hair and a pipe descended from the driver’s side and a woman with pigtails about half his height jumped out of the passenger side. Walking up to the plane, the driver, with a very proper British accent, said: “Dr. Dykes, I presume” and our partnership began.
The pilot unloaded some supplies for the islanders and left as easily as he had arrived. My meagre supplies were loaded in the Land Rover and we went off down the beach. Rounding a bend, the beach widened and a lonely A-frame cottage could be seen among the dunes. In the middle of the widened beach was a small lake and the Land Rover parked between the lake and dunes. We walked to the house and it was clear that although it was fairly new, the wind was sculpting new dunes around it.
That evening, the fog rolled across the island and I did not see the sun for another 10 days. Trapped with a bottle of scotch, a sleeping bag and one change of clothes, I began to learn the realities of Sable Island. The A-Frame was a good shelter from the cool foggy, windy weather and a cast iron Franklin stove provided heat, if you were in its proximity. But, there was no running water. A 25-meter trek to a hand pump was the price for a bucket of water. So, water was used sparingly for cooking and cleaning. Meals were carefully planned since there were only infrequent visits to the island by either boat or plane. The dozens of cartons of eggs stored between the studs of the A-frame walls were a major staple for the crew.
As the contents of the bottle of Glenfiddich gradually disappeared, I began to learn more about my hosts. Until the previous year, Professor Henry James had been the Dean of the Graduate Faculty at Dalhousie University. As an ethologist and psychologist, he had chosen to fill the newly liberated time in his academic life with studies of navigation. His subjects were pigeons and seals. Over the last couple of years, he had visited Sable Island to observe seals as they lounged on the beaches and moved across the sand to find the waters of several inland lakes where many of the females gave birth. The young woman, Deane Renouf, was a graduate student who was studying the seals’ movements for her thesis.
The next morning, we were up before dawn to observe seal behaviour. After a quick breakfast, we left in the Land Rover and headed in a direction that I could not discern because of the thick fog. Stopping behind a grassy dune, we walked up to the top and quietly peeked over and peered into the fog illuminated by the first morning light. There were sounds indicating that the surf was not far, but nothing was visible beyond about two meters in the fog. Waiting 20 minutes or so, it became apparent that the fog was not going to lift, and we walked down towards the sound of the surf wondering if we would see any seals. However, they seemed to have left some time ago. To my surprise, my hosts became excited by the seal tracks in the sand. It seemed that in the foggy night, a seal had wandered far inland. I learned that this was often the case, especially when a female was about to give birth.
About 400 harbour seal pups were born each year and generally 80% would survive the first year. There was a stable population of about 1,200 in the summer, making a rich population for ethological study. In late May and into June, the fat baby seals could be seen lounging on the warm sand while the adults went off to sea to feed. The nursing pups were very demanding of their mothers and began to hunt to feed on their own only after they were weaned and left to fend for themselves.
The puzzle for my hosts was to understand how an adult seal had managed to travel many hundreds of meters away from the edge of the sea and then return to it in the dark of a foggy night. To me, it seemed obvious – the seal must have followed the surf sounds. However, my hosts wanted some data. Henry, whose pace was almost exactly a meter long, marched along the seal track counting his steps and pointing a compass along the direction of the seal track. Deane trotted along behind, recording the compass direction and number of Henry’s steps. Henry would abruptly stop and shift direction when the seal track showed that the seal had altered course. Deane would record the new direction and head off behind Henry. This performance was repeated dozens of times until the seal track was lost at the surf’s edge. I trotted along behind to avoid being lost in the fog.
Back at the A-frame, the data was transcribed, plotted on graph paper and compared to similar results from tracks found on other days. The researchers had learned that a seal frequently travelled more than a half-kilometer over the sand to reach an inland lake. They saw that the seals move deliberately with uncanny accuracy even in dense fog and at night and that the accuracy of the seal was not modified by darkness and fog; they deviated less than 10 meters from their average direction under all conditions. They seemed to never become lost whereas the researchers became lost with embarrassing regularity.
After several days in the dense fog, I was becoming increasingly anxious to leave. I had left my young family in Halifax with no car and waiting for a moving van that had gotten stuck with customs officials at the border. Now they were camped out in the empty house while I was trapped in the fog on an island in the Atlantic. Finally, it was 10 days before the fog to thin enough to allow a plane to land and rescue me. Despite the anxiety, my experiences on that cold, foggy sand bar were enthralling enough for me to volunteer to return and join the research team who had become obsessed by seal tracks in the sand. Over the next years, we had many more adventures pursuing the mysteries of marine mammal navigation.
After-dinner conversation in the A-frame, a Coleman lantern hanging above the table. Of the six people at the table, the three faces visible, from left to right, are Henry James, Bob Dykes and Chris Hawes.
Prepared for the Sable Island Institute, April 2017