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Science & NatureWhat is That?What Is That … on the Island?

What Is That … on the Island?


White Lake includes several forested, rocky islands which we enjoy paddling around to view the wildlife.  On an entirely different scale, however, we recently visited a different type of island while we were on an expedition cruise around Atlantic Canada.

In June, we were fortunate to spend two days visiting Sable Island, a lifelong dream of Carolyn’s.  Many people we know have heard of Sable Island and its wild horses.  Seeing the Sable Island wild horses was one of our principal motivations for taking the expedition cruise.  We discovered, however, much more than horses on this sand crescent at the edge of the continental shelf, some 160 kilometres off the coast of Nova Scotia.  We want to share some of what we learned and pictures from our amazing expedition.

Sable Island is often called the “graveyard of the Atlantic” with over 350 known shipwrecks caused by the island’s shifting sand bars, foggy weather, strong storms, and dangerous currents. The crescent-shaped island is over 43 kilometres long and just over one kilometre at its widest point.   On June 20, 2013 the Sable Island National Park Reserve was established to protect all of this unique ecosystem and its varied, sometimes rare species.  Access to the island is strictly controlled, requiring prior approval from Parks Canada.  Those granted permission to visit are required to abide by regulations to protect the flora and fauna such as not approaching the wildlife.  The number of people visiting the island at one time is strictly controlled.  At any one time, only a few Parks Canada employees live there.  They are joined in summer by a limited number of researchers.

Sable Island wild horses are believed to have been introduced to the island in the 1700s and have evolved from original Acadian stock.  Of the many domestic animal species brought to the island by people over the years, only the horses survived and have developed through time into a distinct breed of wild and free-roaming horses.  Currently numbering more than 500, the horses survive primarily on marram grass, which covers a third of the island and helps fix the sand dunes in place.  Fresh water is available in a few small ponds on the west end of the island while the horse populations residing on the east end have learned to excavate shallow depressions in the sand to access fresh water available several centimetres below the surface.

While the wild horses look somewhat similar to domesticated ponies we see on farms near our cottage, the next animal bears no resemblance to any of our cottage wildlife.  Sable Island has the largest breeding colony of grey seals in the world.  Seal pupping and breeding occurs on the island in the winter.  A small portion of the population, but never the less tens of thousands of animals, remains on the island during the summer.  Even the smaller summer population we encountered presented an impressive sight.

The Ipswich sparrow breeds and nests only on Sable Island, over-wintering further south along the Atlantic coast from New England south to Florida.  It shares the colouration of most sparrows which are generally streaked, brownish birds, although the Ipswich sparrow is paler than many others.  Small birds, Ipswich sparrows tend to prefer grassy areas which describes well some of the hillocks of grasses we saw.

We came across a bright pink-purple pea-like flower while hiking in the central part of the island.  The beach pea is similar to the bright pink vetchling blossom we see around White Lake.  Both plants are members of the pea or bean family and are capable of fixing and using atmospheric nitrogen.  This ability makes the beach pea an important contributor to the nutrient poor sand on Sable Island and the wild horses rely on this plant in the fall to supplement their foraging in preparation for long, challenging winters.

We are always delighted to come across an iris blooming at the water’s edge when paddling around White Lake.  You can only imagine our pleasant surprise after hiking through the fog, over the largest and tallest dune on Sable Island, Bald Dune, to come across an expanse of iris blooming along the margins of a freshwater pond  …  all that colour after so much sand!  We would not have been so surprised had we known beforehand that our hike would include passing by Iris Pond.  In addition to the colourful iris, the pond was full of blooming yellow pond lilies, another aquatic plant we enjoy at the cottage.

While enjoying the exotic sights and wildlife on Sable Island we were reminded of the many similarities with the natural beauty we enjoy daily during our summers on White Lake.  We are so fortunate.

We relied extensively on information provided by Parks Canada on its website,, as well as the following field guides: Peter Alden’s Peterson First Guides – Mammals; Roger Tory Peterson’s Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America; and, William A. Niering’s National Audubon Society Filed Guide to North American Wildflowers – Eastern Region.




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