by Cassidy Nunn –
Most of my childhood dreams have been horsey in nature and a visit to Sable Island, with its famed herds of hardy wild horses, has been one of mine. Last fall I had the opportunity to make that dream into a reality and I jumped at the chance, booking my flight from Victoria to Halifax. I signed up with Picture Perfect Tours for a day-trip tour to the 42-kilometre-long crescent shaped Island in the North Atlantic. I packed as much of my camera gear as I could carry and plenty of empty memory cards, ready for my once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Sable Island is one of the furthest offshore islands in Canada and in 2013 it became a National Park Reserve managed by Parks Canada. The Island has been dubbed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” as over the centuries more than 300 vessels have found their demise, wrecked off the shores as a result of the submerged sand dunes, rough seas and thick fog that often blankets the Island. In 1801 Canada’s first life-saving station was established on Sable Island, although the Island’s history with humans dates back much further than that. The wild horses are descendants of domesticated horses that, over the centuries, were left behind and became feral after settlers left the Island.
Geordie Mott, owner/operator of Picture Perfect Tours, began these Sable Island photography tours, citing his family connection to the Island as inspiration. During the First World War his grandfather was the super intendent on the Island. Geordie writes: “my grandfather always had Sable memorabilia around his home and [this] inspired my imagination to find a way to get there.”
We flew to the Island on a charter flight, the day sunny with a bit of wind. Following a safe landing on the sandy beach of Sable Island and a briefing on the rules from Parks Canada staff, our group of seven set off, cameras in tow, in search of wild horses.
We spent the day trekking through the sand dunes, careful to follow only the horse paths and not step on any flora and fauna. We kept the designated 20 metres distance from the horses at all times, and it was amazing to see how they weren’t afraid of our presence as they continued to graze and move about, occasionally raising their heads to look in our direction. Other wild horses, being flight animals, likely would have turned tail and run, or at least been more suspicious of us with our large lenses and monopods.
Fresh water ponds of varying sizes dotted the landscape, appearing out of the dunes and the salty grasses clinging to life in the sand. The wild horse population varies greatly depending on how harsh the winter has been, and estimates in the past have placed their numbers between 150 and 500. There were many mares with foals by their sides, their thick, almost curly coats preparing for winter already. The stallions’ dense manes were tangled from the salty ocean spray – the older ones boasting manes so long they almost touched the ground.
The first watering hole we came upon had several herds of horses coming in for fresh water; one stallion created some drama for us as he taunted another stallion before being chased off. I heard the commotion of the two splashing through the pond to my right and I spun my camera around and fired off as many frames as I could in quick succession. About half were out of focus, but one captured their action perfectly.
As we headed back for lunch to Main Station, one of the few buildings on the Island, we came across hundreds of grey seals lounging on the shore; some would shuffle off into the water and then promptly turn around and check us out curiously while bobbing in the waves. After our quick re-fuel, we were off to explore again, this time marching in a different direction towards another herd of horses, my memory cards quickly filling up.
It was an incredible pinch-me-because-this-can’t-be-real kind of a day. We flew off into the sunset and I kept my face pressed against the window, watching Sable Island grow smaller and smaller, as I began scheming for my next trip back, hoping to make it a twice-in-a-lifetime experience.