Sable Island

From Academic Kids

Sable Island is a small Canadian island situated 180 km southeast of Nova Scotia in the Atlantic Ocean.



Not to be confused with Cape Sable Island, in southwestern Nova Scotia, Sable Island is a narrow crescent-shaped sandbar no more than 2 km at it widest point despite being nearly 38 km long. It emerges from vast shoals and shallows on the continental shelf which, in tandem with the area's frequent fog and sudden strong storms including hurricanes and nor'easters, have caused over 300 recorded shipwrecks. It is often referred to as "The Graveyard of the Atlantic" as it sits astride the Great Circle Route between the Eastern Seaboard of North America and Europe.

Sable Island was named for its sand - ' sable ' is French for 'sand'. It is covered with grass and other low-growing vegetation. Sable Island is believed to have formed from large quantities of sand and gravel deposited on the continental shelf near the end of the last ice age. The island is continually changing its shape with the effects of strong winds and violent ocean storms.

There are frequent heavy fogs in the area due to the contrasting effects of the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream. During winter months, the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream can sometimes give Sable Island the warmest temperatures in Canada.


The island is home to over 250 wild horses who are protected by law from human interference. One theory regarding the origin of the wild horse population is that they are descended from horses confiscated from Acadians during the Great Expulsion and left on the island by Boston merchant Thomas Hancock, uncle of John Hancock.

In the past, excess wild horses have been rounded up and shipped off the island for use in coal mines on Cape Breton Island, or to be sold and/or euthanized. Although the wild horse colonies have not been disturbed in recent decades, there have been several cases where the federal government has air-dropped hay during the winter months. This has now stopped in an attempt to allow the horse population to stabilize naturally, although there is frequent debate among biologists and ecologists who advocate removal of the horses in favour of returning the island to its natural state.

Several large bird colonies are also resident; Arctic terns, and Ipswich sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps), a subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow that breed in no other location. Harbour and Grey seals also breed on the island's shores. There is also a species of freshwater sponge (Heteromeyenia macouni) found only in ponds on the island.


The Portuguese explorer João Álvares Fagundes and his expedition, who explored this region in 1520-1521, may have been among the first humans to have encountered the island. A lighthouse was established on Sable Island by the British government in the 1790s and its life-saving crew became the first inhabitants of the island, a brief attempt at colonization at the end of the 16th century by France having failed. Until the advent of modern ship navigation, Sable Island's two light stations (one each at the western tip and eastern tip) were home to permanent lighthouse keepers and their families, as well as the crewmembers of the life-saving station. In the early 20th century, the Marconi Company established a wireless station on the island and the Canadian government similarly established a weather station.

Although the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) has now automated the light stations, Environment Canada and DFO conduct routine meteorological and atmospheric studies from a permanently occupied station on Sable Island because of its unique isolated geographic position down-wind from the North American mainland. Sable Island is specifically mentioned in the Constitution of Canada as being the special responsibility of the federal government.

Out of concern for preserving the island's frail ecology, as well as sovereignty purposes, recreational boaters require specific permission from CCG to set foot on the island. The Canadian Armed Forces continuously patrol the area using aircraft and naval vessels, partly due to the nearby presence of natural gas and oil drilling rigs and an undersea pipeline. Sable Island's heliport also contains emergency aviation fuel for search and rescue helicopters which use the island to stage further offshore into the Atlantic. Should the need arise, the island also serves as an emergency evacuation point for crews aboard nearby oil rigs.

The island is considered administratively a part of the Halifax Regional Municipality and the federal electoral district of Halifax, although the urban area of Halifax proper is some 300 km away on the Nova Scotian mainland.


  • In 1901, the federal government planted over 80,000 trees on the island in an attempt to stablize the soil; all died.
  • Sable Island is mentioned in the book "The Perfect Storm" and a staged version of the island appears in the movie by the same name.
  • One result of the island's complex administrative situation is that many amateur radio operators consider Sable Island to be a separate country and commonly give it the call sign prefix CY0. Since many amateurs want to collect contacts with as many countries as possible and the island is virtually uninhabited, stations that would operate from Sable Island would be very exotic to contact ("rare DX"). As a result, a number of private expeditions to operate temporary radio stations on Cape Sable Island (known as DX-peditions) have been mounted.
Missing image
Map of Sable Island with inset of Nova Scotia

Mercator projection: public domain Online Map Creation (


  • "Sable Island Shipwrecks: Disaster and Survival at the North Atlantic Graveyard" by Lyall Campbell, Nimbus pub., ISBN 1551090961, December 2001
  • " Ethos of Voice in the Journal of James Rainstorpe Morris from the Sable Island Humane Station, 1801-1802", by Rosalee Stilwell, ISBN 0773476636, Edwin Mellen Press, January 2001
  • "Sable Island", by Bruce Armstrong, ISBN 0385131135, Doubleday, July 1981
  • "Wild Horses of Sable Island", by Zoe Lucas, ISBN 0919872735, Firefly Books Ltd., August 1992
  • "Wild and Beautiful Sable Island", Pat Keough et al., ISBN 096925573X, Green Publishing,September 1993
  • "Sable Island Journals 1801-1804", by James Rainstorpe Morris, ISBN 0968924506
  • "A Dune Adrift: The Strange Origins and Curious History of Sable Island", by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle, ISBN 0771026420, McClelland & Stewart, August 2004

External links

pl:Sable (Nowa Szkocja)


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