• By: Dan Donovan

Sable Island: A Dream Come True

All photos © Bill Freedman

Like a lot of people on this tour, I first heard of Sable Island as a child—a storm at sea, a shipwreck, the people perish, the horses survive, swimming to the shores of a desert island.

The story grew in me to become something of a Jungian archetype—a universal story of exploitation, emancipation and ultimate freedom.

Not long after Sable Island was declared Canada’s 43rd National Park in Dec. 2013, Adventure Canada, the tour group for the intrepid, teamed up with Parks Canada to offer its first tours of the Canadian island. Luckily, the inclement waters of the island, known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, are inclined to be friendlier during the long-lit days of the summer solstice.

Off we go!

Boarding the ship feels much like checking in at a summer camp for adults. It is clear at the meet and greet the Adventure Canada staff is stellar—heaping with talent and experience; broadcasters; biologists; photographers; musicians and so much more!

We set sail to the sound of corks firing from bottles in celebration of Adventure Canada’s 25th anniversary. Our ship, the Sea Adventurer, begins its voyage while we toast and sip from fluted glass, bidding farewell to St. John’s and the cheerful neighbourhood houses of the Battery from port side, as heaps of floating ice summon us to sea from starboard. The adventure has begun!


Despite the seasickness, I sleep surprisingly well for being on a boat all night. I am jolted awake by the voice of Stefan, our strident expedition leader, loud and clear over the intercom. He provides the necessary nautical facts and figures. And Stefan is never without a sense of humour, “For those of you who were feeling seasick and wanting to die—a welcome back!”

Sable Island sits still on the horizon. It’s entirely zen. Today, the crescent shaped island is true to its other moniker, the Smile of the Atlantic. Just 300 kilometres off the coast of Nova Scotia—this feels nothing like Canada.

On the island, a couple of horses mill about, sniffing our pile of gear. They are an important part of the island’s history. It is generally agreed the horses are descendants from Acadian horses seized by the British during the expulsion of the Acadians (1755-1763).

A Boston merchant purchased the horses, transporting them to the island in 1760. The intention was that they would care for themselves, multiply, be periodically harvested and sold.  Due to the conditions of the island, however, these horses live shorter lives than others. The sand in their diet grinds down their teeth, effectively causing them to starve to death. Like Achilles’ choice, it is the price paid to live in glory—wild and free.

There has been much debate over whether these horses belong on the island at all, but Zoe Lucas, Canada’s own Jane Goodall and the woman synonymous with Sable Island, feels assured the herd, currently estimated at about 500, is secure under the aegis of Parks Canada.

Barefoot, we begin our trek towards the largest dune on the island, Bald Dune. With the stark vista of sand ahead of us, I nod in agreement when someone says this could be North Africa.

Noah Richler, a staff member of Adventure Canada, is here 20 years after his father’s visit to the island, which Lucas jokingly described as Mordecai chain-smoking his way up in the wake of dust left behind by Pierre Trudeau bounding his way to the top of Bald Dune.

Lucas tells us it has taken Bald Dune 20 years to inch its way across the island to its present position. It is the island’s hourglass—the movement of each grain of sand to collectively measure the inevitable passage of time.

The ever-changing island currently measures 42 kilometres in length and 1.5 kilometres at its widest point. For the next three days, we will taxi via zodiacs to and from various parts of the island.

Our guides share all there is to know about the persistence, resilience and diversity of the island.

It isn’t just about the horses. The birders in the group are keen to follow Canada’s largest migratory Tern population, along with the tiny  who have chosen Ipswich Sparrowsthe island as their one and only nesting place on the planet. The abundance of seals attracts the circling predators—the Great White Shark is known to contribute to the treachery of the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Every good adventure is, in some way, a story of love. Our time on the island was an extended ritual of bonding. After each visit to the island we shared meals, thoughts, feelings and laughter.

Had we just remained in St. John’s harbour, socializing and participating in the “talks” by the Adventure Canada staff, I would have been sufficiently stimulated—a fellow guest described an Adventure Canada tour as a floating university.

Our adventure together continues well past our days on Sable Island. We cruise through the marine protected area known as the Gulley. At one point we were screeching and hollering like children as dolphins playfully raced alongside the ship.

If our days on Sable Island were the wedding, then the hours we spent in the tiny outpost of Francois (pronounced France-way) are the honeymoon. After an afternoon spent hiking together alongside breathtaking views, we dance up a storm with the town folks in the evening.

The next morning, we wake up in France! Saint-Pierre is exactly as one would expect—a little piece of Europe on this side of the Atlantic. After a most entertaining bus tour winding along the narrow streets, we sit in Les Délices de Joséphine, sipping café au lait, eating gateau and catching up on emails—what a perfect way to wind down an adventure at sea.

After a final evening of showcasing the talent on the ship, we return to where it all began—in St. John’s harbour. There are many wet eyes and long embraces as we sayour goodbyes with promises to keep in touch. Richler’s words continue to resound in my ears, long after the adventure ended, “I like Adventure Canada tours because I always make new friends…”

I can’t say enough about Adventure Canada and the staff. The attention to detail in the pre-tour information package is extraordinary. Click here to learn more about Adventure Canada’s Sable Island tour in June 2016.

By Mona Staples