"Wild Horses Run Unbridled or their Spirit Dies"

~Buterfly Lyrics, Mariah Carey~

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In the shipping lore of the North Atlantic, Sable Island is synonymous with wrecks and disasters. This small, crescent-shaped island, about 300 kilometres southeast of Nova Scotia, has been the scene of hundreds of shipwrecks, the first recorded in the 16th century, the last one about sixty years ago. Countless others have undoubtedly gone unrecorded. The island, never more than 40 or 50 kilometres in length and less than 2 kilometres wide, lies near the busy shipping lanes to and from the North American coast. Its rough and treacherous waters have claimed mariners and immigrants alike with distressing regularity. The island is surrounded by dangerous currents and is often shrouded in fog.

As shipping between Europe and Halifax, and various American ports, increased in the 18th century, the island was avoided if at all possible. However, in an era when determining location was not an exact science, ships often ran aground on the sandbars and were wrecked by vicious waves. With little or no shelter on the island, shipwreck survivors had little hope for rescue on this well-known, but remote finger of land. Hundreds of men, women and children have perished because of Sable Island -- the total number of casualties is impossible to calculate.


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In 1801, the British government established the Sable Island Humane Establishment with a small number of permanent residents, and while they could do nothing to prevent shipwrecks, survivors now had a good chance of being rescued and returned to the mainland. Responsibility for the station was assumed by the Canadian government in 1867 and soon after, two lighthouses were constructed on the island. Government ships called regularly at the island and by the 1890s, communication on the island itself was improved with the introduction of telephones, allowing life-saving crews and lighthouse keepers to co-ordinate search and rescue operations. Advances in navigational equipment reduced the frequency of shipwrecks and those who found themselves stranded on the island were well cared for by the staff of the life-saving station. Shipping disasters and loss of life, however, remained a fact of life throughout the latter half of the 19th century, though the dangerous waters of Sable Island, long a source of peril to ships, were slowly being tamed. Fewer and fewer ships were wrecked on the island after the First World War and the last major disasters took place in the 1940s. In the late 1950s, the government closed the Humane Establishment and the resident light-keepers were eventually removed in favour of automation. Modern technology now ensures that ships avoid the island and its deadly sandbars.

Sable Island is a shifting sandbar, its size and shape being constantly altered by the surrounding sea. While the island itself is no more than 40 kilometres in length, sandbars extend like tentacles for almost 30 kilometres or more from its east and west end. Today, the island is well-known as a refuge for wild horses (brought to the island in the early 19th century) and fascinating flora and fauna, but it will always be the graveyard for North Atlantic shipping. It is the final resting place for countless ships, as well as the many men, women and children who met their fate on its sandy shores.

Since 1583 there have been over 350 shipwrecks at Sable Island. The first recorded shipwreck occurred in late August 1583 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert's ship the "Delight" wrecked during a storm. Fourteen men escaped and were eventually able to make their way back to England but almost 100 others were not as fortunate. Over the years it is estimated that over 10,000 people have lost their lives off the coast of Sable Island.

The island is situated 300 kilometers south east of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Made of sand left behind over 19,000 years ago by retreating glaciers, the nearest bedrock is roughly 125 feet straight down. Sable Island is 20 miles long and one mile wide at its' widest point. Due to it's sandy composition the island's crescent shape is constantly shifting with the wind. Sandbars as long as 17 miles lie hidden beneath the water's surface at either end of the island. When the wind blows, as it often does at Sable, the sandbars are almost impossible for ships to avoid.

Prone to unpleasant weather, Sable Island lies in the path of the majority of the storms that track up the Atlantic coast. The island lies near the junction of three major ocean currents: the Belle Island Current, the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream Current. In the summer, warm air from the Gulf Stream produces dense fog when it hits the cooler air around Sable; as a result the island experiences 125 days of fog each year. By way of comparison Toronto has 35 days of fog.


art by Jim Warren


The fog and constant poor weather are, of coarse, the cause of the majority of shipwrecks at Sable Island. In the early days of seafaring there was no such thing as radar or sonar, in fact in the earliest days even maps were not entirely accurate. Ships navigated by dead reckoning and the experience of their captains. Unfortunately, even an experienced captain's skills were not a match for the fog, high winds and sandbars of Sable Island.

As a result of the overwhelming number of shipwrecks at Sable Island the Humane Establishment was created to rescue and house the shipwrecked sailors. They built many shelters along the island's coast for the victims who managed to make it to shore by themselves. Once inside the sailors found firewood, food and directions to the nearest manned life saving station where they could receive first aid and shelter until the next supply ship arrived, a somewhat irregular event at Sable. Rescue teams permanently housed at the main station practiced rescue drills weekly and patrolled the coast on horseback looking for survivors twice each day. By 1895 the island had five life saving stations.

Lighthouses were built at the east and west ends of the island. The west lighthouse was first built in 1873 and was moved five times as the tip of the island gradually eroded. The east lighthouse was built the same year but was only moved once because of erosion.

The development of radar and advanced navigation techniques virtually eliminated shipwrecks around Sable Island. The last wreck was the yacht 'Merrimac' on July 27 1999.

Today, access to the island is restricted by the Canadian government, because of the number of attempts to plunder the shipwrecks that still lie off the island's coast. Periodically pieces of these ancient wrecks wash ashore but they are soon pulled back into the ocean. The lighthouses are now automated, the shelters are no longer needed and there are only six permanent residents on the island, however, scientists do visit for short periods to study the island's wildlifeonce they have gained the government's permission. Quite a change from the days when many sailors made unexpected visits to the island.

The most famous, and perhaps the most popular, of Sable Island's fauna are the wild horses. Although access to the island is restricted - both by location and by regulations - the horses are well-known, and are of great interest, culturally and scientifically. The Sable Island horses have been featured in several documentaries and numerous books and magazine articles, and they were the subject of an exhibition at the Equine Museum of Japan in Yokohama (1994), and a photography exhibition in New York City (Roberto Dutesco, 2002). This population of horses has been the topic of doctoral research (Welsh 1975), and long-term studies have been underway since the mid-1980s (e.g. Lucas et al. 1991).

The romantic notion that Sable Island horses are descended from shipwreck survivors persists. The present-day horses, however, are descendants of animals brought to Sable Island during the late 1700s. Introductions of small numbers of domestic horses occurred sporadically during the 1800s and early 1900s. A thorough account of the history of the Sable Island horses is provided by Barbara Christie (1995).

Although speculation about how the horses got to Sable Island persists the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History has another theory, according to them, A Boston clergyman, the Reverend Andrew Le Mercier, sent the first horses to graze on the island in 1737. Most of them were probably stolen by privateers and fishermen. About 1760, Boston merchant and shipowner Thomas Hancock shipped 60 horses to Sable. These horses survived and became wild.

But whose horses were they?
Between 1755 and 1763, Acadians were deported from Nova Scotia by British authorities. Hancock was paid to transport Acadians to the American colonies. The Acadians were forced to abandon all their livestock. It appears that Hancock helped himself to some of their horses and put them to pasture on Sable Island.


art by Jim Warren


There are a number of other populations of free-ranging horses found throughout the world, some on islands, some in inland regions. Other island horses include those on the barrier islands of Assateague and Shackleford, both off the east coast of the USA. Most populations of wild horses consist of feral animals (i.e. domesticated animals that have returned to the wild). Such horses are wild in the sense that they are generally free to roam as they please, to form various social organizations, to reproduce, and to forage for their own food and water, and to survive or succumb to disease, weather and predators. However, many of these free-ranging populations are exposed to some form of interference by people - fertility control, culling, round-ups, adoption programs etc. The Sable Island horses are among the few wild horse populations that are entirely unmanaged: they are not subject to any kind of interference. Since 1961, the Sable Island horses have had legal protection under the Sable Island Regulations of the Canada Shipping Act.

The number of horses on Sable Island generally ranges between 200 to 350. There have been occasional calls for control or removal of the horses. Indeed, the protection now provided by the Sable Island Regulations was a response to heated controversy arising in 1960 when the federal government announced that the horses were to be taken off the island. Since then, the few advocates of control or removal of the horses typically cite "humanitarian" concerns, or complain that the horses, being an `introduced species' must be having a negative impact on the island. Thus far, however, such arguments for control or removal of the horses have been fraught with serious misconceptions and lack of information.

Although the horses are presently protected by the Sable Island Regulations, this protection exists only so long as the horses and their island habitat are effectively monitored. Since 1801, when the life-saving stations were established, there has been a continuous government presence on Sable Island. Now the future of Sable Island and the Station is in question, and the Government of Canada is considering various options - one of which is to close the Station, thus ending 200 years of full-time human presence and stewardship. This option would put not only the horses, but all the island's flora and fauna at serious risk.

Today Sable Island is at risk of perishing forever do to global warming and rising sea levels, the Island and it's wild horses could be lost in as little as 20 years if levels continue to rise on a yearly basis. The horses of Sable Island are a national treasure, not only because their history dates back to the early settlement of Canada, but also because their preservation gives us a peek into a world unscathed by human interference, a world in which wild horses really do roam free.




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