Port of Call: with One Ocean Expeditions 

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF ONE OCEAN EXPEDITION
  • Photo courtesy of One Ocean Expedition

Bald Dune isn't very high, but our feet sink into its shifting white sands, slowing our climb. Finally we reach the top and see the other side of skinny Sable Island. I fight the wind, pushing my hair off my face so I can see the small brown horses on the beach. One scratches its back on a driftwood log. Another rolls in the wet sand while its friends wade in the surf. There's a sense of purity, being 175 kilometres off the shore of Nova Scotia with these wild creatures, who have lived here in isolation for 250 years. Then the wind shifts, engulfing us in eau-de-dead-seal.

I'm on an Eastern Atlantic cruise with British Columbia-based One Ocean Expeditions, and this is our most exotic port of call. Only about 450 people manage to visit per year, either on small cruise ships, private planes or private boats. Unless you're Parks Canada staff or an approved scientist, it's day trips only. Every person who sets foot on the island must first be briefed on proper conduct and biosecurity measures. This means vacuuming out pockets and Velcro closures to prevent transporting seeds, and dipping the soles of our shoes in a chemical that kills diseases found on horse farms. Fortunately, One Ocean's emphasis on visiting delicate polar regions make them biosecurity champs.

"This is about limiting risk," says Alannah Phillips, park manager of Sable Island National Park Reserve, who, with a couple of Parks Canada colleagues, has come aboard the RCGS Resolute to monitor and educate us cruise passengers. "We'll never be able to absolutely eliminate risk."

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF ONE OCEAN EXPEDITION
  • Photo courtesy of One Ocean Expedition

Sable Island visitors are happy to comply with biosecurity. "The hardest thing for people is to maintain the 20 metres from the horses," Phillips says. "The horses have no predators on the island, so they have no fear. They will approach people."

Sure enough, as I walk around the island with my small group, our guides tell us to back away when a strong and frisky stallion gets a bit too interested in us. I don't have to be told twice. My human fragility is apparent. If he decides to trample me, there's not much anyone can do about it.

Crescent-shaped Sable Island is 42 kilometres long and 1.5 km at its widest point. In addition to horses, this little sliver in the Atlantic houses the world's largest grey seal colony, is the only known breeding spot for the Ipswich sparrow, and provides critical habitat for the endangered roseate tern. But don't think this tern is a passive victim—go anywhere near its lair and it will divebomb you and poop on your head. My guides can vouch for its aim.

"In Canada, Sable Island is really special to a lot of people," Phillips tells me. "It has kind of a magic and mystery to it that people want to make sure it's protected." But like a fairy tale, magic isn't all rainbows and frolicking unicorns. Eighteen kinds of sharks, including great whites, feed on the grey seals. On our walk we see many seal skulls and assorted bones, and a shark spinal column. Sable earned its name "Graveyard of the Atlantic" due to the 350-plus ships that weren't expecting to encounter its surrounding submerged sandbars in foggy days on rough seas. Canada established its first lifesaving station here in 1801, though not much is left. Sand quickly overtakes buildings. Even for horses, Sable Island falls short of paradise. A vet who studied dead horses on Sable Island in 2017 and 2018 found three times the number of parasitic worms deemed dangerous in domestic horses, sand blocking GI tracts, starvation in yearlings and teeth ground down by a sand-packed diet—freedom comes at a high price.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF ONE OCEAN EXPEDITION
  • Photo courtesy of One Ocean Expedition

This hardship makes it all the more haunting. And the undisturbed shoreline might be the most as-is beach I've ever seen. Not only are visitors forbidden to remove shells, bones or other artifacts, they can't take litter. I found that surprisingly hard. But Phillips sets me straight when I ask her why they don't clean up the beach. "There's 80 kilometres of shoreline and we have two people that work on the island. And then what do you do with it if you picked it up? It washes up, it's gone, it comes back. You could literally clean the whole shoreline one day and it would be back again with the next storm."

Once I get over my idea of litter, it's fascinating to contemplate what washes up here. Plastics, of course. Coconuts. Sneakers. "It's an amazing platform to teach people. Even though it's 175 kilometres from the mainland in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, what you can drop in the water wherever you are can end up on Sable Island," Phillips says. For instance, let go of a helium balloon in the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. and it may well end up on Sable Island.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF ONE OCEAN EXPEDITION
  • Photo courtesy of One Ocean Expedition

Her most interesting find? Two years ago, staff found a message in a bottle from the 1930s. The message was on a promotional card for an ocean liner out of Scotland. "It asked the finder of the bottle, please write to me at this address."

One Ocean Expeditions' next Fins and Fiddles cruise in Eastern Canada is scheduled for summer 2020.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF ONE OCEAN EXPEDITION
  • Photo courtesy of One Ocean Expedition

For more info on visiting Sable Island visit www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ns/sable/visit.

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