Discovering Stable Island
by Jennifer Irving
How five hundred wild horses attracted one of New Brunswick's top photographers to the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
On Wednesday the runway flooded. Thursday, the winds were too high. By Friday it seemed my years-long dream of going to Sable Island to photograph its wild horse population would remain just that.
But then, good news. A man who had chartered a flight kindly let us hitch a ride. We arrived at a little terminal at Halifax airport at 7 a.m. and crammed ourselves into a tiny twin-prop plane.
Huddled shoulder to shoulder, we flew over the red and gold of Nova Scotia in October and then pushed out over the Atlantic. For just over an hour, we covered the 290 km between the mainland and Sable Island, one of Canada’s farthest offshore islands. All of a sudden the massive sandbar — actually two elongated crescents some 42 km long and just under 1.5 km across at their widest — came into sight.
As the island came into fuller view the small research stations where ecological, wildlife and weather studies are carried out did too. We saw thousands of the grey seals that form the world’s largest colony of this species. And we saw, scattered here and there like figurines, the herds of wild horses that live there.
Sable Island is remote, gorgeous and wild, just like its horses. When we arrived we were the first guests since August, due to various unnamed tropical storms that had been battering the island. Along with its iconic horses, the island is also home to plants, birds, insects and animals, some of which are found only there.
We had just a day to visit the island, but even in that short time we sensed its special spirit. Nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic for the rough seas, fog and submerged sandbars around its perch on the edge of the continental shelf, Sable has been the site of some 350 shipwrecks. This history haunts it, as do the stories of sailors’ souls inhabiting the horses. There’s an air of tragedy but of survival too.
Sealers, sailors and even convicts were visitors and unsuccessful colonizers over the years, but Canada’s first life-saving station, built on Sable in 1801, marked the start of continuous human settlement on the island. The horses, thought to have arrived in the 1730s, have been there even longer.
Sable Island is a beloved destination for photographers from around the world, each bringing their own skills and style to the images they capture there. When I had imagined my Sable Island series, I pictured stormy skies, rearing stallions and windswept horses galloping on the beach.
Clad in winter clothes and heavy with gear, we were shocked to step off the plane into what felt like summer. It was sunny and cloudless, the opposite of what I had expected. The horses were taking their time, curious and calm.
My Sable Island images are part of Wild We Roam, my multi-year project to photograph wild horse colonies around the world. All horses are beautiful but to me, Sable Island’s are the most majestic, with their wild, often sun-bleached manes. There are around 500 now. Matted and dreadlocked, these horses are glorious and earthy.
They have no predators but face long, hard winters. There is no shelter and just one tree on the entire island. At risk from extreme weather and other challenges, they’re protected from humans but not from nature.
The trip was well worth the effort and the wait, and any opportunity to go there should not be met with hesitation. If you can’t go I hope that my photographs take you there instead.jenniferirving.ca | Instagram: @jennifer.irving