Sable Island Expedition – June 18, 2012

Nature photographers often say that in order to really connect with a place you must experience and photograph it three times. As if like an ocean mist a sense of familiarity creeps in, and the scene becomes personal and the animals like family.  This is an account of my third expedition to Sable Island.

At Peggy’s Cove they have a saying:  “The fog comes and goes at will.  You should not begrudge it for this, but only wish that you could be as free.”

Day 1: Arrived in Halifax yesterday to purchase food, supplies and weigh in. Debbie Brekelmans, Maritime Airs ace pilot, assesses the weather and decides that the cloud cover is low, but acceptable and she can fly underneath at 650-700 feet.   Having fully expected weather delays I had allowed ten days for the expedition and I am elated that my first scheduled departure day is about to materialize.  I knew that planning a trip there in June, one of the foggiest months, would be risky for flights.  It was a gamble that paid off….

After we fly out past the rocky coast of Nova Scotia and over open ocean, it hits me that I may have ten full days for this experience.  We are flying so low that I am able to spot whales and I feel this must be a good omen.

The nearer we get to Sable, the more our pilot is having to weave her way in and around fog patches and by the time we get to where the island is located we no longer have visual contact with the ground.  Since she is landing by visual control, there is no option but to stay airborne.  After climbing above the fog several times to scout for an opening Debbie tells us that she can continue circling in the hopes that the fog will break, with fuel to manage this for one hour at a cost of $20/minute.  Or we could turn back and abandon the trip. In over 300 trips to Sable she has only had to turn back twice. Just as the discussion begins the clouds suddenly part and we could see the island in its entirety!

A huge collective sigh of relief from 5 passengers with their hearts set on a Sable Island adventure, brings the plane into final approach on the sandy plains near main station.  Hurriedly we unload the plane, our bags and supplies placed on Gators and ferried to the staff quarters.  A quick (and familiar) briefing by acting island supervisor Alan Wilson, and I dash out the door with my gear on my back.

It has been two years and three months since my last visit.  There is no doubt that I have formed an attachment to this place and to the horses.  Not so much towards individuals, but more as a place that constantly exists in my mind so fully that upon returning it feels like a homecoming.  This time there is an added element, one that is not so kind.  It is a pervasive feeling that I must succeed in bringing home imagery above and beyond my previous trips.  There is now an expectation, from myself and my clientele, and it has made me anxious.


A brief reconnaissance from the high dunes suggests that there are more horses to the west.  The first individual I see is far in the distance, alone and moving slowly.  Horses seldom travel alone, so I am thinking there must be more nearby.  As I approach, the reason becomes clearer.  This horse is injured, his right knee badly swollen and he is having difficulty traveling.  It is the liver stallion ‘Spook’ and he is in bad shape and has lost his herd.  He keeps looking into the distance as if to detect the slightest indication of other horses.  An immediate reminder that life on Sable is not easy, and that help is not near.  I wonder at this point if he will survive his injury, as I know many have not.

The light is typically flat and grey and I struggle to come up with something that will work photographically, but am grateful it is not raining.  I come across several small bands including the silver foal from 2010, now a rambunctious two year old and doing really well. A yearling colt, looking shaggy and unkempt is doing his best to lose his furry foal coat in lieu of a smooth adult one.  He is overtly friendly, crossing the line to nuisance and I have to push him away.


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