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When Sable Island became Canada's 43rd national park in December 2013, the first thing we (and countless others) did was add this remote Nova Scotia island to our bucket list. The second thing we did was to ask a lot of questions about Sable Island.

Parks Canada project manager, Julie Tompa, gives lecture on Sable Island National Park Reserve
Parks Canada project manager, Julie Tompa, gives lecture on Sable Island National Park Reserve
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

It wasn't until we took an Adventure Canada cruise to Sable Island that we obtained answers from the biologists, ornithologists, researchers and Parks Canada staff who accompanied passengers on the ship and the island.

Why make Sable Island a national park?

"Sable Island is a biodiversity gem with 350 species of birds, including endangered roseate terns, 190 plant species and the world's largest breeding colony of grey seals," said Julie Tompa. Project manager for leading the establishment of Sable Island as a national park reserve, Tompa described how Parks Canada planned to protect, monitor and manage the island's resources.

In 2010, Jim Prentice, minister for the environment, made a commitment to protect Sable Island as either a national wildlife area or a national park. Although the former designation would protect Sable Island's flora and fauna, only a national park status would protect its rich cultural heritage.

In her onboard presentation during the cruise, Tompa highlighted the human history of Sable Island, from shipwrecks to the people who operated the life-saving stations. "Shifting sand often exposes ship parts from wrecks, such as the SS Skidby and the Merrimac," she noted while showing us photos. Other Sable Island cultural resources include buildings, lighthouses, life-saving stations, telegraph poles and marine artifacts.

What is the difference between a national park and a national park reserve?

"When a national park is created where there is an outstanding claim by an Aboriginal group, it is designated as a national park reserve until that claim is settled," explained Tompa. "Because the Mi'kmaq have an outstanding Nova Scotia claim, which is being settled through a process called the Made in Nova Scotia Process, Sable Island is a national park reserve until it is settled."

In addition to consulting with the Mi'kmaq nation, Parks Canada conducted a public consultation. The results? "People wanted us to keep Sable Island wild, to manage it well and to avoid making any radical changes with the establishment of the park," she said.

Jonathan Sheppard and Daryll Mooney describe Main Station for Adventure Canada passengers
Jonathan Sheppard and Daryll Mooney describe Main Station for Adventure Canada passengers
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Who lives on Sable Island?

Operations manager, Daryll Mooney, and park manager, Jonathan Sheppard, told us that four people live on Sable Island on an eight-weeks-on, eight-weeks-off rotational basis. Two are from Parks Canada and two work for Environment Canada. In addition, a maintenance worker rotates every four months through Sable Island Main Station.

Zoe Lucas, a citizen scientist who does research on Sable Island, is the only other person living here on a regular basis. She stays for days-to-months at a time.

When Lucas is here, up to six government staff and researchers live on the island year-round. The population of Sable Island increases to as many as 25 people at different times as various scientific groups visit for periods of between one week and three months. Even then, the wildlife population far exceeds the number of humans on the island.

To minimize their footprint on the eco-system, Parks Canada staff use the pre-existing Environment Canada infrastructure as their operational hub. A fence surrounds the rich heath vegetation around the Main Station to protect Environment Canada's instrumentation field from the wild horses. (They like to scratch their itchy backs on the equipment.)

Tour of Main Station

Daryll Mooney explained the purpose of each white wooden building in front of us. "There are three residential facilities at Sable Island Main Station," he said. "On the extreme left are two rows of three apartments where Environment Canada staff live on rotation. They are self-sufficient with a dishwasher, fridge, WiFi, satellite TV and cooking equipment to prepare their own food."

Parks Canada and Environment Canada Main Station on Sable Island
Parks Canada and Environment Canada Main Station on Sable Island
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Further south, is Zoe Lucas's laboratory and the food warehouse, which is stocked with meat, ice cream and other comfort foods. Although staff try to do a food order every two weeks, plane arrivals are often delayed by weather conditions. Sometimes the only way they can have food delivered is by sea lift with Dominion Diving.

Other buildings include the carpentry shop, warehouses, the Environment Canada office, the staff house (where researchers stay) and the officer-in-charge house where Mooney lives. The bottom floor was converted into the Parks Canada office.

Fog partially obscures Environment Canada operations building
Fog partially obscures Environment Canada operations building
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

How does Sable Island get electricity?

"The long building is our garage and power-generating station," he explained. "We have three generators in there running on diesel 24/7."

Jonathan Sheppard noted that getting fuel to Sable Island is both an ecological and a logistical issue. Environment Canada put wind turbines on the island several years ago to offset fuel consumption. "We're evaluating our overall power system needs on Sable Island. In the future, we're looking at a combination of wind and solar."

Maintaining equipment

"Our maintenance guys are very resourceful because it's not easy to get someone out here to repair our water system, stoves, lighting and vehicles," explained Mooney. "They can't just go to Home Depot for spare parts."

For vehicles, staff use two Gator ATVs, a 3/4-ton truck and a jeep, all delivered by sea lift and all requiring on-site maintenance.

Environment Canada weather station

Collecting climate data on Sable Island goes back to the 1800s, according to Jonathan Sheppard. "Its remoteness and long-term data help us understand the dynamics of global air currents."

Sable Island weather is characterized by wind and fog (125 days of fog every year). Daryll Mooney pointed out Environment Canada's equipment, partially obscured by the fog.

Daryll Mooney, Sable Island operations manager
Daryll Mooney, Sable Island operations manager
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"The hydrogen shed is used for Environment Canada's Upper Air Program. Meteorological staff do balloon launches twice daily at 8:15 am and 8:15 pm," he explained.

"They produce their own hydrogen here and follow the balloons for 45 minutes. The balloons rise to a height of 36,000 meters (118,116 feet)."

Meteorology measurements

He also showed us the instrument shed and a device for measuring sunlight. The communications tower is connected to the Upper Air Program.

Near the British Geological Survey building is the place where Environment Canada technicians measure changes in magnetic fields. In the instrument field, we saw a ceilometer used to measure the height of cloud bases.

Pilots use the Sable Island automated weather observation system for navigation. Daryll Mooney uses information from it when he lays out a runway for planes landing on South Beach.

Visitor information

Parks Canada has implemented a visitor registration system, a mandatory orientation for visitors and a rigorous, peer-reviewed permit system for researchers. (Before Sable Island became a national park, people requested permission to visit from the Canadian Coast Guard, which was responsible for Sable Island under the Canada Shipping Act.)

Visitor safety is paramount, according to Julie Tompa. "People need to be self-sufficient and to be aware that the rescue response is not going to be immediate."

Sable Island has no doctor, cell phone or 911 services. For emergencies, they use the Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC). If a Cormorant helicopter from Greenwood NS can land, the flight time back from Sable Island to Halifax is 95 minutes.

Biodiversity assessment

To focus on resource conservation, Parks Canada inventoried Sable Island's mammals, birds, invertebrates and plants to determine how they interact and to develop indicators for long-term monitoring. This included the status of species at risk, such as the roseate tern and Ipswich sparrow.

Sable Island wild horses are unmanaged
Sable Island wild horses are unmanaged
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Parks Canada management plan incorporates the wild horses on Sable Island. "According to the National Parks Act, the horses are a naturalized species," explained Jonathan Sheppard. "That means that the horses are managed as a wild population, which essentially means that they are unmanaged."

Rules & regulations

"The more interactions horses have with humans, the more potential for them to become habituated," warned Julie Tompa. "To protect them, we ask visitors to maintain a buffer space of 20 meters (66 feet). We ask you to keep your distance from seals, as well."

She also asked hikers to avoid walking on steep dune slopes to prevent erosion and to avoid trampling rare plants in wetland areas.

Sand-dusted horse remains
Sand-dusted horse remains
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

As in all Canadian national parks, it is illegal to remove any rocks, shells, animal specimens or interesting litter, because it could be a cultural resource. Parks Canada also prohibits fires, pets and guns. (Sable Island has no fire station or trucks.)

Research projects

Scientists who want to do research on Sable Island need to apply for permits from Parks Canada. Rules mandate that visitors avoid disturbing research projects, such as tagged horse skeletons.

For visitors arriving by plane, Sable Island National Park Reserve has a strict pack-in, pack-out policy. All garbage and litter must be removed from the island because it could be harmful to the environment or wildlife.

Travel to Sable Island by cruise ship made this easy, because we slept and ate onboard. Lectures by Adventure Canada's resource staff made passengers aware of the island's vulnerabilities before we arrived. We left nothing but footprints behind.

Management plan

"Within five years following the establishment of a national park, we are required to table a management program, in consultation with the public and Aboriginal groups," explained Julie Tompa. "Parks Canada has a three-pronged mandate to protect each park's ecological integrity, to protect and provide education about its cultural and natural resources and to facilitate visitors who want to experience them."

Adventure Canada passengers on Sable Island
Adventure Canada passengers on Sable Island
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

She explained that, although Sable Island is in a southern location, it is very similar to northern national parks in terms of remote access, geography and fragility. "Adventure Canada's cruises to Sable Island are a great opportunity to pilot test our protocols to ensure that visits are low-impact and sustainable."

Parks Canada research indicates that visitors who have personal experiences in national parks become advocates for their ongoing stewardship and conservation. After our trip to Sable Island National Park Reserve, we and our fellow Adventure Canada passengers enthusiastically agree.


Adventure Canada

Sable Island National Park Reserve

More things to see & do on Adventure Canada Sable Island cruises:

Gully Marine Protected Area - Habitats for Seabirds and Whales

Sable Island Hiking - Horse Trails, Bald Dune, Freshwater Ponds and Beaches

Sable Island Plants - Flowers, Berries, Shrubs, Grasses and One Tree