This Mysterious Shapeshifting Island In The Atlantic Ocean Hides A Deadly Secret

Image: Twitter/CPAWSnovascotia
Don’t try to map Sable Island if you want to create a guide with any kind of permanence. This shape-shifting, sandy island has confounded and trapped sailors for hundreds of years. And now, researchers have found yet another deadly secret that lurks on this tiny landmass just off the coast of Canada.
Image: NASA
Nearly 110 miles off of Nova Scotia, a sliver of sand juts out of the Atlantic Ocean and out to the surface. This is the 28-mile-long Sable Island, which gets its name from the very material which forms its wispy, half-moon shape. And in spite of its small size, it has a long history of treachery.
Image: Facebook/Sable Island National Park Reserve
A landmass made of sand can easily change its shape. And so when experts take on the task of mapping Sable Island, they can see how much it’s capable of morphing. According to CBC in 2014, for instance, the sand had started disappearing from the island’s west end and accumulating at its eastern side.
Image: Instagram/lidgardphoto
Obviously, the ocean can easily erode and move sand dunes. This is why the landmass’ topography will never be permanent. As such, Sable Island has earned its reputation as a shape-shifter, given that its center regularly moves across the Atlantic. This process has proven to be a big problem for some ships navigating into Nova Scotia.
Image: Twitter/AeroSavvy
Of course, many vessels have successfully made their way to Sable Island. João Álvares Fagundes, an explorer from Portugal, may have made landfall there around the year 1520. Some Portuguese maps made after his North American exploration identify an island off of Nova Scotia as Fagunda. This, some people believe, is what we recognize as Sable Island today.
Image: Pinpin
Some people in history apparently came to Sable Island with sinister plans. The Marquis de la Roche became Governor of New France in 1578. His territory stretched from Newfoundland to the Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet he found he needed to use Sable Island. And it all had to do with who he had chosen to colonize his country’s new, sprawling territory.
Image: Pierre Perrin/Sygma via Getty Images
The Marquis de la Roche opted to bring convicts with him to colonize New France, but they didn’t play along. Instead, they revolted against their leaders – yet the Marquis had a plan. He left them on Sable Island, which had neither trees nor stone. So the convicts used mud and shipwrecked timber to build dwellings, in which they lived for between five and 25 years.
Image: William Inglis Morse Collection/Dalhousie University Archives via CBC News
The convicts’ island tenancy brings up another strange and scary facet of Sable’s history. Although ships managed to drop them on the sandy landmass, many other vessels suffered a different fate in trying to reach it. A whopping 350 ships have sunk into the waters surrounding Sable Island – or, at least, that’s how many have been estimated.
Image: Free-Photos
On top of that, Sable Island stands in the midst of two different flows of water – which creates even more treachery for ships. The Labrador Current, for one, ushers chilly water into the area, while the Gulf Stream funnels warm water toward the island. As such, fog can quickly and entirely envelop the landmass without much warning.
Image: Instagram/rayoneill21
Finally, boats heading for Sable Island have to contend with its surrounding gyres, too. These dangerous currents create a vortex that has pulled vessels toward the landmass – and into dangerous territory. Jonathan Sheppard, the park manager of Sable Island, told the BBC in 2015, “I’ve read old sailor’s chronicles about being sucked into the island. That’s really not so far from the truth.”
Image: Jewelsy/Getty Images
Because of these factors, Sable Island’s surrounding waters have supposedly seen the likes of 350 shipwrecks. An English ship called Delight counts as the first recorded calamity, meeting its demise in 1583. Nearly 200 years later, a vessel traveling to Prince Edward Island crashed into Sable Island, leaving the crew marooned there for winter.
Image: Dennis Jarvis
Fortunately, Sable Island has been outfitted with a pair of lighthouses that have helped cut down on the number of shipwrecks caused by its shifting shapes, hidden sandbars and circulating currents. Yet still, the area has seen a major shipwreck as recently as 1947. Indeed, that year its treacherous waters took down the vessel Manhasset.
Image: Instagram/johnklymko
The landscape of Sable Island has proven to be just as unforgiving as the waters surrounding it. No variety of tree naturally grows on the sandy landmass. The Canadian government tried to correct this in 1901 with a massive tree-planting effort. However, every single one of the 80,000 saplings failed.
Image: Instagram/johnklymko
Since then, similar efforts have seen plantings meet the same fate. A single Scots pine planted in the 1960s survives today, but it has only grown to reach a few feet in height since taking root. Other than that, Sable Island generally consists of vegetation that doesn’t grow to any particularly significant height. Marram grass – which grows on sand dunes – is found there.
Image: Instagram/mattinkpen
Nevertheless, some wildlife have found Sable Island to be a viable place for life. For starters, 18 species of shark swim in the waters that surround the landmass. This part of the Atlantic also serves as a habitat for two different varieties of seal – Harbour and grey. In fact, they use Sable Island as a breeding ground.
Image: Instagram/sableisland_institute
Estimates made between 2003 and 2004 counted about 50,000 seal pups born on the island during the breeding season. As such, the seals have had much more luck on Sable Island than the walrus that used to live there too. Indeed, hunters caused the area’s walrus population to go extinct.
Image: Instagram/sableislandwildhorses
But perhaps the most successful of all Sable Island species is the wild horse. To some, the equine creatures serve as the mysterious island’s symbol. Indeed, a 2016 report estimated that more than 550 horses roamed the island. This number, however, has slightly decreased to 500 according to a study that started in 2017 and concluded in 2018.
Image: Pierre Perrin/Sygma via Getty Images
Humankind brought the horses to Sable Island in the 19th century. More specifically, the animals were first left behind by the Acadian people, who descended from French colonists and, in some cases, the land’s indigenous population. British forces pushed them from their land, and many fled without their animals in tow.
Image: Instagram/sableislandwildhorses
As such, merchant Thomas Hancock – the uncle of one of the authors of the U.S. Constitution, John Hancock – gathered the horses and shuttled them to Sable Island. It’s thought that he wanted to keep them and other livestock on the landmass until he could sell them. But, of course, the conditions on Sable Island didn’t suit most of the creatures left there.
Image: Instagram/michellevalbergphotography
In the 1800s men stationed on the island used the Acadian horses to patrol the land or pull lifeboats and equipment around. After that, some were taken away and sold for use in Canadian coal mines. But in 1960 the government stepped in to prevent further removal of the horses, which had become a wild species over time.
Image: Instagram/sableislandwildhorses
But even with government protection, experts noticed a dip in the population of these wild horses. As previously mentioned, their numbers fell from 550, as recorded in the 2016 study, to about 500, according to the study which concluded in 2018. The horses had started disappearing for a multitude of reasons, making them another casualty of the strange conditions of Sable Island.
Image: Instagram/sableislandwildhorses
It’s not often that scientists can conduct research on the Sable Island horse population. Before the more recent studies began, the last time that veterinary experts had observed the animals was supposedly in the 1970s. As such, Emily Jenkins, a veterinarian and parasitologist on the latest research team, said this left her and the others with little knowledge on which to base their work.
Image: Facebook/Angela Rooney
Specifically, Jenkins told CBC back in March 2019, “There was really very, very little that we knew about why horses would die on the island.” And furthermore, with so much governmental red tape protecting the animals, it was hard for Jenkins and the other researchers to gather samples from them for analysis.
Image: Instagram/johnklymko
But the research team, comprised of experts from the University of Saskatchewan and Parks Canada, came up with a solution. They traveled to Sable Island and searched for deceased horses instead. From there, they performed necropsies, through which they examined the animals’ bones and organs, as well as any lingering parasites.
Image: Emily Jenkins via CBC News
Jenkins said she hoped that she’d find at least a few carcasses when she reached Sable Island in 2017. And it turned out that the research team had plenty of samples to collect. They found 30 viable carcasses, though Jenkins told The StarPhoenix that they’d left behind about 20 others that they couldn’t use or couldn’t reach.
Image: Instagram/devongillighan
The fact that they found around 50 carcasses showed that the Sable Island horse population was being strained. Jenkins told CBC that the year after their initial visit, they only found five equine carcasses on the island. The 50 dead horses represented 10 percent of the island’s entire population of the feral animals.
Image: Pierre Perrin/Sygma via Getty Images
After examining the 30 horse corpses, Jenkins and the rest of the research team could draw a handful of conclusions about why so many Sable Island horses had died. Jenkins herself elaborated to The StarPhoenix. “The main finding was emaciation or starvation and hypothermia, especially for the young horses,” she said.
Image: Instagram/slobirdr
Many of the deceased yearlings – or foals that had completed one year of life – hadn’t put on enough body fat to make it through the winter. As Jenkins put it, “All of the young horses we looked at were basically out of reserves. They had nothing left, they were emaciated.” Meanwhile, foals that still nursed had a better chance of survival, since they received extra nutrition.
Image: Instagram/vixdowdeswell
Interestingly, Jenkins said that adult horses stood higher on the species’ social hierarchy. As such, they got first dibs on Sable Island’s grazing grasses. So, even if a fully grown horse had passed away, it would typically appear to be in better shape than the younger animals that had also perished. Starvation, it seemed, wasn’t typically the cause.
Image: Instagram/janetbellotto
Surviving Sable Island’s bare winter months can prove strenuous. In the summer months, though, the island is a different story. Indeed, upon seeing images of lush grasses covering the area in July and August, Jenkins recalled, “I’m like, ‘Did you guys Photoshop this?’ Because it’s green, totally green. And when I go out it is totally brown. There is not a scrap of vegetation.”
Image: Instagram/mattinkpen
But a lack of vegetation wasn’t the only reason why so many Sable Island horses had died off in 2017. The researchers realized that their sandy surrounds had also caused damage to the creatures’ bodies. For one thing, the ever-present grains wore down the animals’ teeth, as they ingested them along with the island’s grass.
Image: Instagram/mattinkpen
Without strong teeth, the Sable Island horses couldn’t chew their food properly. This, it’s thought, ultimately prevented them from getting enough nutrients from what they grazed upon. And eating sand proved dangerous to the horses’ health in another way, too. Indeed, it could also cause blockages in the animals’ intestines.
Image: Instagram/sandysharkeyphotography
Jenkins described the damaged organs to The StarPhoenix. She said, “In several horses that we looked at, there was quite a lot of sand. We were picking up the intestines and the stomach and saying, ‘These weigh a ton,’ because there was, in many cases, more sand than plant content.”
Image: Instagram/sableislandwildhorses
On their 2018 trip to Sable Island, Jenkins and the rest of the team shifted their focus. Indeed, this time around, they wanted to see if the deceased horses carried any diseases or parasites. They found a slew of deadly possibilities, including respiratory diseases and others that could cause pregnancies to terminate in female horses.
Image: Instagram/kasbamedia
Most shocking of all, though, was the fact that the small Sable Island horses tended to have extremely high amounts of parasitic worms. In fact, there were apparently about 1,500 eggs contained in a gram of their fecal matter. Jenkins said, “I just about fell over because we call a high fecal egg count in a domestic horse 500 eggs per gram.”
Image: Instagram/
As Jenkins told CBC, a normal equine creature probably wouldn’t survive with so many parasites. “I think if our domestic horses had fecal egg counts as high as the Sable horses, they would just drop dead,” she said. As such, the Sable Island horses could help veterinarians in the future, who continue to fight domestic horses’ resistance to anti-parasite medications.
Image: Instagram/lidgardphoto
Ultimately, the researchers couldn’t establish a lone reason for the fatalities of the 50 deceased Sable Island horses found in 2017. Indeed, most, it seemed, had suffered from more than one fatal hardship. But by 2018 the death rate had fallen from 10 percent of the population back to one percent. This was a much more regular statistic for the island’s equine population.
Image: Instagram/drewdoggettphotography
No matter what, Jenkins said she remained in awe of the resilient creatures she had studied on Sable Island, which had always presented itself as an unwelcoming and unforgiving land. She told the CBC, “I just couldn’t get over the fact that they were eking out this existence on a sandbar in the middle of the Atlantic. I’ve just total respect for how tough they are.”

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