In the early 1960s, The National Film Board of Canada did a short black-and-white documentary about Sable Island. I was still at the beginning of my career as a fashion photographer when I saw that documentary in the late 1980s, and I was struck by this amazing and mysterious place. When I became serious about visiting the island, I worked for over a year to persuade its superintendent at that time, Gerry Forbes, to give me permission. When I finally began my journey in the summer of 1994, I promised him that I would do all I could to ensure that the photographs I took would end up in a museum. It took me twenty years to fulfill that promise. The Wild Horses of Sable Island exhibition appeared at Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History in 2014.
Sable Island, a sandbar island two hundred miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, has been the site of more than five hundred shipwrecks in as many years. It exists today as it always has, mysterious and secluded, surrounded by fog, lost in time, waiting to reveal its secrets and memories. Every grain of sand, every wave has its own story. I attempted to photograph the stories of what is future and what is past; of what is hidden and what is lost beneath the dunes, ocean and time; of the horses and the stories they silently hold, each with its own lifespan and existence, each with its own measure of time.
The horses are the only terrestrial mammals living on the island. Almost all are descendants of shipwrecked animals, some perhaps deliberately abandoned on the shore, but all castaways on a deserted island. Through strange misfortune, they have been returned to nature. They have no shelter and few resources, but they also have no natural predators, and the island has been essentially closed to human visitors, so they have no fear of man. They have let me get close enough to gently bump heads with them—touching with hands was not permitted—and even lie down in the grass and rest with them. I have been there nine times over twenty years, and some of them recognize me from visit to visit. I have connected with them from my soul, and I am concerned for their well-being. I believe Sable Island and its band of wild horses should be left alone to be free. Sable Island is our precious diamond in the rough, and we should not attempt to polish it but let it be as nature intended, outside human control or exploration.
We should pause before we proceed and consider the exploration of Sable as we do with explorations into deep space, into the unknown. Sable lies just two hundred miles from the mainland, but for the horses that reside there, it might as well lie on the outer edge of the universe. The Canadians have saved Sable Island on two previous occasions: in the 1960s, when it was up for sale, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, at the urging of Canadian children, created Sable as a protected area, placed aside for generations to come and instigated the first conservation ideas for Sable. In 1990, the island came up for sale once again, and all the provinces rallied to raise twelve million dollars to support Sable and its weather station.
I applaud the decision to prohibit humans from approaching within sixty feet of the horses, as part of the new National Park regulations—it makes my film documentation of the horses all the more important, because it cannot be replicated by anyone, myself included—but it is not enough. They have not considered the diseases that visitors might unintentionally bring to Sable. The last ships landed some two hundred visitors for lunch several times this summer of 2014. What if one visitor from a farm had an unwanted virus on his boots? Perhaps the hoof and mouth disease or some other virus from domesticated animals? It could decimate the horse population. The risks to these animals and their habitat are too high versus the economic rewards, and Sable should be protected in ways beyond its National Park designation.
The island is now under a new threat. On June 6, 2013, the new Canadian Bill S-15 received Royal Assent and became law. Though drilling for oil on Sable Island remains prohibited, this amendment to the National Parks Act (which was meant to protect the island and its wild horses) permits “low impact” petroleum exploration. The bill states that these activities include seismic, geological or geophysical work, but it is unclear what exactly falls within this definition. Sable Island is an incredibly fragile ecosystem. The thin layer of fresh water beneath the sandy surface, if disturbed, might never recover. This water is the only thing keeping Sable, its flora and fauna, its wild band, alive.
The oil and gas exploration, combined with the rising ocean levels and disturbances in the currents caused by the melting of the ice caps, could damage Sable Island in ways we cannot even imagine. After all, it is just a sandbar in a turbulent ocean—what if that ocean reclaimed it? The world would lose the 500 horses and a magical place. A new heaven and earth would have to be created for it all to exist again. But from an economic standpoint, Canada would lose the two-hundred-mile fishing rights extension granted by Sable Island, as it is the easternmost Canadian territory. Without Sable, the international waters would commence two hundred miles from the shore of Nova Scotia mainland and not Sable Island. This loss in dollars and cents would be immeasurable.
But if something drastic happens, Sable and its band of wild horses might never recover and we would talk about a magical place made of dreams as a past event, instead of the present moment we could all be proud to have saved. And I, as a self-declared Sable Island ambassador at large, I will do everything in my power to protect it, to show you its beauty and leave it up to you to decide what is our next step in its conservation. For me it’s more than just a place—it’s home!