The Island That Time Forgot

Discussing Sable Island’s remarkable wildlife with producer Bill Barton
Photo courtesy of Bill Barton
Crescent of Sable with Dunes

For Bill Barton, Sable Island is not just an obscure dot on the map 200 miles southeast of Halifax, but one of the most enchanting and magnetic places in the world. Known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for its track record of shipwrecks, the foggy, low-lying island boasts stunning beaches and a diversity of species inhabiting the 21-mile crescent in relative harmony. While human influence has at times impacted the island’s unique ecosystem, cutting down populations of cod, seals, and walruses, for the most part Sable Island has remained untouched and uninhabited, allowing creatures there to adapt and flourish for centuries. The producer of The Magic and Mystery of Sable Island delves into his experiences visiting this incredibly remote and beautiful island, home to the world’s largest population of grey seals, as well as dolphins, over 500 wild horses, and thousands of indigenous nesting birds and insects.

An Interview With Bill Barton

Shannon Cuthbert for Mongabay (SC): What’s your background in film, and what other projects have you worked on in the past?

Bill Barton (BB): The Sable film was my first foray into filmmaking. I had previously done still photography to accompany some presentations and written articles on maritime topics, but had never ventured into film. In 2011 I was giving a lecture in New York after my second trip to Sable. My friend and world-renowned sailor Gary Jobson was at the lecture and said, “If you ever go back again, let me join you and do a film.” Gary had produced other sailing films and brought a skill set that made the film possible. Working with Gary gave me an introduction to the medium of film. Working on the project together was fantastic.

SC: Prior to making this film, could you describe your interest in and engagement in wildlife conservation efforts?

BB: As a boy, reading books by Canadian author Farley Mowat first peaked my interest in wildlife and wildlife conservation. Books like Never Cry Wolf and A Whale for the Killing first introduced me to the concept that some species are threatened, and that the key to their survival is in understanding the animal’s biology, behavior and environment, while also being considerate of people’s perceptions and points of view.

In the late 1970s I also had the unique opportunity to spend six months at sea on the barkentine, Regina Maris, built in 1908 and used as a teaching research vessel. We followed the migrations of humpback whales from their breeding grounds off the Dominican Republic to the iceberg-strewn coast of northern Labrador. Aboard I had the chance to meet people like Ken Balcomb, Sylvia Earle, Eugenie Clark and underwater cinematographer Al Giddings. How could I help but be further inspired?

All of this, combined with my lifelong passion for sailing and an interest in maritime history, came together for the making of Sable Island, which wraps together all the things I am avid about.

An Osprey Joins the Crew aboard Tazzarin. Photo courtesy of Bill Barton.Seven years ago, changing missions and budgetary constraints in the Canadian government drew into question the future management of Sable Island. The Canadian Coast Guard had previously managed the island, largely as part of its life-saving mission to prevent shipwrecks. Then in 2009, a combined federal and provincial panel was assembled to consider Sable’s future. I believe I was the one non-Canadian invited to submit a letter to the Commission. Along with others, I built a strong case for their national park system, Parks Canada, to take over management. I felt Park Canada’s combined missions of preserving cultural history, wildlife and the environment while educating the public could best safeguard Sable’s future. Two years ago the transition was completed and Sable is now the newest gem in Parks Canada’s folio of special places.

SC: What first sparked your interest in filming Sable Island? How did you discover its richness of history and wildlife?

BB: My first landing on Sable Island was back in 1987, when I was delivering a sailboat from Massachusetts to Newfoundland. I have always been drawn to the out of the way, less visited places in my sailing: Sable fit the bill. I managed to obtain permission from the Canadian government to visit the protected island for “one hour.” Back then I do not think Canada was allowing many visitors to the island. The one hour on Sable had me hooked; I promised I would return someday. It took me 23 years until my next return in 2010 to do archaeological work. I returned again in 2015 to do further research and explore through film Sable’s history, environment and wildlife, hoping to bring this amazing place to a broader audience.

I had read Farley Mowat’s gripping description of the wreck of the Greek freighter Alfios in 1947; she was steaming near the island on a dark and foggy night. The crew felt two bumps as the ship’s momentum carried her over the inner and outer sandbars of Sable, trapping her in the shoals. A salvage tug out of Halifax attempted to pull her off. However, the tow cable became hopelessly entangled in the myriad number of wrecks below the ocean’s surface and the Alfios was lost.

I had also read accounts of the changing wildlife on Sable. Seal populations have ebbed and flowed on Sable, partly due to human interaction, partly due to the environment. Starting in the 1500s, Portuguese explorers began leaving livestock on the island. Shipwrecked sailors sometimes turned to the marine mammals and wild horses to survive.

Grey seals at shoreline. Photo courtesy of Bill Barton.I have spent most of my life living on Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts. Right next door is the town of Ipswich, known in part for its beautiful sand dunes on the Atlantic shore. There is a tiny bird found here, and along the eastern seaboard of the United States, in winter months. The Ipswich Sparrow was first described in 1868 by ornithologist C. J. Maynard. Where these birds summered was a mystery for years, until it was discovered that the only place these little birds breed, build their nests and raise their young is on far-flung Sable Island. Each year these birds travel hundreds or thousands of miles to make their way to Sable; without Sable, the Ipswich sparrow would not survive. It is one of the more intriguing tales of migration and natural navigation. I lived in the heart of this bird’s winter range and hoped for the chance to one day see it on Sable.

SC: For those who have not yet seen the film, could you describe some of what makes this place so remarkable?

BB: Sable is unique; I know of no other place on earth quite like it. For the most part it is uninhabited, except for a crew of two or three meteorologists and two Parks Canada staff members. It sits perched precariously on the edge of the continental shelf 200 miles out to sea from Halifax, Nova Scotia. It is a lonely sandbar, probably formed as a terminal glacial moraine after the retreat of the last Ice Age. It is a slender crescent of sand about 21-miles long and a bit under a mile in width, with narrow tips piercing the wave-tossed Atlantic at each end, slowly dipping below the surface in long sandbars to the east and west.

Through the centuries, low-lying Sable has lurked at the meeting point of the cold southward flowing Labrador Current and the warm northeastward flowing Gulf Stream. The meeting of warm and cold waters leads to persistent fogs; Sable is the foggiest place in Canada amid the swirling ocean currents. The boundary of warm and cold also causes storm systems to track eastward over Sable; the island has the distinction of having more hurricanes than any other place in the country.

This combination of a low, sandy island amid ever-changing shoals and sandbars, wrapped in fog and buffeted by storms has earned Sable the nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic. It sits on the main shipping route between the Old World and the New, and is the final resting place of roughly 300 known shipwrecks.

Sable is the one place where numerous fishing banks stretching from George’s Bank off Massachusetts to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland break the surface in the form of a magnificent sandy island. Sable possesses two of the world’s most stunning beaches, each rife with hundreds of thousands of seals and each backed by grassy dunes bespeckled with wildflowers, blueberries and cranberries. Atop the dunes are feral horses that have roamed freely for two and a half centuries. Gulls, terns, Ipswich Sparrows and other shorebirds dot the edges of small freshwater ponds filled with blossoming lilies.

Horses atop a dune. Photo courtesy of Bill Barton.SC: How has the island’s extreme isolation and unique geography shaped the creatures living there?

BB: Sable is one of the North Atlantic’s most remote and inaccessible islands. It is home to a fascinating array of wildlife. Some are found only on Sable, including insects such as the sweat bee. The Sable Island Horse is perhaps the best known. Some theorize that some horses made it to Sable’s shores through shipwreck; however, we do know that people attempting to settle the island in the mid-1700s brought horses with them. After the short-lived attempts at settlement failed, the horses remained and could find enough forage among the fauna to live. Having been on the island for two and a half centuries, these feral horses are now considered a naturalized species, living in a stable but precarious balance with the island. These horses, having largely been an isolated gene pool for significant time are considered a separate breed. They may also have developed broader hooves for walking in the sandy dunes. The harshness of the winters primarily determines the population of the horses, which generally ranges between 300 and 500. The horses have adapted to eating seaweed washed ashore on the beaches when food is sparse in a snowy winter. They have also learned to dig holes in low-lying areas to create a well for fresh water.

Sable was once home to the “maritime” walrus. However, due to extensive hunting for their blubber, hides and tusks in the 18th-century the walrus is now extinct at Sable, although their tusks are sometimes still found amid the rolling dunes. Earlier in the 20th century there were numerous harbor seals on Sable. Their population had decreased in decades since, though the last decade has seen a rapid growth in the grey seal population at Sable. When we visited in 2010 the grey seal population was estimated at 250,000; five years later during filming in 2015 the population had soared to approach a half million.

This astonishing growth in the grey seal population has resulted in some other changes and possible ecological relationships. The large cold-water Greenland Shark has apparently discovered the seal population and has been coming south to feed around Sable. In an unexpected symbiotic relationship, new theories from Philip McLoughlin at the University of Saskatchewan are suggesting that the large numbers of seals living on the shores and roaming inland fertilize the sandy soil with their feces, which in turn may increase the vegetation, with the end result that the horse population has passed 500 in recent years.

Curiously, the once-decimated cod population, which plummeted in the 1980s, has rebounded in recent years, despite the long-held theory that grey seals may have been the cause of failing cod fisheries. Research by The Bedford Institute of Oceanography and Dalhousie University suggests that grey seals rarely feed on cod or salmon. In fact, the seals may actually help to control the populations of “forage fish” that eat cod eggs, benefitting cods. This makes sense when one realizes that Europeans were first drawn to New England and the Canadian Maritimes because of ample cod fisheries and marine mammals for the taking.

In its own way, Sable Island’s simplistic animal populations serve as a barometer can shed light on the overall health of our oceans and environment.

Ispwich sparrow. Photo courtesy of Bill Barton.SC: Do you have a favorite story or fact you learned while researching Sable Island?

BB: Our sailboat, Tazzarin, was halfway to Sable with a grey sky and building headwinds on the cool North Atlantic. Our cinematographer was off watch, sleeping in a bunk below deck. We were about 70 miles off the Nova Scotian coast when a large bird, a raptor, swooped across the white-capped seas and attempted to land on the top of our swaying mast. Clearly this bird, an osprey, was tired and much further out to sea than it belonged, hoping to rest his weary wings.

I grabbed a video camera and filmed his unsuccessful attempts to land on the mast as his talons tore apart the masthead wind vane. Suddenly, dolphins began leaping alongside the boat, their smooth sides glistening. I aimed the camera down and captured their playful leaps. Moments later the osprey dove down and wrapped his beak and talons around the rigging just behind the helmsman; another moment and he had come to rest in the boat’s cockpit alongside three of the crew. He stayed with us for the next two hours, peaceful and resting, then took flight again.

The surprise visits by the large osprey and pod of dolphins epitomize what I love about ocean passages – you never know what may happen next! It is also the nature of documentary filming that you always have to be ready to seize the moment and capture it on camera.

SC: What was it like filming in such a remote location and were there any challenges you faced throughout?

BB: Sable lies a little over 500 miles out to sea from my boat’s home port in Massachusetts. The expedition required us to file a research and filming permit application with the Canadian government in order to be granted access to the island. Access is limited due to the delicate ecosystem and the ever-shifting shoals that make approaching the island difficult, even in the best of conditions.

Two of us sailed the boat up to Halifax Nova Scotia where the other four in the crew joined us for the passage out to Sable. Halfway to the island, one of our crew took seriously ill, requiring us to turn and make for the closest port in eastern Nova Scotia with medical facilities. Eighteen hours later, after treatment at a small hospital, we were all on our way again to Sable.

Even in the best of conditions, getting ashore on Sable is tricky. Endless seas break on the beaches and the small inflatable boat used for landing is easily capsized in the surf. All camera gear has to be sealed in waterproof bags for landings.

In 2015 we were granted four berths ashore at the small weather station on the island, allowing us to make better use of our time on island. Thankfully, Parks Canada also provided assistance by having one of their two staff members drive us in dune buggies to remote locations on the island in the mornings and return to retrieve us at the end of the day. Sable is big, over 20 miles tip to tip, and it is impossible to reach all of it on foot in a short time.

Each morning meant packing food, water, camera gear and notebooks for a twelve-hour day. In late August, Sable was warm and there is no relief from the sun; in the sandy windswept environment nothing grows higher than a few feet and shade cannot be found. You are on your own.

We were limited by the capacity of the boat, meaning a total crew of six. Two were always assigned to watch the boat anchored offshore, and sleep aboard, always ready to haul anchor and get far away from the island’s treacherous shoals if bad weather set it. Sable is no place for a boat in bad weather, as the hundreds of shipwrecks attest.

We were blessed with a remarkable cinematographer, Mike Audick. He has an approach of “anything to get the shot.” Sailing to the island, we saw very rough conditions, and the days ashore were long and involved hiking many miles in sand to reach horses, seals, and and old lifesaving buildings of the 19th-century Humane Establishment* half buried in dunes. Mike was tireless. With a limited crew, one of us sometimes did duty to assist with sound. (*Note: These buildings predate the existence of the Canadian Coast Guard.)

SC: What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?

Horses, seals and breakers. Photo courtesy of Bill Barton.BB: The world is filled with spectacular places: Sable is one of my top two or three. It has an almost 500-year history of interaction with people, ships, ecology and wildlife. The way we interact with wildlife and the environment is laid bare in the sands of Sable, making it a useful measure of our environment’s health from its isolated, fragile position in the Atlantic.

SC: Why is the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival (WCFF) important and why is it important for people to attend?

BB: The Wildlife Conservation Film Festival presents a tantalizing array of stories about earth’s wildlife. It gives all of us a chance to understand our impact on animals, from those in our own backyard to those halfway around the globe. The decisions each of us make every day have implications for the health of the planet and the wildlife. The festival gives each of us a chance to better understand wildlife and allow us all to make better choices. And, you can have an incredibly fun and captivating time watching these amazing films by artists from around the world! Not to be missed!

To watch Barton’s film, come to the 2016 WCFF in New York, NY this October. To see a schedule of all films and speakers, and to purchase tickets visit:

See also:
Setting Aside Half The Earth For ‘Rewilding’: The Ethical Dimension
How John Muir’s Incessant Study Saved Yosemite