North America | Canada
July 1, 2008
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2007, Sunday 22 April: Sable Island - Graveyard of the Atlantic

Sable Island, Canada - seen from a transatlantic jet.

Like many travellers I have a fascination with places that are remote or inaccessible. An enticing name tied to an obscure part of the globe is enough to send me delving through Google. What's surprising is how often the back-story turns out to be more intriguing than the name (it seems oddities prosper in far-off corners). When this happens I file a mental note and add the location to my ever-growing list of 'one day' destinations. Of course, that's usually as far as the story goes. But, from time to time, serendipity takes a hand: serendipity most commonly in the form of an aeroplane.

Planes normally fly between places that are reasonably well-known. However, through the oddities of non-Euclidean geometry, their 'great circle' routes also traverse great swathes of hostile territory - way off most travellers' radar or resources. (The flight over Greenland en route from Europe to North America is perhaps the most familiar example.) No surprise then that I spend most flights glued to the moving map channel, alternating with glances out of the window. I’ve gazed down at tsunami flooding on the Nicobar Islands, seen night-time gas flares light up the swamps of western Siberia and stared into the high-altitude desolation of Mt. Ararat’s crater. One recent reward was a flawless sighting of Sable Island, a needle in the North Atlantic haystack over a hundred miles off Canada’s Nova Scotia coast. Satisfyingly, it appeared as weird and unwholesome as its evil reputation - a sinuous thread with the unhealthy pallor of an intestinal worm.

For those not familiar with Sable Island, she is the Marie Celeste of Atlantic geography. A 25 mile long sand bar far to the east of the North American mainland, Sable Island moves across the Grand Banks according to the whim of currents and wave action. Impossible to chart with precision, and in one of the foggiest and foulest-weather parts of the ocean, she has caused over 350 known shipwrecks – earning her her other name of ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’. When the emergency beacon from the Andrea Gail was washed up on her shore a week after she sank, her notoriety was sealed: the loss was subsequently made into the blockbuster film The Perfect Storm and became famous around the world.

Sable Island has a year-round population of six (more in summer), based at the island’s scientific and meteorological station; a herd of 300 feral horses also graze the dunes. Perhaps surprisingly for such an ominous place, she also sees 50-100 visitors a year - mostly arriving via chartered light aircraft (there is no scheduled air or boat access). All intending visitors have to get advance clearance from the Canadian authorities, who will need to be satisfied that they are properly equipped and entirely self-sufficient in case of problems.

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