Lonely Laboratory

Inland on Sable Island means a spot between rows of sand dunes where a beach is perhaps 750 yards away. In one direction is a beach facing south into the Atlantic Ocean; 180 degrees away is a beach facing north into the Atlantic. Although the island is approximately 22 miles long, it is difficult to lose sight or sound of the ocean from anywhere along its narrow length.

In one such peaceful inland spot, softened by stretches of wind-blown grass, is the summer bungalow of Zoe Lucas, one of a half-dozen human residents of the island, and probably its best known research scientist.

We found her out front, kneeling by three dead seals which she had carted inland from the beach on her four-wheeled ATV. She was dressed in a red watch cap, a sweatshirt, green foul-weather pants, and leather boots. In her bloodied hands was a tape measure employed to measure the length of wounds on one of the seals.

The carcasses were arrayed on a piece of plywood with their heads towards Lucas, who had respectfully washed them clean of sand and beach debris with seawater. Next to her on the grass was a stenographer’s notebook with sketches of the wounds of each seal along with key measurements and descriptions.

The wounds were extensive, covering large parts of the carcasses. Parts of the seals had been eaten by gulls and other scavengers. On the whole, though, the creatures still looked like seals, in no small part because of their neat arrangement by Lucas on the makeshift examination table. Before the end of the day, however, they would likely join a number of their deceased brethren in "the pit" out behind the bungalow. Most folks probably wouldn’t enjoy looking into that pit.

For the moment, the nature and number of the wounds of these young harbor seals were being carefully noted and recorded. Remarkably, each seal had almost identical wounds. The major wound, and clearly the one that rapidly precipitated their demise, was a half-body incision that began on the left side just behind the head and spiraled in a clockwise fashion, running back as far as two thirds the length of the body. The incision looked clean enough to have been made with a scalpel. The path of the wound seemed perfectly symmetrical as it spiraled around the seal’s body. An unknowing onlooker, that is, one who did not have Zoe Lucas kneeling right there to explain things, might have concluded that each of the seals had been brutalized by an identical propeller.

These were not mere incisions, however. Rather, they seemed more like body-eviscerating slashes that no creature could ever survive. It wasn’t a propeller that killed these unfortunate seals. It seemed obvious, Lucas explained, that they had been killed by a shark. In fact, she speculated that they may have been killed by Greenland sharks, a development which, she said, could have important implications for the world of shark research.

We, of course, being wide-eyed visitors who had just arrived at Sable Island aboard the schooner Ocean Star, were ready to believe anything. Greenland sharks were undoubtedly the killers, we agreed. Our only line of questioning for Ms. Lucas was to pummel the 40-year-old naturalist with inane questions about her lifestyle on the island, even with the three dead seals splayed out before her on the groundthe study of which, in effect, being the raison d’etre for her lifestyle.A growing death list

About 300 dead harbor seals, more than ever before, have washed ashore on Sable Island in 1994, according to Lucas. Prior to this year, shark kills were not directly monitored, but the overall impression of experts like Lucas is that in 1993 about 150 kills came ashore. In the years previous to that, the number was less than 50.

Most of the seal carcasses are shark killed, and a great many of them end up on this same makeshift autopsy table. Those that don’t are likely to get a field examination right on the beach and then to end their days as sun-bleached skeletons rather than as corpses in the pit.

"My studies with these seals focus on describing the predation of seals in the Sable region, as well as considering which species of sharks might be involved, and considering what we might learn about shark behavior from the evidence seen here on Sable," said Lucas by way of explaining her actions.

As Lucas rolled a seal over to examine wounds on the underside of its body, she explained that the spiral nature of the wounds may be due to the fact that seals tend to instinctively twist away from an enemy which might latch on to either end of its body.

"We’ve ruled out quite a few types of sharks as the predators here, including the white sharks which used to be suspect," she added. "For now we are working on the theory that this is the work of Greenland sharks which is a rather large species of shark common in cold northern waters. They are believed to feed mostly on carrion or occasionally on prey that they may catch by ambush.

"Actually not much is known about the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus). We’ve been trying to monitor water temperatures around the island and we are eager for observations from fishermen, divers, or low-flying pilots in the region."

With that said, Lucas immediately realized that we (those of us from Ocean Star, that is) could be put to some form of useful work measuring seawater temperatures at various distances off the beach around the island. In no time at all, she had supplied us with a rugged, metal-clad thermometer and secured our promise to help. The small group of meteorologists and researchers on the island, she explained, had no boat to obtain observations or measurements away from the beach. We yachtsmen, eager to make a contribution and to be of some service to these lonely but dedicated researchers, were all too happy to volunteer.

As destinations go, Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, is indeed an obscure and somewhat out of the way outpost. We had sailed 450 miles from Portland, Maine, to get there. It is not on the way to anywhere, except perhaps across the Atlantic or up to Newfoundland. The island is about 150 miles east of Halifax. There is little there in the way of humanity, just the small, transient crew of weather personnel and animal counters like Zoe Lucas. It is partially surrounded by shoal water and often shrouded in fog. Getting ashore requires permission from the Canadian government. An actual landing on the beach also requires the consent of Mother Nature.

But any yacht that ventures to Sable Island is likely to encounter Zoe Lucas and her colleagues. The steady nucleus of Sable Island residents are meteorologists. Several of the island’s weather watchers are year round, although most of them work in shifts of four weeks on and four weeks off (off the island, that is). A small fixed-wing airplane lands on the sand at the island every couple of weeks bringing mail, supplies, and crew changes. Canadian Coast Guard vessels call at the island once or twice a year and deliver heavy equipment.

Lucas herself has been spending seven to nine months each year on Sable Island for the past decade. In the year prior to our visit (June ’93 to June ’94) she spent nine months on the island. She was next scheduled to leave the island in September. When on the mainland, Lucas said she works out of her apartment in Halifax, writing papers and giving presentations about her work to schools and groups of colleagues in Canada. Wild horses surveyed

In addition to her work with seal perdition, she also carries out surveys of the island’s population of 300 wild horses, monitors north and south beaches for beached/oiled seabirds, and she is in charge of terrain management projects everywhere on the island. She travels more than 100 miles each week on her green ATV, surveying the endless stretches of beaches for dead animals and other significant findings.

"I don’t really have a set schedule," she explained. "A lot depends on the types of studies we are conducting in a particular year. This year, I’ll be returning once again in November and probably staying until late February, after which I’ll head back to the mainland for another stretch of processing data, writing up projects, and giving presentations. My schedule is made all the more erratic by the fact that travel to and from Sable is frequently delayed by weather and beach conditions. If the weather is not cooperative, you just can’t get a plane to land here and get us ashore."

Sable Island has a centuries-old reputation as a difficult place to get ashore. Plenty of ships have accidentally found the island and its outlying shoals, but those who want to row, motor, or wade up to the beach, sometimes have to wait, especially in winter months. A number of visiting yachts and expedition vessels over the years have found that, after arriving, rough surf conditions prevented a landing.

Something like 220 ships have been wrecked on Sable’s shores or surrounding shoals in the past 200 years, which is about as long as records have been kept. It is estimated that another 200 may have wrecked there in previous centuries. In the years when vessels were driven by sails or even in the early decades of steam, when engines were not powerful and vessels had difficulty clawing off a lee shore, Sable Island represented a low-lying and dangerous obstacle in an often storm-wracked and fog-strewn ocean.

On this visit, however, weather conditions were perfect for our landing from Ocean Star. Indeed, our 88-foot steel vessel had visited Sable Island in each of the two previous summers, and each time we had been able to make it ashore with little more than wet feet. On the way into the beach we passed close by several harbor seals which, from the security of the water, seemed to be examining us, each one swimming with just his head above the surface. At any given time, there may be 1,000 or more harbor seals on Sable Island. This herd produces something like 300 seal pups each breeding season — plenty of food for hungry sharks.

Sable Island also has one of the largest breeding populations of gray seals in North America, most of which congregate at the island’s far eastern tip. Each January, thousands of adult gray seals will drag themselves out of the sea and up onto the same stretch of beach as in the previous year for mating and "pupping" activities. Adult gray seals are among the largest seals to be found in Canada (hooded seals are larger), some weighing as much as 660 lbs. Almost any stretch of beach on the island is likely to include a small group of seals, most typically harbor seals, basking on the sand, looking as much like large smooth brown rocks as living creatures.Anchored off the beach

Anchoring conditions in calm weather are quite suitable and all vessels seem to anchor on the north side of the island, which, in most situations, is the lee side. Because of Ocean Star’s 9.5-foot draft, we felt obliged to drop the hook a quarter mile or so off the beach, but vessels with shallower drafts could work their way in much closer. The bottom is hard sand. We chose a spot directly opposite the West Light because of its obvious use as a visual reference and target for visual bearings night and day, and because that seemed to be the only sign of human settlement as viewed from offshore. As we were quick to discover, all humans living on the island reside in the "inland" sections between the rows of protective dunes. These humans are also sworn not to interfere with wildlife of any kind, and they are quick to remind visitors of that covenant.

The north shore of the island is a suitable anchorage for visiting vessels. As many have discovered, including successive Ocean Star crews, it only becomes untenable when the weather comes on strong from the north or northeast. As depressions and fronts move off the mainland and northeast winds begin to pick up in the Sable Island area, the best thing for a visiting yacht to do is to head back out to sea, perhaps riding those same northeasterlies all the way back to Halifax. The timing of one’s arrival at Sable is crucial to the success of any such expeditionan arrival out of sequence with the pace of weather might mean no opportunity to get ashore or even to stay. Unfortunately, most voyaging yachts have no control over the timing of their arrival in this regard, so the success of one’s trip is, to some extent, a matter of luck and/or persistence when it comes to dealing with weather.

One step ashore at Sable Island, however, and the visitor is sure to notice three things almost immediately: Ipswich sparrows, wild horses, and an abundance of dead creatures of all types.

We spotted our first Ipswich sparrow less than 100 yards from the spot where we stepped ashore. Having been well informed prior to arriving that Sable Island is the only known breeding place for this type of sparrow, we were determined to be on the lookout. With binoculars and a field guide in hand, we headed inland between two mountain-sized sand dunes. The first bird we saw of the non-gull variety turned out to be our first sparrow as well. Two of us hunkered down in the sand, checked its markings and noted the bird’s distinctive cheeping noise. We compared these with the field guide, and we were pleased with an easy confirmation. Fifty yards further between the dunes we saw another, and then another. By the time we had progressed to the center of the island it was apparent that the ubiquitous Ipswich sparrow could be found on practically every clump of shrubbery. They were everywhere. In fact, the husky brown and white birds were practically the only land-based birds to be seen on Sable. Within an hour we were taking them for granted just as we did the zillions of gulls and terns on the island.

One could hardly step ashore without also encountering a horse. Sable Island is, in fact, home to a herd of approximately 300 wild horses — a population constantly under study and observation by naturalists who are ever-careful not to interfere with their habits. Historical research by naturalist Barbara Christie has presented very convincing evidence that the horses are descended from Acadian horses brought to the island in the mid-1700s. Sudden population losses

The horse population sometimes drops alarmingly, particularly after harsh winters or otherwise barren years, but the level seems to be holding strong today at several hundred — not so many individuals as the Ipswich sparrows, but enough to make them a common sight at almost every turn of the beach. A quick way for a visitor to become unwelcome on Sable Island, by the way, is to attempt to capture or ride one of these nationally treasured creatures.

It takes a bit longer, however, for a visitor to take all those dead animals for granted. Death, in all of its gruesome stages, is readily visible almost everywhere on the island. A beach stroller might well encounter a dead and decaying horse, seal, or seabird on any given stretch of beach or between the dunes. Dead whales are commonly found in the sand. Bleached white skeletons are plentiful. Ribs and cervical sections, skulls and leg bones draw the eye at every turn. Authorities ask visitors not to remove the bones of horses as the population is always under study. Another type of bones that shouldn’t be disturbed are those of walrus. There aren’t any walrus on Sable; they were extinct there by the 1700s, but paleobiologists use the bones to study the former population.

Lucas seemed, understandably, to have all the really great bones. The inside walls of her summer bungalow are festooned with partial or complete horse skeletons, strung together and suspended from beams. Lucas saves most horse bones as part of her continuing studies of the equine population. A six-foot-high mountain of whale vertebrae adorns a backyard section of sea grass. She calls it her bird feeder. Nearby are a half-dozen plastic bins overflowing with horse bones waiting to be categorized, examined and, presumably, strung together and hung from the rafters. As a gift she handed us four perfectly intact vertebral sections from a striped dolphin that had washed ashore. When conversation turned to sea birds, she held up the remains of a greater shearwater and a Leach’s storm petrel which were casually laying in the grass just outside her front door.

Unusual? Certainly. That’s the way things are on Sable Island. It’s no wonder that visitors like us ask endless questions of the natives about their unusual and, in many ways, appealing lifestyles. In the end, however, most everyone rows back to their boat and sails away, taking care to avoid the areas of shoals which extend for many miles to the west.

Sable Island is a great sailing destination. It is remote but it is not necessary to cross an ocean to get there. It is wild and natural, but it typically has a handful of humans who are happy to exchange stories for a while with infrequent visitors. Perhaps the best thing about Sable Island is that one will almost surely have the place to oneself.

Editor’s note: Voyagers who wish to go to Sable Island must obtain the permission of the Canadian government by writing to: Canadian Coast Guard, P.O. Box 1000, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia B2Y 3Z9.

By Ocean Navigator