Science | Canada

“Everything here is defined by the ocean”

Wild horses, oil-smeared birds: Zoe Lucas recounts fifty years of life as a female explorer on a lonely Canadian island. A conversation

Aerial view of a wide sandy beach. Three horses galloping away, their tracks in the sand remain. In the distance you can see the grass on the dunes.

Off the coast of Nova Scotia in Canada lies Sable Island

Ms Lucas, for nearly 50 years, you lived and conducted research on a small island off the shores of Canada. How would you describe Sable Island to somebody who has never been there?

I always think its shape resembles a smile – like a long crescent with its ends turned up slightly. So depending on which mood you want it to adopt, it could either be a grumpy frown or a smile. Sable Island is basically a sandbar, shaped by the currents. From one end to the other, it is about 42 kilometers by 1.5 kilometers at its broadest part. The landscape is like any coastal beach where there are sand dunes, except its dunes are far more dramatic, higher. And that’s all there is, just sand dunes and valleys with plants and shrubs and cranberries. There are no trees except for one very small old tree, and it’s only about a meter high.

You first set foot on Sable Island in 1974, as part of a Dalhousie University seal research team. Do you still remember what fascinated you the most when you arrived?

I think it was the landscape. When I first went to Sable Island, it was just for a short trip. I wanted to see the horses. There are over 400 wild horses living on Sable. But very quickly I found I was more interested in the landscape –the open nature of its space. I love open, broad, sweeping spaces. I didn’t want to leave the island and got involved in various projects here.

What did you research?

For the first few years, I did restoration management activities, working as a team which I eventually led in repairing areas of terrain that had been mostly damaged by human activities. It involves transplanting beach grass to stabilize other areas. Because I was working on restoring and transplanting beach grass and was counting on that beach grass to survive, I became more conscious of the horses who were eating the grass and occasionally pulling up the transplants.

In the mid to late 1980s, the horses became my primary area of study and monitoring. I was trying to keep life histories of all the individuals, well, as many as I could keep track of, following them from birth to death. I was interested in the patterns and looking at how the horses organize themselves in social groups over the full lifetime of an individual animal. When they had died a natural death, I would collect skulls and tissue specimens for further study. Later, I focused more on beach monitoring, collecting everything that had washed up on the sand.

And what did you find on the beaches?

For 23 years I’ve been looking for oiled seabirds, and stranded whales and dolphins. But in the meantime, I’ve also collecting plastic debris that is beached on Stable Island. For example, one was a brand audit: I surveyed the entire island every two weeks and collected anything with complete labels: determining the manufacturer, the origin and where it was sold.

Are you aiming to raise awareness of pollution through this research?

With what I find I can boost awareness among political decision makers and companies that produce most of the plastic rubbish. But we can’t avoid the fact that those companies wouldn’t even be making that stuff if we weren’t buying it. So it’s a way of boosting public awareness of plastic pollution. A lot of people are very attracted Sable Island because of its wildly unique nature. It is a shock to many, just how much plastic lands on such a pristine, far-away place. Thus, it’s an interesting way to be able to give people an opportunity to think about the interconnectedness of pollution and their own use of plastics.

If a crisp packet lands in the ocean in Australia, it can end up on Sable Island’s shores, then in the vegetation or in the stomachs of birds that feed at sea. Everything moves around. You get a good idea about the circulation of plastics – and you can make people realize how much of it there is and that we need global policies.

Sable Island became a National Park in 2013. What changed since then? Are more people coming to the island?

Access to the island has been restricted since 1801. No one was allowed to come without permission, unless, of course, you were shipwrecked and then you have a good excuse. When Parks of Canada took over, visitors had to apply to them and a few are allowed every year. The island always has a couple of people on it: Researchers, visitors or station personnel. I’m currently here about seven to eight months a year, which is longer than any of the parks people stay.

Sable Island is sometimes referred to as “graveyard of ships”, because so many ships landed ashore the sandbanks over the years. Do you also sometimes find remnants from sunken ships?

Sometimes a few large sections of wood with spikes and whatnot were washed up on the island. But for the most part, eventually they just gradually got buried by sand or decomposed and came apart. But if you’re flying over the island in an aircraft or using a drone, you can see the outlines of a few old metal iron ships lying a few hundred meters off the beach.

How is it to live for so much of the year on this small island, surrounded by the ocean on all sides?

Everything here is defined by the ocean. Wherever you are, you always have your back to the ocean or you’re facing the ocean. Also, your life is shaped by tides. To get along the beach is you need to follow the tide times than the date. The first thing I look up every morning is tide times. I’ve been here for so long, it just feels normal to be surrounded by water. Interesting is that occasionally, when I went to inland Canada to work for short periods of time, I was uncomfortable to be so far from the ocean. I felt enclosed in an area of land that is so massive compared to this little sliver of an island! I think that was because the ocean is not a boundary as much as it is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for a way of feeling expensiveness, of feeling space.

Was there ever a moment in time where you felt threatened by the ocean, for example, during a storm?

Never! Until 2019, there was a meteorological weather station here. And so from the very first time I set foot on Sable, I was part of a community of weather experts. Had I been on my own, or without people with that understanding of weather, it might have been a little more frightening. But when you know what track the hurricane is taking and when to expect the winds to swing and things like that, it helps to understand the system and it makes it feel less threatening.

Which role does water play on the island?

First of all, the Atlantic determines the island’s climate. Waves and currents transport sand. So, for instance, the dunes are built through the transport of sand. The ocean transports sand along the shoreline from one side of the island to the other. It reshapes the island. But apart from the ocean, there are water bodies on the island itself: saltwater brackish water in lakes. These are slowly disappearing because the wind carries sand into them and fills them up. Additionally, there are also freshwater ponds.

There are freshwater sources on the island?

Yes, there’s a reservoir of fresh water underlaying the island. Sable Island is made up entirely of sand. When there’s any precipitation, so rain or snow melt, anything, the water will run down and accumulates in a reservoir resting on top of the salt water table. So the ponds are just in the areas where that reservoir is exposed to the surface. That reservoir is used for freshwater, the animals drink from it. And anywhere, where the top of the reservoir is close to the surface, the wild horses dig for water.

Which sounds are most dominant on the island?

The dominant sound is wind and surf. In the summer you hear the squawking and screeching of the birds. But then at night, you hear a more delicate soundscape: the cheaping and squarking of birds which nest here. December to February, is breeding season for gray seals and they are wildly vocal, making strange, eerie, yodeling sounds. It can sound kind of ghostly.

After nearly half a century on Sable Island – could you imagine living somewhere completely different?

Emotionally and psychologically, I suppose Sable Island is my home, but it’s not in any official sense. Eventually, I’m going to have to retire and leave the island. I could always come back with tour groups as a guide but I really don’t think I want that kind of superficial relationship with the island. Once I’m not coming to Sable Island anymore, I would like to live somewhere quiet and close to the ocean.

Interview by Gundula Haage