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Note: While preparing a Birds of Ocracoke profile on the Savannah “Ipswich” Sparrow, a bird that winters here in the dunes, I looked at its summer home, Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia. I discovered that Ocracoke and Sable islands have a lot in common, feral horses, shipwrecks, even ghost legends. In addition, there are stark contrasts. This is the first of a series on the two islands. By way of introduction: Ocracoke meet Sable. Sable meet Ocracoke.
By Peter Vankevich
On Sable Island, Nova Scotia, the first recorded shipwreck was the Delight in 1583. The ship was part of the fleet of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s Newfoundland expedition with the mission of establishing an English colony in the Americas.
As they approached Sable in the predawn of August 29, a violent storm struck, and the Delight ran aground on one of the many hidden sandbars.
Captain Richard Clarke and 16 men escaped in a lifeboat, and the remaining 84 perished as the ship was battered by waves. The water was too shallow for Gilbert in the nearby frigate, the Squirrel, to offer any assistance.
Two years later, Sir Richard Grenville, an admiral of a fleet of seven ships, brought English settlers to establish a military colony on Roanoke Island. His flagship, the Tiger, ran aground off Ocracoke. It was the second recorded shipwreck off North Carolina. In this case, no one perished.
Grenville’s shipwreck is well known on the Outer Banks as both a fact and a legend since there is speculation that the Tiger was carrying horses that were let loose to lighten the load of the ship, some of which remained on Ocracoke.
The connection between these two shipwrecks? Gilbert and Grenville were cousins and both related to Sir Walter Raleigh.
Sable Island (French for sand) is a crescent-shaped sandbar about 100 miles off the Nova Scotia coast. Nine hundred or so nautical miles farther southeast as a Northern Gannet would fly is another sandbar of an island–Ocracoke.
Despite this great distance, these two legendary islands, both with loyal followings, have acquired over the last several centuries some amazing similarities and sharp contrasts. Each has true stories and legends of free-roaming horses, powerful storms, shipwrecks, heroic lifesaving efforts, lighthouses, pirates, wreckers and ghosts.
They also have fascinating natural history of flora and fauna. Linking them is a small, secretive, pale bird–the Ipswich Sparrow. It nests almost exclusively only on Sable, and its extremely narrow wintering range is the coastal dunes of the eastern seaboard of North America down to Georgia, including Ocracoke. Banding of these sparrows is now taking place and birders on the Outer Banks should be on the lookout for them this fall and winter.
Whereas Ocracoke has trees, especially eastern red cedar and live oaks, Sable Island is treeless. Over the years, to combat erosion, tens of thousands of trees were planted, most notably in 1901, comprising 69,000 evergreens and 12,000 various deciduous trees. By 1913, only 77 remained which eventually disappeared. Today there is one scrawny pine tree still living on the island, most likely planted in the 1950s, and there is a tradition of decorating it for the Christmas holidays. Thus, trees are not suitable for Sable’s extreme weather and poor soil conditions.
The most abundant plant on Sable and also present on Ocracoke is marram grass (Ammophila breviligulata), which stabilizes the dunes and is the prime grazing plant for the feral horses, especially in the winter.
Unlike Ocracoke, that gets the occasional harbor seal in the winter, Sable Island is home to the world’s largest grey seal breeding colony, with approximately 50,000 pups born during the December to January breeding season.
Sable Island is about 22 miles long and one mile at its widest. It has waxed and waned in size over the centuries, with many doom-and-gloom predictions that it will soon disappear. But it has survived, though its size and shape changes, especially after major storms. The island, on the edge of the Continental Shelf, is surrounded by miles of hidden sandbars that make it treacherous to ships that venture too close.
Ocracoke, a barrier island on the Outer Banks, is about 14 miles long with 13 miles of undeveloped beach and marshland. It is 26 miles across the Pamlico Sound from mainland Hyde County.
Except for the village area tucked away in the southwest corner, Ocracoke, since the 1950s, is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore managed by the National Park Service.
Since 2013, Sable has been protected and managed by Parks Canada, that country’s NPS equivalent. Since the 1500s, there were numerous attempts to settle the island, some which lasted a few years, and all failed over time, due to the harsh conditions of the environment.
In 1801, the Nova Scotia government founded a lifesaving establishment to reduce the suffering and loss of life and cargo that resulted from the frequent shipwrecks near Sable’s shores.
Prior to that, those who survived a shipwreck and made it to the island endured an inhospitable place until they could be rescued — or they perished from exposure.
Ocracoke has approximately 1,100 permanent residents. Sable has no official residents, just a small, year-round Parks Canada staff. Seasonal researchers spend varying amounts of time there in the few structures on the island.
Sable is famous for its approximately 500 free-roaming wild horses. Ocracoke’s banker horses, though once allowed to roam in large numbers, lost their free-ranging lifestyle in the 1950s when NC 12 was built. A popular visitor attraction, they are now down to only 14 and are penned for their own safety. After hurricanes, one of the highest inquiries the Park Service receives is how the ponies did. The answer for many years has been, “They are fine.”
The Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current pass near and impact both islands’ environments.
On Sable, frequent thick fogs, especially from spring into early summer, treacherous currents, and the island’s location in the middle of a major transatlantic shipping route and rich fishing grounds, account for an estimated 350 vessels believed to have fallen victim to the island’s volatile weather and sandbars that stretch for miles.
Off Ocracoke, the Diamond Shoals, a cluster of shifting, underwater sandbars, are said to be responsible for up to 600 shipwrecks along the Outer Banks shorelines.
With these numbers, both have earned the moniker “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
A contrast between the two islands would be access.
Ocracoke is a well-established tourist destination attracting thousands yearly. It is accessible primarily by state-run ferries and private boat or airplane, and has lots of lodging, restaurants and shops.
Owing to its fragile ecology and dangerous weather conditions, access to Sable is highly restricted with Parks Canada approval needed for day trips only.
There are no docks or mooring buoys. Large vessels must anchor well off the island, with visitors making a beach landing in a Zodiac or dinghy. Clearance by Parks Canada must be granted before launching. In 2019, only 397 visitors were tallied.
Both islands have suffered shut downs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have reopened. On July 4, after a delayed opening of two months, Sable welcomed the first visitors. As of July 24, according to Parks Canada, only 14 visitors have made it to the island, all by air charter.
As for Grenville’s Tiger, Ocracoke apparently did not make a good first impression to those in the expedition.
According to Philip Howard in his Island Journal, on Grenville’s return to England, Ralph Lane, a lieutenant in the expedition, denounced Wokokon (Ocracoke) Inlet for its treacherous waters and lack of reliable harbors.
Peter Vankevich is co-publisher of the Ocracoke Observer and host of What’s Happening on Ocracoke on WOVV, the island’s community radio station.