Nova Scotia

Want to go camping on Sable Island? Parks Canada is considering it

Overnight stays and self-guided tours are among the options included in a new Parks Canada survey on Sable Island.

Federal agency doing consultations to help draft management plan for island 300 km southeast of Halifax

Sable Island, a narrow sandbar in the Atlantic Ocean, became a national park in 2013. Now Parks Canada is doing consultations to draft a management plan. (Robert Short/CBC)

Parks Canada is seeking input from Canadians on how to manage the Sable Island National Park Reserve, including whether camping, self-guided exploration and "voluntourism" should be offered on the remote and ecologically sensitive island.

The agency is conducting an online survey until Dec. 9 that will be used to help develop a management plan for the park.

Sable Island is a 42-kilometre sandbar located about 300 kilometres southeast of Halifax, and includes species found nowhere else on the planet, as well as the largest colony of grey seals in the world and a population of horses that has been there since the mid-1700s.

When the island became a national park in 2013, it was opened to the public for visits, and now sees about 500 tourists per year.

"It's really a magical, unique place and it's very awe-inspiring and it's very humbling," said Fred Stillman, the owner of Kattuk Expeditions, which has been running tours there for two years. 

Overnight visits?

Survey respondents are asked how comfortable they feel about various activities being allowed on the island — such as self-guided explorations, small guided tours, overnight stays in a tent or building, retreats for artists, musicians or researchers, and voluntourism or citizen science opportunities — as long as those activities don't impair conservation.

Sable Island receives approximately 500 visitors a year. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Although all visitors do get an orientation from Parks Canada, groups of seven or fewer are allowed to explore the island on their own.

Stillman believes everyone should be required to have a guide during their visit to help them adhere to rules, such as maintaining a distance of 20 metres from the horses.

"I see human nature just takes over and they get really excited and when the horses come closer, they're less inclined to move, even when I'm there, and I have to urge them along," he said.

Stillman supports the idea of overnight stays on the island, as long as it's properly managed.

April Hennigar, the chair of the board of directors of the Friends of Sable Island Society, said the society does not support overnight visits for tourists, but acknowledged some visitors such as researchers and artists may need longer stays. ​She said the amount of freshwater available and the disposal of wastewater limits the number of visitors the island can handle.

Off-island experiences

The survey also gauges how people on the mainland would be interested in learning about the island, including through social media channels, the Parks Canada website, activities in communities, museum or art exhibits, books, magazines or newspapers and documentary film or television.

The island is home to a population of horses that has lived there since the 1700s. While the horses are not native to Sable Island, many people now consider them an integral part of the island's ecology. (Philip McLoughlin/University of Saskatchewan)

Chris Miller of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said since the island can't handle many visitors, Parks Canada must develop a plan to bring an experience of the island to people on the mainland, such as through a state-of-the-art visitor's centre or virtual tour.

Cap on visitors?

Participants at an in-person consultation in October that included conservation groups, offshore oil and gas companies, tourism agencies, expedition companies and Mi'kmaq groups, questioned whether there should be a cap on the number of permitted visitors, and how that cap might be achieved, such as limiting visitors to artists and researchers or limiting repeat visits.

Hennigar said her group wouldn't want the number of visitors to rise above 500 people per year.

The stakeholders also discussed how to make visiting Sable Island accessible to those who cannot pay the fees to get there, which can range from about $1,000 just for a seat on a charter plane to several thousand dollars for a tour. Options discussed included designing a lottery system, an internship program or a subsidy generated by other visitors.

"I think it's really important that Sable Island is not turned into just an exclusive playground for certain people," Miller said.

Oil and gas exploration

The survey does not specifically address the issue of oil and gas exploration — something Miller believes should be banned in the management plan. Currently, no drilling is permitted on the island or within one nautical mile of the island, but "low-impact" exploration is permitted.

"There's no such thing as low-impact oil and gas exploration," Miller said. "I don't think that exists."

Parks Canada expects to complete a draft of the plan in late winter or spring.


Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at