Nova Scotia

Sable Island: How to get to Canada's newest national park

Now that Sable Island has been designated a national park reserve, you may be tempted to visit. Not so fast — you'll need patience and resources to get there.

Sable Island: How do you fly there?

9 years ago
Duration 3:23
Debbie Brekelmans with Maritime Air Charter describes what it takes to fly to Sable Island.

Now that Sable Island has been designated a national park reserve, you may be tempted to visit. Not so fast.

Sable Island is only accessible in two ways: by sky and by sea.

The first thing you need is time — and potentially a lot of it. The fog, wind and waves that batter the island can make for dangerous travel conditions. More often than not, there's a delay on your way there as well as your way back.

Those delays might last a day or two, although longer days "are not uncommon," according to the Parks Canada website.

The second thing you need is money. It costs more than $6,000 to charter a small plane for up to five people to Sable Island through Maritime Air Charter Ltd., the company that has the contract to provide the service.

Adventure Canada — a cruise expedition company based in Mississauga, Ont. — offered two trips to Sable Island in June as part of a pilot project with Parks Canada. That cost between $2,695 and $10,000 per person, depending on the cabin.

Sable by Sky

Based on normal wind conditions, the flight from Halifax Stanfield International Airport to Sable Island is about one hour and 10 minutes, while the return trip is slightly longer.

A crew from CBC Nova Scotia went to Sable Island. As per our policy, CBC paid for the cost of travel as well as accommodations on the island.

Debbie Brekelmans, a pilot with Maritime Air who regularly travels to Sable Island, said because the weather conditions fluctuate so regularly, the decision to fly is only made on the morning of the trip. There's no runway on Sable Island — so Brekelmans has to land and take off from the beach.

"The weather has been pretty good this summer but they haven't had much rain out at Sable so the beach is too dry. If it's too dry, it's too soft. If it's too wet, it's too soft. So they have to have the perfect combination," she said.

"Even if the beach is perfect firmness for landing, on any given day, the wind has to be at a reasonable orientation and they find different spots on the beach to land and take off each day so if they can't find an orientation into the wind and the wind is strong, that won't work."

The night before Brekelmans has a scheduled trip, she watches the weather forecast while a Parks Canada representative on Sable Island drives out to the beach in a truck that weighs about as much as her plane. His goal is to find a suitable landing strip somewhere on the 10-kilometre stretch of beach.

Debbie Brekelmans, a pilot for Maritime Air Charter Ltd., uses a makeshift runway on the beach that's marked by tire tracks from a Parks Canada truck. (Debbie Brekelmans/Maritime Air Charter Ltd.)

The next morning, he goes out again to test the strip he's found the previous day — and depending on how the weather has changed it may no longer be suitable. If it's not, he has to start the process again.

"We will not be leaving from here until he says he has the appropriate length, appropriate orientation and the firmness to allow a safe landing," Brekelmans said of the multi-step process.

"People think of it as, 'You're on the beach and do you just pick a spot and land.' No, no. It's very, very well thought out and well surveyed by the personnel out there."

If everything aligns and the weather conditions to and on Sable Island are favourable, Brekelmans can take off in her seven-passenger Britten-Norman Islander plane. On a clear day she can see Sable Island from up to 130 kilometres away — after that her lifeline is the Parks Canada truck that was used to test the firmness of the beach.

The makeshift runway is marked by tire tracks in the sand and four orange pylons are placed at the corners. The truck sits at the threshold of the runway in case Brekelmans can’t see the tire tracks or the pylons on her approach.

"I have to land at or beyond the truck — never before. It'll sit perpendicular to the runway so if I can't see the tracks in the sand I may only see the truck and I line myself up based on the orientation of the truck until I'm on short final and can pick out the cones or the tracks," she said.

Despite the unpredictability that surrounds getting to Sable Island, Brekelmans said every time she makes the trip with tourists, it's worth it.

"I love to see somebody's reaction when they see Sable. It makes it new for me again," she said.

Sable by Sea

Just as there is no runway on Sable Island, there are no wharf facilities. So travelling to the island by sea requires anchoring offshore and using a small boat or Zodiac to get to the nearest beach.

It also takes significantly longer than a plane ride — about 16 hours one way from Eastern Passage.

Once the vessel gets to Sable Island, it has to anchor off the north side of the island opposite the main station where Parks Canada and Environment Canada personnel live for months at a time. Because there are submerged sandbars off the beach, the ships must usually stay at least 500 metres away from the island.

This year, Adventure Canada offered two trips to Sable Island in June as part of a pilot program with Parks Canada. While they warned their passengers they may not actually be able to set foot on the island due to weather conditions, all 100 cruise passengers were able to get ashore and have a tour with a Parks Canada interpreter for each of the three days the ship was anchored off Sable.