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Fins, Feathers, and Tough Little Fillies

Glimpsing Canada’s wildlife treasures on an East Coast expedition cruise.


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Waves crashed all around our 10-person Zodiac as we got close to shore. The driver cut the engine and steered toward a cluster of cruise staff up to their waists in icy water, waiting to grab the bobbing boat and help us ashore. We were wearing head-to-toe foul weather gear so when a slap of frigid water hit my backside I was shocked more by the force than the temperature.

“Welcome to Sable Island,” David Begg, our expedition leader called out as we marched soggily up the beach. This was the first stop of the RCGS Resolute on my One Ocean Expeditions Fins and Fiddles cruise, an exploration of Canada’s hard-to-get-to maritime treasures complete with whale watching (fins) and the foot-stomping music of Cape Breton’s The Barra MacNeils (fiddles). At most of our destinations the 123- meter-long ship would anchor off shore and 140 passengers would take turns being transported in the same exciting style, though luckily the weather calmed down after my initial baptism by seawater.

Few people ever get to Sable Island. It is a 42-km, crescent-shaped stretch of sand 300 km southeast of Halifax. Located on the edge of the Grand Banks, it attracts the world’s largest breeding colony of grey seals (400,000) but its permanent inhabitants are a herd of wild horses. The ponies are descendants of shipwreck survivors (more than 350 vessels have gone down on these shifting sands), mixed with those brought over during the 1700s and 1800s in attempts to settle the island. Ultimately, the island became a sparsely populated life saving station that closed in 1958.

Trudging through the sand, we saw that only the foundations of the life saving station remained. As for the 80,000 trees planted by settlers, one lonely Scotch Pine survived. In the distance, a group of ponies watched us curiously. The horses, now a herd of 500, are the only creatures that have flourished on the island. “They feed on sweet grass and dig with their hooves for freshwater beneath the sandy surface,” explained George Woodhouse, our Parks Canada guide. In the 1950s the government was going to cull the herd, but due to public outcry it was protected. In 2013 the island became part of the National Park family.

Glomping along the dunes, our group stopped and collectively caught its breath as a family of sturdy little horses – stallion, mare, filly and foal – trotted by, just a few metres away. “Always give them the right of way,” warned George. We stood respectfully back with huge grins on our faces as the shaggy creatures passed.

Although a protected space for the horses, Sable Island is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic because it is so easy for ships to run aground. Fellow passenger Douglas McWhirter told me his great aunt had been shipwrecked here on her way to Europe in 1879. Most of the passengers survived. “Where we landed today was where she would have landed. It dawned on me that I was standing on sacred ground,” Douglas recalled. Another passenger, Leslie Seymour, recounted how his father’s navel ship was torpedoed by Germans after coming out of Halifax Harbour in 1942. Somehow he and 12 crew members managed to get to Sable Island where they waited three months for rescue. “I was overcome with emotion when we landed today. It was more than a beach. It was my family history. If they hadn’t gotten my father off, I wouldn’t be here,” Leslie explained.

Douglas and Leslie had stronger ties to the island than the rest of us, but we all felt very privileged to be there. Why? Because, to maintain the fragile ecosystem, Parks Canada only allows 500 visitors a year to come ashore for a day trip.

One Ocean Expeditions is dedicated to supporting scientists and protecting the environment. Our ship had just installed a small lab where we could contribute to real research. Looking through a microscope at a droplet of water taken from Sable Island, I spied a few bugs. I plucked them out and deposited them on a tray that was to be sent to Parks Canada for water monitoring.

Gaging the growing amount of micro plastic particles in the ocean was another project. John Nightingale, OOE’s scientific advisor and founder of the OceanWise program at the Vancouver Aquarium, was in the lab and told me, “You won’t find a plastic bottle on the ship, or straws. Instead they give out metal drinking bottles that you can keep. They use cleaner diesel fuel and follow sewage protocol. We all have a role in the health of the ocean.”

Knowing the tenuous state of our oceans made it all the more poignant when I spotted the dorsal fins, tails and water spouts of magnificent fin and minke whales from the ship’s upper deck.  Experiential learning is what One Ocean cruises are all about, and I was thrilled with our many wildlife sightings. On Nova Scotia’s Bird Island, I saw flocks of puffins and razorbills.A colony of 120,000 Northern Gannets proudly sat on nests filled with baby chicks on Bonaventure Island, near Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. At a park presentation, I learned that males and females mate for life and take turns sitting on the nest. “They bite each other’s necks to make sure they have found the right partner when they get back from searching for food. If you see them knocking their beaks together, they are showing love and affection,” explained naturalist Laurence Coté.

While sea kayaking past cascading waterfalls off Anticosti Island, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, I looked up at the towering limestone cliffs and was astonished to see a deer peering down at me. On Prince Edward Island, I hiked the Middle Head trail and spotted a pileated woodpecker hammering away at spruce tree for his dinner.

Cruising in a Zodiac along the shore of Quebec’s Magdalen Islands, I spied gannets dive bombing for fish and bank swallows elegantly swooping among the crumbling cliffs. At Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, islands owned by France, I learned of the decimation of small fishing communities by industrial ships. In Gros Morne National Park, near Woody Point, Newfoundland, I hiked the Tablelands area among some of the oldest rocks in the world and marveled at the carnivorous pitcher plants.

When we reached our final destination, Sydney, Nova Scotia, I was filled with gratitude. Never again would I take our fragile wilderness for granted.


    • It takes a plastic water bottle 400 years to break down and it breaks into smaller and smaller bits, never dissolving entirely
    • Toothpaste contains plastic micro beads that will be phased out in two years due to a government ban
    • Washing synthetic fleece garments causes plastic threads to break off and get into our water system
    • Marine animals think they are full when they intake micro plastics and then starve to death. What can be done? According to John Nightingale, “We need to invent new plastic polymers that break down, reduce single use plastics, recycle, and do less laundry.”

Photos and text by Maureen Littlejohn

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Maureen Littlejohn
Maureen Littlejohn is a Canadian award-winning journalist who has practiced her craft around the world including in the United States, Africa and Vietnam. She currently has a keen eye for detail and has a deep appreciation for the “East Meets West” approach of Culture Magazin. Travel is her passion and she is happy to be able to share her adventures on a regular basis with the magazine's readers.