Journey to Sable Island: The city of Halifax

With research trips to remote and out of the way locations, this can often give the opportunity to experience other destinations along the way. Whether this be other remote locations, diverse habitats or even big cities, these stops can be as exciting as reaching the final destination. For many years now I have enjoyed travelling in groups and on my own to many locations around the world, and love to experience new, diverse and exciting places.

Though this summer the majority of my trip to Canada was spent on vibrant Sable Island (see other blog posts for more details), I did spend a couple of days either end in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Despite being lesser-known, the city of Halifax had a lot to offer the eager traveller and topped off my 5 week stay in Canada. In commemoration, here’s some of my Halifax highlights and memorable moments:

Staying in a Canadian university dorm room

For the first three nights I spent in Canada, before heading over to Sable Island, I stayed in Gerard Hall, a hall of residence for students at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Though it was the summer, meaning no students were currently in residence, I still got to experience the feel of a film cliché North American dormitory, with shared rooms and large mixed-sex bathrooms. This was very different to my university experience as a fresher back in England.

Dormitory room


During my time in Halifax, before and after staying on Sable, I got to try lots of different food, which is often one of my favourite parts of travelling. This included Tim Hortons in the airport, breakfast at a Canadian breakfast bar,

vegan food from the Heartwood stall on Halifax waterfront, food from local restaurants, such as piatto pizzeria + enoteca (Italian), and Man Bean (Vietnamese),

Man Bean restaurant

and my favourite, city style cheesecake from the Sweet Hereafter Cheesecakery (a place that also has dairy-free and gluten-free options).

City style cheesecake

Though I did not necessarily try traditional Canadian food whilst in Halifax itself, I did thoroughly enjoy myself!

Halifax tourist spots

Two of the tourist attractions I visited whilst in Halifax were the Public Gardens and the Citadel fort.

Halifax Public Gardens were a lovely spot to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. I spent some time there walking in the gardens and sitting and reading a book by the lake.

Halifax Public Gardens Bridge

On the same day in August that I visited the Halifax Public Gardens, I also made a trip to Citadel Hill to explore the Halifax Citadel fort and its current First World War commemorations. I always enjoy learning a bit about the history of the places I visit and Halifax was no different.

Halifax citadel fort

Halifax citadel fort trenches

Halifax 2018 Buskers Festival 

One of my favourite finds from my time in Halifax, was the 2018 Halifax Buskers Festival that was going on during the weekend I first arrived. This festival celebrates the best professional street performers from around the world, who are invited specially to perform at this annual event situated along the Halifax Waterfront.

During this weekend I got to watch shows from a range of acts, including Hannah Cryle (circus acrobatic street show), Nigel Blackstorm (the heavy metal magician), The Flyin’ Hawaiian Show (circus acrobat), Break City All Stars (street dance group), Incendia Motus (acrobatics with fire) and Jack Wise (magician). My favourite show of them all by far though was ‘Her Majesty’s’ Secret Circus show, which was a clever mix of action-packed stunt-comedy performed by two talented individuals. Definitely brightened my day!

Hannah Cryle

Hannah Cryle

The Flyin' Hawaiian Show

The Flyin’ Hawaiian Show

Natal Day fireworks

Halifax Waterfront

One of my favourite parts of Halifax was the Waterfront. Along this stretch you can take a walk, look out across the harbour and explore the shops, restaurants and attractions along the way. It is one part of Halifax that allows you to escape from the main part of the city and take in some of the best views Halifax has to offer.

Halifax harbour sunset

The little things

I have many many more highlights of mine that I could share from my time in Halifax, but in that way I could go on forever. Other highlights include everything from a ‘play me’ piano in the street, rainbow zebra crossings, the ‘horses of Halifax’, harbour hopper tour vehicles driving around, maple ice-cream, souvenir shopping, and long walks around Downtown Halifax.

Harbour hopper

Sable Island Horse Project field crew 2018

It was a pleasure to join this year’s Sable Island Horse Project crew out on the island itself to census the whole feral horse population. The project would not be the same without the dedicated crew and my experience on Sable island would not have been the same without the girls I spent my four weeks with. To the seven of us that made up the field crew this year, here’s a series of fact files to introduce and celebrate each of us:

Julie Colpitts

Julie Colpitts

Photo Credit: Sable Island Horse Project

Role: Team leader
Time on the island: Full field season (July-August)
Course and university: PhD at University of Saskatchewan (Canada)
Sable Island research: Population genetics structure in Sable Island feral horses
Twitter: @julie_colpitts

Chiara Fraticelli 

Chiara Fraticelli

Photo Credit: Diana Jeong

Heya! I’m Chiara Fraticelli and I came onto the project from the University of Exeter, Cornwall campus within my Conservation and Biodiversity Master’s course. I’m originally from Italy but did my university degree in the UK.

My main wildlife interest is African mammals, which begs the question, what was I doing on Sable Island studying horse behaviour? 😀 Well, horses have always been one of my favourite animals, and the possibility to study feral horses in such an exceptional environment was very tempting. Sable Island is a place where it’s unlikely for a person to go as a tourist, and even if you do, you can’t understand the challenges and problems involved in horse adaptation and reserve management by only staying a few hours. For my project I studied risk aversion and island tameness of the Sable Island horses. This is interesting because these horses evolved for generations without predators, such as humans. But is it because this is a learned behaviour or because the genetics changed? This was my question.

I really enjoyed my time on Sable Island, the place is amazing, the horses were interesting to study and the crew was very friendly. My favourite horses this season was a fearless foal in one of the big bands living near the centre of the island. I had to move away from him almost everytime I saw him because he wanted to come close and discover what I was!

Chiara's Favourite Foal

Photo Chiara took of her favourite foal

Coming soon I have an internship in Africa, where I will spend 6 months learning and working on park management. This is the direction I want my career to take, but we will see where life will take me.

Twitter: @Chiara_Frati
Instagram: _kiaraspace_

Check out Chiara’s social media pages and blog to follow her on her next adventure coming soon!

Kirsten Johnsen

Kirsten Johnsen

Photo Credit: Sable Island Horse Project

Time on the island: Full field season (July-August)
University and course: MSc at University of Saskatchewan
Main research interests: Population ecology, behavioural ecology, wildlife conservation and environmental impact management.
Main wildlife interests: Large mammals and birds (especially owls), but also snakes.
Sable Island research: Looking at whether drinking from a pond or well influences energy intake and energy loss in Sable Island Horses through observational behaviour surveys and taking samples of available vegetation communities. Also looking at those factors in relation to parasite counts.

What did I enjoy most about Sable Island: 
I really liked the ecosystem in general since it is so unique. The views were amazing, especially when I could see the ocean on both sides of the island at once. One of my favourite spots on the island is Bald Dune, since looking at it is like looking at a desert and it’s so unlike any other area that I have visited before.

Funniest moment:
When group pictures were taken at the end of the field season. Specifically when trying to take either an awkward 70’s pose or a soccer-style picture, where Ruth and I kept cracking up because there was such a delay on the camera timer and we could not keep a straight face for that long.

Favourite horses: 
While I think Lil’ Thing was my favourite overall, I also quite liked watching Rolex and Golds (a cute pair of siblings). Ripley and Orbit stand out as well because they were both pretty mischievous.

What’s next: I hope to have the data from this summer processed and analyzed within the next year. Eventually after school, I’d probably like to work in wildlife conservation/ecology. Ideally I’d like to work at one of the parks since I enjoy public engagement and studying lots of different facets of the same ecosystem to see how it all works together. Otherwise I would be happy working in environmental consultancy since I enjoyed the process of creating management plan suggestions in previous projects.

Alice Liboiron

Alice Liboiron

Photo Credit: Sable Island Horse Project

Time on the island: First half of the field season (July)
Course and university: Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at University of Saskatchewan Western College of Veterinary Medicine (Canada)
Sable Island research: Parasitology study of the feral horse population

Diana Jeong

Diana Jeong

Photo Credit: Sable Island Horse Project

Time on the island: First half of the field season (July)
Course and university: MSc student of Jocelyn Poissant at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary
Home: (London, ON) Canada
Main research interests: Genetic research for wildlife conservation/management
Sable Island research: Inbreeding depression and juvenile traits in the feral horse population

What did you enjoy most about this year’s field season: I loved getting to know my study system, the unique personalities of some of the horses, and the team of researchers that I would be working with in the future. Being out in the field would not have been as fun for Diana if I did not have the group of women I got to work with on the first half of the season.
Favourite memory of the field season: Getting the field team hooked onto old school throwback songs whilst working in the lab.
Funniest moment: During the first half of the field season, Alice taught us how to do the floss dance in the middle of the beach.
Favourite horse(s) on Sable Island: Any horse with unique facial markings for easy identification!

What’s coming up for you next? I am just starting my Master’s at UofC, so right now I’m just focussing on my courses and literature review. I hope to be able to get all the lab work done in time to potentially join the 2019 field season next year on Sable.
Career plans: I am unsure which career path to pursue currently, but I hope to be able to contribute to the field of wildlife health and ecology in some way, in whichever profession I choose.

Twitter: @chanwoorijeong and please follow @SI_horses (the Sable Island Horse project official twitter page)

Ruth Greuel

Ruth Greuel

Photo Credit: Ruth Greuel

Role: Plant guru
Time on the island: Second half of the field season (August)
Course and university: 
PhD at University of Saskatchewan
Home country: Canada
Main research/wildlife interests: Herbivory and grazing (large herbivores, primarily), rangeland management, nutrient cycling and dynamics. Grassland ecology in general. I also enjoy lichenology and plant ID.
Sable Island research:
Just beginning a PhD studying sea-to-land nutrient transfer, nutrient cycling through the system and how that may affect the horses.

What did you enjoy most about this year’s field season overall?
I love field work in general! Being outside and getting so much fresh air, exercise and time to think is such a treat after being cooped up with the computer during the rest of the year. I also really like meeting up with the rest of the field crew at the end of every day, winding down and talking about the things we each saw.
Highlight(s) of the field season:
Seeing a brand new foal just starting to walk around on wobbly legs! Or getting to see the blue flag irises in bloom (Iris versicolor).

Blue flag iris
Funniest moment: Taking our group photo out by the only tree on the island!
Favourite horse(s) on Sable: There are a few I get excited to see, but I don’t know all of their names or histories as well as other crew members do. There’s a yearling on the west end of the island that I call Bruno and I am especially fond of him.
What’s coming up next?
Continuing to work on this! More Sable Island field seasons, hopefully.
Career plans: Would love to continue to do research on wild places!


Laura Tuke


Photo Credit: Chiara Fraticelli

As people will already know from this blog and its Sable Island Stories series, I joined the second half of the field season on Sable in August this year, and had the best time. To recap on myself, I am based in my home country England, and I have just completed a Master’s in Conservation and Biodiversity at the University of Exeter. As part of my degree, I got the opportunity to complete a research project looking at the quantitative genetics of foal body size in the Sable Island feral horse population. So in summary, I investigated if foal body size is due to genes and if foals are under selection for larger or smaller body size.

What I enjoyed most about my time on Sable Island, was getting to experience field work abroad first hand, and from it I got the opportunity to meet some great people, experience a different and unique ecosystem, and to learn more about myself as a person. My favourite moment of the field season, following my previous blog post, was spending evenings watching the spectacular Sable Island sunsets with the rest of the field crew.


Photo Credit: Kirsten Johnsen

Watching the horses day in and out, I grew a soft spot for a few foals that I ended up suggesting potential names for. My favourites were Hardy a foal I saw for the first time at only a couple of days old, Missy a very cheeky little foal, and Tilly who I named after my baby niece.


Hardy and his mum at a couple of weeks old

What’s next? I am currently taking a break to adjust to post-university life, before working towards my next goals. I am passionate about wildlife and its conservation, research and educating the public on wildlife issues, among other things, and so my ambition now is to get into the wildlife film industry to combine my greatest interests.

Twitter: @laura_tuke
Laura’s Wild World (this blog)

Thank you to Chiara, Diana, Ruth and Kirsten for providing me with the fact files for this blog post! 

Life of a Sable Island field researcher

Some people may be wondering what scientific research field work may entail or even what it is like to live on an island. Well for 4 weeks this summer I got to experience both, joining the second half of the Sable Island Horse Project field season. I had a really great time and so here’s a little taste of Sable life and my experience this summer.

A day in the life on the project

  1. Two people would complete morning lab work before breakfast, processing samples ready to be analysed in university labs back on the main land.
  2. After breakfast, the field crew (5 of us) would often gather for a session of morning yoga. This was followed by a run down of the plan for that day’s surveying.
  3. Each day we would spend approximately 6 hours in the field in a range of weather conditions, such as thick fog, light rain, or bright sunshine.Fog
    • Field work involved travelling out to one of the 7 sections on the island in the buggy or on ATVs (if a certified user) and surveying that whole section on foot, which often involved hiking on bare sand and through thick vegetation.
    • When a horse or band of horses were encountered, photos were taken of each individual from all sides and data was collected, including information on markings, sex, and location.IMG_4174
  4. Following return from field work each day, field equipment would be put away before lab work was completed. Lab work involved processing faecal samples to enable a range of analyses to be conducted, such as parasite egg counts in the lab or more complex analyses back on the main land.
  5. During lab work or following completion, we would enjoy a well earned dinner cooked by one of us on rotation. As one of the field crew were vegan, we spent the majority of our time eating a vegan diet. Food we ate during my time on the island included:
    • Taco pastaPineapple Upside Down Cake
    • Homemade pizza
    • Lentil curry
    • Veggie burgers
    • Pineapple upside-down cake
    • Fajitas
    • Thanksgiving-style cauliflower roast
    • Veggie chow mein
    • Breakfast for dinner= scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and vegan pancakes
  6. Field work, lab work and dinner were followed by organising photos taken of horses that day and bands lists being updated.
  7. End=bedtime!

Base camp 

Of the buildings that currently remain of the old lifesaving stations on the island, a cluster in the west half make up what is known as main station. Main station is the base for Parks Canada who manage the island and for researchers and visitors who come to the island.

Bird's eye view of main station

View of main station from a plane

It was here I got to stay during my time on the island, specifically in a large white house that held a lab, storage space, living areas, and other facilities and could sleep approximately 15 people. It was only occupied by the Sable Island Horse Project field crew, a Parks Canada staff member and short-term building consultants during my stay.

Main station house

Rain days on Sable Island

The weather can be highly unpredictable on Sable Island, changing from fog to hot sun to rain very quickly. Though we could tackle some bad weather during field work, heavy rain and the spectacular thunderstorms of Sable Island were a no go. Such weather resulted in celebrated rain days, allowing us to have a well earned rest for one day.

Rain day activities with the girls ranged from organising the house, completing project work and catching up with jobs, to watching back to back episodes of TV programmes, such as ‘Say Yes to the Dress’, and baking sessions, which included making pretzels.

The sunsets

Though there is much more I could say about life on Sable Island, I have to admit that my most favourite part of my time had to be the sunsets. Following a long day of field and lab work, there was nothing that could quite compare to walking out onto North beach and watching one of the spectacular sunsets on offer. It has to be said that my visits to Canada have always delivered in the sunset department, and Sable Island was no different. Here’s an assortment of photos of these celebrated events!

Sunset seal




Beach sunset

Tracks in the sand

Sunset with seal

Sunset sky


Red sky at night

Ruth and Julie

11 things you need to know about the Sable Island Horse


In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous – Aristotle

As part of my Master’s degree, from the other side of the North Atlantic, I have had the pleasure of studying a renowned animal population situated on Sable Island, Canada. Though this species is not the first that comes to mind when you think of an island made of sand, within the last few centuries Sable Island has become home to a population of feral horses (Equus ferus ssp. caballus). These horses vary in shape, colour and size, and have now captured the minds of the public and scientists alike, as well as my own.


For those of you who have never heard of the Sable Island horse, or even for those who have, I have put together a helpful ’11 interesting facts’, so you can learn everything you need to know about these compelling creatures:

  1. Today’s population of Sable Island horses originate from horses first released on the island by European travellers during the mid-1700s, and though genetically distinct as a subspecies, are most closely related to Nordic breeds.


2. Previously, the horses have been used for a range of purposes on the island, including use as breeding stock for sale on the mainland, hauling lifeboats for the past lifesaving crews, and exportation for the meat trade (mainly dog food).


3. During the 1950s, scientists said the horses were damaging the sensitive ecology of the island, and proposed their removal. Following a strong public campaign, the Canadian government gave the Sable Island horses legal protection in the 1961 Canadian Shipping Act, protecting them from all human use and interference in the future.


4. Due to their protected status, the horses are now treated as a wild and naturalised population. As a result, all people visiting and living on the island have to maintain a distance of at least 20m away from the horses at all time.

5. Currently, there are approximately 550 horses living on Sable Island.


6. Sable Island horses live in all year-round social groups, called bands, which either contain bachelor, unmated males or typically consist of anywhere up to 15 individuals, with 1-3 dominant males (stallions), adult females (mares) and young offspring (typically foals and yearlings).

7. In the Sable Island population, the sex ratio is heavily male-biased. This is because a lower number of females are surviving on the island, due to the different, more extreme conditions they experience in comparison to males, such as with breeding.


8. The Sable Island horse’s diet is composed mainly of tough American marram grass, other grass species and beach pea, though they will feed opportunistically on a range of other species.

9. The horses are found in a range of colours, but there are none that are spotted, grey, white, or coloured on Sable Island. It is suspected that this is because these colours were kept out of the population previously.


10. The Sable Island horses have been part of an ongoing long-term individual-based study since 2007, meaning every individual is surveyed between July to early-September each year. As a result, every individual is followed from birth to death, can be individually identified, and have their very own name, such as Orbit, Ripley or Maria.

Orbit and house


11. Alongside the Sable Island Horse Project (a collaboration between the University of Saskatchewan and University of Calgary), my research has focused on investigating the genetic basis of foal body size and the potential for it to evolve in the Sable Island horse. Data collection for this research involved a special piece of equipment consisting of two lasers and a camera attached to a frame. This allows for photos to be taken from a distance that were then used to calculate reliable body size measurements.

Laser standard


Disclaimer: All horse photos (from wide shots to zoomed in) were taken from at least the minimum of 20m away from the subject(s)