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Offshore Islands

Sites where human and natural histories meet are always interesting, and PEI’s offshore islands are great examples of this. They tell stories from prehistoric times, of sea level changes following the last ice age, of early Indigenous presence and later use by settlers, and of unique habitats that host rare plants and animals.


Photo 1: Locations of PEI's offshore islands.

Following the end of the last Ice Age, sea levels in our part of the world were as much as 70 metres (230 feet) lower than they are today.  For thousands of years, PEI wasn’t an island at all: our south shore was connected to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia by a land bridge, and our north shore was kilometres from the Gulf.  As glaciers melted and sea levels rose, our modern bays and estuaries were created. Some of the high spots on these flooded plains remained above water and are today’s offshore islands (Photo 1).

 

Despite their isolated nature, all our offshore islands have histories of human use. Many – including the Malpeque Bay islands and the barrier sandhills known as Pituamkek – have been used by Mi’kmaq for thousands of years. European settlers cleared and farmed those that were large and dry enough. Of the 19 or so islands (depending on how you count them), only eight show no evidence of being farmed, though those with trees have signs of past forest harvest.


Photo 2: Part of the chain of barrier sandhills north of Malpeque Bay known as Pituamkek or the Hog Island Sandhills.

Some islands had more extensive use than farming or wood cutting. Holman’s Island hosted a shipbuilding site in the mid 1800s as well as the upscale Island Park Hotel. The Hotel was in operation from 1872 to 1877 and was then used as a private summer resort until it burned in 1904.

 

In the late 1800s, St. Peter’s Island hosted year-round homesteads, a lobster factory, and a schoolhouse. In 1895, Oulton’s Island was home to the birth of the silver fox industry, which had a tremendous influence on both the human and natural history of PEI. 


Photo 3: The unique shore of George Island with Iron Rock - PEI's only igneous outcrop - in the background.

Governor’s Island was the site of oil exploration in the 1930s, and a private airstrip was built there in the late 1960s. Even the wild Sandhills didn’t escape disturbance: during World War II, they were used for bombing and artillery practice by trainees from the No. 10 Bombing and Gunnery School at RCAF Station Mount Pleasant.  

 

Despite this human history, offshore islands remain among the most important natural areas on PEI.  Pituamkek (Photo 2) is one of our true wilderness areas, and hosts ecologically important habitats that are home to the endangered Piping Plover as well as globally rare plants including Beach Pinweed (Lechea maritima), found in a few spots around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and nowhere else on Earth!  (You can read more about it here: https://www.pei-untamed.com/post/beach-pinweed). 


Photo 4: The remains of an ancient tree on George Island. The cavity was large enough for me to stand inside!

George Island is home to Iron Rock (Photo 3, and more information here https://www.pei-untamed.com/post/permian-to-present-3-iron-rock), as well as important archaeological sites and old growth forest (Photo 4). Many of the islands – including St. Peter’s, Governor’s, and Holman’s – are rich in fossils from hundreds of millions of years ago (Photo 5). Lennox and Panmure have road connections to the ‘mainland’ and are home modern-day communities.

 

Colonial birds such as Great Blue Herons, Common Terns, and Cormorants prefer a bit of isolation for nesting and often choose our offshore islands for their colonies. (That’s one reason that PEI has among the largest populations of Great Blue Herons around).  Shorebirds, waterfowl, and forest songbirds also make extensive use offshore islands, as do predators including Coyotes, Foxes, Raccoons, and birds of prey.


Photo 5: Many of PEI's offshore islands are rich in fossils such as these bits of Calamites (a prehistoric tree related to modern-day Horsetails [Equisetum spp.]).

Awareness of the ecological importance of our offshore islands grew in the 1960s and several were recognized under the International Biological Programme in 1974. Concern about potential incompatible development led to a Provincial Offshore Islands Study in 1977, and a 1982 Natural Areas Survey completed by UPEI ranked these sites as among the most important in the province for protection. Today, the majority of these islands – including the most ecologically important ones – are protected areas and are among the wildest parts of PEI untamed!

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