• Aerial view of coastal wetlands of Clam Harbour Provincial Park. (Photo: Nick Hawkins/Canadian Geographic)
    Aerial view of coastal wetlands of Clam Harbour Provincial Park. (Photo: Nick Hawkins/Canadian Geographic)

From the top of Little Shiprock Island, we could see our assignment. Below us glittered a mosaic of coastal islands amidst the blue waters of the North Atlantic; we had three days to capture this uniquely pristine ocean archipelago.

Unchanged since the last ice age, these islands along the eastern shore of Nova Scotia have somehow managed to escape human development and interference despite their close proximity to the major port city of Halifax.

Capturing the charm of these islands was going to take every piece of photographic equipment we could manage, and we transported the scuba equipment, camping supplies and hundreds of pounds of photo gear onto the beaches of Borgle’s Island, our base from which to explore this diverse landscape.

While beautiful, the land proved challenging to traverse; the twisted trees formed an impenetrable barrier that restricted our travel to the rocky coastline. Ice age glaciers had retreated from the islands over 10,000 years ago, scouring giant ridges into the bedrock and profoundly affecting the islands’ developing ecosystems.

The unprotected south-facing coasts hinted at a violent history of hurricanes and storm surges that left a barren habitat of crowberry heaths and rocky beaches where rare plants took root. Kettlehole bogs formed in the protective depressions left by glacial melt, and a prehistoric landscape of carnivorous plants now thrived atop the spongy peatland.  Massive stones as big as cars lay strewn about, left behind by retreating glaciers, their rough granite surfaces decorated with colorful sunburst lichens.

Within the islands’ protected areas grows an ancient coastal rainforest, nourished by the abundant rainfall and maritime fog. Dense stands of stunted conifers erupt through a thick carpet of mosses and ferns, and an almost tropical diversity of color lies beneath the waters surrounded the islands.

Aquatic life is everywhere. Silver sided sand lance, important baitfish for whales and seabirds, schooled in the shallow waters all around. Massive lobsters roamed the ocean floor like armoured vehicles on patrol. A flounder lay motionless, camouflaged among the growth.

The experience was a reminder that true wilderness still remained to be explored – and protected.

All photos: Nick Hawkins/Canadian Geographic

Americam mink on Little Shiprock Island. The semiaquatic members of the weasel family are common island inhabitants.

A winter flounder camouflages amongst the algal growth in the shallow waters off Borgel's Island.

An american lobster in defensive posture in the rich shallow waters of Borgel's Island. The islands have supported a productive fishery for lobster, considered to be some of the highest quality in the world.

Piles of crab shells left by feeding birds on Little Ship Rock Island

Martime sunburst lichen covers the dramatic rock formations of Little Shiprock Island at sunset.

Colorful green and brown seaweeds of the intertidal zone during lowtide on Middle Island.

Stress tolerant plants growing on the exposed bedrock of Middle Island

A massive glacial erratic, boulders transported by melting glaciers, photographed on Middle Island.

Sunset and colorful green seaweed on Borgel's Island.

An american toad forages at night along a beach on Middle Island. Note: image is a single capture made by changing the focus point manually during long exposure.

View of intertifal zone and lowtide during sunrise on Middle Island.

Crystal clear waters reveal sandy ridges created by wave action off the tombolo beach connecting Borgel's and Middle Island.

Ground cover vegetation and sphagnum moss in the bogs of Borgel's Island.

The carnivorous northern pitcher plant, photographed on Borgel's Island.

The repeated evaporation of sea water produces intricate salt crystals along the rocky coastline of Borgel's Island.

Mushroom growing in the coniferous forest understory of Middle Island.

Shiprock Island boasts a large west facing cliff said to be used by vessels for cannonball practice.

The Eastern Shore forest represents a dynamic boreal coastal rain forest of spruce and fir, heavily influenced by forest insects, diseases and a harsh, storm wracked climate. Photograph from Shelter Cove.

Coastal wetland scene from Clam Harbour.

Aerial view of small rockey islet showing striated bedrock.

Aerial view of Outer, Middle and Borgel's Islands.

Aerial view of foresta and wetlands near Clam Harbour Provincia Park.