The nature of the upper sediments of the shelf and slope on a passive margin was investigated by using high-quality refraction profiles recorded by ocean-bottom seismometers off Nova Scotia. In agreement with previously published reflection profiles, well data, and lithospheric models for the evolution of passive margins, we found little thickening of the post-Early Cretaceous section, implying an even sedimentation rate over the outer shelf for this time period. The velocity model determined from slant stacks agreed reasonably well with well-log data, but had velocities slightly lower than those found from a nearby refraction line using first-arrival travel-time methods. Starting at the sea floor the compressional velocity–depth model consists of a gradient of roughly 0.4 s−1 to a depth of about 1.25 km, followed by another gradient of roughly 1 s−1 to a depth of about 3.5 km. Beneath this depth the velocity gradient approaches zero and can be modelled as a constant velocity layer. Stoneley waves were used to investigate the velocity structure of the upper 260 m of the sediment column. These velocities cannot be measured in the oil wells located on the shelf by conventional 3.5 kHz echo sounders or by measuring the sonic velocities of sediments collected in piston cores. A thinning of the Pleistocene–Holocene Sable Island Sand and Gravel layer was documented by pronounced differences in the propagation of Stoneley waves across the shelf. Although the origin of the thinning is uncertain, the shear-wave velocity determined for this unit, 260 m/s, is appropriate for an unconsolidated sand.