Memories of Great White Sharks

Russell Coles was still doing a little shark hunting with rod and reel in the early 1920s. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Russell Coles was still doing a little shark hunting with rod and reel as late as the early 1920s. This photograph is from the period 1920-22. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

This is chapter 4 of Shark Hunter: Russell J. Coles at Cape Lookout.

In a 1915 account, Russell Coles described his pursuit of great white sharks in the waters off Cape Lookout, N.C., in the years since 1900. His account gives us a good sense of what it was like to go shark fishing with him. I found it strange and fascinating and more than a little chilling.

My daughter Vera and I found the account in an article called “Notes on the Sharks and Rays of Cape Lookout, N.C.” Coles wrote the article for a journal of natural history, the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, that has been published in the nation’s capital since 1880.

In that article, Coles first recounted an incident with what was apparently a great white shark in the summer of 1905. At the time, he was in a skiff somewhere in the vicinity of Cape Lookout.

Capt. Charlie Willis and probably Capt. Charlie’s two crewmen, Roland Phillips and Mart Lewis, were with him.

“. . . while, out in a small skiff, harpooning turtles, a huge shark of more than 20 feet in length appeared alongside, within reach of my hand.  It apparently had no fear of us, as it struck the side of the skiff with some force, it then swam away for a distance of several hundred yards, then turned and swam rapidly toward us.“

As the shark grew closer, Coles reached for his rifle.

“I was about to fire into it as a large loggerhead turtle rose to the surface and was attacked by the shark. The shark seized the turtle in its jaws and both disappeared beneath the surface.”

The experience of seeing the shark rise up in the ocean waves and take the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) in its jaws, instead of attacking him, was not something that Coles soon forgot.

At that time, the 40-year-old fisherman was still gaining a mastery of shark hunting. He later acknowledged that, in 1905, he did not yet have the confidence to stay calm and remain steady when the great white swam directly at him.

Loggerhead turtle hunting, Cape Lookout vicinity, 1883. Loggerheads are the world's largest hard shell turtle, typically weighing 180-440 lbs. At the time of this drawing, they were commonly hunted for their meat and eggs. Drawing by H. Elliott. From U.S. Fish Commission Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Loggerhead turtle hunting, Cape Lookout vicinity, 1883. Loggerheads are the world’s largest hard shell turtle, typically weighing 180-440 lbs. and sometimes growing much larger. At the time of this drawing, they were commonly hunted for their meat and not always with a harpoon. If caught alive, they could be kept alive for long periods before eating. Drawing by H. Elliott. From U.S. Fish Commission Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Coles knew that great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are the largest predatory fish in the oceans. Female great whites, which are larger than the males, typically reach lengths of 15-16 feet and can weigh more than two tons.

When in North Carolina waters, great whites  usually stay well offshore, but they do occasionally come closer to the beach to hunt for bottlenose dolphins, sting rays, sea turtles and a variety of large fish.

Tiger shark caught by Russell Coles ca. 1918-20. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Tiger shark caught by Russell Coles ca. 1918-20. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

“Man-eaters”

In that same account, Russell Coles described another incident with great white sharks that occurred at Cape Lookout in 1913.

By that time he was generally shark hunting with a harpoon, in the style of the whalers with whom Capt. Charlie had grown up on the Cape Banks.

“In 1913 I observed three of these sharks and succeeded in harpooning them, but my tackle was too light to hold them.  While I was unable to positively identify these sharks, I believe they were man-eaters.”

By “man-eaters,” he meant great whites.

Several years later, Coles had another encounter with a great white. By then, he had been hunting sharks at Cape Lookout for at least 15 years.

He wrote that he found it easier to keep his wits about him after all that experience.

He had been, he said, “trained and steadied by having won many knife fights with sharks and large rays.“

“After trying for an hour to approach within harpooning distance of a large man-eater which was swimming in shallow water… I got overboard in a depth of 5 feet of water and had the boat retire to a distance of a hundred yards and with the coil of rope, which was attached to the harpoon which I had with me. I also took with me a bushel of crushed and broken fish to attract the shark, which was then swimming on or near the surface, half a mile to leeward of me.”

Within minutes, the shark began to move toward him.

Soon the shark could be seen zigzagging its course toward me, by crossing and re-crossing the line of scent from the broken fish, just as a bird dog follows up the scent of quail. With harpoon poised, I crouched low, trusting that its approach would be continued in this manner, until, by a long cast, I could fasten my harpoon in its side.”

Instead of continuing its zigzagging, the shark swam directly at him.

“The scent of the broken fish, however, was so strong that they were definitely located, and the shark charged from a hundred feet away with a speed which has to be seen to be appreciated.

“I met the onrushing shark by hurling my harpoon clear to the socket into it near the angle of the jaw, and, as the iron entered its flesh, the shark leaped forward, catching me in the angle formed by its head and the harpoon shank, which caught me just under the right arm, bruising me badly, while my face and neck were somewhat lacerated by coming in contact with the rough tilde of the side of its head.”

The injured shark thrashed and struck at Coles, and he reached for his knife.

“As my right arm was free, it was a great chance for using the heavy knife, with which I was armed, had my tackle been strong, but the force of the blow snapped the poorly-made harpoon at the socket and the shark escaped, although it carried its death wound.”

I guess I don’t need to say that normal people do not stand shoulder-deep in the ocean and bait great white sharks.

By that point, as you can see, Coles had “crossed over,” though exactly what line he had crossed and what was beyond it I can’t come close to saying.

But I think I can say with confidence that, for good or for ill, or both, he was no longer like the rest of us.

When my cousin Peter Lake swims with great white sharks, he at least uses a cage. This is Peter in the 1971 documentary film Blue Water, White Death. Courtesy, Park Circus.

When my cousin Peter Lake swims with great white sharks, he at least uses a cage. This is Peter in the 1971 documentary film Blue Water, White Death. Courtesy, Park Circus.

“Reckless and dangerous methods”

For the last half century, the leading authority on the sharks of the North Carolina coast has been a legendary marine biologist named Frank Schwartz at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City.

Dr. Schwartz is one of the few people I’ve encountered that knows of Russell Coles. In his Sharks of North Carolina and Adjacent Waters, he noted that Coles provided “our earliest detailed exposure to 16 species of sharks collected off Cape Lookout.”

Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are typically 11-13 ft. long (males) and 15-16 ft. long (females), but have been seen as long as 20 feet and 5,000 lbs. They can swim in short bursts as fast as 16 mph and dive to depths of nearly 4,000 ft. Photo by Michael Valos/Dreamstime

Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are typically 11-13 ft. long (males) and 15-16 ft. long (females) at maturity, but have been seen as long as 20 feet and with a weight of 5,000 lbs. They can swim in short bursts as fast as 16 mph and dive to depths of nearly 4,000 ft. Photo by Michael Valos/Dreamstime

In that study, however, Dr. Schwartz was careful to discourage his students from emulating Russell Coles’ methods. With tongue deep in cheek (I think), he wrote, “We hope modern students of sharks will not employ such reckless and dangerous methods when dealing with sharks.”

An Obsession for Sharks

The largest shark that Russell Coles ever caught with a rod and reel was another great white. As best as I can tell from the records that Vera and I saw at Coles Hill, it was the first great white that he encountered at Cape Lookout.

He caught that shark in July of 1902, and it was the first time that his big-game fishing exploits made newspaper headlines around the country. At the time, a number of marine fishery experts believed it to be one of the largest fish of any kind caught with a rod and reel anywhere in the world.

The July 26, 1902 edition of the Raleigh News and Observer contained one of those stories.

The story began:

The largest shark that was ever caught in these waters was today landed by Mr. Russell J. Coles, of Danville, Va. with a rod and reel after a most desperate fight, and before the shark was finally killed he was shot twenty times with a heavy revolver.”

To catch the shark, in addition to his revolver, Coles used 600 feet of #36 Cuttyhunk line on a heavy tarpon fishing reel with a short trolling rod.

He could not have landed the shark without Capt. Charlie and the rest of his crew. At times, they literally had to hold him in the boat.

“After the shark was killed six men were unable to lift him from the water, and he was finally hauled up by block and tackle after several failures, as his great weight broke the first chain that was used.”

According to newspaper accounts, the shark was 12 and ½-feet in length and its weight was estimated at 1,200 pounds.

Even as early as 1902, the thrill of the shark hunt had becoming an obsession for Russell Coles. The depths of that obsession only grew in the months and years ahead.

As he spent more time at Cape Lookout, he cared less and less about his tobacco business and his friends and business associates in Danville.

Increasingly, he left the care of Coles Hill in his brother Walter and sister-in-law Eliza’s hands.

Scientists at OCEARCH put an digital tag on a 16-ft.-long, 3,500 great white that they named "Mary Lee" off Cape Cod in 2012. Now you can see on the group's web site when she's visiting the North Carolina coast. Mary Lee also has her own facebook page. Photo courtesy, OCEARCH

Scientists at OCEARCH put a satellite tag on a 16-ft.-long, 3,500 lb. great white that they named “Mary Lee” off Cape Cod in 2012. Now you can see when she’s visiting the NC coast on the group’s “shark tracker” web site. Mary Lee also has her own facebook page. Photo courtesy, OCEARCH

Even at the end of his life, Vera and I detected notes of both admiration and mystification in the way that his friends and neighbors back home viewed his life’s trajectory. In the obituary that appeared in a local newspaper, the Danville Register, we read, for instance.

As Dr. Coles became enriched through his knowledge of tobacco, his interest in the profession was eclipsed gradually by a passion for what he called `big game fishing.'”

The obituary goes on:

“Towards the end of his active life, fishing had become an obsession and his tobacco interests occupied little more time than the regular selling season.” 

The intensity of his passion for shark hunting did not diminish until near the very end of his life, if then. However, the nature of his obsession did not stay constant: the ways that he pursued sharks changed, and to some degree what it was that drew him to shark hunting changed somewhat, too.

In an article titled  “Natural History Notes on the Devil Fish, Manta Birostris and Mobula Olfersi(that I mentioned in chapter 2), Coles explained that the big great white that he killed in July 1902 was an important factor in how he moved forward:

”It is the big, powerful fighting ones that I love to battle with and for a number of years, fishing big sharks with rod and reel was the ideal sport for me, until in the summer of 1902 I caught with rod and reel a shark so large, that I can never hope to equal it again.”

After capturing the great white, he largely put aside his rod and reel and his trophy hunting. He began to go after sharks in other ways, some of them even more savage than before.

Yet at the same time, as we’ll see in the next chapter of our story, something latent in him, a scientific curiosity for which he had no schooling or training, also rose up in him.

That intellectual yearning was paired, Vera and I came to suspect, with a desire to get closer and more intimate with the objects of his fascination.

Vera says it was a strange kind of intimacy he sought, one twisted by the nature of a society, to quote her, “steeped in violent extraction.” In such a society, she hypothesized, Coles marveled at the sea’s wonders but he could not imagine another way to relate to the natural world than to conquer and own it.

It was as if the only way he knew how to express intimacy was violence.

However we understand it, as the years went by, Russell Coles ached to know more about sharks and other sea creatures at Cape Lookout—and not merely so that he could  hang them from a block and tackle at the dock.

-To be continued-

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