This is the 5th chapter of Shark Hunter: Russell J. Coles at Cape Lookout.
After catching that enormous great white shark at Cape Lookout in 1902, Russell Coles largely put away his rod and reel. Some years later he looked back on that moment, and he wrote:
“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 and since then I have not devoted quite so much time to that sport.”
But that does not mean that Coles gave up shark fishing. Instead he changed his way of going about it. He leaned further into the danger and the exhilaration of the hunt, and he began going after big sharks with a harpoon.
It was an almost maniacal pursuit: like a Spanish bull fight in its proximity to one’s prey and in the way in which he invited danger, and perhaps also in its elaborate and macabre choreography.
When hunting sharks with a harpoon, Coles and his crew used the kind of light but sturdy, double-ended wooden boat that the local islanders used when hunting whales from the shore.
Also like those islanders, or like Queequeg in Moby-Dick, he stood in the bow of the boat, with his crew behind him, and wielded his harpoon.
The Study of Sharks
The summer of 1902 was a turning point for Coles in another way, too. Sometime that summer– perhaps due to the notoriety he received when he caught the big great white– he first became acquainted with scientists that visited the area to study fish and other kinds of marine life.
Soon he was collaborating with them. They were intrigued by his passion for sharks and his experience with them in the wild. He, in turn, welcomed the camaraderie, their book learning and the opportunity to combine his love of shark fishing for sport with a pursuit of knowledge that seemed more noble.
Through them, he would discover a world of scientific inquiry that changed his life.
At that time the study of sharks was in its infancy. Very little was known about shark anatomy, reproduction or physiology. Even less was known about shark behavior in the wild.
The feeding habits of sharks, their hunting methods, migratory patterns and much else were largely still a mystery.
“At the beginning of the twentieth century, most ichthyologists had little interest in sharks,” Dr. José Castro wrote a few years ago in an important historical overview of the human relationship with sharks that appeared in Marine Fisheries Review.
“Ichthyologists,” Dr. Castro continued, “were trained to identify fishes, and usually cared little about their biology, except for a few species of commercial importance.”
In Coles’ day, many ichthyologists—biologists that study fish—had never actually seen sharks in the wild. Coles offered such scientists the twin possibilities of studying sharks in their native habitat and of expanding their collections for study in museums and laboratories.
The interest of those marine scientists, in turn, seemed to awaken in Coles a scientific curiosity and a passion for marine research that may have always been there, but was latent.
The U.S. Biological Station in Beaufort
Russell Coles first collected sharks and other specimens of marine life for the scientists in summer residence at the U.S. Biological Station in Beaufort, a small fishing town 10 miles from Cape Lookout.
Morehead City is on the west side of the Newport River’s mouth; Beaufort is on the east side.
At that time, the U.S. Biological Station, a forerunner of the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center that is on Pivers Island today, was the only marine lab on the North Carolina coast. In the summer months, a small group of marine scientists from the U.S. Fish Commission, natural history museums and universities met there and used the facility as a base for field research.
Coles was more than hospitable to them. He was fascinated by what they were doing and what they knew and in a way he seems to have wanted into their world.
He went out of his way to collect specimens that they sought. For days or even weeks, he also hosted some of them on his houseboat, the yawl Edna Earl, where he lived when he was at Cape Lookout.
Coles started by studying sharks and their cousins, the rays, but he eventually expanded his interests. Beginning around 1910, he began making and purchasing fish traps, dredges, gigs, seining nets and other gear so that he could collect more types of fish and other marine species.
All of this was inspired by the interest of museum curators and other scientists in those other species.
He was a quick learner. The visiting scientists soon taught him how to handle marine specimens in ways that would not damage them. He also learned how to preserve fish specimens so that they could be transported to distant museums where they could be studied or displayed.
Prof. Eugene W. Gudger
He had good teachers. One of the marine biologists with whom he worked most closely during his first decade at Cape Lookout, for instance, was Prof. Eugene W. Gudger, a young professor at Women’s College in Greensboro, N.C., and a research scientist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries from 1902 to 1911.
Gudger, to quote Dr. Castro’s article in Marine Fisheries Review, was “the first American ichthyologist that can be considered a true naturalist and the first to study the biology of elasmobranchs.”
The term “elasmobranchs” refers to a class of cartilaginous fish—sharks, rays, skates and sawfish. Their skeletons are made of cartilage, not bone.
They have other common features as well: 4-7 gill clefts that open individually; rigid dorsal fins; tiny placoid scales on their skin that give them that sandpapery feel when you touch them; rows of teeth; some unique jaw structures; and, unlike other fish, no swim bladder.
Instead of a swim bladder, elasmobranchs maintain buoyancy with oil reserves in their very large livers.
Gudger had just finished his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins when he came to North Carolina to teach at Women’s College. While at the college, he often spent his summer break at the U.S. Biological Station, where he soon found Coles and began collaborating with him.
Gudger eventually wrote a host of pioneering articles on shark biology and behavior, and he frequently acknowledged Coles as the source of specimens and observations that he used in those articles.
The American Museum of Natural History
Gudger was only one of the marine scientists with whom Coles worked and from whom he got what amounted to a crash course in scientific inquiry and modern ichthyology.
He developed his strongest relationships with the curators of ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
At that museum, he worked especially closely with John T. Nichols, a young scientist from Boston with wide-ranging interests in marine life, and Louis Hussakof, who later was best known as a specialist in fossil fish.
Between 1910 and 1920, Coles hosted both men while they were doing research at Cape Lookout at least once and possibly several times.
As Coles grew interested in doing his own scientific research at Cape Lookout, Nichols and Hussakof both assisted him.
Nichols was the founding editor of Copeia, the Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists’ journal, and he provided editorial help and published two of Coles’ articles—one reviewing ichthyologist Lewis Radcliffe’s study of sharks and rays at Cape Lookout and the other on great whites, tiger sharks and hammerhead sharks at Cape Lookout.
We can also see Coles’ relationship with the museum in the pages of the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, the museum’s research journal.
Between 1910 and 1916, the Bulletin published a total of seven articles and letters by Coles on the marine fauna of Cape Lookout.
They included a study of the embryos and migratory habits of several species of rays, a set of observations on the coloration of summer flounder (Paralychthys dentatus) and a pair of announcements of newly identified species of fish– one, a scorpionfish, and the other a sole now called the North American naked sole (Gymnachirus melas).
In addition, Coles wrote three other articles that appeared in the Bulletin.
They mostly concerned sharks and rays, but the first one, in 1910, also included his observations on a number of other marine fishes, including the pale spotted eel (Myrichthys ocellatus) and the inshore lizard fish (Synodus foetens).
Preserving such a wide variety of marine fishes, as well as sea mammals and sea turtles, posed special challenges for Coles.
Preserving a black tip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus), a giant oceanic manta ray (Mobula birostris) or an Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stella frontalis) was one kind of art.
Preserving species as small and fragile as a spotfin butterfly fish (Chaetodon ocellatus), a bridled goby (Coryphopterus glaucofraenum) or a longsnout seahorse (Hippocampus longirostris) was another.
Coles may have been a bit of pirate and a cowboy, but he clearly had the gentle touch necessary to capture and preserve such tiny and delicate sea creatures.
His collection records list many sharks, rays and big-game fish. However, they also contain dozens of much smaller fish species, some of them just a few centimeters in length.
The Smithsonian & the British Museum
The heyday for Coles’ collecting was 1909 to 1916. During those years, he supplied specimens from Cape Lookout to several of the most important natural history collections in the world.
They included Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, the British Museum (Natural History) in London and the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris.
Based on the letters and diaries that my daughter Vera and I read at Coles Hill, he built his strongest relationships with curators at the two largest ichthyological collections in the U.S.
One was Barton A. Bean at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. The other, as I mentioned above, was John T. Nichols at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
According to the Smithsonian’s records, the museum’s collections currently include more than 50 specimens of marine life collected by Coles at Cape Lookout.
Those specimens include a wide variety of sharks and rays, but the majority are other kinds of marine fish and sea mammals.
They include, just to name a few, an Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis), a blacknose shark (Carcharhinus acronotus), a Brazilian electric ray (Narcine brasiliensis), a honeycomb moray eel (Gymnothorax saxicola) and an endearingly doleful palefin batfish (Ogcocephalus rostellum).
My favorite has to be the northern stargazer (Astroscopus guttatus). Like the palefin batfish, it might not win many beauty contests, but it’s a striking bottom-feeding fish with electric shock organs.
I love its name, too. The name—northern stargazer— comes from the way it burrows into the sand and aims its eyes heavenward to wait for unsuspecting prey to swim by.
Coles made an even greater contribution to the collections at the American Museum of Natural History.
According to the museum’s records, Coles donated just under 400 specimens to the museum between 1910 and 1925.
At times it was all he did at Cape Lookout. During one summer– the summer of 1916– he woke every morning and, if the weather was good, he spent the day collecting specimens specifically for the American Museum of Natural History.
The diversity of the specimens was extraordinary. They included at least five species of sharks, 10 species of rays and skates, a smalltooth sawfish and hundreds of other species of fish.
Those other fish specimens included game fish as big and brawny as cobia (Rachycentron canadum) and red drum (Scaenops ocellatus).
But they also included tiny denizens of salt marshes and estuaries such as the sheepshead minnow (Cyprinodon variegates) and delicate little coral reef critters such as the feather blenny (Hypsoblennius hentz), among many others.
A Child’s World
I have often seen the ways that the sea’s wonders can delight children and light up their imaginations.
My brother, Richard Cecelski, is the founder and director of Carolina Ocean Studies, which is probably the oldest and most successful hands-on environmental education group on the North Carolina coast.
Over more than 25 years, he and his wife Sandie and their extraordinary staff have introduced literally hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren to the glories of North Carolina’s coastal waters– and awakened them to the importance of preserving those extraordinary ecosystems.
When I visit Richard and Sandie, I often join the group’s educational field trips. They go to places such as Masonboro Island, Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout. They do educational trips to fishing piers as well, and they also go far offshore.
(Or at least they did before Covid.)
In all those places, I love seeing the children’s unbridled joy as they discover the sea and its creatures. Many of the children on those trips have never even seen the ocean before.
They make me want to weep, it is such a beautiful sight to see.
I think of those trips now because at times Russell Coles reminds me of those children and the wonder they feel on the edge of the sea.
It’s easy to see Coles only as an obsessed hunter of great sea creatures, almost in the same vein as Capt. Ahab in Moby-Dick or Capt. Quint in Jaws. (And make no mistake: he was that, too, at least a bit).
But at times, I think I can also glimpse another side of him, one with an almost child-like sense of wonder and innocence.
I can see in it in his letters, diaries and journals, but also in the photographs of him.
In his portraits taken in Danville, he always looks so stolid, humorless and daunting.
But look at the photographs of him at Cape Lookout, such as the one at the top of this page.
In those photographs, he always looks like a little boy that’s been playing in the mud.
He is gleeful and a little bashful, his soul un-corralled, totally in surrender to the wildness within and around him.
-To be continued-
3 thoughts on “An Ichthyologist is Born”
Interesting man. I can see why you are so taken with his exploits. Look forward to the next installment.
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The conclusion here nails it – that wonder and joy. Doesn’t the beautiful coast leave us all in that state??? And yes – the northern stargazer is delightful. That and just about any hideous toadfish make me smile. Another wonderful chapter. Thank you!
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You loved RJC first! I have a selkie (ish) just for you next time!