A Ghost in a Phosphorescent Sea

Giant oceanic manta ray in waters off Okinawa, Japan. Photograph by Jared Wood. From naturesbestphotography.asia

Giant oceanic manta ray in waters off Okinawa, Japan. Photograph by Jared Wood. From naturesbestphotography.asia

This is chapter 9 in Shark Hunter: Russell Coles at Cape Lookout.

I will never forget those days when my daughter Vera and I worked in the old library at Coles Hill. As we explored Russell Coles’ letters and diaries, we sat among furnishings built by one of North Carolina’s greatest antebellum craftsmen, Thomas Day, a black man, and also by an old harpoon, a piece of scrimshaw carved from a sperm whale’s tooth and other relics of the sea.

Usually we worked in silence: reading, scanning the pages of old documents and making notes. But again and again, Vera read me a letter or brought me a page of his diary that she couldn’t resist sharing right away– and of course I did the same with her.

Now and then Walter Coles, Sr., the nephew of Russell Coles, or his wife Alice, would bring us a refreshment. The old documents enthralled us so much that Vera and I found it difficult to take breaks, there was so much to look at, so much to take in, so much to think about.

The story continues:

Soon after his trip to the American Museum of Natural History in May 1915, Russell Coles returned south. He may have first gone to Coles Hill or to his office in Danville, Va., but he soon headed east again and settled back into life on his houseboat at Cape Lookout, N.C.

For the rest of that summer, and again the next summer, Coles’ letters and diaries reveal his obsession with finding and hunting giant manta rays.

That July of 1915 he was beside himself when a pair of Harkers Islanders reported that a giant manta ray had gotten snagged on their anchor chain. At the time,  they were fishing at Beaufort Inlet, nine miles west of Cape Lookout.

The two fishermen’s names were Telford Willis and Luther Guthrie.

Telford was only 17 years old at the time. According to historian (and my old friend) Joel Hancock, who is Telford’s great-nephew, the young fisherman had been born at Diamond City, the largest village on the “Ca’e Banks.”

He was named after a Mormon missionary named John Telford that his mother credited with healing his older sister. That sister had been suffering from a crippling case of what was probably rheumatoid arthritis.

If you're interested in learning more about the history of Mormonism on the "Ca'e Banks" and Harkers Island, I strongly recommend Joel Hancock's Strengthened by the Storm. I also highly recommend Joel's blog, The Education of an Island Boy.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Mormonism on the “Ca’e Banks” and Harkers Island, I strongly recommend Joel Hancock’s Strengthened by the Storm. I also highly recommend Joel’s blog, The Education of an Island Boy.

After the great storm of 1899, Telford’s family left the Banks and moved to Harkers Island, on a more sheltered part of Back Sound. That was his home when the giant manta ray nearly dragged him and Luther Guthrie out to sea.

Telford Willis (1898-1949), Harkers Island fisherman, 1915. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Telford Willis (1898-1949), Harkers Island fisherman, 1915. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Luther Guthrie was born on Bogue Banks, the island west of the Ca’e Banks, and was five years older than Telford. In 1912, they were living in the same neighborhood of Harkers Island. He was a fisherman and sometimes a surf man at the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Cape Lookout, too.

A fish camp that he built in 1924 still stands in the the shadow of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.

In an article in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Coles described what the two young men told him about the manta ray.

“….their motor fishing launch was suddenly lifted partly out of the water as the pectoral fins of a large Manta rose with a great splash on each side of the boat.”

Luther Guthrie (1893-1943), Harkers Island fisherman, 1915. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Luther Guthrie (1893-1943), Harkers Island fisherman, 1915. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Coles continued:

“The Manta then rushed against the boat cable, lifting the anchor and at great speed towed the boat out to sea against a strong wind and tide, and as it swam near the surface the anchor could be seen with one fluke hooked over the front of the head, between the extended horns or cephalic fins.”

As the ray dragged their boat through Beaufort Inlet, Willis and Guthrie got a little lucky.

“The men at once started their engine and put their wheel hard over. When crossing the outer bar a heavy breaker which arose between the boat and the Manta threw the boat forward and to one side, and the anchor slipped off of the side of its head, freeing the Manta.

When Coles heard their account, he was so excited by the size of the ray and its strength that he asked Willis and Guthrie to give sworn affidavits describing their experience. Apparently he thought even marine scientists might not otherwise believe the story. They did so before a magistrate on the 21st of August.

“The Big Manta”

The next summer Coles was looking for giant manta rays again. On June 20, 1916, he noted in his diary that the captain of his crew, Charlie Willis, and several other local fishermen had spied a giant manta ray near Cape Lookout.

“The opinions formed of its size are that its diameter is in excess of 20 feet,” Coles jotted down.

As soon as Capt. Willis informed Coles of the ray, they readied a boat and went in pursuit. However, night was falling and the only evidence they found of the big ray was a fisherman’s net that had been left in tatters.

A little more than a week later, on June 28, local fishing crews reported that they had seen a giant manta ray again.

In 1915 a giant oceanic manta ray nearly pulled Telford Willis and Luther Guthrie's fishing boat through Beaufort Inlet. Photo from Active Planet Travels

In 1915 a giant oceanic manta ray nearly pulled Telford Willis and Luther Guthrie’s fishing boat through Beaufort Inlet. Photo from Active Planet Travels

“From what others tell me this Manta must be larger than any one of the 5 which I killed in Florida waters,” he wrote in his diary.  “I feel that there is a real big fight in store for me.”

When that giant manta ray vanished, Coles bided his time by doing anatomical research on cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus). They’re a much smaller ray that typically reaches 28-35 inches in width and a weight of 26-36 pounds.

His diary indicates that he caught and dissected 60 of them that summer.

Coles continued to keep his eyes open for giant manta rays though, as well as other specimens of fish that might interest the curators at the American Museum of Natural History.

The early part of the summer was slow. His diary entry for June 30, 1916 was typical:

“Was miles out on the Lookout Shoals harpooning sharks & rays. Had some exciting sport but no specimens of museum value were secured.”

Things soon picked up though. The next day, on the 1st of July, Coles and his crew finally came upon, to quote his diary, “the big Manta.”

Something happened though and his diary doesn’t really say what it was. In his diary, Coles wrote:

“I had my chance for I was close enough to throw a harpoon in it and I did not strike, but sneaked away like a coward instead….“

For some reason he froze. All he had to say in his diary about the incident was, “common sense and abnormal conditions held my blood lust in check, for I know that I am not a coward.”

The comment seems strange coming from Coles. I don’t know anymore about the incident, but his words make it seem as if he was always weighing the courage and fear within his own heart when he pursued big sharks and rays. It was almost as if he sought to reassure himself that, yes, he was not a coward.

As I think about it now, I wonder if Coles was that much different than the rest of us who don’t do battle with great sharks and manta rays.

We go through our days seeing the things that need to be done, the duties to be filled, the outrages and injustices that need to be stood up to, the fears and doubts within us that need confronting, and a bit like Russell Coles at Cape Lookout we decide if today we are going to be heroes or cowards.

Harpooning on Dark Nights

The rest of that summer of 1916 Coles and his crew continued to hunt rays.

On the 2nd of July, local fishermen reported approximately 75 lesser devil rays (Mobula hypostoma) in the Atlantic off Cape Lookout. Coles immediately went in pursuit of them.

Lesser devil rays are a relatively small ray, with a maximum length of about 47 inches. They feed largely on crustaceans in the shallows around Cape Lookout, and they’re famous for their speed and the way they sometimes leap out of the water for great distances.

The lesser devil ray (Mobula hypostoma). From Samuel Garman, The Plagiostomia : Sharks, skates, and rays (1913), Ernst Mayer Library, Harvard University

The lesser devil ray (Mobula hypostoma). From Samuel Garman, The Plagiostomia : Sharks, skates, and rays (1913), Ernst Mayer Library, Harvard University

In his diary on July 2nd, Coles wrote:

“Of all the rays that I know none swim with more graceful movement or greater speed. It is truly a beautiful sight to chase a large school of Mobula olfersii [an old name for Mobula hypostoma] on a dark night by their phosphorescence.”

In the summer, bioluminescent microorganisms often illuminate the waters off Cape Lookout. Those microorganisms are largely a wondrous species of dinoflagellate with the scientific name of Noctiluca scintillans. They emit light when disturbed, such as when a boat, a school of fish or even just waves move through the waters in which they are floating.

Microscopic view of Noctiluca scintillans, the dinoflagellate behind the ocean's phosphorescence. Image by Maria Antónia Sampayo at the Institute of Oceanography, University of Lisbon

Microscopic view of Noctiluca scintillans, the dinoflagellates behind the ocean’s phosphorescence. At least 18 genera of dinoflagellates are bioluminescent. They contain little cytoplasmic bodies called scintillons that light up when disturbed. Scientists believe the light is a defense mechanism: startling potential predators and also making those predators more visible to their predators higher up the food chain. Image by Maria Antónia Sampayo, Institute of Oceanography, University of Lisbon

That is the “phosphorescence” that Coles was referring to. When I see it, I always feel as if the sea is filled with fireflies. Or, if I’m swimming in phosphorescent waters and open my eyes underwater, I imagine that I’m traveling through the stars.

Watching a school of lesser devil rays move through the glowing waves must have been a sight of indescribable beauty.

Coles, of course, was not content just glorying in the scene’s beauty.  His thoughts quickly turned to natural history: he wondered if the lesser devil rays would enter the Bight at Cape Lookout on July 6th, as they had done in previous years.

He also could not wait to hunt them. “Harpooning on dark nights by phosphorescent fire is a new most interesting sport…” he wrote in his diary that same day.

A Summer Night

One of the most unforgettable moments for me in all of Russell Coles’ writings occurred the night before in a no less phosphorescent sea.

It was the 1st of July, the day before he and his crew saw the large school of lesser devil rays.

Around midnight he and his crew were returning from shoals several miles out in the Atlantic when what seemed to them like a strange glowing specter rose up before them.

For a few seconds Capt. Willis and Coles’ other two crewmen thought that it was a ghostly whaleboat, something out of the legends and tall-tales that they had grown up with.

“I know that the three men with me in that boat were among the bravest of the many brave men that I know, especially Charlie Willis who has been my right hand man…” Coles wrote in his diary.

As they grew closer to the sight, they realized that they were not seeing a ghost, but an incredibly beautiful and mysterious living creature.

Coles immediately reached for his harpoon. However, Capt. Willis and the other two crewmen stopped him. They refused to bring him close to the animal until he promised not to raise a hand against it.

In the records that my daughter Vera and I inspected at Coles Hill, that moment was the first and only time that Coles saw something beautiful and mysterious in the sea and did not try to kill it.

I’ll let Coles tell the end of the story. This is from his diary on that first day of July, 1916:

“Upon my promise not to use [the] harpoon[,] the boat was brought very close to it and I then saw that swimming just below the surface was a Manta very much larger apparently than any that I have ever killed and by its brilliant phosphorescent fire every detail of its shape was plainly seen and after following it a short distance I gave up the chase….”

-To be continued-

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