The King of the Devil Fishermen

Russell Coles and a giant oceanic manta ray near Punta Gorda, Fl. From The American Museum Journal (American Museum of Natural History, 1916)

Russell Coles and a giant oceanic manta ray near Punta Gorda, Fl. From The American Museum Journal (American Museum of Natural History, 1916)

This is chapter 8 of Shark Hunter: Russell J. Coles at Cape Lookout.

Russell Coles first learned about giant oceanic manta rays in or about 1900, when he began to spend his summers on a houseboat at Cape Lookout and started listening to the local fishermen’s stories.

The fishermen told him that the manta rays were a rare sight at Cape Lookout, but they also told him that he would be amazed by their great size and strength, and also by their beauty and grace, if he ever saw one.

Coles did not see his first giant manta ray at Cape Lookout for almost a decade. It was the summer of 1909, and he and the crew were rod-and-reel fishing in the waters south of the lighthouse at the time.

In an undated document that my daughter Vera and I found at Coles Hill, his family’s estate in Virginia, Coles described the moment:

“I saw a huge creature suddenly leap high in the air and fall back into the sea not more than 200 yards from me… It was surely one of the largest of its kind, for the opinion that I formed of it then was that it was thirty feet wide and six feet between the horns.”

I suspect the surprise of seeing the great creature rise out of the water added a few feet to his appraisal of its size.

A few feet here or there hardly mattered: Coles had witnessed the breaching of a giant oceanic manta ray. Its scientific name is Mobula birostris, but coastal people tended to to call them “devil rays” or “devil fish” because of the horn-shaped fins on their heads.

They are magnificent creatures, and the sight must have been breathtaking.

Giant manta rays can weigh nearly 3,000 pounds.  Their pectoral fins can reach a length of 30 feet, as Coles said his was, though usually a full-grown female’s pectoral fins are closer to 18 to 21 feet from tip to tip.

The broad, triangular fins make them look like large and very graceful birds of prey when they move through the sea.

Marine scientists don’t fully understand why some species of rays leap out of the sea, but I have seen the phenomenon in smaller kinds of rays myself and it is something one never forgets.

The sight kindled an obsession in Coles that was as powerful as his feelings for great sharks had been a few years earlier.

A cast of a lesser devil ray (Mobula hypostoma) that Russell Coles captured at Cape Lookout ca. 1915 and in the collections at the American Museum of American History. From Russell J. Coles, “Natural History Notes on the Devil Fish, Manta Birostris, and Mobula Olfersi,” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol. 35, article 33 (1916).

A cast of a lesser devil ray (Mobula hypostoma) that Russell Coles captured at Cape Lookout ca. 1915 and which is now in the collections at the American Museum of American History. From Russell J. Coles, “Natural History Notes on the Devil Fish, Manta Birostris, and Mobula Olfersi, Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History vol. 35, article 33 (1916).

Alas, as with seemingly everything and everyone beautiful in his life, Coles’ first response to his encounter with the giant manta ray was not simply a desire to observe and marvel at it.

He had instead an unquenchable desire to hunt and conquer it.

Again and again, Coles acted as if the fullest expression of human experience and the way to know something most intimately or embrace something most fully was fighting, conquering and dominating it.

Vera sees that failure to relate to the natural world in a less destructive way as part and parcel of the society in which he lived, and in which we still live– and I am sympathetic with her view.

It is, of course, a tragic and self-defeating sense of how to be close to nature or how to be close to another human being. I think it is also a recipe for great loneliness.

Mermaids and Manta Rays

Over the next eight years, Coles hunted giant manta rays frequently. During that time, he and his crew looked for them at Cape Lookout, but they also made three expeditions to Florida’s Gulf Coast, where they were much more common. On one of those trips, they took Teddy Roosevelt with them and it made headlines across the U.S. (I’ll discuss that trip in my next two chapters of this story.)

At one point, Coles and the head of his crew, Capt. Charlie Willis, killed the largest manta ray recorded up to that time.

In addition to hunting Manta birostris for sport, Coles was also fascinated by their biology. For years he studied them and other rays obsessively.

At the time, few scientists had studied giant manta rays in the wild. The rays often seemed as much the stuff of myth as mermaids and kraken.

Beginning with the sight of that breaching giant manta ray in 1909, Coles increasingly dreamed of going in pursuit of giant manta rays. His interest in them soon rivaled his obsession for shark hunting.

By 1915 the New York Times was calling him “the king of the devil-fishermen.”

“The true poetry of motion”

Coles saw the breaching giant manta ray in the summer of 1909. The next July, he captured his first specimen of the ray in a drift net near Cape Lookout. He sent that ray to the American Museum of Natural History.

Later that summer, he observed a school of “possibly 100 or more” rays in those same waters. They were presumably lesser devil rays (Mobula hypostoma), a smaller, more common species of ray at Cape Lookout that he also found fascinating.

He was hooked. In that same undated document I mentioned earlier, he wrote:

“I gave up all other fishing and sport for the purpose of devoting my entire time to their study and having secured two specimens, I allowed my scientific information to hold my love of exciting sport in check…”

Using a whaleboat, he and his crew went in search of rays. When they spied them, they followed them and observed them closely, noting, among other things, their feeding habits and reproductive behavior.

In the period from 1910 to 1913, Coles and his crew caught and killed a total of nine giant manta rays. He dissected them all, paying special attention to their stomach contents, the nature of their embryos and the structure of their eyes.

He marveled always at their strength and speed.

“I had come to see the Devil Fish to see the true poetry of motion, as such perfect grade in movement I have never seen before: beautiful, graceful women, not excepted.”

He not only studied giant manta rays during that period. He also collected and studied other species of rays.

Mobula birostris, for one thing, was relatively uncommon at Cape Lookout. They are largely a pelagic (open ocean) species native to the tropics and sub-tropics. They are seen in the waters off the North Carolina coast, but it is the far northern end of their migratory range.

With limited access to giant manta rays, Coles pursued and studied other, more common rays at Cape Lookout.

Those included the spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari), the cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus), the lesser devil ray (Mobula hypostoma) and, as we saw in the previous chapter of this story, the Brazilian electric ray (Narcine brasiliensis).

Dorsal view of a spotted eagle ray at Cape Lookout, ca. 1912. Photo by Russell J. Coles. From Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections vol. 60 (1913).

Dorsal view of a spotted eagle ray at Cape Lookout, ca. 1912. Photo by Russell J. Coles. From Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections vol. 60 (1913).

During those years, Coles wrote two articles on rays for the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History.

Published in 1913, one of the articles focused on the embryos and migratory habits of several of the smaller rays at Cape Lookout, while the other article, published in 1916, focused on giant manta rays and lesser devil rays.

To Punta Gorda

In the spring of 1915, Coles finally got his chance to hunt a giant manta ray, but it wasn’t at Cape Lookout.

Since he had failed to catch the giant manta ray in his usual haunts (except in nets), he and his crew outfitted a special expedition to southwestern Florida. They targeted a fishing village called Punta Gorda, not far from Fort Myers, and an island just off its coast, Captiva Island.

They had actually made the same trip  a year earlier, during the summer of 1914— Coles had killed two small manta rays then.

However, for his second trip he was looking for a ray for the American Museum of Natural History and wanted to find a specimen that was of a size that would impress the museum’s curators and its visitors.

The choice of Punta Gorda was not an accident. Punta Gorda was well known to his boat captain, Charlie Willis, and to his crew. It was on a stretch of Florida’s Gulf Coast where a sizable group of fishermen’s families from Morehead City and other parts of Carteret County, N.C., had settled beginning in the 1870s.

The first families to leave Carteret County and go to Florida were mullet fishermen in search of new fishing grounds and a fresh start. That first group settled in Cortez, a tiny hamlet just south of Tampa.

Cortez, Florida, in the early 20th century. Courtesy, Manatee County Public Library System

Cortez, Florida, in the early 20th century. Courtesy, Manatee County Public Library System

Other fishermen from Carteret County followed those families to Florida. Some settled in Cortez, but others drifted south to little Gulf Coast communities such as Punta Gorda.

Some of the fishing families from Carteret County– and also quite a few from Goose Creek Island, in Pamlico County, N.C.– even moved as far south as Everglades City. I’ve been to the little town a few times on paddling trips in Everglades National Park and I’m always surprised that the family names in the local phone book make me feel as if I am back home in Carteret County.

Russell Coles with a spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari), Cape Lookout, N.C., ca. 1910-15. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Russell Coles with a spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari), Cape Lookout, N.C., ca. 1910-15. Courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va.

Some of those families remained in Florida and had little more to do with Carteret County.

Many, however, kept close ties to their cousins back on the North Carolina coast. Some even moved back and forth. A fisherman’s son, for instance, might fish part of the year in Cortez or Punta Gorda, but then return to Morehead City, Harkers Island or some other part of Carteret County for the big fish runs there.

At least two and maybe all three members of Coles’ crew had fished on that part of the Florida coast in their younger days.

“An Ideal Pirate”

On all their trips to Punta Gorda, a legendary local fisherman named Jack McCann was their guide. Originally from the Florida Keys, “Capt. Jack,” as he was known, had long made his home in Punta Gorda.

Coles’ crew had known him since they were boys.

“There is a saying in Punta Gorda that ‘if Cap. Jack says it is so, it is so,’” Coles wrote in a note that Vera and I found at Coles Hill.

McCann apparently had very little schooling, but he was a sharp, self-taught sage of a man. He used the scientific names of marine species, knew their life cycles inside out and had a reputation for understanding South Florida’s natural history and the business of fishing like no other.

McCann, Coles recalled, “usually begins [every] season fishing with [a] crew of raw young men and boys; at the end of the season they are men and skilled fishermen… My crews at Morehead City for nearly 20 years have been trained by him.”

McCann was roughly 60 years old when he worked with Coles and his crew, but he still had plenty of flair.

“Had Capt Jack lived two centuries ago he would have made an ideal pirate,” Coles wrote.

A Blood Red Sea

On April 11, 1915, Coles and his crew set out from Punta Gorda in Capt. McCann’s launch. They did not have to look long. A mile off Punta Gorda, they spied a school of giant manta rays.

Coles picked out a large female with a wingspan of approximately 18 feet.

Conservator J. C. Bell molding Coles' giant manta ray at the American Museum of Natural History. The ray measured 18 ft. from tip to tip of its fins. Rough plaster molds of the ray were made on the beach on the day it was killed, then sent to the museum in 12 sections. Bell put them together to make the cast. He has not yet attached the tail. From "Fighting the Terrible Devilfish," Popular Science Monthly 20, #4 (April 1917).

Conservator J. C. Bell molding Russell Coles’ giant manta ray cast at the American Museum of Natural History. Coles and his crew made rough plaster molds of the ray on the beach on the day it was killed, then sent them to the museum in 12 sections. Bell put them together to make the cast. He has not yet attached the tail. From “Fighting the Terrible Devilfish,” Popular Science Monthly 20, #4 (April 1917).

Capt. McCann ran the launch alongside it, and Coles and Capt. Willis quickly drove harpoons into the spine of the poor thing.

The creature dove and came up under the boat, until the craft listed and began to take in water.

Another, male manta ray rose up next to the launch, nearly capsizing the boat. Coles drove a lance into the female and she dived again, shattering the lance, but she still had a harpoon with a line attached embedded in her.

Using lance and harpoon, Coles stabbed the ray again and again when she re-surfaced. She apparently dived and re-surfaced repeatedly for more than 20 minutes, roiling the boat each time she came up. By the time that she was dead, Coles later said, a two-acre expanse of the sea was covered with blood.

Decolonize this Place

Six weeks later, Coles visited New York City to assist with the mounting of a plaster cast of the ray at the American Museum of Natural History. The museum’s curators said it was the largest specimen of giant manta ray that they had ever seen or heard of.

To show their appreciation for his gift, they made him an honorary member of the museum for life.

At the time, the museum was– as #DecolonizeThisPlace protestors have recently pointed out– virtually a mausoleum: an open air cemetery for wild and sometimes extinct creatures of the world, taken on jungle expeditions, safaris and in colonial wars– but also for the bones and artifacts of the indigenous peoples of the world that the centers of world capitalism had plundered and left in ruin.

At the museum, visitors could see relics of the natural world and of the world’s indigenous peoples, but only through the lens of people who had conquered them or aspired to.

Recent #DecolonizeThisPlace protests have demanded the removal of the museum's Teddy Roosevelt statue, but also the changing of exhibits that have historically supported white supremacist and anti-indigenous people views. From #DecolonizeThisPlace

Recent #DecolonizeThisPlace protests have demanded the removal of the American Museum of Natural History’s Teddy Roosevelt statue, but also the changing of exhibits that have historically supported white supremacist and anti-indigenous people views. From #DecolonizeThisPlace

From that point of view, Coles’ manta ray was just another innocent bystander, another relic with which the museum’s exhibits asserted Western Civilization’s place at the top of a hierarchy of cultures, races and nature itself.

Seen in that light, I’m not sure that being called “the king of the devil-fishermen,” as the  New York Times (May 22, 1915) labeled Coles, was such a good thing.

When describing Coles’s killing the ray, newspapers and magazines repeatedly referred to her in terms such as “savage brute” and “demonic creature.” Inspired by its popular names devil-fish and devil ray, those writers made her seem to be something that she wasn’t– malevolent, dangerous and dumb.

None mentioned that giant manta rays are actually gentle filter feeders that scarcely eat anything much bigger than a shrimp. None mentioned that they’re never aggressive toward human beings, though they can hurt fishermen when they’re trying to escape their nets and harpoons.

The popular press’s coverage of Coles’ manta ray reminds me of the way that the self-proclaimed “white supremacists” who had taken power in North Carolina around the turn of the 20th century talked.

They used terms such as “savage brute” to demonize African American men and to justify taking away their right to vote in 1900, as well as to justify untold violence against them and their homes.

The cast of Coles’ giant manta ray hung in the American Museum of Natural History’s “Hall of Fishes” for decades.

But the exhibit wasn’t what it seemed at all: it wasn’t about the darkness beneath the waves, but about the darkness within us.

-To be continued-

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