This is the 14th and final chapter of Shark Hunter: Russell J. Coles at Cape Lookout.
Russell Coles began to say good-bye to Cape Lookout in 1920. He was slowing down. The aging shark hunter, by then 55 years old, had begun to develop health problems especially in his joints. Those ailments increasingly made it difficult for him to contemplate rising before sunrise and taking his old whaleboat out to Lookout Shoals and doing battle with sharks.
Coles retired from his tobacco brokerage firm in Danville sometime around that time, probably in 1920 or ’21.
Nobody in Danville, where his firm was located, could have been too surprised: his heart had been at Cape Lookout for a long time.
The last article that he wrote on the natural history of sharks and rays was a study of great white, hammerhead and tiger sharks. He based the article largely on measurements and dissections that he and his mates had done when they were catching sharks for the Ocean Leather Company’s shark factory in Morehead City in 1918.
He had come a long way. He did not publish his first scientific article of any kind until he was 45 years old. That was in 1910. The article on great whites, hammerheads and tiger sharks , which appeared in Copeia on May 7, 1919, was the last of a dozen articles and research notes that he had written since then.
Today marine scientists still cite Coles’ research in their studies of subjects ranging from manta ray reproduction to the effects of global warming on shark and other marine fish populations.
In historical surveys of shark and ray populations, his work is often one of the baselines: the earliest or one of the earliest studies on that part of the Atlantic coast and some of the first field studies of sharks anywhere in U.S. waters.
The Hunting of Sand Tiger Sharks
One of Russell Coles’ observations of shark behavior remains a standard reference even in introductory texts of ichthyology: his observations of cooperative feeding behavior among sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus).
In an article in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington in 1915, Coles described how he had witnessed a pack of 100 or more sand tigers surround a large school of bluefish, skillfully herd them into shallow water and ambush them against the shore.
At that time, such cooperative feeding behavior had been reported among bottlenose dolphins, but not among sharks.
Coles’ account was apparently the first reported observation of cooperative hunting among sharks that appeared in the scientific literature. For marine biologists, it was an important step is moving past the common misconception of sharks as “lone killers.”
His report on the sand tigers was also an important cautionary note against underestimating shark intelligence and the often complex ways in which sharks of the same species relate to one another and their prey.
In recent decades, marine scientists and sport divers have observed cooperative feeding behavior among sand tigers, threshers and other sharks. The behavior is now believed to be quite common, though it is still rarely witnessed by humans.
That kind of field research on sharks and other large marine species was largely behind Coles by 1921, however. At Coles Hill, Vera and I found an anecdotal, but unsubstantiated report that he was doing some kind of research with electric rays and bottlenose dolphins at Cape Lookout as late as 1925, but I find it doubtful and, if that was the case, he never published any results.
Visitors at Cape Lookout
After 1920 Coles only seems to have gone shark hunting now and then when he wanted to share his pleasure in the sport with visitors. Photographs that Vera and I found at Coles Hill show him shark hunting with a number of people who visited him at Cape Lookout.
Some of his guests were cousins from Virginia, but new friends also visited him at Cape Lookout. Among them was Gifford Pinchot and his family. They came at least once and maybe twice between 1920 and 1922.
Pinchot had served as the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service and was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1922. He had been a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt, whom I assume introduced him to Coles.
Frigate Birds and Red Phalaropes
During those years, Coles had begun to experience the health problems that I mentioned earlier. His rheumatism slowed him down, and he may have already been showing signs of heart failure, too.
He continued to spend a significant amount of time at Cape Lookout during the summer, however.
Instead of big sharks and giant manta rays, he turned his attention to smaller creatures and especially to ornithology.
Coles had always been interested in birds. The first reference to him in The Auk, the American Ornithological Society’s journal, in fact, had been during the height of his manta ray hunting obsession in 1917.
In the July 17, 1917 issue of The Auk, his old collaborator, the ichthyologist John T. Nichols, had discussed a letter that he had received from Coles at Cape Lookout.
In that letter, Coles had described how he and his crew had waylaid a juvenile Man-of-War-bird, an old name for what we now usually call a frigate bird (genus Fregata).
Frigate birds are very large, beautiful seabirds that spend nearly all their lives riding updrafts over the ocean and are rarely seen ashore. One of Coles’ crewmen took a swipe at the bird as it passed their boat and, while missing it, led it to fall into the water, from where Coles retrieved it.
(One of the amazing things about frigate birds is that they can stay aloft over the ocean for weeks at a time, but they never land on the water—their feathers aren’t waterproof and they don’t float.)
Coles took the bird onto the boat for several hours, until it recovered its senses, grew ornery and flew off. Before it took off, Coles had measured its wingspan: 7 feet, 4 inches.
Neither Coles nor his crew had ever seen a frigate bird as far north as Cape Lookout. For that reason, Coles thought Nichols would be interested in the news of the bird’s appearance there. Nichols, in turn, thought the bird’s appearance at Cape Lookout was worth sharing with The Auk’s readers.
Coles later published two articles in The Auk himself. In the first, in 1924, he shared his observations on the presence at Cape Lookout of flocks of long-billed curlews (Numenius americanus).
Long-billed curlews are a large shorebird, a kind of sandpiper. In 1919 a major study of the region’s bird life had reported that they had not been seen at Cape Lookout since 1885.
Coles had kept detailed records of his bird sitings at Cape Lookout from 1903 to 1908, before his interest in sharks and rays consumed him.
From those records, he sought to correct the 1919 study with respect to the presence of the curlews at Cape Lookout. To bolster his claim, he sent the wings and bill of a long-billed curlew that a hunter had just given him to the American Museum of Natural History.
At that time, the commercial hunting– or “market hunting”– of long-billed curlews and other shore birds was waning at Cape Lookout, but still occurred.
There were far fewer shore birds and wading birds in the vicinity of Cape Lookout in Russell Coles’ day than there are today largely because of what was called “market hunting.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, commercial hunters shot egrets, herons, piping plovers, least terns and many other kinds of coastal birds by the thousands.
Hunters often targeted the birds while they were nesting, and especially when their young were about to hatch out or had just hatched out and the parents were reluctant to leave their eggs or chicks. At times the hunters destroyed rookeries with hundreds or even thousands of birds in a day.
The effect on bird numbers was devastating, especially on breeding populations.
The big money was in the feathers. Local merchants shipped the feathers to milliners in New York City. The milliners used them to decorate ladies’ hats, which was quite the style at the time.
The legal trade in feathers ended when the Audubon Society and other conservation activists persuaded the U.S. Congress to pass and Pres. Woodrow Wilson to sign the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918.
Coles published a second article in The Auk in January of 1925. In that article, he described his observations of three species of seabirds that storms seem to have pushed off their migratory paths.
The first two were shearwaters: one was the Audubon’s shearwater (Puffinus lherminieri), now a fairly common sight on the North Carolina coast.
The other was the sooty shearwater (Ardenna grisea), a less commonly seen seabird that makes an annual migration that is a circle of more than 8,000 miles between the Falkland Islands and Scandinavia.
The third bird that Coles noted at Cape Lookout was an incredibly beautiful little wader, the red phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius). It is also a big traveler, breeding in the Arctic and migrating to the tropics for the winter.
My wife Laura has considerably deepened her life-long interest in bird watching as a way of handling the stresses of the Covid pandemic, which, for her as a health care worker, are not inconsiderable.
I suspect Coles was also renewing his interest in bird watching as he faced harder times of a different kind due to his age and growing disability.
The last record that Vera and I found of Russell Coles at Cape Lookout in his family’s papers at Coles Hill was of a winter fishing trip.
That record concerned literally a very small thing, but at least it confirmed that he was at Cape Lookout.
In a letter dated Feb. 13, 1925, Coles reported catching a 10-inch pollock there. (The letter appeared in Copeia on Feb. 26, 1926.) Pollock is of course a very common fish in more northern waters, but at that time scientists had not documented its presence in waters as far south as Cape Lookout.
Winter at Coles Hill
Great changes were afoot. Later in 1925, Coles bought a small farm and a cottage on Cariboo Harbor, on the Northumberland Strait, northwest of Pictou, Nova Scotia, and started spending his summers there instead of Cape Lookout.
He had never married, so he was evidently on his own there.
By then his rheumatism had grown more severe, and his heart problems were worsening too. For those reasons, his physician recommended Nova Scotia’s climate to him in preference to the heat and humidity at Coles Hill and Cape Lookout, at least in the summertime.
Coles continued to hunt and fish in Nova Scotia, at least a bit, and he gained some notoriety for growing prized vegetables.
Gardening was not new to him, and as always he liked to do things in a big way. At Coles Hill, for instance, he had grown a 469-pound pumpkin that was displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
He continued in that vein in Nova Scotia. His prized vegetables were apparently quite the thing at the annual Pictou Fair.
Coles spent his winters back at Coles Hill, in the house where Vera and I read his letters, diaries and other papers.
He died there on the morning of Nov. 22, 1928. A local obituary said that he died of influenza, though his obituary in the New York Times said it was heart disease: it was likely both.
During those last winters at Coles Hill, it was said that he spent his days reading books and scientific articles about the ocean and marine life. It must have been his way to keep feeling close to Cape Lookout. In my mind’s eye, I can see him there: looking out the windows at the rolling hills, still feeling the wildness of the sea in his blood, thinking of those distant shores.
So many people helped me with this story– I could not have written it without their help and I cannot thank them enough.
I am most grateful to Walter and Alice Coles for welcoming my daughter Vera and me to Coles Hill and sharing the life of Russell Coles with us. They have been devoted caretakers of his legacy and we are immensely grateful to them for their hospitality.
I’d also like to thank the following friends and colleagues for sharing their knowledge and experience with me: Karen Willis Amspacher, Nate Bacheler, Dr. Celia Bonaventura, the late J. M. Brown, Dr. José Castro, Dennis Chadwick, Joel Hancock, Rodney Kemp, Dee Lewis, Connie Mason, Lawrence McFall, Pam Morris, Beverly Willis Piner, Prof. Paige Raibmon and Amy Walker.
In addition, I want to give a special shout-out to Dr. Vicki “Whalebone Woman” Szabo at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., for her insights on what made Russell Coles tick. One day they’ll meet in heaven, and then watch out.
Finally, my daughter Vera Cecelski was my co-adventurer in my trips to Coles Hill and her research and insights on Russell Coles were absolutely indispensable to what I have written here.
Appendix: Russell J. Coles– A List of his Published Articles & Letters
- “Observations on the habits and distribution of certain fishes taken on the coast of North Carolina,” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) 28, article 28 (1910).
- “Notes on the embryos of several species of rays: with remarks on the northward summer migration of certain tropical forms observed on the coast of North Carolina,”Bulletin of the AMNH 32, article 2 (1913).
- “On a new Scorpaena and a rare ray from North Carolina,” Bulletin of the AMNH 33, article 32 (1914).
- “On Two Ambicolorate Specimens of the Summer Flounder, Paralychthis dentatus, with an explanation of ambicoloration,” Bulletin of the AMNH 33, article 5 (1914).
- “Notes on the sharks and rays of Cape Lookout, North Carolina,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 28 (1915), pp. 88-94.
- “Alligators in Winter,” Copeia (16 April 1915).
- “A Cannibalistic Pterophryne,” Copeia 22 (24 June 1916), 45-47.
- “Is Cynoscion nothus an abnormal Regalis?” Copeia No. 30 (24 April 1916), 30-31.
- “My Fight with the Devil Fish,” Bulletin of the AMNH 35 (1916).
- “Natural History Notes on the Devil Fish, Manta Birostris, and Mobula Olfersi,” Bulletin of the AMNH 35, article 33 (1916).
- “Notes on Radcliffe’s Sharks and Rays of Beaufort,” Copeia 32 (June 24 1916).
- “The Large Sharks of Cape Lookout,” Copeia 69 (1919).
- “Recent Observations of the Long-billed Curlew at Cape Lookout, North Carolina,” The Auk (1 Jan. 1924), 153-154.
- “Sea-Birds at Cape Lookout, North Carolina,” The Auk 42, issue 1 (Jan. 1925), 123-124.