In July of 1912 an extraordinary young scientist named Maud Menten visited Russell Coles at Cape Lookout, N.C. After spending a week assisting her with a research project, Coles wrote a colleague at the Smithsonian, saying “Dr. Menten is unquestionably the most wonderful human being in the world.”
Now, only a century later, those who study sharks-- as with so much of the world's fauna-- seem to spend most of their time like me, a historian: chronicling extinctions and warning of coming extinctions, as if Russell Coles' lust for conquering nature had spread throughout the world.
In Russell 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 at Cape Lookout and of expanding their collections for study in some of the most prestigious natural history museums in the world.
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. I found his account strange and fascinating and more than a little chilling.
Every summer shark hunter Russell Coles took the train to Morehead City, and the first thing he always did when he arrived at the depot was meet Capt. Charlie W. Willis in the Promise Land.
In 1915 Russell J. Coles drafted an article on two kinds of manta rays that he had hunted at Cape Lookout. One was the lesser devil ray, and the other was the giant oceanic manta ray, a gentle, incredibly beautiful creature with fins that can be 18 feet or more across and which look like great black wings when moving through the sea.
A few years ago, a gentleman in Virginia, Walter Coles, Sr., invited my daughter Vera and me to visit his family’s private library of research materials related to his uncle, a world-renowned shark hunter named Russell J. Coles who did the large bulk of his shark hunting at Cape Lookout, N.C., between roughly 1900 and 1925.