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, increasingly found it difficult to rise before sunrise and go out and do battle with sharks.
When I learned about Russell Coles and the shark factory in Morehead City, N.C., I thought immediately of the first pages of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, when all the fishermen have returned to shore in a Cuban port and are cleaning and packing their catches....
The first mention of the First World War at Cape Lookout in Russell Coles’ diary is dated July 28, 1916. On that day, he wrote that he had risen before first light and was “looking for the German submarine” by sunrise.
Teddy Roosevelt left his home in Oyster Bay, New York, on March 23, 1917 and headed south to join Russell Coles and his crew of fishermen from Morehead City, N.C. to fulfill his dream of killing a giant oceanic manta ray.
For many students of American history, the letters between Russell Coles and Teddy Roosevelt would be the most important historical documents that my daughter Vera and I found at Coles Hill.
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.
Around midnight on the night of July 1st, 1916, Russell Coles and his crew were returning from Cape Lookout Shoals when what seemed to them to be a strange glowing specter rose up in the sea before them.
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.