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.
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.
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.
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.
A book. While my daughter Vera and I were doing research on Cape Lookout, N.C. in the 1910s and '20s, we found a little known memoir by a big game fisherman who hunted sharks on the North Carolina coast. The shark hunter was named William E. Young, and his book, published in 1934, is called Shark! Shark! Shark! The Thirty-Year Odyssey of a Pioneer Shark Hunter.
I was recently a guest at the beginning of this official celebration for the Cape Lookout Light Station’s 150th year of service that ends tonight. That was three weeks ago and I imagine that many of you were there. For those of you that could not make it, I want to tell you that it was quite a day.