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....
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.
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.