Short cruises feature the glory of ocean's creatures NATURE ON PARADE

August 21, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

Ocean City -- When the cast is assembled, it's the best show in town: nature cruises that offer a close look at dolphins, sea turtles, ospreys, terns, pelicans, even a wild pony or two.

Whether in the intimate setting of a sailboat like Sue and Joe Valenza's Therapy, or the larger arena of a cruising yacht, nature in Ocean City offers a spectacular show.

"All right, sports fans," says Monty Hawkins, the captain of the Ocean Princess, as he swings the big cruise ship toward the open Atlantic. "These are common terns, and those with black heads are laughing gulls . . ."

It's the beginning of a three-hour nature cruise, and Captain Hawkins is offering a little history, a little marine lore and a lot of determination to the 150 or so people aboard the Princess. He's looking hard for the pair of humpback whales that have been seen around the Ocean City offshore areas recently -- he himself saw them during a cruise a few days ago, and he wants to find them on this day, too.

"We're gonna cut her like a farmer cutting a corn field -- we'll find 'em," he tells his passengers, his voice carried by speaker from the wheelhouse where he's scanning the waves to the Princess's two decks, filled with people holding cameras.

Behind him, 150 pairs of eyes are scanning the ocean. But Captain Hawkins has some extra help today. Over the ship's radio comes the voice of a local pilot. "You looking for whales?" asks the pilot.

"Oh, man, Harry, tell me a fish story!" responds Captain Hawkins. And the pilot does, saying he's seen them in the last hour near Assateague Island. Another voice chimes in on the radio, coming from the Vivacious, one of the two sailboats offering nature cruises in the area.

As it turns out, the whales prove elusive on this day. But the dolphins make up for it; an hour into the cruise, suddenly the water is full of them, leaping, curving, swimming across the boat's wake, slicing into the air and back into the water without a splash, as if they've parted it.

The passengers cheer and the camera shutters click rapidly.

Captain Hawkins estimates the dolphin turnout at hundreds, and it seems a good estimate -- the silky swimmers are visible from anywhere on the boat for at least half an hour. "This is phenomenal," he says after passing the wheel to mate Chris Morris and stepping outside the wheelhouse to see the dolphins closely.

He should know -- most of his 33 years have been spent on the water.

"I'm a fisherman at heart and a nature cruiser by trade," he says with the wide grin that is his trademark, white teeth against a waterman's deep tan.

He grew up in Hockessin, Del., a shore town near Newark, and spent childhood summers in Cape Cod. He sailed and raced sailboats -- for a while.

"Then my granddad's buddy took me fishing -- and that was the end of that! I never did go sailing again until this year," he says cheerfully. (His love of a rod and reel is as strong now as when he chose it over a rudder more than two decades ago; when this night's cruise ends, he'll go to the end of the dock and cast for a while, looking for supper.)

He's piloted the 88-foot Princess for three years now, educating himself -- and passengers -- as he goes. He's augmented his fishing expertise (he also runs fishing charters) on the job: To his right in the wheelhouse is a Peterson's bird guide, assorted nature publications and binoculars.

In a blue shirt, khakis faded to the color of sand with a pair of pliers tucked in a rear pocket, he looks the part of a captain. And his quick humor is often in evidence; after turning the boat around, he can't find the dolphins again and displays some lighthearted consternation until he does.

"Don't tell me I've lost 400 dolphins!" he says. And he hasn't -- he spots them again and gets on the radio to direct his passengers' attention.

"That gets my vote for the ocean's ugliest fish!" he tells passengers a few minutes later, when he sees an ocean sunfish off to starboard. It is, too -- flat, about 2 feet wide with brown spots, the sunfish looks like a human face distorted under water.

Does he think there's a job he'd enjoy more than this one?

"Just as soon as I find a better one, I'm gonna do it!" he jokes.

His enthusiasm is matched by that of Sue and Joe Valenza, who run similar nature cruises in a different setting. They're the owners of Therapy, a 38-foot sailboat.

The Valenzas live on board the boat, the third Therapy they've

owned in their 22 years in Ocean City.

"I can't imagine going back to a house!" says Mrs. Valenza, who worked at Second National Bank for 17 years before quitting that for the sailing life. "No matter where we go, we're always home."

And go they do -- Florida, Jamaica, the Caribbean, the Grand Caymans, Honduras, Mexico in the winters, Ocean City and nature cruising every summer.

The Valenzas offer a three-hour nature cruise for as many as six people at a time on the Therapy.

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