OCEAN CITY -- Two hours earlier, a happy angler had walked down the gangway from the OC Princess with a noteworthy catch, a 14-pound, 8-ounce tautog caught over one of the wrecks offshore.
But, by 4 p.m. Sunday, a half-dozen crew members were completing a transformation of the OC Princess. The largest and fastest party fishing boat in town was being gussied up to take several dozen people offshore on a guided nature tour.
So, what's the big deal? What's to see, you say. Waves. Fishing boats. The beach replenishment dredge. The city skyline toward sunset.
But throw in a school or two of porpoises gamboling alongside the boat or jumping through its wake, blue, mako or hammerhead sharks, several pairs of brown pelicans, Forster's terns, back skimmers, great black-backed gulls, an occasional northern gannet and -- should you find yourself in the right place at the right time -- perhaps a humpback whale.
And now one begins to see the life beyond the breakers, that side of the shore that most summer visitors never see.
"We have found that, because of our speed, we can provide this alternative," said Charles Nichols, general manager of the Ocean City Fishing Center, which runs the 86-foot OC Princess. "You can take your kids out and. . . . we will get you back to the docks before dinner.
"We saw this niche, the chance to take people out where most of the other cruise boats don't go, and right, wrong or indifferent, we are going to give it our best shot."
Ann Sullivan, a senior biology major at Salisbury State, has beenhired as a guide for the nature cruises, which open to the public this evening and will run each Tuesday through Saturday at least until Sept. 26.
The three-hour cruises start at 4 p.m. and cost $18 for adults and $8 for children.
Nichols and his staff keep track of where different species might be found each day by networking with area charter-boat operators and logging sightings during their own daily fishing trips.
"If, for example, the boats that are catching tuna well offshore are seeing enough whales," Nichols said, "to make the 90-minute run out worthwhile, then we will do it.
"But recently, we haven't been seeing whales. We have been seeing porpoises. And they can be a good show."
On Sunday evening, the OC Princess found two small schools of dolphins six miles out, and those dozens aboard crowded to the rails each time Sullivan called a position over the boat's PA system.
In those moments, when the dolphins were out of sight or the Princess was rumbling along at 30 knots, Sullivan kept up a narration on bird life, characteristics of oceanic species, points of interest along the shore or the wrecks that dot the coast.
"What I have done is gone through and researched the history along the coast from Assateague up to Cape Henlopen," said Sullivan, who is from Columbia. "I also have been researching the different species -- anything interesting about reproduction, basic idiosyncrasies, things that would characterize them. If we see a black skimmer, for example, I want to point it out to people and talk about it."
On Sunday's trip, Sullivan was restricted to a microphone in the pilothouse. But, on future trips, she hopes to have a remote headset and to be able to move freely among the passengers.
The greatest attraction for a trip such as this, of course, would be whale watching. However, at this time of year, the whales are farther north in their migration, and sightings are unlikely.
"We saw a tremendous number of whales during the mackerel season, that February and March time period," Nichols said. "They are now off Boston."
By early to mid-September, the whales will have begun their southerly migration. Nichols said that, if there is enough interest, the cruises might continue into October, when the migration of the right and humpback whales should be in full swing.
The Ocean City Fishing Center ( 457-6650) is at Shantytown in West Ocean City.