An old salt upends a crab and insists to a group of attentive children that the pattern on the underbelly looks just like the Capitol dome. Certainly the Chesapeake Bay and its enormous crab population are part of Washington regional lore, so much so that local stations in this market have already explored the terrain covered in "Chesapeake Borne," first of the new season of National Geographic Society Specials, at 8 tonight on Channels 26 and 32.

Written and directed by a man named David F. Oyster and photographed by one Joe Seamans, this special is nice and pretty and ably narrated by James Whitmore, King Crag himself, but it yawningly lacks for excitement, and some of what fascinated the filmmakers comes across as drowsily folksy-wolksy on the screen. Tiny little Smith Island, for instance, is revered with great solemnity for the supposedly healthy, wholesome, unspoiled existence enjoyed by its residents.

Frankly, they look a little bored. I wonder if they have MTV?

When an elderly couple spend their 50th anniversary in church renewing their marital vows, the filmmakers can barely tear themselves away from the scene. It all begins to look like one of the Republican commercials from the last Reagan campaign.

The program fares better on the water, where a longtime commercial fisherman, pursuer of the inscrutable crab, says admiringly of his prey, "He's a real genius at outwitting the crabber." Shots of geese arriving for the winter are incontestably beautiful, but soon we're back on land for a goose-calling contest that looks like the kicker item on an Eyewitness Newscast.

In the narration, Whitmore keeps alluding to an ecological crisis threatening the area, partly because of the human demands being made on it, partly just because of natural forces. "Relatively young" as such topographical phenomena go, the bay is "an arena of continuous conflict" that also functions as "an enormous sink" for anything thrown, left or emitted into it.

But the program's sense of priorities keeps listing toward the homespun lives of the inhabitants and away from ecological matters, critical or not. In going for alleged human interest, the Geographic has slighted, of all things, the geographic.