"WHENEVER I find myself growing grim around the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, . . . then I account it high time to get to sea," quoth Ishmael. But it's a hot, shimmering July across the land, and perhaps you lack his taste for salt pork with salt air. Perhaps the world can't survive your absence from Washington for two days straight. Then don't "go to sea" in the sailor's sense. Go see the sea along the nearest ocean beach and sleep at home. Like Ahab you might even meet a whale. I did--on the shore that starts 100 miles from here--and touched its bone-white back.

That came about--and will again for some barefoot souls who can spare a summer day or week--along the southern leg of this itinerary. We'll get there soon enough. But as Ishmael knew, first things first and whether alphabetically or geographically, this coast starts in Delaware, reaches through Maryland and peters out in wild Virginia. Before starting, however, let me speak plainly: Having spent about as much time combing Atlantic beaches as Melville did holystoning decks, I believe the Delmarva coast to be as magnificent in its variety of parts as any stretch along this ocean.

This strand, a stretch of several kinds of seashore, offers something for every person of every taste from summer city life to serene solitude. For me its greatest attractions and distractions are its miles of open ocean shore with the inevitable marsh behind--the peace, fascination, fury and fauna of barrier islands.

For folks who summer family style, Delaware has the low-lying towns: Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany beaches, with their by-the-week cottages and condos, quiet ice cream shops and serious volleyball games in the sand by the boardwalks. This is quiet country, and seems bent on being very proper. Rehoboth even has a bookstore worthy of the name, the well-stocked Brouseabout, in case the sounds of wind and gulls persuade you to stay over though you didn't bring a thing to read.

Alas, southern Delaware also has sprouted some condos, including one towering complex that somehow resembles the grain elevators of Kansas.

For people who love crowds, heights, lights, noise and all the action of inland, Ocean City is the place--especially for the young. It is virtually synonymous with the Maryland beach, because the rest of the state's beachfront (blessedly) is dedicated to state and national seashore.

Ocean City has 300,000 visitors at a time and entertainments for every one of them: a convention hall, a three-mile boardwalk with sightseeing trolley buses, endless arcades and carny games, beer joints and brassy bars, nationally advertised motels, all-you-can-eateries, bay-to-boardwalk pavement and a beach that's machine-cleaned daily! (It has very little wildlife besides gulls.)

Then comes Assateague, straddling the Maryland-Virginia line, a 32-mile island reached only by one road at each end. There are campgrounds run by the state near the northern access and 14 miles of beach open to "oversand vehicles" with permits. But you can't drive the length of Assateague; much of Virginia's share is wildlife refuge. To reach the south end means heading down the mainland. The inland road passes NASA's new Wallops Island Visitors Center (worth a trip for space buffs) and crosses the five-mile marsh via a two-lane causeway to the low-lying island town of Chincoteague, famous for its ponies.

Here you can pitch a tent in a private campground, rent your basic bungalow and cook all the seafood you can catch, or go the motel-and-family-restaurant route. (For my money, year in and year out, the Refuge Motor Inn has been the best bet--and just about the closest to the beach. For dinner at the end of an al fresco day, try the locals' Saturday night haunt, the Pony Pines. Or if you prefer something very quiet, solemn and expensive, the Channel Bass Inn.

Lodging can't be had anywhere close to the ocean south of Chincoteague--blame geology for that--but the beach goes on in fractured form. A chain of uninhabited islands, now administered as the Virginia Coast Preserve by the Nature Conservancy, stretches for the next 60 miles to Cape Charles at the mouth of the Chesapeake.

At its closest point the Atlantic lies barely 100 miles east of the Beltway at the mouth of Delaware Bay. (That's two and a half hours away on a Wednesday morning, but sometimes twice that in weekend traffic.) The nearest town is Lewes, but the the natural geographic feature is Cape Henlopen, a sandy hook that curves away from the ocean as it slowly grows from one year to the next.

A military outpost of some importance during World War II, this substantial piece of real estate is now a state park and a worthy one at that. It has a little museum and one big bathhouse (with concessions) by the bathing beach manned by lifeguards. But by and large it has the air of a feral place, one only lightly touched by the commercial hand of man. Last month, the signs were up warning visitors away from the nesting grounds of piping plover, black skimmer and common tern.

And horseshoe crabs were present in abundance. Each spring, on a date determined by the tides, this ancient animal finds protected bays to breed all along the Atlantic coast. All the books say that the female crawls through the shallows with a smaller male clutching the skirts of her shell with his tell-tale first pair of claws shaped like boxing gloves. She lays 1,000 tiny pale green and orange eggs; he fertilizes them, and the breeders return to sea or die upon the beach.

But this year the mating wasn't so polite, unless I just happened to hit the peak on my latest trip. It was more like an orgy as the horseshoe crabs bunched up in groups numbering a dozen or more. I can't explain the communal activity any more than the escapist loner I saw here several years ago.

It was about midday late in May, the beach virtually empty but for two friends and me. No dogs, no unnatural sounds that I could hear. Then a whitetail deer appeared among the inner dunes and quite methodically crossed the beach. She walked into the wind-whipped bay behind the sandy hook and headed north, alternately walking across the shoals and swimming the channels until she vanished in the haze. Reason: Perhaps she just prefers the Jersey shore. It might be that simple. Whitetail deer are known to cross broad waters and even colonize islands 20 miles off shore.

Starting just below Rehoboth a few miles south, the coast road bisects this narrow island for 20 miles. To the right, the land barely slopes to marsh and bay. To the left, the inner dunes rise green with hardy shrubs, hiding the ocean. Between the intermittent towns lie long stretches of undeveloped shore.

These nameless but inviting beaches of Delaware Seashore State Park are accessible via parking lots of moderate size. (There's no parking along the highway, which no doubt helps control the summer crowds.) Still the beach has the taste of the wild about it. It's nicely "dirty" sand--with broken shells, bits of driftwood and the rattle-like egg cases of skates and rays. (Those like necklaces belong to the large sea snails called whelks. The leathery black one is commonly called "sailor's purse" because it always comes ashore empty.)

Last month, I watched a pair of osprey patrol the surf here an hour before sundown. One spotted a school of something 100 yards offshore and dove, talons first to try to stab a fish. On the third dive it finally caught one, then labored from the water and headed inland to its untidy nest on a piling in the bay. Its mate had slower luck but persistently dove again and again.

At Indian River Inlet, a few miles further south, it's hard even for an occasional fisherman to avoid wetting a lure. With a falling tide the river empties fast into the ocean. Those little black-cappped snow white birds with pointed wings--least terns--hovered over eddies along the jetty. If an osprey were a working man he'd charge by the hour; the damnably efficient terns are piecework sorts. They'll catch a minnow nine dives out of 10. But even the ospreys were doing better than we fishermen that night.

At the Maryland line, where Ocean City begins, the "wildlife" seems of another kind, the sort commonly found in any inland city, and I sped through to the upper end of Assateague. National Park Service warden Bernard Fagan, on an inspection tour of the "upper end," points out the perennial problem: erosion, which is hastened by greedy Ocean City's pier.

An offshore current, moving slowly south, must curve out toward sea to get around the man-made barrier. The water slows, dropping its burdon of water-borne sand to build Ocean City's beach and create an offshore shoal. But when the current straightens out again it has the capacity to carry more sand away--from Assateague. Under ordinary circumstances this would happen slowly; winds would blow sand across the island adding to its inland side and extending the marsh toward shore. But here it's happening much too fast for natural processes to build the island, and the authorities are contemplating different ways to intervene--all of them clumsy and none of them promising.

It's a pity, I've been here in years past when dunes rose high enough to hide a man in a jeep--or a bald eagle picking its prey like the one I saw here one autumn dawn. Those dunes are gone now and in their place lie shell-strewn flats where terns are starting to nest. But the vision of that young eagle, startled by our party of ornithologists, lingers in memory as it slowly lifts from the beach and labors away.

Way down island birds of the same species are two weeks ahead in their mating game. Their young are hatching and the adults are fighting mad. To walk within 100 yards, however innocently, is to invite attack. The resource manager has a hole in his hat to prove it, along with a whitewash of droppings.

I kept my distance, watching through binoculars, then found myself flat on the sand. I saw the bird coming flat and straight, but the glasses made it look like he was flying up my nose and I ducked before he was close enough even to be heard.

The man fishing in the surf has caught a skate, another has a shark. Offshore a pod of bottlenose dophins slowly romps southward. There's not time to follow them this trip. Instead I get reports that a pair of peregrine falcons has nested up-island; that the otters were in fine fettle when last seen. (In summer they always vanish when the impoundment water levels fall. Apparently they take to the bays, says Fish and Wildlife biologist Irvin Ailes.) And as for the brown pelicans, there were 14 here last fall--a rarity this far north.

Dick Baker, Assateague's chief lifeguard and author of a lifeguarding text, reports that all's well in his department. Except the beach is shrinking. Meanwhile the staff of "seasonals" is getting into shape, preparing for the growing summer crowds. I wish there were more time--to follow the dolphins' course along the edge of the Virginia Coast Preserve.

It was on one of the Preserve's protected and uninhabited islands that I met the whale, a finback. It was dead, of course, but its bones lay undisturbed, half buried in the hot white sand for 50 feet. Oyster catchers, their bills and feet bright scarlet for spring, worked the low-tide debris for little crabs and mollusks. Drab willets fled before me as I walked the shallows, their wings flashing that bright W-shaped pattern like flags. There was not another human on the island besides the boatman who took me to that primeval place.

These 18 islands are remote and difficult to reach even from the nearest mainland towns. The mean distance to shore is about five miles as the gull flies, but given the ever-shifting shoals and guts the distances are far greater. The Nature Conservancy means to leave these islands pretty much alone as they shrink, grow, rotate and migrate slowly toward the mainland in the inexorable way of coastal barriers.

Access is, properly, limited, albeit more by the treacherous passage than administrative fiat. Camping, however, is practically forbidden as are campfires and vehicles of every sort. However, the Conservancy's station at Nassawadox will take small parties on day trips--to beachcomb, see the birds or just gently explore. It's up to you.

Resident naturalist Kathie Dixon reports things are as they should be thereabouts. Transplanted Delmarva fox squirrels, a rare subspecies, seem to be doing well, as are the peregrines. Sea turtles came ashore twice last year and frequently are sighted in the bays. In June the shorebirds had arrived in force, including seven species of terns. Oh yes, sadly but wonderfully they found another whale whose bones lie bleaching on the beach. Which island? That's the sea's secret. Even Ishmael didn't tell all.