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Take A Tour or Take A Taxi—You Get Both At Wilmington Water Tours

By: Jan Morgan-Swegle

There is nothing so calming as the sound of the sea. Whether it’s the ocean or a river, there is a soothing peace about the sound of the water. We are lucky to live near both. We are also lucky to have Wilmington Water Tours as part of our community, located at 212 South Water St. (between Orange and Ann Street) in Wilmington, right on the Cape Fear River. Captain Doug Springer and his team provide a glimpse of history and a peek into the future with the narrated river tours they offer on a custom-built, 49 foot passenger motorized catamaran, appropriately named, the “Wilmington.” Our tour was skillfully navigated by First Mate Patrick, while Captain Doug narrated the sights and sounds of the river.

If you are new to the area, taking a river tour is an excellent way to learn about old Wilmington and how it has evolved into an active port that now welcomes post-panamax container ships, some of the longest ships in the world. The river is currently teeming with fish because we are at the height of one of the best seasonal fish migrations we have seen in years. A river teeming with fish also brings in a vast variety of birds that thrive on the fish. The bald eagle population grows every year, and the ospreys competing with the eagles add to the excitement. To the surprise of many, we also have bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles and alligators sharing the same waters.

Captain Doug served as the Cape Fear Riverkeeper as part of Cape Fear River Watch, a non-profit organization that was founded in 1993. This organization and specifically, the position of “Riverkeeper” is to provide a voice and advocate for the river. They act as our voice for clean water and water quality to state and federal legislators and hold accountable those who pollute our waters. Captain Doug’s experience as a Riverkeeper informs his views of the river and the information he shares with his passengers.

According to Captain Doug, the Cape Fear River is one of the most heavily monitored rivers in the U.S. He said, “We were fortunate that GenX was discovered early in the process where now so many other rivers are just discovering similar pollutants. The bad news is that any industry is currently allowed to discharge any chemical into any body of water.”

He continued, the Cape Fear River at one time was the main economic engine in the state of North Carolina. We can create jobs here on the river if we keep her clean, protect her and invest in her, he explained. The mission is to get more people on the river so they understand the river’s potential. It is without a doubt one of the most underutilized natural resources in North Carolina and probably the U.S. “We welcome new businesses on the river and don’t have to fight over the pie. We must make the pie bigger and better.”

Captain Doug and his wife, Diane Upton, have been doing water cruises for the past 17 years. Although originally from Ohio, Doug has always had an affinity for water. As a child he used to vacation in the Outer Banks and he fell in love with the ocean. Building this business was his dream and together with Diane and their partners, Mary DeLollo and Garland Valentine, they have made it a success.

Wilmington Water Tours offers a wide variety of daily tours, specialty, and private cruises, and partnered they provide water taxi service to and from the USS North Carolina battleship. Every time someone steps onto one of their boats, their goal is to exceed all expectations. They say their business is built upon their returning customers, incredible employees, and working to be an integral part of the community.

Their tour offerings include daily Eagles Island Cruises, Sunset Cruises with live music from local artists, the “Black River Adventure” on Saturday mornings, Birding Cruises, a wide range of history cruises featuring well-known historians such as Dr.Chris Fonville, and of course private cruises tailored to your wish. In total, they estimate that they have taken more than 500,000 people on various water trips that would equal in distance traveling three times around the equator! Anyone can book a private or charter cruise by contacting Diane Upton.

Margi Erickson, Marketing Assistant for Wilmington Water Tours explained that in addition to the “Wilmington,” they also offer “The Busy Bee,” a 39-foot water taxi that on a daily basis taxis folks to the Battleship from Market Street or the bottom of Orange Street. In addition, an option for free parking is to park at the Battleship Park and with the purchase of a ticket for one of Wilmington Water Tours regular tours, you will be picked up and dropped off at Battleship Park.

“Our tours are relaxing, fun and easy to get to,” Erickson said. “We have started a new tour called ‘Burgwin-Wright Presents…Outlander in the Cape Fear.’ It explores the connection of the Outlander Series to Wilmington and the Cape Fear River. It’s also a collaboration with the Burgwin-Wright Museum and Hunter Ingram (Assistant Museum Director). Our next Outlander cruise is June 7. Sign up at our website. And, we plan to offer it weekly, so keep checking our website for details.”

Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying, “A river is time in water; as it came, still so it flows, yet never is the same.” He could have been talking about the Cape Fear River! As we learned from the cruise, the river, which is 25 miles to the ocean, used to be fresh water and only about 15 feet deep. Now, the tides have doubled, and it is quite salty due to it being deepened to over 40 feet deep. Captain Doug stressed, “The river is constantly changing, it’s like a laboratory. With the river breaking a record for being its warmest in recorded history year after year, we see Mother Nature trying to adapt. For instance, over 50 percent of the young ospreys that live on the river, which would normally migrate south for the winter, no longer do so. It’s so warm that the fish stay near the surface allowing the birds to attempt to survive the winter here without migrating.”

We also learned that in the spring, the marshes are so fertile that in only eight days, they change from brown to a rich and beautiful green in an amazing display of color. The birds that do migrate south come home to nest and the river comes alive.

Our cruise passed by huge container ships and tiny tug boats. The large ships rely on the tugboats to get them positioned into the port. We saw a large pile of wood chips made from local trees which is then is exported to Turkey, and piles of lumber being shipped here from Germany and Scandinavian countries.

We saw 17-story high domes with walls that are 3-feet thick. They looked like giant balloons. They held wood pellets that will be shipped overseas to be mixed with coal in power plants in the UK and other countries to theoretically help the coal burn somewhat cleaner.

We also learned about the over 240 Liberty ships, and cargo ships that were built on the banks of the river during World War II. These were the first ships to be welded and the passion associated with Rosie the Riveter was shared by the female workforce here in Wilmington. Rosie was a popular World War II iconic poster figure designed to encourage women to join the effort to build and produce machinery to help our country win the war. It became a symbol of heroism and patriotism. The poster told women, “We Can Do It,” and showed a woman flexing her muscle as she left the kitchen to head to the factories to do her part.

“Rosie” could have lived in Wilmington. “Large cafeterias were built at the shipyard to attract workers, but they stood empty as the workers didn’t want to take any time away from the important job they were doing to help win the war. Eventually, meals were brought to them at their workstations,” Captain Doug said.

Captain Doug and his wife Diane are doing an important job in creating a learning environment that will help our children understand the importance of clean water and environmental safety that will support generations to come.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the experience that we provide to people,” Captain Doug said. “We want to teach you, but we also want to entertain you, and engage with your questions and interest. I have six captains that narrate tours and I encourage them to make the narration their own. The narrations are not scripted, and every one is different. Our product runs deeper than our boats. Our product is you and what you take away from the experience.”

Our experience was a wonderful mixture of being out on the cool river, enjoying drinks from the bar and learning about this wonderful area in which we live. As we head into summer, make it a priority to take several of the Wilmington Water Tours excursions. It’s an excellent way to celebrate or just relax with family and friends. Contact them at 910-602-3862 or book online. If you want to book a private charter, ask for Diane Upton 910-632-4095. Check out their website at, If you are interested in having Doug speak to a group or organization, contact him at

Don’t wait — it’s time you went on a cruise!


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