Half-Century on the Sea

By Erin Graffy   |   July 30, 2020
Humpback whales love to show off for the crowd by breaching — leaping out of the water and twisting artfully in the air and landing on their backs.

Condor Express Celebrates its Roots

Captain Fred Benko, an inspiring and enthusiastic proponent of everything aquatic. He founded SEA Landing 50 years ago and then launched the California whale watching industry in our Santa Barbara Channel.

Early on, local legend Fred “Captain Fred” Benko, developed a keen interest in what was in the Santa Barbara Channel: the fish, the birds, the oceanic wildlife. A half century ago, that interest led Fred to buy sports fishing operation located in the harbor across from the Navy Pier beneath the old John Dory Restaurant (now Brophy Brothers). Captain Fred’s enthusiasm proved infectious and locals and tourists soon lined up to get out on the water with the new charter service he called SEA Landing.

SEA (Sports Fishing Expedition Adventures) Landing was a hit and soon Captain Fred had a small fleet of boards to take people out sports fishing or for evening coastal cruises. The operation thrived in no small part because Benko was such a proponent of aquatic adventures and local marine life.

Benko soon moved his SEA Landing operation across the harbor just past the boat launching ramp, setting up shop on the rock groin where he took a lease from the city to make improvements. Benko built an office and docks for his dive boats and was renowned for explaining sea life to passengers, showing visitors the art of rock fishing or teaching young and old how to fish for salmon.

Forty years ago, with his core business established, he launched a new boat: the CONDOR, which started as a sport-fishing vessel working the Channel Islands. Benko wanted the CONDOR to be the perfect fishing boat and he spent nine months building it in a shipyard in San Pedro. For years, the CONDOR served as a beloved sports fishing excursion boat and a popular party cruiser.

Little Fred (here at 10 years old) had a career as a singer and as a salesman before becoming a sailor.

Captain Fred Benko, though, was more than a sports fisherman. He was well regarded in the scientific community for his knowledge of sea life in the Santa Barbara Channel, especially of whales. He lectured children and other groups about the dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, sharks and whales: how they fight, play, mate, and other rituals. In the mid ‘80s, Captain Fred could not help noticing something stunning was happening: the great pods of whales that used to migrate through Santa Barbara Channel, but been absent for decades were returning. Some theorize that the whales came back to the channel after seismic oil exploration ceased in local waters.

Captain Fred wanted to put the returning whales on center stage. He and his wife, Hiroko decided they should devote the CONDOR to whale-watching excursions. Benko sold his Sea Landing lease in order to concentrate less on management and more on marine life. In the process, he launched the industry’s first regular whale watching excursions on the West Coast, and captained the CONDOR to prominence as, arguably, the premiere whale-watching boat in the world—one of the few boats to offer year-round whale watching anywhere in the world.

Captain Fred wasn’t satisfied, though. He always had an interest in improving the guest experience. He’d also long wanted to build a catamaran. The two interests came together in 2000 when he began the process of designing and constructing the CONDOR EXPRESS. Built in Bellingham, Washington, with a unique hull architecture from New Zealand, the CONDOR EXPRESS was designed exclusively for whale watching in local waters.

Fred Benko and his “first mate” Hiroko Benko were married in 1985 at Orizaba Cove at Santa Cruz Island. She continues today as Commodore and CEO of Condor Express.
Today the Condor Express is California’s premier whale watching adventure

After two years of exacting work, Benko and his wife Hiroko launched CONDOR EXPRESS in 2002 as the most advanced and innovative whale-watching vessel in the state of California. Specially designed for stability and comfort, the CONDOR EXPRESS features a scenic observation deck ideal for passengers eager to photograph the magnificent mammals. It also has comfortable indoor seating.

Its twin hulls, like a catamaran, provide a smooth ride and the 740-horsepower jet engines can propel the CONDOR EXPRESS up to 40 knots. This capacity cuts the time to get the boat to Santa Cruz Island, one of the prime areas to see the whales out in the channel, from two and a half hours to just 45 minutes. Even better, the CONDOR EXPRESS uses water-jet propulsion so ocean animals can visit up close without being endangered by propellers.

When Captain Fred passed away in 2013, Hiroko took the helm of the popular sea- fairing operation. Now celebrating 50 years in business in the Santa Barbara Channel, the CONDOR EXPRESS continues its extraordinary rapport with the whales.

Being sentient creatures, the whales trust the ship’s crew and recognize that this boat is not hunting them. Because the whales are relaxed and at ease around the CONDOR EXPRESS, never has to chase whales, but can sit quietly and let these great creatures come up to playfully cavort. They will put their nose up to the side of the boat and sometimes dive under the boat and bump it slightly just for fun. The whales clearly love to perform and they do react to the crowd’s approving cheers and applause.

Whales actually recognize the Condo Express by the sound of its engine and will swim up to greet the boat.
Lob-Tailing behavior is also exhibited to the delight of the passengers who cheer as the whale playfully slaps and splashes its tail.

The CONDOR EXPRESS has revolutionized whale watching by providing a stable, high-speed viewing platform, enhancing the entire experience for it guests. Its decades-long rapport with whales means the CONDOR EXPRESS is able to offer a guarantee to its guests, some of which come from around the world to Santa Barbara seeking whale sightings. (CONDOR EXPRESS will actually provide a rain check for another cruise on the rare occasion when these fascinating leviathans are not around or in view.)

Celebrating 50 years in the local waters, CONDOR EXPRESS is still having a whale of a good time.


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