Whale of a Show

By Nick Masuda   |   July 22, 2021
The humpback whale smacked its tail on the water in a five-minute, impromptu show as the Condor Express trailed it through portions of the Channel (Photo by Nick Masuda)

“I’ve never seen it like this. Business has never been better.”

That’s quite the statement from Hiroko Benko, the CEO of the Condor Express, the booming whale-watching outfit that takes daily trips into the Santa Barbara Channel to give locals and tourists a glimpse at nearly every species of whale, as well as dolphins, seals, and sea lions.

On this particular Saturday, there were seven humpbacks, thousands of dolphins, and dozens of sea lions that seemingly waved as the boat gently rolled by.

And it has been commonplace for the crew to have days like this, utilizing the opportunity to teach passengers more about marine life, while also giving throngs an up-close-and-personal view of a juvenile humpback splash party for what felt like a good five minutes.

Whether the humpback was being playful or telling the crew to get lost was open for interpretation, but it made for quite the scene.

Benko and her team utilized the pandemic to bring the Express up to standards — even though they didn’t have to do it until 2022. A new low-emission engine was installed, taking the boat out of the water for a few months, but “we should be good for the next 20 years now,” Benko said.

A juvenile humpback whale gets some air as it surfaces in the Santa Barbara Channel, with dozens aboard the Condor Express getting a front-row seat for the show (Photo by Nick Masuda)

The boat is already well-known for its wildlife-friendly approach, with modern technology allowing waterjets and a hydrofoil wing to propel the catamaran — meaning that dolphins and whales will approach the boat, out of harm’s way and looking to play.

Even after decades in the whale-watching business (the original Condor was among the first to do these trips on the West Coast), Benko still marvels at how the Santa Barbara Channel provides an ecosystem and climate that allows the likes of humpbacks, blues, minkes, orcas, and gray whales to share the same habitat.

This makes Santa Barbara a worldwide destination for whale watchers — ultimately benefitting the local economy due to the tourists it attracts.

“We live in a very special place,” Benko said. “And the world knows it.”


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