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Happy Birthday, Morning Coffee

July 6, 2021
I first met Fred on a whale watching trip that I found out about through the Museum of Natural History.  Fred let me into the wheel house on the first trip and I was hooked.  I went home and that night typed a letter to Fred asking if I could help out on the boat during the summer, I was 12.  A few weeks later a letter arrived and it was on Condor letterhead.  I was excited and terrified at the same time.  He said, I could come out on the boat, the rest was history.  I started as a pinn-head and moved up to deckhand over the 10 plus years I worked on and off on the boat.  Some of the best years of my life, I could go on and on about the stories and adventures, people I met but here is a birthday story.

It was a foggy morning when I got to Sea Landing, checked with the office to see what the trips looked like that day and then down to the boat to get her ready.  I knew it was Fred's birthday and I always had his morning coffee ready for him in the wheel house (2 sugars and 1 cream) when he showed up.  I did not flip on the coffee machine that morning and headed to the engine room, checked all the fluids, fired up the generator, flipped over from shore power to the generator power.  Even though Fred completely trusted me in the engine room he always double checked because of the good captain he was.  He went up to the wheel house first as he always did and his coffee was not there.  I heard him say, "where is my dam coffee".  I smiled to myself and kinda hid from him.  He had just discovered the new business, Santa Barbara Roasting Company, oh the gallons of coffee we drank after the discovery.  What he did not know was I had gotten a large cup of his favorite coffee from there, had it sitting on the warm engine block of the starboard engine with a chocolate pastry and a card for 10 free cups of coffee, I wrote on the bag, Happy Birthday.

I was in the galley prepping it for the day and he came in and said, "Mike, no coffee, the machine is not even on."  I said I was sorry and flipped it on.  He was not happy with me and said something like you are getting lazy.  He preceded down to the engine room and I was hanging out on the engine deck waiting for him to find his B-Day present.  He popped his head out of the hatch,  smiled and said, "well, I expect a cup like this from now on, every morning."   I smiled, said ok and then he smiled again and went back down into the engine room.

Got the passengers onboard, threw lines with George and off we went.  Stored all the lines and headed up to the wheel house.  Fred was kinda quiet and I was like, what's up?  He turned to me,  smiled again and said, "you want a raise?"  I said yes and we had a great day of whale watching!  Over the many years after that morning, almost every morning, we would grab each other coffee from the SB Roasting Company, it became our tradition.  I would ask the person working at the Roasting Company if Fred had been there yet because everyone remembered Fred and that would determine the coffee order.

Fred was the Grandfather I never had and the some of the best memories of my life were on that boat with him and all the others that came and went.  I would not be who I am today without that experience, without Fred.  Happy Birthday Fred!

Just Fannntassstic!

March 27, 2013

When I first came to SEA Landing in 1975 as a 15yr old very eager fisherman Fred and Patty Benko were the owners of SEA Landing, a sport fishing landing that had a truly tiny wedge of an office under what is now Brophy’s.

Over the years I was Fred’s deck hand, a hired captain, and ultimately a party boat owner at SEA Landing. During that time some even earlier ‘Fred’ stories came to light.

Fred, an Ohio native, had enjoyed a meteoric rise as a salesman for Pfizer. He had managed to open Johns Hopkins, a market that had been previously closed to Pfizer. There was some mention of having had to smuggle a keg into the hospital break room, (actually this mention was the central theme of his story). Some few years later things changed for Fred at Pfizer, accounts were shifted and so forth. This is the first episode of what I think characterizes Fred’s dynamic life. When someone said ‘Carpe Diem,` Fred took it to heart in a way that is truly inspirational.

After this, Fred left corporate America with his family, including two young kids, Dody and Matt. They headed to California to do something truly different. Fred took his resources and doubled down on a small marine-scene business. This was his first self re-invention.

These early years included stories of folks with names like ‘Sideways Sam, a boat captain who invented novel dock approaches and landings. Boats included the Happy Day. This vessel was notorious because once when someone forgot to do the regular bilge pumping required and the engine hatch was lifted, the spinning shaft apparently flung an arc of spray skyward. This prompted a less than prescient crewman to call out “we’re sinking,” with the expected pandemonium resulting.

The first SEA Landing boat that I worked on as a deckhand was the sportfishing partyboat Hornet, which Fred owned. Even in these early days Fred saw the value in taking the public to see newly increasing numbers of migrating gray whales. He would schedule his small harbor cruise boat Shirley Ann, a vessel originally built as a rum-runner, to run special cruises beyond the harbor mouth to see these whales. Whale watching was a hit!

It wasn’t until about 1978 that Fred became Captain Fred. I had just become a captain myself a few months earlier at age nineteen. I was perhaps SEA Landing’s first ‘up-the-hawspipe’ captain, and Fred the second a couple of months later. Fred could now captain his boats himself. During that Summer Fred’s SEA Landing had reduced in fleet size to just the boats he owned there. The independent boats had all headed to San Diego to chase albacore. That summer proved to be one of the Landing’s best fishing summers ever. The following year Fred built the original Condor at Jay Peacock’s yard in Wilmington. It took just eight short months, a record. We crew came to call this boat, which was intended for the ½ day fishing trade, the “Lead Sled.” That was because this robust, all steel vessel simply slid through any weather that the Channel could throw at it. The Channel’s weather is notorious in its dynamic extremes. These include the ever placid waters of Eastern Santa Cruz Island and the ‘Cape Horn of the North,’ Point Conception.

The Landing enjoyed a continuing renaissance during that time. In 1977 or so the Landing’s base of operation had moved to a new larger facility by the launch-ramp. This renaissance included Fred’s favorite, his whale watching trips, as well as a growing fleet of fishing boats that landed epic numbers of rockfish and bass for their clients. Guys like me captained these boats, the Condor, Hornet, Island Fox and Seahawk. In addition there were other boats that would come in seasonally and run from the landing, including Roy Hauser’s Truth, which was crewed by, among others, Glen Fritzler.

Fred was one of the most liberal mentors ever. When it came time for me to take the Condor to the boat yard in Los Angeles he informed me that I would be completely in charge of this and on my own. I was full of trepidation, this yard being far from home, new to me and I being only a couple of years out of high school actually. His words were “I trust your judgment completely,” and off I went. This quote and another Fred quote, “just fanntassstic,” resonate with me as the definitive Fred-isms. That’s how Fred was, the eternal optimist. He could find the silver lining in an apocalypse I believe. This was a key to his repetitive successes.

By about 1984 black clouds had gathered over Fred once again. The Landing completely reorganized, Roy Hauser and Glen Fritzler stepped up to take over the Landing’s operation and Fred provided the opportunity for his boat captains to become boat owners. Meanwhile Fred himself struggled to bring back the flagging whale-watch and fishing business that the Condor had. Though his hard work and steadfast leadership the Condor was put back on her feet and was steadily growing in popularity as a whale watch boat. Then Blue Whales showed up in the Channel. The new Captain Fred was BACK! He ultimately brought the Condor Express to the Channel. This was the first viable commercial passenger carrying high speed catamaran in the area. Its success has inspired many others to follow in this novel choice of vessel design.


What a Fannntassstic ride Captain Fred!


Blue whale named for Fred

March 16, 2013

Blue whale named in honor of Fred Benko

This distinctive blue whale was named “Fred Benko” by Cascadia Research in honor of Fred’s passion, devotion, and contribution to the appreciation of blue whales. This whale was chosen for Fred because of its frequent sightings in the Santa Barbara Channel going back many years and also sightings off Baja California, another area Fred like to go to fish. Originally given the much less colorful identification of CRC 1139 by Cascadia and BB#229 and CICI#590 by Mexican researchers, this whale has been positively identified over 30 times going back to the earliest identification in 1991. Sightings have been in the winter-spring in the southern Sea of Cortez and in the summers off California primarily in the Santa Barbara Channel, but as far south as San Diego and north to the Gulf of the Farallones.  With the frequent sightings in the Santa Barbara Channel starting in 1992 and through the 1990s and the early 2000s when Fred was frequently the captain of the Condor and then the Condor Express, there is no doubt that the two of them came across each other many times. Fred supported blue whale photo-identification research by inviting research on board the Condor and Condor Express to take photographs.

I fondly recall Fred’s help in his early research in the Santa Barbara Channel in the early 1990s when he would invite me to stop by the Condor so I could talk to the passengers (he would have the galley prepare food for me since he knew I often forgot to bring any on my trips). Fred always wanted to learn about the latest research on blue whales both to satisfy his own curiosity as well as to share with his passengers.  He would never miss a chance to host a gathering at his house to hear about the latest information. This whale will be particularly easy to follow because like Fred, this whale has a distinctive look. It has an almost white dorsal fin and some small dark scars indicative of a killer whale attack at an early age (apparent in the photograph above taken 26 June 2005 in the Santa Barbara Channel).

You can view the photograph and text that were presented at the memorial at

Founder Fred

March 12, 2013

The story title is most appropriate for dear Fred.  He has been at the forefront of numerous causes and organizations.  Always with a ready smile and a helping hand.

I knew Fred before he built the Sea Landing.  One might say in the "old days."  He was always the most kind, generous and spirited man I've ever known.  And, the best story teller.  Our conversations always turned to fishing and our love of the ocean.  The stories of my sport fishing years while living on Maui palled in comparison to Fred's spectacular fishing stories from different parts of the world.    We always talked about what pound test line we used.  When Fred would recount 2-4 pound test line, I knew I was in the company of a profoundly talented angler. I learned so much from him.  His vast knowledge of the ocean and all it's inhabitants kept my total attention. Nothing else seemed to be happening as I listend with fascination and, of course, with a lot of questions.  

Fred knew how to make everyone around him feel like we were the most important.  A few times, when I was sad, he would sing a little song that would always elicit a smile along with a great sense of gratitude for having such a dear friend.

During the years of my association with several SB non-profits, Fred never once turned down a request for a donation, a cruise on the Condor or to serve as an advisor.  The most recent was when the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum was in the early formation stages.  Fred was key with advising us on the many facets of such an ambitious endeavor.  We could not have done it without him. 

Fred really bloomed when he married Hiroko.  A dynamic duo, to say the least. Together they served as Celebrity Cooks at the Kiwanis Club of Santa Barbara's Annual Fiesta Pancake Breakfast.  While Hiroko was her usual gracious self and plenty busy flapping those jacks, Fred was busy over the hot grill too.  I noticed that many people would check out the food lines to see which one Fred was cooking at.  Or, they would break through to say hi to him.  Folks in his line wanted to keep talking with him.  Needless to say, Fred's line of hungry participants moved along slower than the rest!

Dear Hiroko will carry on their tradition of community stewardship.  I'm proud that she serves on the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum Board of Directors.  Fred will be by her side, always.

The memories are flooding in.  There's not enough room to share them all.  He was a great, great man with a huge heart.  He indeed lived life "full throttle."  That's one of many fond memories I'll hold close to my heart.  Forever.

A Pioneer in Eco-Tourism

March 11, 2013
Fred was a good personal friend as well as a longtime family friend.
He was a good man and a true man of the sea.

My first volunteer work was serving with Fred on the Los Marineros Board while working for International Underwater Contractors.  The project was funded by NOAA to bring our local Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary into local classrooms for children who might never have the opportunity to experience it.  He cared much about our community and the ocean.

Later when began my teaching career at SBCC, he  donated the old Condor to our SBCC Marine Diving Technology program for monthly fundraising cruises in the early 90s.  We were struggling with a limited budget for our program and Fred conceived the idea.  It made a very big impact.  I will never forget his generosity to us and so many other non-profits in town.

We took trips to the channel Islands with the general public and we used SBCC divers and NOAA naturalists to dive and video the underwater world with live broadcasts from below.

Fred brought our backyard ocean and its marine life directly to all of us in the least impactful and natural way.

He was indeed a pioneer in marine eco-tourism and I will miss him alot. I will forever remember his enthusiasm for our community and passion for the sea. Fair winds and following seas my friend.

Montecito Journal Profile: The Whale Watcher!

March 11, 2013

Check out this feature article profiling Captain Benko written by James Buckley of the Montecito Journal in 2011.

Loaded with great photos and stories about Fred, it's a wonderful tribute to his life's work.

Source: Montecito Journal Glossy Edition: Winter/Spring 2011/12 issue (pages 52-60) 

A Very Special Whalewatch: With Capt. Fred and Dr. Jane Goodall!

March 10, 2013

A Very Special Whalewatching Trip!

One whalewatching trip that will forever stand out in my memory among thousands was a trip that I shared with Captains Fred and Mat Curto on the Condor Express on June 26, 2005. Dr. Jane Goodall - chimpanzee expert, conservationist, and activist - was our special guest that day, and I was the onboard naturalist. Jane was a huge inspiration to me. Jane helped spark my passion for studying long-lived charismatic megafauna as individuals - not just champanzees, but other apes, elephants, and whales; this led to my becoming a naturalist and whale researcher, specializing in killer whale photo-identification. Jane had only seen common dolphin, on an earlier whalewatching trip in southern California: she said that all she hoped to see was one whale. What she experienced that day was much, much more! Fred was SO thrilled that she was on board! They spent a lot of time visiting in the wheelhouse; he also joined her on deck and exchanged some treasured stories. That trip turned out to be the BEST WHALEWATCH TRIP EVER, including a record number of marine mammal species; we headed out toward San Miguel Island, on flat calm seas rare for that area. Adding to the magical quality of this day was that so many of our sightings appeared to directly approach Jane on the starboard bow and linger there, as she watched transfixed while holding her ever-present stuffed chimp. Quick trip run-down: along with California sea lions, harbor seals, and a northern elephant seal, we saw approximately 2 bottlenose dolphins, 200 Pacific white-sided dolphin mixed in with 50 northern right whale dolphin, 8 Dall's porpoises, 17 blue whales (one of which may have been a very rare hybrid blue whale-fin whale), 2 humpback whales, and 40 Risso's dolphin (including 5 newborn calves with fetal folds that left their moms and raced over to where Jane was standing and lingered there). To top it all off, whale scientist John Calambokidas with Cascadia Research Collective was photographing whales in this area from his inflatable; he boarded the Condor Express and discussed his research to a rapt audience, leaping off to try to get identification photos of that elusive possible hybrid whale! What an incredible trip!

Fred and I talked about this trip again and again over the years, re-experiencing that magical day; it meant so much to Fred to be able to share his beloved whales with Jane. 

Fred Benko: Reflections on a life well-lived.

March 10, 2013
RIP FRED BENKO, founder and owner of Condor Express Whale Watching! ! We lost a good friend three days ago: both a personal friend, and a friend to the American Cetacean Society! Fred absolutely adored whalewatching; he started this industry in the Santa Barbara area. More than just a business, Condor Express Whale Watch is based on passion, that grew out of Fred's passion about whales and his beloved Santa Barbara.. Fred carefully studied the behavior of whales and learned how to best approach the humpbacks that started to make friendly approaches right back at him, and the blue whales that appeared in the Santa Barbara Channel in the early 1990's. ACS/LA has run annual whalewatching trips in the Santa Barbara Channel with the Condor (and then the Condor Express) for over 20 years. Fred set the very high standards that Mat Curto and other Captains have emulated that make the Condor Express a company that all others should use as a model to follow: high quality of education, integrity, and outstanding whalewatching experience, always placing safety and well-being of cetaceans, passengers, and crew first and foremost. Shauna Bingham said, Fred was the "brainchild behind the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps volunteer program". Fred was extremely interested in the research aspects that whalewatching afforded. Fred (and his crew have generously shared many killer whale encounters with me; those encounters (and several ID images) are featured in our book "Killer Whales of California and Western Mexico: A Catalog of Photo-Identified Individuals". Fred (and the Condor Express crew) also have a long-standing collaboration with Cascadia Research Collective, sharing photos of humpbacks and blue whales. Fred was SO pleased to be invited aboard as part of a team involved in tagging blue whales. He absolutely loved to share his many adventures with others. I stayed over at Fred and Hiroko's home many times, often sharing stories with Fred deep into the night, and sometimes into the next day's whalewatching trips! Stunning decor in their beautiful home reflected Fred's passion for the sea and for whales.
Fred Benko was a fascinating man, and a passionate champion of the whales and of preserving their environment!  I will deeply miss his many stories and insights that he shared. His passion  lives on as a legacy in the Condor Express family!

The SEA Landing, Condor, and Condor Express

March 9, 2013

Captain Fred is the founder and owner Santa Barbara’s premier whale-watching concession - the Condor Express - located in the Santa Barbara Harbor. He was in the local sport-fishing industry as far back as 1973 when he founded the Sea Landing as a charter service offering sport fishing, diving, harbor cruises and limited whale watching. Old timers may remember the fishing vessels Hornet and Sea Hawk, or the bait boat Scout that worked out of Sea Landing, all of which were originally owned by Fred. He spent late 1978 and early 1979 building the original Condor in Willmington, California and it was launched in May, 1979. The Condor was a sportfishing vessel that worked the Channel Islands, and eventually took up whale watching after seismic testing by oil companies stopped and whales returned to the area in great abundance.

Fred was an innovator, known for devloping the art of shallow water rockfishing and for his passion, whale watching in the Santa Barbara Channel. As multiple whale and dolphin species returned to the Santa Barbara Channel, the focus of his business changed and he began to run exclusively natural history and whale watching trips. In March, 2002, the Condor Express was launched and was dedicated to whale watching and party cruises. The Condor Express revolutionized whale watching by providing a very stable, high speed viewing platform. he had the Condor Express custom-built to provide the best ocean tours along the CA coast.

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