Capt. Fred Benko, a longtime staple of the Santa Barbara waterfront and founder of Sea Landing and Condor Cruises, died early Thursday after a long struggle with an undisclosed illness. He was 73.
He moved to California as a district manager for Pfizer Labs, and founded the Sea Landing in 1973 as a charter service offering sport fishing, diving, harbor cruises and limited whale watching.
During his time at the harbor, Benko owned the fishing vessels Hornet and Sea Hawk, and the bait boat Scout.
He built the original Condor in 1979, and eventually sold Sea Landing to go into whale watching full time in 1985 as the Pacific gray whale population rose.
The business began to run exclusively for whale-watching and natural-history tours in 2002, with the launch of a new, more-modern vessel, the Condor Express.
Mat Curto, operations manager for the Condor Express, who has worked with Benko since 1995, told Noozhawk that he received a call from Benko’s wife, Hiroko, at about 7:30 a.m. Thursday confirming the death.
Benko died at 2 a.m. at his home, where he had been receiving hospice care for the last two days, he said, adding that Benko’s health had been declining for several months.
“He was very easy to work for and really cared about his business,” Curto said.
Whether Benko was traveling in Cabo San Lucas or Croatia, he called every day to check on the people who worked for him and how things were going.
“I’m going to miss the phone calls,” Curto said. “Wherever he was, he would say, ‘Hey, tell me about it.’”
Seeing Benko in his element at sea “was awesome,” said Curto, recalling the annual fishing trips Benko took with the crew to Cabo San Lucas, as well as sailing with Benko on the original Condor.
Benko spent nine months building that ship in a shipyard in Bellingham, Wash., Curto said, and also designed the Condor Express that is currently used by the operation.
“Fred was a person to whom you were easily attracted due to his energy and vision,” said Mick Kronman, Santa Barbara harbormaster. “When he brought the Condor here, he took whale watching to a new level.
“He was a fixture in the community and will be deeply missed.”
City Councilman Randy Rowse called Benko a “great advocate for channel health,” who did much to enhance the public’s understanding of whales and the marine environment.
In terms of whale watching locally, “Fred put it all together,” said Hillary Hauser, executive director of Heal the Ocean and a longtime friend of Benko.
“Fred’s legacy to Santa Barbara is that he really built Sea Landing,” Hauser said. “He was the one who made it happen.”
Hauser also noted that Benko had another side that many didn’t know about: he was a talented musician who had a love for the theater, and performed with the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera.
“He was a renaissance man and had an incredible voice,” she said.
Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton contributed to this article.