Four decades ago – that’s 1973, in case you’re counting – Fred Benko arrived in Santa Barbara. He opened a charter service on the breakwater side of the harbor where he offered trips aboard the Hornet and other boats – sportfishing around the Channel Islands as well as offering evening coastal cruises.
He built the Sea Landing Center on the opposite side of the harbor and moved to that side in 1978. While he was at it, he captained the Condor to prominence as the best whale-watching boat in the world.
When Captain Benko sold the Sea Landing lease to Roy Hauser and Glen Fritzler in 1985, submarine blasting in the Santa Barbara Channel had ceased and the whales – including grays, humpbacks, finbacks, and even the majestic blues – began to return.
Benko enjoyed whale-watching and was delighted to share his vast knowledge about the abundant marine life off the Santa Barbara coast and surrounding Channel Islands along with their extensive natural history. He was able to offer a near-guarantee to those visitors from around the world who came to Santa Barbara seeking blue whale sightings.
In 2002, Fred and his wife, Hiroko, launched the new, modern Condor Express, still believed to be one of Santa Barbara’s most innovative whale-watching platforms. The Condor Express is also used for dinner cruises, party cruises, and private chartering; the business has become renowned as one of the few to offer year round whale-watching anywhere in the world. He continued to operate what is considered the premier whale-watching operation on the West Coast and beyond until his death in 2013, when his widow, Hiroko, took over the operation of the business.
In the meantime, in 1973, Roy Hauser designed and built the first vessel, Truth, with boat builder Mac McCaully in Venice, California, along with Glen Fritzler’s help.
Ten months later it was launched as California’s first state of the art live-aboard dive boat. At the time, Truth was considered the finest, most thoughtfully laid out vessel on the entire California Coast and had such innovations as a waterproof galley, circulating mask rinsers at each exit, and an easy to board swim step.
Truth Aquatics was founded in 1974 by Hauser who began his dive career in 1956; his innovative ideas are visible throughout the three state-of- the-art dive boats currently running out of the landing.
In 1973, Fritzler began his career with Truth Aquatics as a youngster barely out of grade school, and in 1979, after crewing for Hauser for several years, they became partners and remained partners until Hauser retired in 2002.
In 1981, the Conception was launched. This dive boat conveyed a new meaning to the word “live-aboard.” A larger vessel with innovations such as circulating game wells, below deck shower room, air-conditioned bunkroom, large sundeck, and a built in BBQ were just a few additions that set this live-aboard boat in its own class.
In 1985, Vision was launched and is considered by many to be California’s crown jewel of dive boats. Similar in design to Conception, the Vision is larger by five feet in length and one foot in width. The extra space was just what was needed to provide the ultimate diving experience while exploring California waters.
Today, Fritzler still enjoys running dive trips and Scuba diving the Channel Islands. “My main passion is diving; however, I have really enjoyed learning about the history of the Channel Islands and the terrestrial life as we hike its beaches and interiors. There are so many different ways to enjoy the islands … Scuba diving, kayaking, stand up paddling, and hiking. It is the philosophy of Truth Aquatics to provide the best Channel Islands experience available.”
Last fall, when Inga Courtouis was hired as manager of Sea Landing by Fritzler, one of her first observations was that the facility was long overdue for a remodel and facelift. Fritzler looked around and realized it had been several decades since the last remodel and he agreed.
So, as the sub-tenants of the landing took advantage of the first two months of 2017 to spruce up their boats and equipment for the upcoming season, the employees and workmen undertook a complete interior remodel from floor to ceiling, completed just in time for a grand re-opening coinciding with the start of the 2017 season on March 1.
An impressive crowd of dignitaries, friends and clients was captivated by the infectious enthusiasm of owners and staff who gathered to see the spiffy remodel gleaming in the late afternoon beneath a cloudless blue sky.
Guests crowded around Randy Rouse, Santa Barbara City Councilman, District 2, before he began cutting the symbolic ribbon to open the new facility. He observed, “Sea Landing provides a unique opportunity for our many visitors to experience the fascinating water world that is seen by so few.”
All of the vessels at the landing were also open for the event. There were dive boats, Stardust Sportfishing, Stardust and Coral Sea, plus the Condor Express, which offers whale-watching.
Dana Fritzler, partner and wife of Glen, along with staff, carefully arranged the several tables laden with homemade dishes ranging from soups to nuts and everything in-between. Soon, a long list of names of sweepstakes prizes was handed out to lucky raffle winners.
Fritzler, shaking his head in amazement, added, “What a crowd! Speaking for the entire team, we are honored with your interest, and we are looking forward to an exciting 2017 season.”
As guests strolled down the docks, they were greeted by the owners, the captains and crew members, all eager to answer questions and point out new improvements in anticipation of the upcoming season.
Stardust Sportfishing, a family affair with roots in the landing, is led by Captain Jason Diamond who began running the 65-foot Stardust at Sea Landing in 1995. His wife, Jamie, began working in the Sea Landing office in 2002, and met her future husband Captain Jason there; after a three-year courtship they were married.
Jamie had an unpleasant experience on her first saltwater fishing trip in her teens in Northern California and she had shunned another trip. However, after she and Jason met, he begged her to go out on Stardust. Finally relenting, she had a great time … catching limits of rockfish and whitefish. Hooking and handing, and eating great food, she thought the trip was the coolest thing ever.
“I was hooked on the fishing and I guess you could say Jason hooked me then also,” she recalled smiling.
They were married in 2005 and their first son Matt was born in 2006; in 2008 Jamie became involved in the family business and has since taken over the social media, catch reports, and much more. “Now I manage the sportfishing boats alongside Jason,” she confided.
In March, 2010, another family member, daughter Molly, was added to the growing Diamond family.
Her catering manager responsibilities and certifications as sous chef and pastry chef have served her well as she organized the spacious full-service galley, serving complete breakfast and lunch – award-winning cheese burgers, chips, candy, water, soda, and beer aboard both vessels. Meanwhile, she and Jason are expecting their second son, Max, in May.
The Diamonds, Captain Jason, Jamie, Matt and Molly greeted visitors to the March 1 open house at Sea Landing on their 65-foot Stardust equipped with three oversize bait tanks alongside the completely renovated 58-foot Coral Sea out of which they offer 1/2- and 3/4-day deep-sea fishing trips daily during their 10-month season.
The evening passed quickly, as the questions came rapidly. Jamie and Captain Jason answered them all enthusiastically with nearly two and a half decades of hands-on experience to draw from.
Matthew Peter commented, “These guys are great! I enjoyed an amazing day fishing with them. The captain got us on the fish, and once the fish were on, the whole crew was on-point organizing the people, getting them where they needed to be, and getting the fish on the boat … epic day; amazing crew!”
Looking on, Fritzler observed, “The Diamonds have more fun than most in the business.”
Rounding out the activities offered at the landing is Sea Landing Dive Center, the only PADI shop in Santa Barbara County fully stocked with a large inventory of Scuba diving essentials, plus fishing equipment, tackle and lures, along with a full line of rental kayaks and SUPs.
Along with S.B. Jet Boats featuring in-the-water hourly rentals of late model 1- to 3-person Sea Doos, Yamaha and Honda watercraft, plus twin engine Sea-Doo jet boats including a 14-foot model accommodating up to 5 people and a larger 18-footer that will accommodate 7, for an exciting opportunity to view the beautiful Santa Barbara Coastline and sea life from an extraordinary perspective on the open ocean.
Sea Landing which overlooks the stunning Santa Barbara Harbor has established itself as a one-stop center for exploring the bountiful waters and the Channel Islands of the rugged central California coast.
The Landing offers nearly year-round deep sea fishing, Scuba diving, whale-watching, island hiking, kayaking, plus jet boats and stand-up paddle boards or SUPs for all skill levels in all disciplines on and around what many describe as one of the most unique marine playgrounds found on the West Coast of the United States: the Channel Islands.
I overheard someone say as we were leaving, “Santa Barbara is really a small community,” and I agreed. Smiles and laughter filled the landing; the pace was relaxed, creating a welcoming atmosphere. I’m eager to return to enjoy the wide assortment of marine activities the Sea Landing offers.