HONOLULU – A crew of former crab fishermen from Alaska has found a new livelihood in warmer and less dangerous waters off Hawaii, harvesting water from 3,000 feet below the surface to use in everything from beer to face creams.
The crew was hired by Deep Ocean Hawaii, a Honolulu-based company that is desalinating deep seawater aboard a vessel off Oahu and then marketing it as an ingredient free of impurities.
The company projects that it can become a $50-million business in two years, eventually pumping 500,000 gallons of fresh deep seawater a day. It also hopes to develop its shipboard technology as an emergency source for drinking water.
In just a few years, deep seawater already has become Hawaii's biggest foreign export, with four other businesses shipping $37-million worth of bottled seawater a year, mostly for sale in Japan for up to $5 a bottle.
DOHawaii is the first company that will be exporting the Hawaii water in giant bladders for use in other products, rather than by the bottle.
"We're making ingredients, not the finished product," said Rudy Ahrens, chief executive of DSH International Inc., which operates as DOHawaii. "But this is going to add value to products all over the world.
The benefits and purity of any bottled water over treated tap water have been debated for years as the bottled water industry has expanded globally, but desalinated Hawaii deep seawater offers a special appeal.
It is touted by DOHawaii and other companies as a commodity that is thousands of years old, protected from modern impurities and pollution by a layer of the ocean which separates the warm surface water from colder water near the bottom.
Unlike water found above the thermocline layer, deep seawater doesn't contain hormones, pollution, pathogens or other compounds as the water has slowly migrated from the Arctic, said Hans Krock, professor emeritus in ocean engineering at the University of Hawaii and president of OCEES International Inc., a renewable energy consulting company.
"It's basically water that's been isolated from human influences," said Krock, who also advises and has a small ownership share in DOHawaii.
Independent research confirms that deep seawater is more pristine and isolated from chemicals and other human-caused impurities found near the surface of the ocean, said Daniel Repeta, a senior scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
But the water could still be affected by materials dropped into the ocean, said Repeta, who has independently studied the deep water off the Big Island.
DOHawaii's 144-foot Spirit of the North, anchored more than three miles off the west coast of Oahu recently, started filling 5,200-gallon bladders installed in 20-foot-cargo containers. Current production is at 80,000 gallons of fresh water a day.
Much of the crew of the ship has spent the past 25 years in Alaska fishing for king crab, so development of the technology to harvest the water was a new challenge, said Ken Ostebo, president of DOHawaii's maritime operation.
"The idea of deep ocean water is simple, but being able to get it is the key," Ostebo said.
DOHawaii is entering a market developed by Koyo USA Corp. and other companies based on the Big Island.
DOHawaii is cashing in on an unlimited resource and the reputation the islands have as an exotic, isolated spot surrounded by relatively clear and clean waters.
Ahrens said beer companies want to develop "Hawaiian deep-ocean brews" and health and beauty businesses are searching for purer water for cleansers, face creams and other products. Companies producing sauces and juices and those packaging products such as tuna have also shown interest, and some local hotels plan to use the water in their spas, he said.
The company has inked contracts with a bottling company in Taiwan and with Deep Ocean Enterprise, which creates packaging for companies wanting to sell bottled water.
DOHawaii is also in talks with a major U.S. beer company and another brewery in Japan, cosmetic companies on the mainland and in Europe, as well as hotels, said Ahrens, who has a background as a merchant banker.
After researching other methods for nearly four years, DOHawaii developed a new system which lowers a hose into the ocean and then pumps it onto a moored boat. The water is then desalinated through reverse osmosis, packaged in the cargo containers and lifted onto a barge, which travels back and forth to the shore.
On the Big Island, the state, as a commercial venture, pumps the water using a 3,000 foot pipeline and then transports it to the companies, which do the desalination, filtering, bottling and packaging.
Four companies already selling the water, and other enterprises are planning to enter the market, said Ron Baird, chief executive officer of the National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority. A Maui company uses that water to make a vodka called Ocean.
Ahrens recruited retired veteran Air Force pilot Rich Treadway to serve as his chief operating officer after meeting him during a flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles. Treadway said he hopes to develop a market with the military, which spends millions of dollars to get water to troops in desert areas.
Ahrens said a future focus of the company will be on emergency relief.
Since water supplies are often damaged or contaminated in the wake of hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters, DOHawaii hopes to sell governments the technology to pump, treat and package huge quantities of offshore water on short notice.
The company has a patent pending on its process, which Ahrens says also could play a role in an era of major global water disputes.
"Water has become a commodity of conflict," Ahrens said. "I mean without oil you can't drive, but without water you die."