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Clients don’t have to be left-brained to enjoy Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA). Instead, the Hawaii Island attraction appeals to anyone craving a creative activity.
Every weekday at 10 a.m., the nonprofit Friends of NELHA (FON) offers public tours of the trailblazing tech park, which calls on sunshine and nutrient-rich seawater for use in a variety of cutting-edge enterprises. Stretching across 870 oceanfront acres, NELHA’s 50 tenants range from a rehabilitation center for injured Hawaiian seals to growers of shellfish and seahorses.Tours begin at the Gateway Visitor Center, which is a marvel of ingenuity. Located just south of Kona International Airport at Keahole, the platinum LEED-certified structure turns heads with its solar-paneled roof and unique architectural design. Equally impressive, it uses a smart, climate-cooling system that taps deep seawater, so no air-conditioning is required.Candee Ellsworth, executive director of FON, kicks off the tours with a presentation that sums up the compelling work done at NELHA. As she described the park’s various endeavors, she kept the conversation lively and easy to grasp for all visitors.
Unlike more traditional Hawaii tourist attractions, the park features itineraries that invite clients to see, taste, smell, feel and experience tech tourism. It does so in a setting that looks and acts completely different from anything else on the island. Presiding over the vast campus is the 40-foot-tall OTEC Tower, an ocean thermal energy conversion power plant and the biggest of its kind in the world.Although NELHA is a perfect fit for clients with an interest in science, engineering, ocean conservation, technology, aquaculture and renewable energy, its reach also extends to right-brainers like me. In fact, on the day I visited, my fellow tour-goers included a family with young kids and members of a wedding party, all of whom were fascinated and enthusiastic.Foodies and farmers especially will be drawn to NELHA’s offerings. One tour stops at an on-site greenhouse that uses deep seawater to grow organic greens. Another spends time at Kampachi Farms, where guests take in the challenges and successes of producing sustainable food in the ocean.Wildlife lovers can tour marine mammal center Ke Kai Ola. There, guests learn about the center’s efforts to revive Hawaii’s declining monk seal population. Another animal-oriented highlight is Kanaloa, the world’s first octopus farm, where visitors can cozy up to cephalopods. During a tour that stops at West Hawaii Explorations Academy — a charter school based at the park — clients can chat with students, then get hands-on with exotica such as urchins and starfish.
One of the park’s top draws is the 10-acre Big Island Abalone Corporation, where clients see scores of tanks growing the mollusks in their iridescent shells. Before leaving, participants get to sample chunks of fresh-grilled abalone. The takeaway for me? Science tourism is not only fun, but delicious.For Ellsworth, the bottom line is to provide all types of clients with a sense of hope for the future.“I really want our guests to know that there are scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, researchers, students and conservationists who are working to solve some of the planet’s issues regarding natural resources, food security, wildlife conservation and renewable energy,” Ellsworth said. “We’re combining sunlight, seawater and research to solve some of these issues.”The DetailsFriends of NELHA www.friendsofnelha.org