After 12 years designing and developing one of the World's most highly
awarded Ecotourism companies, John "Caveman" Gray goes his own way by
forming "John Gray's SeaCanoe" with 18 of his most loyal and experienced
guides. "After 12 years in Phuket, the experiment ran its course and I was
packing for Polynesia," says Gray, "but when all these guides showed up, I
had no choice but to stay and do another start-up."
"I owe it to the guys for their loyalty, honesty and pride, and to Thailand,
which has yet to see our best." Unlike his old experimental company where
Gray gave away the shares to local people, Caveman is managing director of
the new company. "In the economic laboratory, I played consultant/observer.
Now I'm director of the movie - it's a different story."
Gray, known as Ling Yai (Big Monkey) to his friends - takes pride on being
the Original kayak explorer and operator in each of his sites. ("If we are
there, we are the first.") The Big Monkey was doing OK before he formed his
own company. (Caveman still owns the SeaCanoe trademark.) Gray's economic
demonstration project was a classic Ecotourism business model, and his local
enfranchisement concept and stunning trips led to a string of six major
Ecotourism Awards from 1995-99. "All I do is paddle into crazy places. If
it's interesting, I show it to my friends."
Almost immediately after "Caveman" started "Natural History by Sea Kayak" in
Hawai'i (1983), the World began to notice the effort. Gray teamed with Gary
Sprinkle and Mike May to produce "Moloka'i's Forgotten Frontier", and won a
1985 EMMY award. The honors continue right up to the National Geographic
Adventure Magazine giving SeaCanoe Vietnam a "World Top 25 Adventures"
Now you can truly put yourself into your own "Natural History by Sea Kayak"
documentary in Thailand, Vietnam, Fiji, Philippines and Hawai'i. The
combination of experienced guides, new equipment and creative freedom takes
you to new levels for even a "Ling Yai".
Try Caveman's "Wings of the White Belly Sea Eagle" seven-day South Thailand
program. It only starts with the Phang Nga Mini-Expedition, already
considered South-East Asia's best adventure by many guidebooks and websites,
then adds four days more... See a "Wings" highlight featured in a Discovery
Channel documentary in Spring, 2002.
Hotel-dwellers mumble something about Phuket's "Hongs By Starlight" being a
"spiritual experience". More orthodox day trips include "Hornbill Island"
where you can actually cackle with these personable freaky flyers.
Polynesia Freaks? Try Taveuni, Fiji's Ravilevu Coastline or Caveman's
Hawai'i Local Boy (August) for Polynesia's most dramatic cliff-coasts. .
See you on the water (since 1983).
GUIDE FOR DANGEROUS SPORTS - Phuket Gazette March 2006
Wanted: Guide for dangerous sports.
Experience not necessary; training will not be given
The waters around Phuket are gorgeous,
but hold dangers for the unwary and the untrained.
- Photo courtesy TAT
Not so long ago, a young tour guide died
while paddling his inflatable. A doctor raced to the scene, but returned
long-faced. "It looked like an epileptic seizure, but nobody knew first aid
or CPR, and they did all the wrong things," he said. "It was probably an
I recommended, to the owner of the tour company in question, CPR training
from a local hospital with a price tag of 10,000 baht. This was deemed "too
expensive". He added, flippantly, "What can I do? He had a bad heart."
Another fatality occurred on the first whitewater rafting trip organized by
another company. The owner simply bought a raft and took bookings. Knowing
nothing about rivers, he didn't understand the warning signs; a flash-flood
capsized his raft.
Whitewater rafting is inherently dangerous. The main safety question is not
elimination of the risk, but minimizing it. The better the training and
experience, the better the odds. If any industry needs attention paid to
training, it is whitewater rafting. So why don't all companies - and guides
- complete certificated training before they start accepting bookings?
Here is another sad example: some time ago a friendly lead guide paddled
over to me to apologize for his 50 guests feeding monkeys. I discovered that
the company had about 150 guests in total, but didn't know the exact
headcount. Some years earlier, this same company lost a tourist to drowning
on a 120-person trip.
Paddle guides still don't have to pass a swimming test, or to have
lifeguard, first aid or CPR training.
Most lead guides don't paddle anyway, preferring to doze on the escort boat
while freelance guides operate unsupervised.
In another incident some years earlier, a man was killed on his first day at
work when the escort boat ran him over. Again, no training had been
And yet another: a bookings clerk wanted to make more money as a speedboat
captain. So he did. Early on in his "career", a guest went off the stern
into deep water and drowned.
Speedboat sinkings are common, too. Tourists have told me about Thailand's
strange mathematical system, whereby 34 people on a boat somehow equals 22
passengers and two crew. That's a handy calculation when 22 is the maximum
number of guests a boat is supposed to have aboard.
Imagine, too, the conversations back home about transferring - on the high
seas - from one overloaded speedboat to another.
"Snap" credentialing does not work, either. One foreigner I know of selected
"dive master" as his Phuket profession. "I can be certified in nine months,"
he told me. I pointed out his lack of ocean experience and suggested that he
try another profession. Ignoring my advice, he was duly certified in months
- and lost a diver within six months. There is simply no substitute for
Worst of all, many fatalities go unreported, or blame is placed on the
victim, meaning that nothing happens to prevent more deaths.
Outdoor activity accidents will happen, but we can reduce their frequency,
and, perhaps more importantly, learn how to deal with any injuries that
Unfortunately, the only criteria currently for setting up an outdoor
activities venture are forming a company, registering it with the Tourism
Authority of Thailand (TAT), and offering a product or service for hire. No
actual experience is necessary.
Responsible outdoor adventure firms require more investment than capital.
The real investment isn't in land or capital, but in expertise. Without a
personal investment in activity experience, managers cannot manage - and
they should certainly not accept bookings from unsuspecting tourists.
Phuket prospers from tourists who visit its beautiful nature, much of it
marine. We therefore have a moral obligation to offer professionally run and
safe activities. Tourists may be so naïve that they feed monkeys or swim in
dangerous waters - but "guides" are paid to guide. As the opening examples
show, however, moral concerns apparently count for little.
Financial incentives can work, though.
There are hundreds of "marine" destinations. Travelers understand that
accidents happen, so they choose "responsible" destinations that minimize
risk. When they buy such tours, they expect competence, safety and guidance.
Hawaii proved that with its 1990 Marine Master Plan that set designated
activity areas, volume limits, and professional standards.
After a recession in Japan, Hawaii's overall tourism dropped 42% during the
plan's first three years, but marine tourism rocketed from US$300 million in
1990 to US$1 billion in 1993.
Despite a downturn in the number of arrivals, when Hawaii introduced
professional standards and usage zones, tourists took part in more marine
When overloaded speedboats sink, or when tourists witness unnecessary
deaths, they go home and they talk about it. A big reason for one's
selection of a destination, after all, is to tell one's friends and
colleagues afterward about the vacation.
The market decides if we become the destination we think we are, so Thailand
needs realistic, attainable professional standards that are enforced. The
first line of responsibility, of course, is the tour operators themselves.
But if that were the case in reality, you wouldn't be reading these words.
So who should be responsible?
Government agencies do license boats and their captains are licensed also,
but those of us in the business all hear speedboat stories. No matter what
criteria become law, enforcement will always be an ongoing issue.
When the TAT promotes activities, it has a responsibility to guarantee
safety, credentialing, and maintaining Thailand's natural treasures. It
should promote only properly accredited companies that treat both customers
and locations with respect.
The Department of National Parks is the "landlord" of many popular tourism
destinations in Phang Nga Province and on Koh Phi Phi. It is therefore in a
position to supervise visits - and require its own guide training on basic
We don't need to set Hawaii standards, but we can at least start somewhere.
Shouldn't a swimming test, basic lifeguarding, and first aid and CPR
certificates be minimum requirements for marine tour guides?
It sounds like common sense to me. But want to bet on when it actually
John Gray started commercial sea kayaking tours in Hawaii in 1983, and
moved to Phuket six years later, setting up the first sea kayaking operation
in Phang Nga Bay, the multi-award-winning SeaCanoe. Today he runs John
Gray's SeaCanoe, also based in Phuket. For more information call Tel: