Home » Why John Gray? » John Gray's Seacanoe



London Sunday Times - July 28, 1996
Travel Section - Page 1&2

Hollow Victory by Mark Ottaway

You pick up sea lore pretty fast paddling around the coast of Thailand. The chaps with guns, for instance, usually AK-47's or pump action shotguns, are birds' nesters. The good fishing spots are close to those cliffs that seem to have shining white saucers embedded in their base. What sound like sea gulls are sea eagles. And, if you venture where quite possibly no human has ever ventured before until this decade, then you can hear a leaf fall.

I was in Phang Nga Bay, between the thriving beach resort of Phuket and the mainland province of Krabi. It is about 20 miles across and its most striking feature is its islands, scores of them, all with dreaming spires of limestone karst, some nothing but rock rising sheer from the sea, others with low-lying land as well, beaches, villages and more surprising features. The most famous, and, as is the way of things, by now one of the least interesting, has been dubbed James Bond Island because it featured in The Man with the Golden Gun.

When I first saw rock formations such as these in Chinese paintings, I assumed anything quite so improbably romantic had to be an artistic convention. But they really do exist as mountains and islands, from Guilin in China (the original inspiration for the painters) down to Langkawi in Malaysia. What is more, many of them are honeycombed with caves and tunnels. Which is why Bond's villain holed up in one. And why I was paddling a canoe around them. Like a lot of vaguely anorakish things (including anoraks themselves), canoes make perfect sense. As a way of seeing the world they are favoured by no less a connoisseur than Paul Theroux. They are marine bikes, silent and efficient translators of renewable energy into forward motion. They can get you just about anywhere, to more places than you would imagine exist.

John "Caveman" Gray came to Thailand, not quite literally, in an inflatable canoe in 1989. A dedicated kayaker from Honolulu, he had flown in with his canoes and some fellow enthusiasts to investigate rumours of lost worlds among the islands of Phang Nga bay. He found them. 

Just how these hongs, or lagoons, came into being is still unclear. That they are caves whose roofs have collapsed is one possibility. In their most dramatic form they have sheer walls a couple of hundred feet high, chimneys of vegetation and wildlife, inside islands with equally sheer outer walls. Some such are probably still waiting to be discovered. Yet, others have perfectly obvious entrances where the wall between them and the sea has either collapsed or eroded into large natural archways.

It was the hongs in between these extremes of accessibility that Gray and his canoes brought to light. What he discovered was that many caves, some starting as quite insignificant-looking holes in the cliffs visible only at low tide, but which became torturous winding sea passages and hallways 100 yd or more long, lead to previously unsuspected hongs.

Each would have their particular windows of opportunity (usually, but not necessarily, for an hour or so at low water), but once this has been figured out, a canoe is with a touch and a reasonable resistance to claustrophobia could slip through into them without undue difficulty. What made then even more exciting was the likelihood that these were places no humans had ever been before.

Locals had always given a wide berth even to what, in retrospect, can seem some pretty obvious entrances, ones through which light could sometimes be seen from the open sea. Superstition, lack of economic incentive to enter them and plain fear (until recently there were the lairs of saltwater crocodiles) all played their part. So the likelihood seems slim that any swimmer might have worked their way through long dark cave systems that no traditional craft could have navigated, to some of the really obscure hongs before Gray discovered them.

Word of such places having got out, the problem now was how best to protect them. The story of SeaCanoe, the company that Gray subsequently formed to take tourists into them, was one we mentioned earlier this year in our report on British Airways' Tourism For Tomorrow Awards, of which it was a regional winner. In brief, the concept was ecologically rigorous commercial exploitation from which local people (and that meant local, not city fat cats) should be the financial beneficiaries.

I was on a three-day journey, traveling by motorized mother ship. We would launch canoes on arrival at a new island, explore by canoe and on foot, eat on board and sleep in tents on the beach. I didn't know the first thing about canoeing, and though it sounded vaguely daunting when I signed up (not least because I was under the impression that we would have to paddle everywhere), it turned out to be as strenuous or as relaxing an adventure as one cared to make it.

We were lowered gently into the business, to the extent that, like people who go on SeaCanoe's day trips, we ventured into our first hong as passengers on a two-person canoe. Only later did we start traveling solo, and even then all passages into and out of hongs would be in convoy with guides.

To emerge into a hong is a bit like having the sort of sudden readjustment to all the senses that happens to the ears when they pop. You begin your journey where the sea laps restlessly against the outer walls of the island. At this point you are usually under an overhang (unless it has recently fallen) where high seas, or different sea levels in bygone ages, have eaten into the limestone.

Such overhangs are where the mostly Muslim fisherfolk like to shelter from the heat of the day waiting for their nets or traps to fill. Their wives are usually with them, their faces usually painted white. Their long-tiled boats are gaily caparisoned at the bows with ribbons. They welcome company; the chances are that they are from the same villages as our guides.

They give us crabs and other tidbits for lunch. The walls against which we lap and bob are palimpsest of molluscs, mostly oysters. They snack off these, leaving the half shells like shiny white saucers at the base of the cliff face, which towers above us, stalactites so thick and gnarled that they seem more like extensions of the limestone, which combined with roots and trees (some of these hanging precariously upside down) in a natural tower block for as far up as the neck can raise the eyes.

The sounds chance to splash and echo in the caves, some of which are briefly so low that we have to lie on our backs and pull ourselves along the ceiling by hand. Where there are no such squeeze holes between us and the world outside, we often have darting birds and bats for company. On either side of these narrows, and, indeed, for almost all our subterranean journeys, the ceilings can be high and beautiful and unclaustrophobic, with great stalactites and cascading curtains of crystal that, depending upon the triangular and ever-changing relationship between them, our torch beams and our eyes, shine, shimmer or glow translucently like waterfalls or, as our guide suggests helpfully, angels' wings. For some reason, I am reminded of pictures of aurora borealis. Then, blinking at the light, deafened by the sudden silence, you emerge in the secret garden, the new planet almost, that is a hong. The silence is brief. The insects in here are synchronised. Cicada-like creatures (one of such piercing power that we refer to it as "the boiling kettle") deliver walls of sound every 5 to 10 seconds. House rules are: no talking (save necessary whispers); eating, drinking, smoking or littering in hongs. We lie on our backs - the virtually indestructible, uncapsizeable inflatables that we use to enter them (but not for open sea exploration) are ideal for this - and gaze upwards.

The ingenuity of the multifarious plant life is incredible. That anything can grow on these sheer sides is wonder enough, so it has a tendency to be bonsaied. Some trees appear to spring ready-formed from solid rock, even from the tips of stalactites, where it is impossible to imagine room for any root system. Others have put out surface roots that have probed and groped like octopus tentacles along the rock face until they find a hold. Many have split the rocks in this endeavor, their roots holding the bundled fragments together like a rope net, that will release its load when the plant dies, thus creating new opportunities in a new rockscape for its successors. "Monkey-ladder" vines twist down to the mangroves on the hong floor. Leaves spin down and gently tap the water.

Hornbills occupy the high ground, their boisterous calls echoing down to us as they bluster across the sky. To be honest, at first I had thought these were monkey cries. Then there were monkey cries. But we never saw the monkeys. I was a touch disappointed that there was not more wildlife. But it was unreasonable to imagine (as, perhaps, I secretly had) that a small unravaged spot of our planet could be as the whole planet might have been had we not been there. So I got excited by chitons instead, "living fossils" that compete with other molluscs for a living at the water's edge.

Not all hongs were so chimney like, and not all had their surface covered by water. Some one could stroll around in, some of the more accessible one had a sufficiently large ratio of floor area against the height for flocks of sea birds to sweep into them. Others were like canyons. We paddled down one for about half a mile, which was pretty uniform 10yd wide, winding between sheer walls at least 150 ft high. Trees growing out from either side would occasionally meet high above our heads.

Not all our exploration was in hongs. We took rigid canoes, easier to paddle but easier to capsize, on longer forays. We flew across coral gardens (though the organism-rich waters of the bay are, for the most part, rather murky). We learnt about fish traps (used in spring tides when traps would be swept away, but prawns get swept into them). We became adept at cracking open soft-shelled crabs. And we had a bit of luck with bird's nesters.

Some islands have caves that are the nesting grounds of Aerodramus fuciphagus (aka the edible-nest swift). The Chinese believe that a soup made from its nest improves male sexual performance. The nests, which re made entirely of spittle, fetch up to US$2,500 (&1,650) a pound, which at 34 to 50 nests a pound means $50 a nest and big bananas.

The prudent bird's-nester, therefore, rides shotgun to market, sleeps shotgun in his caves at night, and does not welcome visitors. On the other hand, it was the beginning of the season, friends of our crew had just acquired the concession on a choice cave along our route, and we were to deliver some essential supplies.

You can always tell caves where nesters are or have been at work; they usually debouch into thin air somewhere high up a cliff (birds are not daft enough to nest at walk-in sites) and bamboo poles and lianas will be leaning against or hanging from them. The nesters will trust nothing else, their greatest scorn being reserved for synthetic ropes.

The islands on, or rather in, which we soon found ourselves seemed almost entirely hollow (an embryonic hong?) with the nesters camped at the bottom of the cave system about 20 ft above the sea in an incredible Wendy house of many levels, cantilevers and suspension mechanisms (metal hawsers, it appeared, were okay), all contrived to wedge it in midair beneath a rock ceiling.

They took us on a stroll through their subterranean domain, which was lightly carpeted and aromatised with spongy bat droppings. What at first I took to be a susurrus of sea motion turned out to be bats at the top of one of the highest caverns, which, in general shape ad size, bore comparison with a cathedral. This was full of bamboo trunks that looked as if they had been held in an upright bundle in a giant fist, like pick-up sticks, and then allowed to fall randomly at an angle against the walls up which they formed rat runs for the nesters.

The birds, whose front door was on the other side of the island high above sea level, were currently out feeding up for their salival exertions. They have to make two nests. The first our friends would promptly remove. The second would be left in peace, indeed watched over, until the young had flown. The nesters know just how far you can push a swift.

Our meals were sensational (our cook paddled his canoe everywhere with a lure trailing from his big toe to keep us in squid). We spent the nights camped on some wonderful beaches with, inevitably, great cliff faces behind us and sea eagles riding the thermals. West-facing beaches seemed to have been deliberately chosen so we had grandstand seats when the sun went down. At night the skies were so bright and clear that the jets gliding down to Phuket airport seemed like alien spacecraft and ours the reality.

I want to add one more thing about SeaCanoe, not mentioned in the awards, nor directly connected with my experience; on the other hand, it had everything to do with it. Caveman Gray is that special creature, a practical dreamer. He wanted to create a company that was not only environmentally beyond reproach but morally so also, in a country where uneducated workers are often cruelly exploited. 

One of our guides casually let drop that he had driven the other guide to the hospital in a coma some months before. He had had a brain hemorrhage. I looked at the young man from a fishing village, the picture of rude health, and asked, "But.?" "Oh, we have brain scanners in Phuket," I was told. His head was opened up that evening , necessary brain surgery was performed, and he was fully restored. So I asked, as I ask in every country: "Who pays for something like that, the government, the patient.?" He looked at me, surprised. ".Why, SeaCanoe, of course."

Getting There: SeaCanoe operates a variety of canoeing trips in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. The three-day "mini-expedition" from Phuket that Mark Ottaway made costs US$500/&332 (from Phuket) and operates from November to August inclusive. A longer six day trip costs US$900. Day trips to the hongs, only booked locally, cost $100. There are also year-round hotel-based "Discover Krabi Nature Expeditions"; $440 and $660 for three or five days, respectively, which include jungle trekking as well as paddling the spectacular Krabi coastline. SeaCanoe does not have a British agent. Any competent tour operator to Thailand should be able to incorporate a SeaCanoe journey in its package. Certainly Asia World Travel (01932-820050) can. For direct bookings or more information, the e-mail address is info@johngrayseacanoevietnam.com, fax 00-66-76-212-172, tel 212-252, and http://www.johngrayseacanoevietnam.com is the web site.

Mark Ottaway


From the Caveman: "My apologies for this timely personality profile, but it exemplifies SeaCanoe's principles and ideals. While it is true that I am "the Founder" and developed the "Tidal Technology" that allows all this to happen, we all know that an effort like this is never the work of any one individual. 

There are many folks who also deserve credit for SeaCanoe's success - let them be known before you proceed. All these folks are heroes who have placed their lives on the line, not only for what SeaCanoe stands for, but for a stronger, corruption-free and democratic Thailand - and for a properly managed Phang Nga National Park. Aside from the assault on the caves, corruption-based unenvironmental practices devastate the National Park (and most of Thailand's national parks.) 

For example, illegal trawlers pay the Mafia corruption to fish in the Park, and the Mafia passes some of this corruption on to "officials" to look the other way. Longtail fishermen say that since this started, their shrimp catches dropped from 100K a month to 5-6K. When we started, we were told that the Park controls its own islands and they would protect the caves in cooperation with us. Ever since, the TAT and the Park have begged off their environmental responsibilities by claiming that "There isn't any law" - all that is required is a Park regulation and a high user fee of B500 to support enforcement. Is the inaction the result of incompetence or corruption? Take your pick. 


Soonthorn "Mut" Sagulsan - An original partner and SeaCanoe's managing director, 
Mut grew up as a fisherman on a local island. Mut is as honest and loyal as the day is long, and is currently in a safe house where he lobbies senior government officials on his mobile phone for volume controls and professional standards, and against Mafia-style extortion. 

Simon Warren - A "Thai fisherman from Cardiff, Wales", Simon is an original partner in charge of overnight trips. Featured in our video "Adventure in South Thailand", Simon is fluent in Southern Thai, knows the nuances of Southern Thai kayaking better than anybody, and is a personable and diplomatic leader.

Panwong Hiranchai - A lifelong seaman, Pan is our Day Trip Operations Manager, which allowed Mut to develop his administrative and government relations duties. Pan has fire in his heart for SeaCanoe's ideas, and for Thailand's future. He believes so strongly in Thailand that he took three bullets in an assignation attempt related to our fight for responsible management of the Park. Despite a death threat in public and eight witnesses to the broad daylight shooting, as of November 4, the Thai government has not arrested the shooter.

Our Staff - The day after Pan was shot, everybody turned up for work and performed their normal guide duties. Not one guest had a clue of the tragedy that had befallen us the previous day. When I asked one guide why he did this, he said "John, do you forget that SeaCanoe is my profession, and will be for my children, too?" He actually used the word "profession". 

Our Friends - Although Thailand is riddled with corruption and the Bangkok Post still backs up the Mafia claims that the Park's islands are "bird nest rich" (the previous concessionaire freely admits that there have never been any swallows in the caves), there are plenty of decent, honest and capable Thais. Many have come to our support because they understand that the Kingdom is at a crossroads. I'm sorry that we cannot mention names, but you know who you are.

Thanks. Caveman


October/November 1998

Phuket's Complicated Caveman by Kyra Crisp

Every year in Phuket' s Phang Nga bay, thousands of tourists are paddled through dark holes in limestone rock with some of the most beautiful lagoons in the world. In the nine years since they were discovered, the giant roof-less caves that are Thailand's hongs have drawn more and more visitors. Hushed, they marvel at these self-contained little worlds, guarded by towering walls of  limestone, and the rhythmic rise and fall of the tides that open and close  the small entrance tunnels. Little do most of the visitors know that while they  gaze up toward the sky, the man who most likely found the hong they're in, and  then marketed it as an ecotourism destination, is now glued to a computer  screen, fighting to send many of the boats back home. John "Caveman" Gray says copy cat companies have mushroomed, and the hongs are being visited by many more people than their delicate ecosystems can stand.

John Gray gets passionate about a lot of things. About Thailand's hongs: To me these places are a sacred as the Emerald Buddha." About rural development: ".rural development has been my thing since I was a kid. I made some observations as a teenager that are still part of our rural development policy today." About the company he founded and its potential: "You see, my vision for Thailand is to have about 20 sincere kayaking companies operating in villages up and down the coastline here - sea caving just happens to be the one that we did here, but there can be mangrove paddles, surfing, wildlife tours, there's dozens of different options." And about the competitors he says are riding on the back of SeaCanoe's success: "Our operations manager just counted between 16 and 18 companies; it's just a floating market out there."

Gray lay the foundations for the business in Thailand in 1989, when he paddled his kayak into unexplored dark tunnels, convinced they'd lead somewhere worthwhile. As the tunnels' end, he found daylight, and the unbelievably beautiful hongs -giant open-roofed time capsules, locked away from the rest of the world for millennia.

When he founded his company, SeaCanoe Thailand, he paddled into territory that was just as new, setting up a ground-breaking model for eco-tourism enterprises owned by local people. There's been light at the end of that tunnel too - the bright spotlight of international media attention and world-class environmental awards, too numerous to list.

But, the hongs, and to some extent the company, are facing the same problems. Over-use of the hongs by some other operators, and some mistreatment, means the environment itself is under threat. It's a complicated conundrum; as complicated as the character of the man who's one of the chief players on the board.

For, if life is a jigsaw puzzle, then John Gray is an object less in putting together the bits that don't seem to match. At first sight, the man is a mass of contradictions. He's an academic, and a journalist. He's a sporting daredevil who's happiest when he's paddling through monstrous Hawaiian waves, but uncompromising about others' safety. He's a committed environmentalist and a successful businessman - albeit one who believes money is humanity's most banal pursuit. As well, he's a trainer, a husband, a father, and, perhaps most of all, a missionary - environmental, that is.

The puzzle pieces come together to make a man who's uniquely suited to the job he made for himself in Thailand; exploring the hongs in Phang Nga Bay, and forming the company that lets local people make a living showing them to the world.

His working day is just as complicated. When he's not tied to a computer (and he says that's 20 hours a day) he's working with staff at the company he founded, SeaCanoe Thailand; judging the risks of tidal flow while he explores an unknown limestone tunnel looking for a hong; campaigning for more government protection for those very same hongs; explaining the principles behind the operational rules to local people wanting to start a Sea Canoe franchise; planning trips to other operations in Vietnam, the Philippines or Fiji; or breathing fresh air into academia (he's also Visiting Professor of Ecotourism at Srinakarinwiroj University).

The picture that is John Gray began to form in California in the 1950s, when, as a more than slightly adventurous child, he swam into sea caves on the coast. "I see a cave, even a land cave.you know some people get afraid of dark small places, but I just go, wow, that looks interesting." He says.

At 12 he learned to scuba dive, and had his certificate in his hand before California brought in minimum age requirements. Then came family diving trips to Mexico - 90's style traveling in the 50s and 60s. 

In many ways, I see my folks as the first modern Eco-tourists,' Gray wrote in an academic paper.".somehow the entire Gray family learned Spanish. We bought a camper and a trailered boat, and explored Mexico on our own." 

The family looked for remote beaches and fishing villages, and Gray learned the real value of things he took for granted back home: safe drinking water, electricity, antibiotics, rural cultural networks and true friendship.

"Three times, I was in villages when the lights went on for the first time," he says. 

Ten years later, Gray was a scholarship student at prestigious UCLA, and went back to Mexico on holidays. That decade had brought more than a sprinkling of lights.

"Consumerism and advertising hit Mexico like a storm," he wrote. "Inflation consumed buying power before it was created, and socials ills such as crime, theft and official corruption, turned charming village societies into ruthless money-grabbing machines."

At one beach in particular, the impact was devastating. Last time he'd visited, it was owned by a family of shy peasants, and the only access was by boat. Now, there was land access, to a fancy hotel, but the reef had been a casualty of the movie, Catch 22, that had been filmed there earlier. 

"It was gone, blasted out to make a movie and sludged over by hotel construction. Even worse, the family sold out for $200. Before, they were poor but sustainable. Now, they were landless beggars."

Mexico left him asking questions about the price of development that he's still working hard to answer today.

The years between saw him move to Hawaii, where he became a medical journalist 
and later, a journalism lecturer. He also met the surf, and started a love affair with kayaks. Crazy as it sounds to the world at large, Gray then mixed the waves and the kayaks with the kind of sea caves he'd loved as a child. Sea caving in kayaks in Hawaii meant paddling into these dark caverns and playing with the waves. It's a sport best left to the experts. Inside a cave, in the dark, a wave that looks small on the outside can pose a huge threat.

Inn 1983, Gray founded a kayaking company in Honolulu - Pacific Outdoor Adventures. The Thailand connection came later, in 1989, as Gray began exploring the tidal caves that lead to the hongs. Although these caves don't have Hawaii's waves, the tides pushing water through small openings create currents that are just as dangerous for the inexperienced.

"The current moves as fast as a mountain stream, complete with sound effects echoing off the cave walls. I body surf Waimea Bay, but I could not swim in many of these caves," Gray says.

While he was exploring, his partners in Hawaii were dismantling the company. Gray went back to Hawaii to find himself left with nothing. His decision to start his SeaCanoe venture in Thailand was backed by his appetite for the new, a set of principles about rural development and local ownership that he'd been working on since Mexico, bookings for three, two-week expeditions - and no money. 

He says he started SeaCanoe with the 700 baht refund from a plane ticket, and kept going because he was determined to prove that business and the environment 
could work together. Running it was the only way to prove it was possible.

"If I sit in my ivory tower and declare to the world via a publishing house that a business can thrive by putting the environment first, nobody would believe me," he says.

SeaCanoe follows all those principles - 90 percent of the money it generates goes back into the local economy; its employees are paid salaries that are well above the local average; staff are encouraged to improve their skills; the environment comes first. Franchise arrangements enshrine these principles in copywriting and marketing agreements. SeaCanoe will help franchisees with set up costs including boats - but the funds must be paid back from operating costs. Gray says they learned from experience that offering free shares meant they weren't valued.

But if it reads like an environmentalists' bedtime story so far - that's where it stops. Gray says some copy cats have hijacked the company name, riding on the back of the overseas promotion that the company worked so hard to build up. He says some are cutting costs, some are damaging the hongs, and far to many people are coming in.

According to Gray, it's commercialism with no regard for education, or for the delicacy of the caves. Some operators, he says, allow people "to get out and play and have sing-a-song sessions so they can hear themselves echo off the walls."

"People should conduct themselves as they would going into a temple. You know, to me, whether you want to call it God or Buddha, whoever it was, these are obviously special and sacred places. And even the Thais don't have respect for their own national treasures. And I'm deeply hurt and offended by the attitudes of our copycats."

Gray believes the caves shouldn't be visited by any more than 42 people a day. And, he says, as the discovers and developers of the hongs, the rights should be awarded to SeaCanoe, not to the companies who followed in its wake. He says it's not a case of a Westerner wanting exclusive rights to a Thai attraction - SeaCanoe is Thai majority owned. "It's not my company it's Thai-owned company - so we're talking about a group of Thais who I trained and they respect and love these sites and they resent what's going on as much as I do.

"In an honest, ideal world, they'd say, 'okay, SeaCanoe originally developed this experience, they took it to its capacity, they operate in a responsible manner, they're the only folks that should be allowed to go in there."

"I developed a unique way to observe these environments without leaving even a footprint. Even one kayak should go in with great respect and concern, but it's a floating market now - let's put a turnstile there."


Paddler Magazine - November-December 1998
The Official Magazine of the American Canoe Assn., circulation to 200,000 members

Paddle People : Sea Kayaking with John "Caveman" Gray

"The lanky, gray-ponytailed gringo stood out in the sea of suits and evening dresses in a fancy ballroom of Bangkok's super-luxe Shangri-La Hotel. He appeared to be an old hippie who never got around to leaving Southeast Asia."

Perhaps he knew someone who knew someone who got him into the high-toned cocktail party. The man wasn't paying a lot of attention to the officials droning welcoming 
speeches. He was speaking loudly enough to border on rudeness to his own small audience of rapt listeners. In truth, his words were more important than the officialese being intoned into the microphones.

I soon learned that he was John Gray, a commanding figure in contemporary Southeast Asian environmental issues. His height, his passion and even his outfit, which was similar to a karate gr--- but of gray Thai silk instead of white cotton created a presence. It is appropriate that he dresses up in a warrior uniform of sorts, for the man is a fighter. His usual chariot is a yellow sit-on-top kayak, his lance is a paddle and his enemy is everyone who threatens the region's coastal ecosystem.

In a heartbeat, Gray will rail against short-sighted and corrupt officials, against bad long-term choices made by desperate villagers, against hit-man logging tactics, against push-net fishing boats that deplete local marine life, against shrimp farms that flush toxic effluents into the sea, and against non-sustainable development of all sorts. He is messianic in his belief in stroke-by-stroke tourism, and a modest "industry" to support it, as the salvation of his adopted region - and perhaps the world. "Southeast Asia is where we will win or lose the planet," he maintains. "I'm committed to make sure that it's all still here in a hundred years."

Gray grew up with Sierra Club blood coursing through his veins and remains an idealistic savior of mangroves, an advocate of sustainable village economies and an Eco-tourism pioneer. After moving to Hawai'i in 1983 (1), he introduced sea kayaking as an alternative to the high-impact tourism which afflicted America's 50th state, but it was too late there. So Gray moved on to Thailand, settling in 1989 on sun-blessed Phuket. There, paddling amid the karst islands that rise like primordial stone sculptures from Phang Nga Bay, he discovered water-filled caves and fissures in the limestone that are navigable by canoe - and earned himself the nickname "Caveman". The light went on and he started SeaCanoe with four boats and $28. Now, SeaCanoe's yellow kayaks ply the waters not only of Thailand but also the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos and the South Pacific, and a paddling school specializing in warm-water tropical kayaking also has been established.

From the beginning, Caveman trained locals - many of them displaced fishermen - to become guides through karst islands, coastal mangrove channels and deep canyons carved by tidal rivers. SeaCanoe teaches them about respectful, responsible travel while drawing on their knowledge of the seacoast and their culinary skills for trips.

Paddler Magazine - November-December 1998 Page 2

"A canoe across the water leaves no trace" is one of several SeaCanoe slogans. Once an operation is in place, SeaCanoe turns ownership over to local people.

From a traveler's viewpoint, SeaCanoe is about immersion both into spectacular waterscapes and into the culture of the people who live in Southeast Asia. Most SeaCanoe trips are at least three days. The company reluctantly offers day trips from such popular tourist locales as Phuket and Krabi, but Caveman doesn't especially like them. "They're a mess. No one has time for anything. We do them to maintain a presence because we've now got imitators, but I don't recommend a day trip," he says forthrightly. On longer trips, such as through the scattered islands of Thailand and Vietnam, travel between islands is on a big escort boat.

Caveman, of course, was as much in his element at the party with crystal chandeliers over his head as he is with benign waters underfoot. After all, he is often called upon to address groups that meet in posh hotels - and the awards heaped upon his environmentally friendly company tend to be handed out in fancy ballrooms.

- For more information, visit www.johngrayseacanoevietnam.com

- - Claire Walter

(1) Gray moved from Southern California to Hawai'i in 1970 at the invitation of Hawaiian-blood environmental and cultural activists. In 1983, he resigned his Journalism Lecturer and Cancer Research Center Communications Director positions at the University of Hawai'i to found the predecessor of SeaCanoe.


(Sunday Times London; 12/27/98)
(Copyright Times Newspapers Ltd, 1998)

The Eco lobbyer By Mark Ottaway

The breathtaking hidden lagoons of Thailand are under threat. MARK OTTAWAY meets the man risking his life to save them

Like any other business, travel has its share of heroes and scumbags, with the majority of operators vacillating somewhere in between. John "Caveman" Gray is not only a hero, he has been recognized as one - a fact that could end up costing him his life. His story encapsulates much of what is wonderful and appalling about Thailand.

Caveman is the founder of Sea Canoe in Phuket. We told his story in these pages when he won a British Airways "Tourism for Tomorrow" award in 1996. A dedicated kayaker from Honolulu, he had flown in with his canoes and some fellow enthusiasts to investigate rumours of lost worlds among the towering limestone karst islands of Phang Nga Bay. And he found them: hollowed out "hongs" or lagoons with sheer rock walls, chimneys of vegetation and open to the sky, but reachable only through caves and tunnels at low tide.

It was a discovery that must have inspired the topography, and hence the plot, of Alex Garland's bestseller, The Beach. That such spots could exist below the flight path of Phuket airport is incredible. It is likely that before Gray arrived nobody had ever set foot in some. The locals certainly knew of many, but regarded them as the preserve of spirits and, until very recently, crocodiles.

Being the sort of chap he is, Caveman's first thought was how to preserve these places. Responsible commercial exploitation, he concluded, was the only answer. Sea Canoe, a good-guy company to end all good-guy companies, was the result: owned by local villagers and deeply committed to staff welfare, research, the local environment and responsible and sustainable tourism, in other words sharing these wonders with you and me.

It was all in marked contrast to the cronyism, exploitation of people, and environmental rape and pillage that is more characteristic of Thai business methods. For a while it seemed that Caveman - a larger than life character and, that rare combination, a practical dreamer - had pulled it off. Environmental awards and international acclaim flooded in, from the American Society of Travel Agents and the Smithsonian Magazine, the Pacific Asia Travel Association, and, only this year, Best Inbound Tour in the Thailand Tourism Awards presented by the prime minister.

But there had been problems almost from the beginning with what Gray calls "Eco pirates", the copy-cat and copy-name operations who made a nonsense of the behaviour codes and numbers limits to which he was committed, and which he believed made the need for some form of proper resource management in the islands and the national park in which most were situated ever more crucial.

Such was Caveman's reputation and transparent honesty that he managed to duck 
the most obvious riposte: that he was trying to corner the market for his own operation. But for him these were sacred places and he was asking the type of questions that foreigners in Thailand can be rash to voice.

"It is a disgrace to the Kingdom that Phang Nga's sea caves/hongs are not afforded management controls similar to the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha, let alone a 'normal' temple," he wrote in a paper setting out the arguments for volume controls.

"If Thailand does not tolerate mass-tour groups of several hundred people going into temples, if Thailand does not allow tourists to climb the walls, if Thailand does not allow temple visitors to break off souvenirs, or to laugh, shout and sing, if Thailand does not allow temple visitors to disrupt the lives of the residents, if Thailand does not allow temple visitors to urinate and smoke in holy temples, why does it allow these practices in what are certainly some of the world's most sacred natural sites?"

He campaigned against the corruption which was allowing the local mafia to trawl in Park waters, pointing out that the legitimate low- tech catches of villagers had dropped from 100 kilograms a month to five or six as an apparent result. These are cowboy waters, birds' nesting is also big business here, and long-tailed boats with chaps sporting AK-47s or pump-action shotguns are common enough sights. Kayaking was a visibly booming addition to the local economy and soon attracted demands for protection money. Sea Canoe, with its staunch "no pay-offs or back handers" policy, alone refused to pay, arguing instead that payments should be made to the National Parks to finance the policing of environmental controls. But it was being squeezed at both ends, undercut by the cowboys, leant on by the Mafia and generally out on its own.

The events that led to the shooting of Panwong Hirunchay, Sea Canoe's operations 
manager, last month began with the management of the a local hotel company on Phi Phi Island demanding an entrance fee for canoes visiting caves (not hongs) on that island. Threats to Sea Canoe staff followed and then Panwong was shot. After the shooting, by an unknown gunman, letters appeared in the Bangkok Post supporting Sea Canoe's stand against the hotel company. Many Thais see the case 
as symbolizing the battle between old corrupt Thai politics and its more open and democratic practice.

Caveman tried to raise these matters at a recent Parliamentary hearing which ironically turned out to be more concerned with a ruckus about the filming of The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio on Phi Phi Island. By this time Caveman had received a death threat himself, mailed from Phuket on November 11. A "program" is Thai travel industry-speak for a project and the lurid but chilling message read: 

"Dear Khun John - next program is 
'The Last Meal of the Cave Man'.SOLONG AND ADIOS."

"Given the salutation and style," says Caveman, "I have little doubt as to the author. Since Panwong's shooter is still free, I do not take this lightly." He and a number of his senior staff now communicate with the outside world only by mobile phone, and he has taken the precaution of depositing documents with friends that he hopes will nail his killers, and high-level connivance in the over- exploitation of Phang Nga Marine National Park, if the worst happens.
*Panwong was released from hospital after three weeks and is expected to make a 
good recovery

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