King of the Waves

More than 40 years into a career spent marveling at nature, environmental legend John 'Caveman' Gray is still paddling for the environment in the waters off Phuket

Born into an environmental family in southern California in January 1945, where, “the grass was green, the sky was blue and a person’s word was their bond,” John ‘Caveman’ Gray is a legend in Phuket, an advocate for saving the environment long before being green was even a thing. Inspired by Audrey Sutherland, the author of 1978 travel book Paddling My Own Canoe, Gray first started sea kayaking trips in Hawaii in 1983, before later moving to Phuket and starting up his own business ‘John Gray’s Sea Canoe’ with just US$28 in his pocket. He later ended up with the nickname ‘caveman’ for his long white hair and beard and penchant for exploring the rocky coastline, though the local Thais, and almost all of his staff, instead affectionally call him ‘ling yai’ - big monkey.

So how has sea canoeing developed as a business since he began paddling in the ocean nearly four decades ago? “First off, 'sea canoe' is actually just a joke name I invented,” laughs Gray. “There is no such thing. The definition of a canoe is a craft propelled by a single blade paddle, whereas a kayak uses a double-blade paddle. Because we train our staff they know the joke. Next, the core experience of sea kayaking is communion with nature, so our tours are for adventure and education.” Gray tries to plant the seeds of environmental awareness, creating a curiosity for natural history and healthy food.

“Farmed shrimp, fish and chicken is full of poison chemistry,” he says. “The animals are kept in torture chambers, so we carefully select our food, only serving net caught fish and shrimp, and free range chicken. And we tell our guest what it is and why. We are here – Phuket for me, Mother Earth for us all – to make a difference. I once had a solid, comfortable corporate career, but then I realized that my calling was far more than just making money. If we can create a spark of curiosity, a passion to make a difference, we are doing our job.” And has he seen any improvements in the ocean?

“Let me tell you a story. I was once on a film shoot at Koh Penak in Phang Nga Bay. There were macaque monkeys everywhere. Then a tour boat appeared and everything changed. The mother macaques brought their babies closer into their arms, and all the monkeys left the beach for the cliffs.” He shakes his head when recalling the scene. “I was actually amazed that they weren’t sticking around for food, but obviously this boat brought problems with it. Once the hordes disembarked, it all became clear to me. The folks from this tour knew nothing about nature except destruction and harassment.” 

I ask John what he considers to be the solution to such ignorance. “The simple answer is education. The question really is: can we develop the tools, train the guides and fisheries workers, create the conservation ethic in elementary schools, and make the changes before we lose not only our oceans but Mother Earth?” He answers his own question: “We all only go around once. It’s up to everyone of us to make a difference!”

If he wasn't paddling the waters off Phuket leading tours and promoting conservation, Gray has no hesitation in answering where he'd like to be instead. “Hawai’i and all of Polynesia. Hawai’i is the most magical spot on earth. When you become one with the 'A’ina' or homeland, every breath becomes spiritual. Even in downtown Honolulu, you can feel the 'Spirit of the Land'. Hawai’i opens the door, but all of Polynesia is magic. Polynesians are close to nature. The A’ina is everything – the sea and land brings good healthy food, spectacular vistas, and wonderful cultures built on mutual co-operation.”

Ultimately Gray would like to see all ocean visitors have a sense of shared ownership. “Tourism needs to create an ethic that all people can take home, and become good stewards. Then this all becomes truly meaningful. These issues are beyond borders.”