Introducing the legend of John “Caveman” Gray
Frontier man, cave explorer and environmentalist
Picture blue lagoons, marine caves, monolithic cliffs rising from the sea, the clamour of waves and the deep reverberating hum of cicadas: Phang Nga Bay National Park is indeed one of Thailand’s most iconic and stunning marine national parks littered with caves, colossal limestone formations and white sandy beaches. It is true to say that the story of Phang Nga Bay and its announcement to the world cannot be adequately recounted without a modest tribute, or at least a gentle nod, to cave explorer, John Gray.
“We don’t do anything normal – John Gray”
John’s story however does not begin in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand but in Honolulu, Hawaii, where John set up a cave exploration tour company in 1983 – having already accumulated years of professional experience, kayaking and caving. John was born into a Sierra Club family of passionate, verging on the militant, environmentalists parents who seemed to have imbued in him a strong partiality towards wildlife, ecology and perilous escapades into the unknown.
It seems that John, who learnt to surf at a disturbingly young age, was a qualified YMCA Senior Lifeguard and a certified Scuba instructor by his early 20s was well equipped to begin indulging his fascination in marine cave exploration – a pursuit that would be a defining hallmark of his life and career for the next 4 decades. Starting in Hawaii, then moving to the Philippines, and Vietnam ( Halong Bay ) John finally arrived in Phuket Thailand, in the late 80s where he fell victim to what was ( and still is ) a commonplace affliction for many foreign swashbuckling, thrill-seeking explorers – to succumb to the inextricable nectar, the love trap that is Thailand’s people and places.
John settled down in Thailand and began exploring caves in Phang Nga Bay through befriending local fishermen who would usher him in the general direction of known cave entrances. Since the local fisherman would use merely the opening or aperture of these caves to shelter from rains during the monsoon, the extent of their knowledge of the caves was limited to the cave entrance, and not the entire cave network, which John is widely credited to have discovered and revealed to the world.
John was not merely enamored by the local culture and people but was also deeply respectful and appreciative, setting up a cave exploration tour company in Phuket and hiring local villagers, teaching and training locals and giving back to the community in terms of jobs and various campaigns for environmental sustainability. The local community adopted this bushy two-meter tall “cave man” from Hawaii, earning him the local moniker: “Ling Yai” – or literally “Giant Monkey”
John Gray Sea Canoe today
John Gray Sea Canoe provides spectacular day trips around Phanga Bay National Park with a focus on exploring marine caves and lagoons. On each trip, guests are paired up with a personal guide/paddler who will navigate guests’ canoes through the labyrinthine network of cave canals, eventually appearing into secluded lagoons to the shrills of monkeys and hornbills. John Gray Sea Canoe is the original sea kayak adventure tour in Phuket ( John being the architect- originator of such tours as well as the man behind the discovery of these wonderful caves.)
Many competitors have sprung up since to take advantage of the gaps in the market though none will ever be as characterful or with the same kind of flair as John Gray Sea Canoe owing to his own firm imprint which John left in all areas, whether that may be the strong focus on educating guests ( about rock formation, wildlife preservation, animal habitat while onboard) or its emphasis on sustainability ( John Gray Sea canoe uses organic produce, has a plastic waste reduction targets, provides guests with a garbage collection kit for all to do their part if they come across some litter during island hopping ).
John Gray Sea Canoe with its trademark blue and yellow striped ships also boasts the best onboard travel with newly refurbished boats, delectable local food/coffee and onboard comforts such as wifi, music and even onboard presentations (QR codes for animated mini-lectures.) John Gray Sea Canoe currently offers three types of tours: “Hong by Starlight” is a full-day trip exploring marine caves and lagoons with your personal guide, leisure activities and games( including self-paddle) culminating in a seafood dinner and a traditional loy kratong ceremony where guests are taught to construct their own “Kratongs” or mini flotillas ( made from leaves and other biodegradable matter ) to be offered as a tribute to the sea and the caves at night.
A highlight ( quite literally ) is the bioluminescent plankton that emerges to astound everyone; “James Bond Island” is a day trip that similarly involves exploring marine caves with personal guides but stands apart from “Hong by Starlight” due to its incorporation of the renowned James Bond Island on its itinerary – the craggy and solemn-looking yet totally enchanting megalith that served as the iconic backdrop in the 1974 James Bond film – The Man with the Golden Gun, starring Sir Roger Moore.
Visitors on both trips can expect to see an array of flora and fauna ranging from coastal monkeys, sea hawks, eagles, amphibious fish and even whale sharks if they’re very lucky. These gigantic migratory mammals often circle around Phanga Bay at the end of the year. Guests on the third type of tour ( overnight trip ) are most likely to see whale sharks as the overnight trip tour affords absolute solace with the waves and the wilderness, with guests being taken around on a private long tail boat – a traditional boat used by local fishermen.
John Gray Sea Canoe continues to deliver exquisite and memorable experiences to tens of thousands of guests each year exemplifying the best that Thailand has to offer; though previously John would never miss going on trips with guests himself, educating and guiding all onboard, at the weary and wistful age of 78 John has succumbed to strains demanded by his labour of love, having managed to build the most reputable and storied kayaking company in Thailand. Though John has exited the stage his firm imprint and legacy lives on timelessly through the tremendously loyal team ( which he hand-picked himself ) and through the exceptional experiences and moments which John Gray Sea Canoe provides to visitors every single day.
Address: 111/7 Prachasamakhee Rd, Tambon Ratsada, Mueang Phuket District, Phuket 83000
Hours: 8 am – 7 pm (Sunday closed)
Phone: 076 254 505
Trips and prices: https://johngray-seacanoe.com/trip-price/