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John Gray

The founder of pioneering eco-tourism company John Gray’s Sea Canoe, took some time away from paddling in Phang Nga’s caves to reflect on his life of activism and adventure.

January 2011

Where are you from?
I was born into an environmental activist family in Southern California and we had a family homestead on Newport Beach. My parents met on a Sierra Club trip, climbing Mount Whitney I think. They were involved in every progressive cause. My mother was a spectacular woman, light years ahead of her time. During World War II my mother’s windows were knocked out when she opposed the internment of Japanese American citizens.

What did you do before you came to Phuket?
I was living in Hawaii, which is the most beautiful place on the planet, both its nature and society. I first went to Hawaii with the navy. I was based in San Diego and played football and softball in the navy at a high level. We went to Hawaii for one week and I knew that this was my home.

After graduating from UCLA in California in 1974 I returned to Hawaii. My first job there was picking wild avocados in the jungle to sell to Mexican restaurants. I got my first real break with the Hawaii Employer’s Council as publications editor. In its quarterly journal I wrote about the rising cost of medical care and at the next annual meeting I questioned the chairman of Pacific resources as to why he wasn’t in solar power. That led to 20 million homes with solar hot water heaters. I then worked with the United Way where I ran Hawaii’s largest media campaign, Spirit of Ohana, which helped supercharge a Hawaiian renaissance and restore pride among the local cultures.

In 1980 I was hired by the National Cancer Institute to report the results of a long-term study where they got 200,000 people to log and report their diets every week for 30 years. I became a vegan as a result of this study and ever since I’ve said that if you eat your relatives, your karma is heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity.

After that I went back to the ocean: kayaking, big wave body surfing and scuba diving. Because of Hawaii’s renaissance and my passion for environmentalism I wanted to do sea kayaking in the tropics. I got some inflatable kayaks and started paddling the Molokai coast. During my third season kayaking I convinced the top news show in Hawaii to do the trip. From this came the TV documentary, “Molokai’s Forgotten Frontier” in 1985, for which we won an Emmy award. I was also involved in founding “Keep the Country Country”, a grassroots movement to develop a master plan to protect Oahu’s North Shore.

When did you move to Phuket?
In 1989. When Hawaii’s master plan finally became law, I said, OK, Asia’s where we’re going to win or lose the planet and decided that’s where I was going next. Tell us more about your early days here in Phuket.

In January 1989 I arrived in Bangkok. I spent my first night in the Sukhumvit area, where a guy tried to sell me a fake Louis Vuitton shirt. He said that everyone’s good at copying here. With this in mind I later invented the phrase “sea canoe”. It’s a joke name. There’s no such thing as a sea canoe, but I realised I’d eventually be copied and this turned out to be true.

I came back in December. My partner in Hawaii never sent me the money for the trips, so I had to borrow money from customers for the first two trips. At trips’ end the only financial asset I had was a one-way ticket from Samui to Phuket. I cashed in the ticket for 900 baht, paid back 200 baht I’d borrowed from a Thai friend and started the company with 700 baht.

I met a former Hawaii client, the MD of Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Hawaii, who asked if he could help us out. I got him to pay for a long-tail to Phang Nga Bay where we found caves from earlier explorations. We didn’t know what we’d find inside on a lower tide. After discovering the beauty of the lagoons behind the caves I asked myself: “Do I not tell anyone about the caves and let them be destroyed by others who find them later, or do I stick around and introduce an ethic of conservation?” I decided to do the latter, but it didn’t work anyway.

How did John Gray’s Sea Canoe get its start?
I founded my first company and we became the biggest company in eco-tourism. We won six major awards including a Smithsonian and a British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow award. Then one day I got called in to the office and was told, “You’re fired.” After that I formed John Gray’s Sea Canoe, and by chance the company was launched on 9/11 in 2001. We formed the company early morning of 9/11 in Bangkok, and when I flew back to Phuket I saw the second plane go into the second World Trade Center tower.

Now, since recently paying back our partners, I’m in a good position to open franchises outside of Thailand.

Tell us about your lifestyle and family life in Phuket.
I’m a minimalist. I don’t own a car or drive a motorbike. The company truck picks me up, drives me to and from work, or I catch a ride with the company van on trips. I live in a rental house on a mountain that’s seven paces by seven paces in size, simply a bedroom, a work room and toilet, and I added a covered porch.

I married Khun Amporn in1994. For our Hawaii honeymoon we paddled during Hurricane John. She did very well and became Thailand Women’s Kayak champion. I’ve never had children because I became aware of global warming and overpopulation and I didn’t want to contribute to the problem. Besides, I wouldn’t want to saddle anyone with my looks! My children are the people I take on our trips.

What would you say was a defining moment of your life?
In 1963 I surfed at the infamous “Wedge” in Newport Beach and almost died. After surviving that I said to myself, “I died today, so I can be a lunatic from now on.” Every day is a gift.

What are you most proud of?
I came to Asia to achieve three things: First, to introduce the environmental ethic. Second, to inspire interest in natural history, and third to introduce the concept of volume control in tourism. In these, I haven’t really accomplished my goals. However, my major accomplishment in life is my involvement with “Keep the Country Country”, which kept the backside of Oahu free of high-rise development to this day. It truly is old-time Hawaii.

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