Lucas Handley, To the Depths

On the beach in Byron Bay, where it all began, we chat to freediver, marine scientist, and film-maker Lucas Handley.

Picture a little boy in the foothills of Byron stepping through creeks, exploring the rainforest, seeking out creatures – ever curious about what to catch, how things grow and why so much changes with the seasons.

At the age of 12, the boy swapped the forests for the sea and discovered an incredible new playground to explore. He became fascinated with the ocean and remains so, more than twenty years on.

As a child, Lucas Handley’s goal was to one day have a career where shoes would not be required. And now, at 33, he’s mostly barefoot or in fins and surely, they don’t count as shoes?

Lucas dives towards the surface
Lucas diving towards the surface

Ignoring the advice of school teachers and career advisers to go into biomedical science, he chose to follow his heart and become a marine scientist instead. Lucas is also a film-maker and passionate environmentalist. He has almost completed his law degree which he took up having witnessed great frustration from those in the marine science community who often felt their hands were tied due to environmental policy. Lucas also participated in the powerful eco documentary, Blue. He’s a freediver, freediving instructor and business owner, having launched the Underwater Academy a couple of years ago.

As I see it, ‘all-rounder’ doesn’t begin to cover it, but Lucas doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t think I’m that different to anyone else. I was just born into a place with a beautiful and intact environment where I had the opportunity to connect with it. I think you could give any kid access to that beauty and they would have a similar desire to protect it.”

And while his work keeps him in Sydney much of the time, those beloved surrounds that shaped Lucas’s childhood mean Byron will always be home.

It was by observing a spearfisherman one day at a local beach that a young Lucas realised it was possible to venture deeper into the ocean. Here he found his favourite escape. I ask if the silence is part of the appeal. “Actually, it’s not as quiet as people imagine. The reef is alive with bubbles and cracks and all sorts of sounds.”

Lucas gives a kid a shoulder ride
Lucas with a Solomon Islands local

For Lucas, the key to freediving is to stay relaxed despite feeling both nervous and exhilarated about reaching new depths. For many years, he had been keen to share his knowledge, but the demand was not there. Instagram changed all that.

“The popularity of the sport went through the roof. People were seeing stunning images of divers in their long fins interacting with charismatic megafauna like whales and mantas and turtles and became completely captivated. So, something that I’d been doing for 15 or 20 years suddenly took off,” he says.

The Underwater Academy has locations in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth but Lucas hopes to expand it further, including Byron which would allow him a move back to the coast. I learn from Lucas that we’re all wired for success in certain facets of the sport.

Lucas with partner Hannah
Lucas with partner Hannah

“What’s fascinating is that every human on earth has a dive reflex and, with a small amount of training, we can all adjust to holding our breath underwater.” Lucas believes we simply need to trust ourselves and our physical abilities more.

“We all have a connection with our body that we don’t usually explore. I love seeing people realise they are capable of amazing things. I’ve had a 100% success rate with people holding their breath for over two minutes by the end of a training session.”

Lucas is soon off to Komodo for a trip with fellow freedivers. Tonga is another location he frequents, to dive with humpbacks. He travels widely but it is the Solomon Islands that has really captured his heart. Lucas is drawn there time and again and recently took his partner Hannah for her first visit to the islands.

Lucas with local Solomon Islander children
An underwater selfie with kids from the Solomon Islands

“The Solomons is one of my favourite places to go. The oceans are beautiful, the forests are incredible, and I find the villages I visit really harmonious. People look after each other and visitors in a way I haven’t experienced anywhere else. The sense of community is wonderful; everyone feels a part of their community and looks after it. I’d like to think I bring some of that mentality home with me.”

When he returns home, it’s never long before the fins are on and the big blue beckons. Down he dives, propelling his body, listening to those bubbles and cracks of the reef. And once more, he’s that curious Byron boy exploring his surrounds – which are, quite literally, breathtaking.

For more information, go to www.lucashandley.com

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