For freediver Lucas Handley, the ocean is a powerful healer

Sometimes a set of circumstances which seem unrelated can accidentally determine how your life plays out. For Lucas Handley, it comes down to three things; his grandmother, great swell and a 20-hour road trip inland. Growing up in Byron Bay, the coastal town that hugs the border between NSW and Queensland, a love of the ocean was a birthright for Lucas. This was Byron, before Schoolies, before Splendour, before backpackers and tourist traps.

While his dad, David, was a teacher at Byron Bay High, Handley opted to enrol at Trinity College in Lismore – "no one wants to see their old man at lunch," laughs the 33-year-old. At school, any available window was saved for the water. But it wasn't until one particular afternoon that Handley realised his relationship with the ocean went deeper than just "being from Byron".

"It was June 6th, 2001, and at the time surfing meant everything to me, we had this massive swell on the east coast … the most perfect surf in 20 years," he says. "Everyone was getting out there, all the locals, all the pros', the whole coast was paddling out." Everyone except Handley. He was sandwiched in the back seat of his dad's car, between his older sister, Brydie and younger brother, Garreth.

They were off to visit his grandmother in Scotia, a wildlife sanctuary on the border of South Australia and NSW. "A twenty-hour drive to see Nan," says Handley, dryly. "I remember looking over my shoulder as Byron Bay disappeared out the back window and feeling anxious. It was more than just the surf, I was heading deep inland, and there was this almost physical pull the opposite way, a pull to the water. I knew then that was where I was meant to be."

In many ways, freediving seems like a very 21st-century phenomenon. For starters, it's almost painfully Instagram-friendly, one picture of Handley diving will attract hundreds of likes within minutes. "A lot of people do get into it because it looks good," he laughs. "The funniest thing is you don't even have to go that deep to get a great photo."

We only protect what we love, and we only love what we understand. So that's my mission now, to help people understand our environment, so they love it and want to protect it.

Lucas Handley

But in reality, freediving – a form of underwater diving which involves holding your breath and taking the plunge without oxygen equipment – has been around for thousands of years. In ancient Greece it was practical, freedivers looking for sponges to use while bathing. In Rome it was tactical, freedivers were employed to build underwater barricades or recover lost ships. Today it takes many forms, though perhaps it is most widely (and controversially) known as a sport.

Competitive freedivers travel the world, trying to go deeper, stay longer, sometimes with dangerous results. But for Handley, it was never about winning. "We don't all have to be out there chasing numbers; it just made me feel good, it was my connection to the ocean."

As a teenager, the same pull that tugged him back towards Byron was beckoning once more, this time under the surface. "When I first started [diving], I didn't know what was good and what was bad," he explains. "I did it because I loved what was underwater and it was only later when people started going, "Oh, you're doing it for a long time", that I realised I had something special."

A combination of blind confidence and raw talent drove Handley under the water, and by the early 2000s, he was completing deeper dives with equipment he'd made himself. "I was building my own gear and winging it," he says.

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At that time the freediving community was small, and word spread fast that a kid in Byron Bay was doing some serious dives. "I was contacted by a guy who ran a freediving training group in Sydney; he'd heard about me and just wanted to check I was doing everything safely."

That man was Wayne Judge, a 30-year veteran of the freediving game. "Lucas was obviously talented right from the get-go, some people have talent, other people have to work for it, Lucas just had it," says Judge. "The thing that worried me is that he didn't realise that the dives he was doing were hard, they were dangerous, but he didn't see it because, for him, it was easy."

Handley committed to spending the next few years training body and mind, determined to turn his connection with the water into a career. "I finished school in 2002 and moved straight to Brisbane to study a Bachelor of Biotechnology," he says.

While in Brisbane, Handley worked his way through degrees, studying marine science and law but the limits of tertiary education left him feeling hamstrung. "I met quite a few people who were working as marine biologists and wanting to make a difference but feeling really dismayed," he recalls. "The advice I was given was, "There's a thousand marine biologists out there working in fish and chip shops, do something different"."

It turns out different wasn't that difficult for Handley – a marine biologist with a killer smile who could also film underwater. It didn't hurt that his eye for detail as a freediving photographer was, ironically, breathtaking and so his reputation grew. "I started working for the BBC, travelling to different places, meeting with scientists and raising awareness about the state of our seas," says Handley. "And then from there, it snowballed into the dream."

Over breakfast in Sydney's Coogee, Handley is naturally relaxed, a quality that makes him a good freediver. "Stress burns oxygen and produces carbon dioxide, which makes it difficult to hold your breath longer," says Handley, whose record breath hold is an awe-inspiring six minutes. "If you're nice and relaxed, then you tend to conserve energy."

It's the same trait that makes him attractive to brands and organisations. In the past few years, he's teamed up with Tourism Australia, filmed humpback whales in Tonga for Mercedes Benz and hosted Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. Most recently he was part of the documentary, Blue, which explored the impact of habitat destruction, species loss and pollution is having on the oceans.

An official Sydney Film Festival selection, the film also played at the 2017 United Nations Oceans Conference. Handley narrates much of the movie, his voice echoing in the highest corridors of power.

"We only protect what we love, and we only love what we understand. So that's my mission now, to help people understand our environment, so they love it and want to protect it."

These days his schedule is a carefully curated mix of commercial opportunities and conservation work. Then there's The Underwater Academy, the freediving school Handley started three and a half years ago. "We're getting more and more corporate types, people with highly stressful and demanding jobs who are looking for ways to deal with that."

It seems an odd transition – swapping the power suit for the wetsuit. "It makes sense to me, when you're on our courses, you are completely disconnected. Phones are off, you're underwater, no distraction, so people get to reconnect with themselves."

That's not to say all newcomers are office types looking to switch off. "The fantastic thing about freediving is you're not limited by age or gender, I've had people well into their 60s, young couples, equal numbers of men and women, retirees looking to do rediscover themselves."

Perhaps the rising popularity comes down to the fact that the skills you learn underwater can come in handy on land. At least that's what Handley reckons. "Most of what we teach for freediving applies to everyday life; it's about getting your body and mind working in unison again."

"The first impulse when you dive is to breathe and when can you can't, the body starts to stress – we give you tools to be able to understand that stress and deal with it."

The Underwater Academy is Handley's way of trying to bring a little order back into a chaotic life. Is that a sign that Handley – a man who has always seemed to know where he was being pulled and why – is ready to put down roots? "There is a part of me that wants a settled life, to finish work on a Friday and then catch up with friends and family on the weekend," he says. "Maybe someday that'll be me, who knows."

For now, though, well, don't hold your breath.