A self-proclaimed Peter Pan of society, Lucas Handley has spent his years pegging back the closing frames of the age of exploration. His fascination with the water first came about as a child exploring Australia's coast, wandering the rainforest, and handcrafting his own spears to catch fish from the river.
Now a certified freediver, underwater photographer and marine biologist, Lucas continues to follow his curiosity of the unknown, while at the same time promoting a global approach to save our oceans. Read on as we discuss his passions as an environmentalist, highlights of his career so far, and the message he hopes to send in his part of the critically acclaimed documentary film, BLUE.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to be a freediver?
I grew up around Byron Bay — both in the bush and in the ocean. I had a pretty wild fascination with fish and filled all of the 10 or so fish tanks I had with different creatures I had found in the creeks around our house. As I got a little older, this fascination with fish turned into a passion for diving and spearfishing. As I began to go further and stretch my limits with catching fish, freediving became both a tool to facilitate this, and then later a fascination all by itself. Now, the skills of freediving and spearfishing have allowed me to travel to some of the world's most remote ocean communities and integrate with the local villages.
Where are you based now? And what are you currently doing?
Right now I’m in Maroubra, Sydney. I’m filming a special for a major network, chipping away at another series I’ve had on the cards for a while now, and also teaching freediving full-time. I’m getting students ready to come with me to complete a deep freediving course in the Solomon Islands.
Can you explain how you are helping villagers in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines keep their reefs intact?
One of the greatest assets that these island communities have, is their environment. Typified as an idyllic paradise by the city dwellers of more developed nations, the lack of development and technology is a real drawcard for those looking to detox from our increasingly technology-driven existence. More and more people are beginning to feel detached from the environment, and are seeking out these wild experiences. By teaching the local communities about the value of the asset they have, and finding a way to facilitate an experience for travelers where any impact is managed and minimized, the whole community benefits.
It’s important that the whole community gains benefit from the venture so that competition for the resource is eliminated, so with projects like our Scuba for Change Centre in the Philippines, the money generated helps run the local school and orphanage, providing meals for local children and pathways to better employment for graduates. We teach the community about the assets of their business, with the quality of their environment being the capital in the business. If they lose their reefs, they lose their opportunity. Similarly, in the Solomon Islands, each traveler has a mandatory village donation attached to their travel costs. This helps with community projects, where the asset is a shared resource. We now have solar power in the village and a network of laptops with learning aids for the children. A community “travelers stay” is also being built. All this is built off a community plan to maintain the sanctity of their environment.
For anyone that hasn't already seen BLUE, why should they see it?
The oceans are facing a time of rapid change. This change often isn’t intentional, but sometimes is a product of our everyday lives. BLUE seeks to open our eyes to the changes that are happening, and offers small ways that we can, ourselves, make a difference to these problems. Shot with quite incredible beauty, it asks people to look at their consumption. Tinned tuna, single-use plastics, shark products, fossil fuels — the choices we make regarding these things have impacts on our oceans, and it’s up to us to consider the appropriateness of their current use. If you’ve never considered these things before, BLUE opens your eyes to the effects in an emotionally sensitive, visual experience.
Were you approached to be part of BLUE? How did your part in the film come about?
I had spent some time in the television world, trying to create something similar. Sadly, at the very last hurdle, the project lost its momentum and I started looking at different options. This is when Karina Holden (the Director of BLUE) approached me with what they were doing, and I came on board.
Did you meet any of the other Ocean Guardians during or after the production of the film?
I met Jennifer Lavers and Tim Silverwood during the PR stage of BLUE, and see Tim around the beaches from time to time casually. I’ve also caught up with Valerie a number of times and get on really well. The other guardian, Madison Stewart and I have known each other for a very long time. We both spent a good chunk of our childhood in Byron Bay, and we worked at the same dive shop for a few years.
Can you tell me about whether you learned anything from them and how they inspired you personally?
Each and every one of the ocean guardians I met is inspirational with their dedication. Madi, Tim, and Valerie I know don’t get paid for the work they do — they do it because of the need to make things right. They do it despite the criticism, despite the frustration and in the face of overwhelmingly poor odds of success. That kind of determination changes people, and it changes the course of our future, so yes, I am inspired by them, and it would be an honor to be considered in the same light.
Do you have any other films or interesting projects in the works?
The project I started so many years ago has been adapted and reshaped and is finding life again. We’ve spent some time working on the content and direction and we’re right back into the “making it happen” stage. I’ve also spent some more time expanding my freediving school. With the growing interest in the sport, we’re seeing a huge increase in people wanting to learn and come on our adventures.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
BLUE has been a major success because it reaches the general public in an unfiltered and powerful way. I have strong hopes that as it rolls out across the globe, we will start to see a stronger voice calling for better management of our marine environment.
Of your professions - marine biologist, underwater photographer, and freediver - which are you most passionate about and why?
I try not to separate the three things too much, because I feel that they are all necessary parts of the one job, looking after our oceans. We need accurate and up to date information from our science sector to motivate or validate the need to rectify problems, we need imagery of the things we care about and what could potentially happen to them, and we need a way to get people into the water, to feel a part of the environment in order for them to care. So really, I feel all three are incredibly necessary, and I couldn’t put one above the other. That being said, there’s a nice release in being able to experiment with underwater photography.
Do you have a favorite photograph that you've taken? What was involved in taking the photo?
I do have favorite photos for a few reasons, either because of the subject, the creative process or in this case, the difficulty and practice of capturing it. All my photography is done on breath-hold, and some of my deepest photos are at depths of over 40m. The picture of the Tao, a vertical shipwreck in the Solomon islands was composed and captured over multiple dives to about 35m deep. Every meter you go deeper, the light changes and the slightest change in the angle of your camera means that you now need to readjust your settings. You have to organize your subject (the other diver) descend to your chosen vantage point, adjust the settings on your camera, wait for the subject to get into position, and then make it all the way back to the surface to breathe again. I think the difficulty in capturing this kind of image, almost puts photography into a “sport” for me, which I guess, is why this one would be my favorite.
What do you hope to achieve in the near future?
I would really like to see the Blue movement turn into a larger educational program, and the possibility of this turning into a social change is what we’re really after. I’m hoping we can get some large brands on board to include this change in their messaging and I’m hoping to get this series up and running with the support of the same kind of people. On a personal note, I want to get home this summer and help re-plant some rainforest on a property near where I grew up.
I noticed on your website that you run 'Guided freediving and spearfishing trips'. Can you talk a bit about those, and whether someone would need to have any specific experience before signing up?
That’s right, part of supporting the island communities and getting people into our oceans is teaching them how to exist in this kind of environment. I firmly believe we are all capable of freediving, we just need to learn the skills, and put a little time into conditioning our minds and bodies for the event. You do need to be able to swim 300m with fins on to sign up for my courses, but from there I teach you everything else. We spend the majority of the time learning about freediving, and our environment so that when we are out in those communities we can make the right decision on which fish to take to supplement our stay. Some people can find the spearfishing side of things a little confronting, however, the places I take people to have no electricity, shops or infrastructure and the communities we live within, live off the land in a harmonious and respectful way. I’m trying to teach that same ethos.
Of everywhere you've traveled in the world, what has been your favorite destination and why?
For the culture, and the expression of traditional community-based values, you can’t beat the Solomon Islands. The diving, typified by deep walls and endless visibility is hard to beat, but for sheer volume of life and wilderness, nothing has quite come close to Elizabeth Reef. Just a days sail north of Lord Howe Island, the sheer number of sharks and large predatory fish is incredible. It’s hard not to imagine that this is representative of what our local reefs would have been close to before the impacts of industry and fisheries.