Meet Brinkley Davies, 28-year-old freediving marine biologist and charity founder
Brinkley Davies has experienced the best of the ocean’s beauty and the worst of its destruction. But to inspire change, the marine conservationist knows only too well that she must first inspire love.
Two times Pulitzer-prize winning author David McCullough once said: “You can’t love what you don’t know much about.” Brinkley Davies certainly knows that to be true. Having witnessed the devastating impact of modern life on our oceans as a young girl in South Australia, the 28-year-old freediving marine biologist and charity founder knows that to stem the tide of destruction she needs the world to fall in love with our seas and the life that inhabits them, just as she did.
How do you do that, though, when so much of the ocean’s wonder and its ruin are hidden? For Davies, it’s about showing people what they don’t know, even if it’s just from their computer screen.
Into the deep
If you’ve ever seen someone freedive, you’ll know it’s both a mesmerising and a terrifying experience. As I watched video after video of Davies holding her breath as she gracefully swam into the depths of the ocean, I found myself in awe of the grace and beauty before me, while unconsciously holding my own breath. It’s difficult to comprehend how most freedivers hold their breath for more than 10 minutes at a time. As I watch Davies glide alongside deep-sea creatures and explore the dark universe of the ocean, I wonder what it’s really like down there. What goes through her mind as she freedives into its depths?
“In one way, it can be quite like a meditative state,” says Davies. “And in another way, it can be a really exciting state. If I’m training or practising depth, or teaching a course, I’m completely focused on what’s going on in my body. You become so aware of your entire body’s feelings — your sinuses, your lungs, your ears — which takes the focus away from the fact you’re holding your breath. So it becomes relaxing. Sometimes, when I come up, I almost feel like I could fall asleep.”
Davies says that when she is diving with marine life she experiences “an out-of-body experience”. “I forget about the whole world above, which is my favourite thing ever,” she says. Until, of course, Davies returns to the surface and remembers her mission — a mission that has seen the founder of Balu Blue Foundation Inc., an Australian non-for-profit that works to protect the natural environment and wildlife, go from surfing the coast of the Yorke Peninsula to diving with humpback whales off the coast of Tonga, while building an audience of hundreds of thousands with her videos, brand collaborations and, even, her own jewellery line.
From little things, big things grow
Not surprisingly, Davies grew up in the water, specifically some of the most pristine coastlines of Australia. Surfing by the time she was just four years old, the ocean was Davies’ home and playground, a thing of beauty that was always accessible. This, no doubt, made the evidence of the pollution and destruction of its beauty a bitter pill to swallow.
Davies speaks of seeing seals and sea lions with plastic wrapped around them as she was growing up. “It was a really disturbing thing to witness,” she says. “Having grown up with these animals all around me, you fall in love with them. They come and say Hi and are such cool animals — like a labrador, but in the ocean. To see them nearly decapitated, it was then that I decided to volunteer.” At just 16 years old, Davies started volunteering at a marine wildlife organisation that cared for animals that had been entangled in plastic.
From there, she enrolled to study marine biology at university and travelled the world volunteering. Davies describes the world of marine biology and environmental science as highly competitive. “I lived in Hawaii, I did all my scuba certificates and got my commercial skipper’s ticket. All so I’d be ready if a job came up.”
In the process, though, Davies was again exposed to the reality under the water, witness to what so many don’t see. “Through diving, you experience things with animals that make you want to do something about [it] … to spread the message.” When Davies finished her degree, she was weighing up whether to study sharks or toothed whales. But, she says, it didn’t feel quite right.
“I went into marine biology not with an end goal of being in a lab and studying one thing. I completely admire all the people that do that, but for me, I wanted to do the degree to get the experience and knowledge behind me, so that one day I can do my own research, and run my own ship. And create the experiences I’d had — the ones that really shaped me as a person and my passion — for others,” she says.
By her own admission, Davies has always had big ambitions and a competitive streak. She surfed competitively when she was young, and committing to the superhuman art of freediving is certainly not for the faint of heart. But it’s the platforms and access to people around the globe that has driven her career path the most. Showing the world what she sees, even if most people won’t experience them first-hand, is what she is most excited about.
“I think the biggest impact you can have in this world is by putting things in front of people and being like, hey, this is happening. Here’s what you can do to help,” she says. “That’s what I find inspires people the most, which then inspires change. That’s the most incredible thing about this generation — people share everything! Obviously, this has good and bad sides, but the good thing is the environment has now become a mass movement. People are not afraid to share issues. They’re not afraid to share things that need to be changed.”
This wasn’t always the case. Davies recalls that just 10 years ago she would share what she was seeing around the world to no avail. “I would get ridiculed for talking about it,” she says. “Nowadays, it’s nice for me to realise that there’s millions of people that agree.”
Then Davies experienced first-hand what was possible when the public mobilised together. In January 2014, a grassroots group overturned a policy to introduce baited drum lines near popular Western Australian beaches to reduce the number of potentially life-threatening sharks; from then on, she was hooked. Shortly afterwards, she founded Balu Blue Foundation Inc., embarking on a number of educational and clean-up campaigns around Australia. And in 2017 and 2018, Davies was nominated for the Australian of the Year Award.
“I started Balu Blue five years ago now as community-based plastic, jetty and beach clean-ups. And then we went into wildlife rescue, and because I love all animals I never wanted it to have a specific project that we do. I wanted it to be an organisation that has the pull to go and make an impact when stuff comes up. Now we have a land and sea focus, and over time I want to be able to grow that. One day, I hope we’ll get big enough investors and big enough partnerships to be able to do really large-scale conservation projects,” she says.
See the world, change the world
Davies is at her most inspiring when she’s speaking of her experiences in the water. The fire in her belly is palpable. She recounts an experience with a humpback whale migration off the coast of Tonga a few years ago: “You cannot imagine what it’s like to be up close with those mammals. They’re singing so loud a couple of metres from you, your whole body is shaking from the vibrations of the noises that they’re making. It’s the most incredible thing ever.”
Watching Davies’ videos is not unlike watching astronauts in space — it’s a world we don’t know, and may never. But with a global platform and a vision as big as hers, perhaps this world under the water will be preserved.
“I love when people get into being in the ocean more … because if you don’t experience it, you can’t really become passionate about protecting it. You have to experience it yourself,” she says. “That’s what I’ve been able to do my whole life. That’s what I want for everyone. The stories you can tell and the things you can inspire people to do to help the ocean are endless. We just have to get out there and show them.” Even if it’s just watching a YouTube video while holding your breath.
Amy Taylor-Kabbaz is a journalist with more than 15 years’ experience, specialising in health, mindfulness and motherhood. She is also the best-selling author of Happy Mama: The Guide to Finding Yourself Again, and is the creator of the website Happy Mama.