I was born in 1983 as the first son to Tinho and Susan Dornellas. My mom was raised by a rigid Navy Captain for a father with a soft spot for his three girls and an absolute heart of gold. Her mother, Gwen spent her entire life devoted to teaching swimming to children, raising hurt animals and playing copious amounts of Zelda with her grandsons.
My father’s parents raised him in Angola, Africa where he was first exposed to spearfishing with my grandfather Fernão and surfing with his brother Miguel. Working in the Portuguese Navy as a fiberglass and resin expert, he learned how to shape surfboards and peel a lot of potatoes. Eventually, a massive civil war broke out and he was forced to leave in the early seventies as mortars destroyed the city around him. With nothing in his pockets, he moved to Belgium, Portugal and eventually to Mexico to work, where he met my mom.
I was raised in Florida in and around the water since before I could walk. My parents started Calema Windsurfing together, which still runs successfully today. Before I could walk, my dad would strap my car seat to the front of his windsurfing board and take me out for rides. The ocean has been my solace since day one.
I learned how to windsurf from my father at age four and was surfing shortly after that. With Tinho being a US Sailing Master Instructor and Olympic coach, I naturally followed suit and became a US Sailing Instructor at age fourteen. I have been teaching windsurfing ever since. In 2002 I began managing a watersports program on Fisher’s Island, New York and have built my program into a successful medium for not only windsurfing, SUP, kayaking, sailing, surfing and snorkeling instruction, but for character building as well. My love for teaching eventually drove me to complete an English Degree from BYU Hawaii so I could teach middle school, which I eventually did in my “off season”.
My first experience holding my breath came from watching my aunt Michelle swim back and forth in a pool underwater when I was seven. I quickly took to freediving and a couple of years later held my first pole spear while visiting family friends, Mike and Anne Adair in the Bahamas. They gave me some tips on how to dive vertically, but the hunting aspect of spearfishing came very naturally. My first fish was a snapper of some sort. I still smile thinking about it.
I continued to spearfish here and there, but it wasn’t until I moved to Oahu to attend BYU Hawaii that my freediving and spearfishing efforts accelerated. I bought my first real speargun, a Riffe Metal Tech from Craigslist and some long blade freediving fins to replace the little plastic ducky fins I was using up to that point. (I lost one during a night dive). My first freediving wetsuit was a Hawaii Skin Diver two-piece that I also bought on Craigslist. The spearfishing gear wasn’t what made me better at diving however. My roommates, Darvil McBride and Chase Johnson were my ever-loyal diving buddies. When school was out for the day and the rest of the student populous was preparing to engage in social activities, Darvil, Chase and I were suiting up for a night dive, or falling asleep early for a morning dive before school.
After college, I was given an opportunity in the midst of my middle school teaching career to sail across the Atlantic with Darvil (who helped me to fundamentally transform my windsurfing program on Fisher’s Island when he started working with me in 2009) and former windsurfing student Macheil Brouwer. I decided that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for the chance to learn from such an adventure, so I quit my job and off we sailed. That was the first time I grew out my beard.
It was around this time that I became friends with Julie Riffe, who saw potential in me and invited me on my first Riffe spearfishing trip to Mexico. I rubbed shoulders with the best spearfishermen and women in the world, watching attentively for any chance to learn from the greats.
From then on out, new friends were put into my path that continually guided me. I eventually met Martin Stepanek, owner of Freediving Instructors International, whose instructional approach reminded me of my father’s. I became a freediving instructor in 2012 and continue to increase my certifications and knowledge as I train through Martin. Eventually I co-wrote the FII spearfishing curriculum, the first of it’s kind on the planet.
Continually building my passions for spearfishing, freediving and photography I have met the most incredible people in remote locations around the world and have done my best to relate my encounters through my articles and underwater imagery in a way that has become a support to my family and me.
Up to November 2014, I have to say that my life was pretty great and had an insane amount of adventure and fun attached, but it was when I met Brenna Shea Coyle at a Stand up for the Cure SUP race in Miami that my life took a dramatic surge forward in terms of happiness. I knew immediately that I had met a special soul in Brenna. We told each other we’d marry one another the second time we spoke on the phone before our first date! As crazy as it sounds, we decided to listen to the old-timers who told us “When you know, you know. And when you know, don’t wait around. And when you do get engaged, have a SHORT engagement!”
I proposed to Brenna in a freezing cold Nassau airport while laid-over during a charter trip on March 14th 2015 and we were married in my parent’s backyard May 30th.
Brenna and I traveled the globe together for several months, discovering along the way that she was pregnant. Last July, we welcomed a boy into the world named John Álvaro Cachalote Dornellas. (Álvaro is my grandfather’s middle name. Cachalote means sperm whale). He reaches up and holds onto my beard while he falls asleep.
Currently, we live in Florida and regularly run private and public freediving and spearfishing courses. I’m proud to be part of the House of Mane and am stoked to represent our bearded brothers in the underwater community!
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