Freediving is taking off in Wollongong and is finding the beauty beneath the Illawarra coastline

Picture: Mitchell Scanlan-Bloor

Picture: Mitchell Scanlan-Bloor

French-speaking Sandra Dohring grew up on Reunion Island with a father who loved freediving. She tells GREG ELLIS how she decided to give it a try and loved it so much she started a freediving group in Wollongong.

A passion that began two years ago on the Gold Coast for Sandra Dohring is now discovering the hidden beauty as well as some of the ugliness beneath the surface of the Illawarra coastline.

When Ms Dohring moved to Wollongong she could not find a freediving group so she called out to try and start one.

Now with the help of members such as Mitchell Scanlan-Bloor she is able to share both the good and the bad of her mindful discoveries.

Ms Dohring loves escaping underwater and exploring hidden trenches and sea-life.

But at the same time she is also finding some of the not so good impacts of humanity on such a picturesque but precious and delicate part of nature.

Each dive lasts around 90 seconds with participants careful not to hold their breath too long or put themselves in danger. And they are always done with at least one other free-diver for safety.

Those who do it enjoy the peace and tranquility and beauty of what appears like another world below the surface often just metres from where many unsuspecting beach-goers recreate among the waves oblivious to their presence nearby.

Since Ms Dohring started Wollongong Freedivers a growing number of enthusiasts regularly train at a local pool to improve their skills.

Free: Sandra Dohring explores our hidden beauty. Pic: Mitchell Scanlan-Bloor.

Free: Sandra Dohring explores our hidden beauty. Pic: Mitchell Scanlan-Bloor.

Freedivers love escaping into a different world off the Wollongong shoreline but never go out alone or when conditions are not suitable.

They pick their days and times they know they will have the best experience when visibility is good and sometimes they will gather in a larger group to remove waste and help keep our coastline clean.

Ms Dohring’s interest in freediving was influenced by her father who still lives on Reunion Island where she grew up. It is located in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar and bout 175 kms southwest of Mauritius. 

She previously scuba dived but now she is an experienced freediver she plans to do it with him during a family reunion on Reunion Island this Christmas. “My dad is pretty good. He can easily go to 25 metres”.

Mitchell Scanlan-Bloor started photographing Ms Dohring underwater this year after responding to a call-out she and Hilary Ayrton made on social media for anyone interested in being part of free-diving group. He had been spear-fishing before but really wanted to develop his skills in ocean photography and free-diving.

“Prior to meeting Sandra I had been teaching myself with a few mates stumbling along finding our own way. My background is rock climbing and my adventure photography started mainly with that. But under the water during the last six months I have found some beautiful and amazing things that just take my breath away.”

Mr Scanlan-Bloor said Ms Dohring was great at planning creative underwater shoots with.

“But sometimes it is just spur of the moment. One day we were just cruising along and we found these trenches and the light worked well,” he said.

“There are different elements to freediving that I find really addictive. To me it is about accessing this other world. When you have a really good dive it is almost like meditation. It can also be a sensory overload. But when the cold water hits your face your heart rate slows down. And it involves this element of trust.” 

Ms Dohring works as a business development manager for an international electronic recycling and secure data destruction company. Her passion is the environment. And Mr Scanlan-Bloor is an environmental engineer.

She said she works for an ethical and sustainable company and is concerned about the environment in both her personal and professional life.

That is why she has helped organise a variety of underwater ocean clean-up events with Wollongong Freedivers who work in with the Surfrider Club based at the University of Wollongong who organise beach clean ups.

Mr Scanlan-Bloor and Ms Dohring often get in the water and clean up rubbish lying beneath the water surface in Wollongong Harbour where they find many fishing lines, lures, drinking straws, plastic bags, beer bottles and other rubbish.

“Wollongong freedivers is a group of like-minded people, ocean lovers who want to train safely together,” she said.

ABOVE: Back on the surface after exploring Wollongong's underwater world. Pic: Mitch Scanlan-Bloor.

ABOVE: Back on the surface after exploring Wollongong's underwater world. Pic: Mitch Scanlan-Bloor.

While she can hold her breath for four minutes she seldom lets herself go past 90 seconds on a free dive so there is no risk of blacking out. 

“It is a very safe sport if you have a competent buddy,” she said.

“Your training partner is very important. I would like to find more people who would like to do comps. 

Ms Dohring said it is important to keep freediving safe and anyone wanting to do try it should seek expert tuition and find a good dive buddy.

The best place to start is with an instructor from Sydney Freedivers and she can provide more information via email at wollongong.freedivers@gmail.com.

When she started on the Gold Coast she was interested in competition, trained twice a week and entered the DNF (dynamic no fins pool competition) within six months and won the team competition with two friends in Brisbane.

Ms Dohring enjoys the competition but she also loves how peaceful and quiet it is under the surface.

Even when she comes face-to-face with a shark she said it was different and like she was accepted as part of their world. She has never felt in danger in their environment.

BELOW: Sandra Dohring with some tangled fishing line under the surface.

BELOW: Sandra Dohring with some tangled fishing line under the surface.

“Freediving can change your life. It always makes me see life a bit differently. It opens your mind to a different world underwater. It helps you feel calm. I am always craving to get into the water,” she said.

Around six to eight people presently train regularly to freedive and around 20 people are in contact with the group. More women tend to do it than men. The main equipment required are a wetsuit, weights, goggles and fins.

Mr Scanlan-Bloor said he hoped his photography would help people see the beauty in the ocean around Wollongong and want to protect it more.

“Every time I go diving I find bits of rubbish and poke them into my wetsuit,” he said.

Information about Australian freediving competitions and records can be found at http://blog.spearfishing.com.au/brisbane-freedive-competition-recap/ an d https://australianfreediving.org/national-records/.

Left: Mitch Scanlan-Bloor & Sandra Dohring ready for adventure. Pic: Sylvia Liber.

Left: Mitch Scanlan-Bloor & Sandra Dohring ready for adventure. Pic: Sylvia Liber.