Izabela Sajdokova was twenty-seven years old when she saw the ocean for the first time. Now, she scuba dives with sharks. Growing up in landlocked Czech Republic, her life was far removed from the sea. On a trip to Mexico in 2013, she became enchanted by the water – the ancient rhythm of its waves tugged at her curiosity more than anything had before. The very next year, Izabela moved to the East Coast of Australia.
She lives on the highest point of the Scenic Highway in Terrigal with her partner, Alvaro. Their stark white weatherboard cottage overlooks the rooftops and treetops of the township right out to the glinting grey ocean and headland afar. Attached to the left is a little garage. This is Izabela’s studio where her two worlds collide: art and the ocean. Decorated with fairy lights, multicoloured rugs and hanging strings of pastel shells, it greets you the way Izabela does; with joy and tranquillity, and a warm kiss on the cheek. It’s cosy, yet also the largest space she’s ever had to breathe vibrant images onto huge blank canvases.
Every inch of the studio is strewn in artistic bits and bobs: four large easels bearing four large canvases, piles of paintings stacked on wire shelves, pencils, paper towel, five mason jars jammed with all sorts of brushes, a table covered in a hundred aluminium tubes of oil paints and several glass fridge shelves repurposed as palates, smeared with dollops of every shade. Hidden behind a wicker screen to the right is an extensive collection of scuba diving gear and a rack of a dozen wetsuits, waiting to be chosen.
There’s just enough room for me to sit in the back corner, on a stool, and take it all in. Humming along to Tina Turner with a paintbrush in hand, Izabela sways between the easel and palate as if in a constant state of buoyancy. Maybe it’s because she spends so much time in the ocean. Maybe it’s the lightness of escaping her former life in the corporate climb. Or maybe it’s the satisfaction of seeing her original brand, Eye in the Water, blossom since its infancy in 2018. Perhaps it’s a mixture of all three.
She goes about her day in a hoodie, shorts and thongs; bedazzled with aqua boho jewellery and rocking a half-dry hair look.
“Every day, doesn’t matter what’s going on, starts in the ocean.”
Earlier today at dawn, the Surf Life Saving Club was already alive with locals getting their morning coffee and catching up on the gossip from the past 24 hours. Attractive people in active wear strode up and down the esplanade while senior men ducked to and from the change rooms in their too baggy or too tight speedos.
“The water’s pretty clear today!” I heard someone say. Leaving our shoes at the steps and pulling on some heavy duty ocean goggles, we walked against the breeze towards the water; now slightly aglow with the rising sun. Crash! The first wave hit my waist, cold but bearable. Crash! Crash! The second, and then the third, until the only way forward was through the looming face of a blue wall. “Now we swim!”
We broke into a freestyle, treading against the peak and trough of the swell. I looked below me in between gulps of air to see Izabela, gliding mermaid-like down far below, her tawny hair rippling with the current. There was no fear, no rush, no stress. She hovered above the stillness of the sand in a pool of emerald green like a brush lightly grazing across a canvas. Whatever may have been troubling her before was non-existent in that moment.
We made it out to the yellow buoy affectionately known as ‘Goldie’ and used her to keep afloat.
“There’s the boat out checking the shark nets.” Izabela said, pointing to the small fishing trawler several hundred metres in front of us, “If they go soon, they will have found nothing but if they hang around, something may be caught in it.”
Often what’s caught in the nets isn’t even a shark at all. Since January, there have been two rays found dead and one leatherback turtle found alive and then released from the Terrigal meshing. This is just one net out of the hundreds that are found along the coastline. Izabela says that for sharks especially, even though they may be found alive and recorded as released, it’s likely that they will die shortly after from being stationary for too long. A year ago, a juvenile Great White in North Avoca and a Grey Nurse in Bateau Bay washed ashore on the very same day.
“They had some marks on them,” she said, “So it looked like they were caught in the net. It’s just terrible. Especially because the nets are not protecting you from sharks.”
Izabela used to be terrified of sharks. The fear of something beneath you, something coming up from the dark depths without warning. Her mindset changed several years ago when Alvaro introduced her to scuba diving on a spontaneous whim to use up the last bit of oxygen in his tank. The beauty of what she saw on that first dive was so captivating that joy far outweighed all her fears. As a 30th birthday present to herself, Izabela completed a scuba diving course. Since then, she has come face-to-face with hundreds of marine animals, including sharks. “You feel them before you see them. You become aware of their presence. At first you’re looking for a shadow… and then you see it.” She inhaled sharply, thumping her palm against her sternum, “My heart pumps but I calm it down. Then it’s just pure enjoyment.”
Back in her studio, I watch as she so clearly forms each delicate stroke of paint from a feeling, a memory, a lived experience. She has looked into these eyes before and swam alongside these bodies. The liveliness of the oils captures the wonderment, the detail, the speechlessness of these encounters with big creatures of the deep. It’s almost photographic. Surrendering complete control to the brush, she lets her heart guide the motions of her hand. It feels natural, a sort of spiritual experience she can’t quite describe. Taking shape on the canvas is a woman rising to the surface among glassy bubbles and sapphire hues. Beside her, a Humpback whale watches in gentle existence. Not long ago, Izabela was the painted woman, swimming only a metre away from the giant eye of a migrating Humpback.
“Scuba diving really brought back for me the passion of painting because of what I saw. The beauty of this world just inspired me so much,” her green eyes beam back at me, “Since I found diving and the art, I think it’s started making sense.”
In October and November of this year, Izabela displayed fourteen of her most recent paintings in the intricate space of the Alberts Line Gallery in Gosford. The exhibition was titled ‘Messages from superior forces – Spirit animals of the ocean, land and air’. Each creation spoke to the connection Izabela has with the natural world; a feeling she hoped would translate strongly to others. It was a huge success. Several enthusiasts, who came just to admire her work, left with a purchased artwork, eager to grace the wall of a new home.
But these paintings only scratch the surface of the bigger story Izabela wants to tell. The same curiosity that drew her to the ocean in the first place has seen Izabela dive all over the world, connecting with mentors like the late Dr Erich Ritter; people who devote their lives to the research, protection and education of sharks. They have shared their knowledge with her, explaining the danger of shark nets and the myths surrounding shark/human interaction behaviours.
In 2020, Izabela spoke to a local audience at the Terrigal Marine Centre. Drawing from the insight of her mentors, she told stories of her own experiences in the water; how dangerous situations have risen solely from human error or equipment failure and not the aggression of animals, as you would expect. She brought to light how understanding why we are afraid of sharks can shift our negative attitudes towards them and shared the importance of learning how to respectfully co-exist with these creatures in a way that keeps us safe and also protects the continuation of their species.
“There is so much misleading information in the media,” Izabela says, her forehead furrowing with concern, “You need to find somebody who is writing about it, talking about it and also in the water with them, but you need to be very curious. It’s not accessible for everyone but it would be great if it could be one day – in schools, in dive shops and Surf Life Saving Clubs.” It’s a long process she is willing to embark on but in the meantime, Izabela’s artworks act as a vessel for marine conservation conversations in both her local community and online. “When I came to Australia, I didn’t know that this was the person I was going to become,” Izabela looks at me and smiles, “But this is what I feel I am here for.”