Episode 001 – Irena Pettigiani

I got to sit down in Waikiki with my friend Irena the other day, as she stopped in Oahu on her way across the Pacific, heading to the Caribbean to start a new chapter as a dive instructor with her new crew on a 44ft catamaran. Along with them, she’d be launching Sail & Dive 808 – offering scuba dives, courses, and private charters.

"When I watch and listen to Irena talk about the ocean, I feel lucky to have met her. I hope you all get to meet her someday. But until then, I hope you are inspired by her words and expressions."

More Info

Irena’s Instagram @Irena.Pettigiani

Dive with her in the Bahamas @Sail & Dive 808

The Backstory

It’s an exciting time for her. She’ll be living the next chapter far away from the last 6 months of van life in Australia, working as a dive instructor. And that was a long way from where I met Irena back the summer of 2022, when I went on a dive trip to Roatán, Honduras with my friend Adam. She was our dive instructor and we all became fast friends, I think in part because we all shared that nomadic spirit and energy. But I suppose we’re on the same page with quite a few things, as you are with fast friends. Maybe the nomad thing just felt sexy to say upfront.

She’s still quite young, but Irena’s youth is barely noticeable stood up against the confidence she has in situations that might make the average person rush to panic, or worse. One day when I was walking back to my place in Roatán, a person on a scooter swerved across the street and up onto the sidewalk right at me. As I braced for an impact, the scooter halted about 2 feet in front of me. The rider popped off their helmet and under it was Irena’s smiling face. She seemed not to think there was anything unusual about that greeting.

The gear I was carrying let her know I had just returned from a dive. But not just any dive. It was my first shark dive and the camera in my hand contained some of the most incredible photos I’ve ever taken in my life. My plans were to go back and lose myself in Lightroom for the next couple hours editing. She was on her way to teach a course for and hour and a half and after was going to dive and practice her breath holds in the bay south of us at West End. The timing seemed right, so I asked if I could come.

“I’m gonna be in West End, so take a water taxi and go to the very end of the beach. There’s a point there. Somewhere around 100 meters offshore there is a buoy. I use the line there to practice my static breath holds. That’s where I’ll be. And bring your camera because it’s a good place for photos.”

I was loving this. A real mission. You see, on Roatan, I had no cell phone. So at this point I’m playing by 1996 rules of how to meet up with someone. In case you’re not old enough, here’s how it goes: They describe teh way to get to some obscure place you’ve never been. You have to remember the information correctly, or write it down if you have a pen & paper (which of course I did not). Then you follow those directions to that spot – if you’re reliving your childhoood like me right now – it’s in the woods somewhere or near the stairs behind a building… but this was my first time finding someone out in the ocean! A real mission.

I got back to my treehouse, edited a few photos, had a snack, picked up my camera, fins & mask, and headed back out on foot to the docks. I asked one of the water taxi’s for a ride to West End Beach. He said, “125 Lempira” (5 bucks), I said no problemo, and off we went. It was a beautiful 15 minute ride to the beach where he dropped me off. I then walked about a half mile down to the very end to find that point she talked about. I could see 2 buoys – both too far to make out if anyone was nearby. Oh well. It’s gotta be one of those. So I started my swim out into the ocean, through the reef, and towards one of the two buoys. After making my way through the churned up shallow reef, the bottom dropped to about 30 ft of white sand and revealed a crystal clear diver’s paradise. I had never seen anything like it. Just a swim from the beach. It still feels like a dream. As I reachede the closer buoy I saw Irena, underwater, holding her breath, eyes closed, in complete stillness, meditating alone with her thoughts. Mission complete. I felt proud of myself. I still do.

A boat cruised nearby and some tourists threw some breadcrumbs into the water that got the Sargent Major fish into a tiny harmless feeding frenzy! I snapped a picture. It would go on to be one of the best I’ve ever taken. Then Irena and I set off to find a place to take some photos. It’s important to inform you, the reader, that at this point, I had only 3 dives in the water with my camera and housing. So pretty much the only photos I’d taken were tiny blurry reef fish and the occasional parrotfish if it wasn’t swimming too fast, but that’s it. I had earlier that day taken photos of sharks, which had its challenges, but a person? Last I checked, sharks don’t hit you up to see their photos and determine whether you’re good at your thing, so really nothing was at stake there; a disappointing self-evaluation at worst. But now I have an opportunity in front of me that I’m not ready for, and I have to give it a rip. Also I was tired from the swim, my morning of diving at depth and the hour boat ride out, and now I was going to do some free diving and breath holding (very big no-no’s after a tank dive) for the chance to capture my first underwater photos with a very cool person.

We spotted a piece of dead coral. I asked her to dive down to it, pick it up and I’d meet her at the bottom. I remember thinking, “no fucking way” when I looked down at the preview screen, and I tried not to get too excited because everything looks great on a 2in screen. But it turned out, I was right. The photos we took were surreal. When I see them I go right back to that day and I live it all again. And in moments when I feel like my photos are shit or I’m not that good, these very photos we took remind me of what I am capable of doing and how much I love doing this. A few month’s later, I even printed a couple 4×6’s and mailed them to her because if you have an amazing photo you should print it and hold it and remember those moments without having to rely on a screen.

Catching Up

Now fast forward to the first weekend in February of 2024. Since Honduras, we’ve followed each others’ adventures from Instagram. And because of that I  was lucky enough to catch her on a layover in Honolulu, for one full day on her way east to the Bahamas and to the start of her new marine venture, which I cannot wait to go see in action. In life, there are people you don’t need to log too many hours with to feel like you’ve known them all along. Irena is one of them. I hope I’m one of them to other people, too.

We reunited and planned the following day – which left us the evening to swap adventure stories and talk about manifesting abundance, while I did my best impression of someone who was comfortable with saying those words out loud – and at some point I realized that she was the first person I’ve ever photographed underwater. How long ago was that? Holy shit, it hasn’t even been 2 years since then! My mind was kind of blown because it feels like I’ve been taking underwater photos for ages now. Nope, only 18 months. But in all fairness, I get to shoot a lot. Life’s crazy sometimes, man.

My idea for Underwater People popped into my head at some point because my new audio equipment had just arrived – meaning I was ready to do my first interview. Nothing was holding me back aside from asking. And purely out of coincidence, here sitting in front of me, was one of the most memorable underwater people I’ve met along the way… and not only that, she was the first I had ever photographed! If that’s not the universe throwing down on a serendipitous manifestation of abundance, I don’t know what the fuck is.

I pitched her Underwater People and said I’d be honored to have her as my first interview. She was happy to oblige.

We used the rest of her time on Island to hit some dive spots, take a few more underwater photos, eat great food, and do a bit of exploring. We sat down and I asked my questions. Then as the Super Bowl played out, we said our hasta luegos and both continued on living out our dreams.

When I watch and listen to Irena talk about the ocean, I feel lucky to have met her. I hope you all get to meet her someday. But until then, I hope you are inspired by her words and expressions.