Mr. Mikolji, welcome to Akvarij.net (Neven Vorkapic)
Thank you all, for having me on your site.
You were born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1972. Can you tell us a bit more about your childhood, what was young Ivan like, what did he want be when he grew up?
I remember clearly that my mother would drive me to school in Caracas every morning. Traffic was always terribly slow and bumper to bumper. I was probably 5 or 6 years old. Every day we would drive over bridges, crossing many small creeks. I remember clearly looking at them with so much interest. I wanted to get out of the car and go down and see what kind of animals lived in them. They looked mysterious, like they had many secrets. I found them magical.
As a kid, I never knew and or thought of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I never wanted to be in the classroom, I wanted to be outside, climbing trees, hiking or looking for quartz crystals in the mountain behind the school. I could never sit down and do my homework but I could spend hours cleaning and looking at the aquarium. We always had an aquarium at home, for as long as I can remember.
As time passes and things in life change, priorities come first. One of the crucial moments in my life was when I read the book, “Relatos de un Trotaselvas” by Karl Weidmann which is available in German too with the title of Heiter bis bewölkt. This book showed me that it was possible to be a great explorer, if you really wanted to. It also taught me that if you wrote from the heart, you could make people feel like they were there with you, experiencing the moment. Karl Weidmann is definitely a figure that I admire. Just after reading a couple of chapters in the book, I realized and knew that exploring rivers was definitely what I wanted to do.
What made you the explorer you are today? When and why did you decide to do what you are doing now?
I have always liked nature. Many trips as a child to remote areas instilled landscapes, aromas and many other distinguishing things in my mind, they are memories that you never forget. I remember going to the bush on many occasions as a teenager without my parents, taking only rice and shot gun ammunition with me. I would eat what I hunted or fished. I have spent so much time in my life since I was 12 years old exploring remote areas that I would have to write a book to include all my memories and encounters that even include ghosts, witch doctors, and soothsayers.
One of the most crucial moments, explorer wise, was a trip I made with Oliver Lucanus of Below Water. That trip was an awakening. I loved nature, fish, rivers, water, swimming, exploring, science and especially, videography and photography. Watching him work in the bush made me realize how I could put all of my interests together. I guess many people have these similar likings, Oliver just presented them in front of my eyes, I kind of owe it all to him.
Exploration, amazing photography and documentaries require a lot of love and energy. We are interested in the extent of your work? What else do you do besides exploration and photography?
My image archive up till today has about 196,934 images. Videos include hundreds of hours of underwater footage. If I upload 10 images a day to my website it will take me about 53 years to upload them all.
I started my real image and video documenting “job” in 2005. Back then I only took images and video of fish. Little by little after so many expeditions I started to understand how everything in nature relates. All of a sudden, I think I became friends with nature. Now, instead of just rushing into a river to see what fish are in it, I can stand on the River bank, look around, and really see all that is in front of me. Now, I get to a place and automatically start visually analyzing, from the abiotic components to the benthic sediments and be fulfilled just by looking. So, a new world opened up slowly, I now document the biome, ecosystem, habitats, microhabitats, underwater reflections, wild flowers, aquatic plants, ants, rocks, etc… they have all become interesting. Maybe it is all a preparation process, who knows what comes next!
When I am not out and about in the bush, I work at home writing articles, or a never ending book, working on my never ending website, uploading stock footage to youtube, and taking care of my family. I have 3 wonderful children which keep me and my wife very busy.
Tell us more about “Fundación Peces de Venezuela”.
Fundacion Peces de Venezuela or Fish from Venezuela Foundation is/was a nonprofit organization founded by me. It was Prof. Antonio Machado- Allison’s idea to create it to give my documenting “job” a “legal” status. Back in the day, the Venezuelan government created a law which obligated every company to pay a “science stimulation tax” to any entity doing scientific research. So, basically the first objective of the foundation was to receive this tax money from “friend companies” that were interested in what we were doing and use the money to pay for the trips, gear, website, and all other expenses.
One month after the Fundacion Peces de Venezuela was created, the government passed a new law that stated that the “science stimulation tax” had to be paid directly to the government and they would decide who they wanted to sponsor. Well, of course we never got sponsored, fish are not a priority in Venezuela.
So, we decided to look for “good will” sponsors, willing to support the cause. We created the aquatic-experts website and asked scientists and aquarium people to join. In a month or so we had many ichthyologists, entomologists, aquarists, botanists and many other helping us identify and catalog the different animal and plant images on the website.
All of a sudden for a brief period, the foundation became a big dream filled with lots of optimism and hope but still with no money. A couple of years after opening it, reality hit us and realized finding sponsors was too hard and we gave up. It became one of my biggest dissolutions. This “dissolution” is what made me rediscover myself as an individual and start over as me, Mikolji. If I told the sad stories behind looking for donations and sponsors, you would not believe them and probably would make you look at many of the brands you use today in a different way. Looking for donations or sponsors to promote our work was awful, I hope I do not need to go through that again.
You have a beautiful country. Do people of Venezuela appreciate and even realize the vastness of its biodiversity and natural beauty?
No, the majority of the people do not appreciate, know, or care about biodiversity. Priorities are completely basic. Preservation of habitats their flora and fauna is not on the top of their priority list, it is actually not even on their list. The lack of ecological initiatives in Venezuela enphasises the importance of our work.
What is your favorite nature spot in Venezuela?
Wow, that is a very difficult question to answer. There are so many incredible places. I think my favorite nature spot is the one I have not explored yet.
I can probably catalog places like this:
A) Favorite fishing place: Tamanaco Dam, Guarico, Venezuela. A spot in it called "Carpintero" has to be one of the most magical places I have ever been to.
B) Favorite photography place: The Gran Sabana (The Lost World), Bolivar, Venezuela. The diversity of underwater and above water themes in this area cannot be captured all in a lifetime. It’s just a nature photographer’s paradise.
C) Favorite spot to feel like the first person to explore the area all the time: Top of the Chaviripa Falls, Bolivar, Venezuela. The summit of the falls can only be conquered in a short window of time in the dry season. The top area of the falls which is huge has no human traces. Not a can, bottle cap… every river corner you take makes you think you will find the mythical city of El Dorado.
D) Favorite exploring place: Anytime, anywhere, everywhere...
What was your favorite fish discovery moment?
I do not have many fish discoveries because the strangest fish that are unknown today are found places that are not possible or very hard to photograph or video. New rare fish are usually caught with a seine or a hand net. I almost never grab a hand net or seine. I go around looking between the plants, under fallen trees and over the leaf litter. The crazy looking strange new fish live under the sand, under the leaf litter or in very strong currents with shallow water.
One of those rare discovery moments was when exploring a stream in the Venezuelan Amazon. It was the rainy season so the stream had overflown and flooded the rainforest around. You knew you were swimming in the “stream channel” because there was a wide path with no tree trunks. I was floating about 3 or 4 meters above the river bed which was covered in a thick layer of leaf litter. I took a deep breath and sunk to the bottom, trying to get a close up macro shot of some micro Crenicichla that I had seen there which seemed to have a very tiny mouth. I got to the bottom, lay flat on the leaf litter and immediately started looking for the 2 to 4 cm fish. All of a sudden, out of the leaf litter right in front of me, comes out something electrical green. By then I am starting to run out of air. The strange super green fish only stuck out part of its head. The fish resembled a Crenicichla about 2cm in diameter. I went up for air, quickly turned on my video camera and headed back down. He never came out again! What was it? I do not know, but I am sure it was something new and amazing.
Tell us about your first anaconda contact in the wilderness.
My first anaconda contact was not a very interesting story. I was down in the Aro River, fishing some Cichla from the river bank when all of a sudden I saw the snake passing underwater right in front of my feet. To a 13 year old city boy that was incredible. A better anaconda story was when I found a small anaconda in an expedition with George Fear.
I was videoing some fish underwater with my right hand behind me, anchored to the Morichal Largo river bed sediment. All of a sudden I feel something sticky, sucking on one of my fingers. I got scared and turned around and there, where my hand was, was a small Anaconda about one meter and a half long. I took a look at my hand to see if I was missing a finger. Once I realized that they were all there, I looked back at the Anaconda which started fleeing to the river bank. I took my head out of the water and called George which was a bit down the river. Once George arrived I told him I wanted to capture the anaconda, let it loose in front of the video camera and then video it swimming. As a great fish guy, he was not afraid and a minute later, we captured the anaconda. Once I grabbed the anacondas head, it twirled around my arm and started constricting it. It was small so the pain was bearable, what was not bearable was its defense mechanism. I was trying to get out of the river with my hand up in the air, anaconda wrapped around my arm, all of a sudden the anaconda pooped. The feces was an oily, watery yellow substance that smelled like decomposing fish and feces. The feces slid down my arm and into my short sleeve wetsuit. So, there I was, anaconda in hand, George probably laughing at the stench. We untangled the snake and put it in a bag. I prepared my camera and got into the river. George let the snake out of the bag from the river bank. The snake was an Oscar winning actor and swam gracefully in front of the camera. For me the memorable part was the oily substance smell never came off my wetsuit. It was hard to take it off my body too, but at the end we got the underwater shot.
Speaking of interesting nature encounters, how about that piranha bite from your YouTube video. Where were you exploring at that time?
LOL! Opening a piranha’s mouth using your finger was something I learned from George Fear. I saw him doing it once and it seemed super cool so I started doing it, too. After years of doing this I really got good at it. Of course, I did not practice the crazy deed with large Serrasalmus rhombeus or any sized Pygocentrus cariba, for those I used the blunt edge of a knife or the curved part of a fishing hook. Pulling down the lip and mandible with the finger is so helpful and convenient when shooting video without a tripod or alone in the bush. You hold the video camera with one hand and with your free hand you hold the specimen and open its mouth at the same time. If you take a close look at that video, you will notice that the Serrasalmus elongatus bit my index finger, not the ring finger I was using to open its mouth. There are actually two videos where I got bitten by piranhas on YouTube. The other one is less famous because there is less blood.
How many aquariums do you have at home and do you have a favorite one?
I have about 5 dry aquariums. None of them have water or hold fish. They are of different sizes and only get filled up for taking video, photographs, or for the Wild Aquarium shows. I travel too much and for extended periods of time to be able to keep any plant or animal in a humane way.
I do have near future plans to fill up the aquarium I use for the Wild Aquarium Shows to start the aquarium interest in my kids. I will probably take them to catch some wild guppies in a stream nearby.
One of our popular questions now. If you could have only 3 aquariums, which biotopes would you create?
Easy question to answer…
1. Atabapo River main channel ecosystem aquarium with a couple of big, super duper, king kong, sized Pterophyllum altum, black water, very fine silica sand, black thin drift wood and one small pleco.
2. Amazonas Morichal Stream habitat: Clear water, course silica sand, a lot of leaf litter, very low light and a LARGE amount of cardinal tetras.
3. My dream one! Roraima Tepui base microhabitat: slightly black water, lots of light, thin layer of fine super white silica sand with large amounts of “bricks” or slabs of rough straight edged pink granite rock of all sizes placed flat one on top of each other creating a slant, low water level with strong current, many punk plecos (Neblinichthys roraima) and one Crinicichla sp aff alta. WOW!
How did you and George Fear meet? Tell us more about “Fish Guys”, how it started and what are your future plans?
I met George Fear when I used to have a fish breeding and exporting fish business called Mikofish. At that time I had over 300 “wet” aquariums and over 70, 800L tanks. We changed about 10 to 15 thousand liters of water a day. My fish breeding and exporting “era” is another great but long story.
George was the “piranha” client who’s orders contained 90% of piranhas and the other 10% were mean predators like Hoplias aimara. One day he asked me if I knew where to fish big peacock bass and piranhas and if I would be willing to take him. I took him on a trip and he was immediately hooked on what I did. On the next trips, he dropped the fishing rod and grabbed a mask and video camera. He also has the fish discovery itch and is the most agile person I know with a hand net. George has a true aquarist heart and spirit. In the wild, he is low maintenance, never complains about anything, all criticisms are constructive. He eats almost everything that is placed in front of him and knows how to follow instructions, when required. To put it in a few words, he is a natural Fish Guy. At the moment, we have many plans and no time to execute them.
Are there any anecdotes from “Fish Guys” trips that you could share with us? Surely you have an interesting story no one has heard about so far.
In the middle of the Fish Guys Expedition 3 which up to this moment only has two episodes uploaded to the web, I get stuck in quicksand. Yes, quicksand does exist! I had never encountered quicksand before. Although I was not in imminent danger of dying, I really see how this could be a very dangerous situation for less patient or bush knowledgeable people. If I was alone, running away from a sudden flood on that river, I would have drowned on the spot. If I was an impatient person, I could have fractured one or many bones or sunk until my chest, where I could not have been able to breathe or get out. Quite scary to think about.
Besides you and George Fear as “Fish Guys”, do you ever take other people with you on exploration trips?
Very rarely, most of our exploring is too dangerous. We are truly exposed to serious car accidents, being mugged, carjacked, crooked authorities, guerilla, breaking a bone, being attacked by crocs, bitten by poisonous snakes, mosquito transmitted diseases, severe ear infections, piranha bites, getting tangled underwater, tetanus, dehydration, quicksand, falling off a cliff, dysentery, and most of all, improvisation.
We are always exploring, looking for clear water or other stuff we find interesting. If we do not find what we are looking for where we planned to go, we simply change the plan and go somewhere else. We could plan to swim in a specific river and wind up in the other side of the country climbing a waterfall or dancing with Indians.
If there would be a possibility one day, would you mind an Akvarij.NET team joining you on one of the occasions?
I would not mind at all. You are very welcome to come. I will show you things you will never ever forget.
Have you heard about AkTer Fest before being a judge in biotope section of our “Croatian Aquatic Contest”? What do you think of it?
I actually did not know about AkTer Fest until I found a link on the web. The whole concept is genius. I felt extremely proud and honored being a judge. My father was Croatian, born in Zagreb and I have my Croatian citizenship, as well. I hope to be able to go some day and be there in person. It would be so interesting to see how each contestant recreates their aquarium. Meeting, talking, sharing knowledge and spending time with fellow aquarists has to be the most important part of the hobby, right? For me it is.
Mr. Mikolji, thank you for the interview and we hope to see you in Croatia on AkTer Fest soon.
October 19, 2014