Ivan Mikolji interview for the Akvarium Magazine in English | Mikolji

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Ivan Mikolji interview for the Akvarium Magazine in English

Pants and a T-shirt are not my usual underwater uniform. When I dive into what I consider cold rivers between 16-25 ° C., I wear a 3 mm wet-suit. Sometimes when I am driving in the bush and find a nice creek along the road, I just jump out of the car, camera in hand and hop in the water with my clothes on.  In our shows and documentaries you can see me wearing synthetic clothes because they dry up quickly in 34 ° C. tropical ambient temperature. (Photograph by: Fernando Chan)
Today interviewed: IVAN MIKOLJI
Markéta Rejlková

You probably have come across beautiful underwater pictures on the internet or video footage on Youtube which take your breath away. Neon Tetras, ram cichlids, densely vegetated river bottoms, stingrays gliding underwater. If you have seen some labled as Mikofish, Aquatic-Experts or Fish from Venezuela you are looking at Ivan Mikolji’s work.

It is now summertime and I am so happy I ordered the Freshwater Natural Aquarium DVD. In the process I found out that Ivan is a very friendly person so I built up some courage and asked him for an interview. Now you have the opportunity to find out who is Ivan Mikolji.

If you are still feeling hungry after reading this interview, I suggest you visit and brows the galleries on www.mikolji.com

Eriocaulon sp. – f/4.5, 1/1000 s, ISO 80. (Photograph by: Ivan Mikolji)

Ivan, could you please introduce yourself and tell us something about your personal background?
I am Ivan Mikolji, born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1972 and currently live in Valencia, Venezuela. My father loved aquariums and we always had one at home. I remember I could never sit still and do my school homework as a kid, but could spend hours looking and cleaning the aquarium.

I studied in an international school in Venezuela which gave me the opportunity to learn both English and Spanish. Once out of high school I decided not to go to college and started working in our family business instead. I worked for 12 years rubber lining, sandblasting and painting industrial tanks for the basic industries in Venezuela which stored dangerous corrosive chemicals. After 12 years of breathing all sorts of chemicals and being in hundreds of extremely dangerous life threatening situations I realized that I was not doing what I really liked and started breeding fish as a business and later, exporting fish.


Do you remember your first snorkeling with fish?

My first continental snorkeling dip with a mask was in 1986. I was on a spring break vacation from school and I was invited to go to a farm on the lower part of the Aro River. The place was wonderful; it had extremely clear waters, Mesonauta egregious and Heros severus swimming around me. At that time I could not recognize any of the fish for the only fish that we kept in our home aquarium where imported, like Beta splendens, zebras, barbs, and German show guppies! Nobody kept wild fish back in the day; that I can remember.

One of the interesting parts of that trip was when I came across a small creek that was drying up. It had no running water but it still had a small 3 feet deep pool which had not dried up. I remember staring at 5 or 6 large fish which I wanted to catch because they looked identical to the angelfish (P. scalare) I had in my home aquarium but King Kong sized (30 to 40 cm.). I still have the image in my head, and I still think they were altum angelfish, although this is not possible because they have not been reported for that specific area. It was also then, in my first snorkeling trip, when I had my first underwater encounter with an anaconda in the wild!


How was the idea of underwater photography including publishing and making of documentary movies born?
I owe it all to Oliver Lucanus of  www.belowwater.com and I will never be able to thank him enough. He asked me to accompany him on a photographing and filming expedition to the Atabapo River area on July, 2005.

In that expedition I realized that most of the things that I liked in life were presented right in front of me and were falling into place like a crossword puzzle! I loved nature, the outdoors, swimming, aquarium fish, photography, videoing and computers. It was only a matter of time until I found a way to put all of these passions in a blender and mix them all up. The resulting concoction is what you see today at www.aquatic-experts.com.


You are one of the founding members of Fundación Peces de Venezuela, which uses the motto “No se puede preservar algo que no se sabe que existe (You cannot preserve something that you don’t know exists)”. How difficult is this task in Venezuela – to find interesting fish and especially to make the people around interested in them?

Interesting fish are easy to find, people interested in them, other than for eating them is the hard part. 

First of all, I have to explain that my first vision was to document the approximate 1500 species of fish that are dated for the Orinoco River basin and place them on a website as a “Fish from Venezuela Atlas”. I wanted to differ from other websites by photographing and videoing them in their natural habitat (if possible) and collecting 1 or 2 specimens of each type in alcohol for proper ID and historical records.

So, I started working by myself on this direction and realized that it was going to take me a lifetime if I didn’t dedicate to it as a full time job and find many other people to help me full time too.

Once at a river I realized that my job was not done with the fish, if I was already there I could take pictures and videos of the river, its aquatic plants, amphibians, reptiles, water parameters, etc. My first vision of “working with fish” became a thousand times bigger.

The first idea to get some money, and be able to dedicate myself full time, was to make some documentaries that I could sell online. So, The Morichal Largo River DVD, Piranha 1 DVD and Wolf fish DVD were born but they barely made enough sales to recover the price of the video camera! My other idea was to write on magazines and sell the pictures for books, but that income was extremely limited.

I got really disillusioned and got a job at an oil spill recovery company. On my free time (only Sundays) I was able to locate and take the first live pictures and video of a Serrasalmus nalseni! These pictures where used by Prof. Antonio Machado - Allison to redescribe the species. After some time, Prof. Antonio Machado – Allison told me to open a nonprofit organization so that the Venezuelan government or any other institution could finance my work. Two weeks after, I founded the Fish from Venezuela Foundation.

I looked everywhere for sponsors and didn’t find any, even though I had more than 100 species of fish documented in their natural habitat on the website. I thought I couldn’t find any sponsors because there was a lack of confidence or interest on what I did, so I had the idea of creating a 1 hour, green orientated video explaining the need to preserve our aquatic habitats, flora and fauna.  Our slogan became “You cannot preserve something that you don’t know exists”, for we were trying to make people aware that there are living things in the water that they are not aware of.

More than 600 of these videos have been given out for free all over the country in every place I visit to film or photograph and I still keep on giving them out for free. More than 200 more were given out for free to private and government institutions and I made it available to look at for free on our “Spanish” side of the website. The video even made it to be a regular show at the theater inside the Science Museum of Venezuela! Till this date, 3 years later, with more than 200 species of freshwater fish on the webpage, I still haven’t found our first sponsor.

What I did find were many people that liked the idea, wanted to help, and joined the foundation.  These people don’t help monetarily but they do spend a lot of their time checking my work before I place it on the website, making the music you hear on our videos, identifying the species, writing articles, sending us pictures, or simply going on trips with us, helping with some of the expenses involved. You can see them on our Collaborators page on our website, obviously there are more on the Spanish side or version of our website.



Here you can see me photographing Utricularia sp and Eriocaulon sp aquatic plants in a Guiana Shield rock seasonal rain puddle, Amazonas State, Venezuela. The camera in hand is the Canon G10. These puddles are one of the most extreme and interesting freshwater aquatic habitats. The image I took at that exact moment is the one you can see at the beginning of the article. (Photograph by: Fernando Chan)
When we do our lectures, I stand nearby to answer all questions from the audience. (Photograph by: Fernando Chan)

Could you please describe the activities of this organization more in detail?

We try to go to the wild at least 10 days out of every month. In the wild we photograph and film the habitats underwater and outside. We take water parameters and fish specimens in formaldehyde for the Ichthyologic museums. This is very important for some fish can only be identified by counting their teeth or scales which is impossible by photographs. In this way we just found 2 new species of Trichomycterus 2 months ago in the Tinaco River. We also give speeches and symposiums to the natives of the villages that we visit making them aware of the importance of keeping the freshwater systems as pristine as possible.


And for you, personally, what are your feelings and thoughts during snorkeling? Do you always think of species protection?
To be honest, the first thing I think about when I get to the edge of a beautiful creek or river with crystal clear waters, in which you see the fish swimming around, is… It’s a shame it will not be like this in 20 years!

I’m not a pessimist but I spend enough time in the wild to see the rate in which all these habitats are being threatened or already lost. It’s not bad advertisement to justify our work! It’s a reality and even more in this era when it is thought that, “if it’s not black and comes out of the ground” (petroleum), it’s not interesting to spend or invest money on.

I never think of a species in particular, I think about the habitat as a whole! When you pollute a river, or cut the trees around it, you don’t kill a species you destroy the world they live in! I’m aware that I’m not going to save the world’s fish, flora or aquatic habitats, I’m just extremely happy to be able to help a little by transmission of knowledge.

Every time I get into a new river or body of water I always spend 1 or 2 minutes without moving. I float or stand motionless in the water. This gives me the opportunity to see what’s in the water, the fish behavior, water current, etc… But it always makes me think that I’m so fortunate to be fulfilled with what I do and not with what I get out of what I do.


What is your favorite biotope in Venezuela?
Morichales are my favorite habitats. They probably house most of the aquatic plants and animals. They are also the most vulnerable habitats. It would take me many pages to explain the habitat so I recommend watching our Freshwater Natural Aquarium Documentary or Morichal Largo River DVD for a better understanding of it.


And do you have any favorite fish species?

Full grown Pterophyllum altum (30 to 40 cm. high) are one of my favorite fish, but there are so many incredible ones that it would be impossible to narrow it down to a few favorites. In another aspect, I find Asterophysus batrachus and killifish very interesting.


How long have you been already taking underwater pictures?
I started in 2006 and hope I can keep on for the rest of my life.


Do you know how many videos and photos have you shared via internet?
Up till this date, I have around 1500 pictures posted on www.aquatic-experts.com.

I would like to add that I started placing a copy write over them because many internet sites took the images without permission and used them on their websites. The problem is that people aren’t aware of the expenses behind continental underwater photography. You can go to a pet shop and photograph 100 species in one day for free. Our pictures have thousands of manpower hours behind them, trip expenses, special illuminating and photographing gear, scientists identifying them correctly. Our pictures have a high cost and as we have no sponsors, we decided to protect them to be able to sell them and keep on with our work.

Morichales are my favorite habitat. You can photograph and shoot video in them year round. In the image you can see the beautiful Moriche palm trees on the river banks. (Photograph by: Ivan Mikolji)
If you ever swam in a place like this, you would really feel like you are in paradise. You have to experience it personally, floating there… then you will understand the feeling. (Photograph by: Ivan Mikolji)

Can you tell us something about your documentaries published on DVD?
Our Freshwater Natural Aquarium Documentary took us around 12 days to edit working 18 hours a day, every day including weekends. This is without counting the 127 days spent in the wild to take the footage. When we go out to the wild we usually spend 7 to 10 hours underwater, this has equaled to many, many, many ear infections!


What do you find more important for the result – your experience, the equipment used or something else?
Very good question! The answer is time. It’s all a matter of time. If you spend 7 days swimming in a creek for more than 8 hours a day you have more possibilities to get interesting shots than staying a couple of hours. The gear is also important but we never could afford good professional equipment. We have asked Sony to sponsor us with 1 good camera, calling them every month for 2 years now and we are still waiting and calling. All our cameras are not professional but after spending so much time in the wild, you wind up with very interesting shots. We take approximately 900 pictures and 30 minutes of video a day on our expeditions.


And what kind of equipment do you use?
90% of our data base which includes more than 70.000 photographs and 150 hours of video have been taken with 2 Sony photographic cameras (DSC-5 and DSC-H50) and 2 Sony video Handycams (DCR-DVD101 and HDR-SR7). The other 10% of our work was taken with a Canon G10 camera.

As you can see, all the equipment we have used are regular point and shoot cameras, none are professional.

Our newest camera is a Sony Nex5. We are going to hopefully test it next week on a sub aquatic expedition to the Lost World (Gran Sabana - Roraima).


On the website dedicated to Fundación Peces de Venezuela, there is a notice about fund shortage and therefore the organization had to stop some activities. What is the current situation and plans for future?
Our lack of funding has limited us in many ways. We get many emails from various parts of Venezuela of people asking us to go and document a river which is being polluted or that all the trees around it are being cut down. We used to go and document the situation and alerted or explained to the authorities what the consequences were. For example, we would tell them how many aquatic plants and animal species were being affected and tried to solve or help solve some eco damages. Good examples are the Endler guppies and Diamond tetras whose habitats have been practically destroyed by men. As we have no money to even pay for our trip expenses to get to these places we had to sadly excuse ourselves from doing these types of activities.


Do you want to share some message with our readers, who admire Venezuelan fish in their home aquariums and quite often dream about going to Venezuela and see the biotopes on their own?

I always admire or think highly of people in the aquarium hobby. In some way they are all nature lovers. The aquarium hobby is probably the maximum exponent of a continuous connection with nature from all around the world. When you keep African cichlids and simulate their habitat, you have a little piece of Africa at home, when you have a ram cichlid, discus or Apistogramma you have a little piece of the Amazon Jungle in your house. We need more nature loving people like these in the world today.

Through our documentaries and images we try to bring a little piece of the Amazon into your homes.

I also recommend any person which has the curiosity or interest to swim with these aquarium fish in the wild to do so as soon as possible.

I have a friend which is describing a fish collected 10 or 15 years ago in a creek around the Lake of Valencia basin, near the city I live in. All these rivers have been contaminated in one way or another. We have tried to find more specimens of this species for many years and haven’t found a single one. You can say that my friend is describing a new species which seems already extinct.

Thanks a lot for giving me the chance to be in your magazine.

Ivan Mikolji

Carrying a tripod is essential when you travel alone. I once asked a member of an expedition to video me speaking next to a river. When I checked the footage back at home I found he had videoed me from my waist to my neck. In another occasion the video footage looked like the camera was placed on an oscillating fan, swaying nonstop from side to side. Not everybody has the experience to video. Unfortunately missing a shot in the wild can be very costly and sometimes you may have to wait a whole year to get the same appropriate conditions. (Photograph by: Fernando Chan)
After so many years of traveling and thousands of images taken, you are sometimes lucky enough to get a really nice shot. This Mikrogeophagus ramirezi image has not been published yet, I hope it will make it into the next issue of TFH (Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine), where I will write about the troubles I went through to take the shot. The image was taken on a 15 day expedition all alone in the wilderness. Towards the end I was talking to myself… ha, ha, ha! (Photograph by: Ivan Mikolji)
It is easy to find rare aquatic plants, the hard part is identifying them correctly. Some aquatic plants can only be identified by their flower. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time to photograph them when they are flowering but most of them flower briefly once a year, which makes the documenting job harder. (Photograph by: Ivan Mikolji)
When we found these rare aquatic plants we did not know what to call them. We were choosing between drill bit, screw, or asparagus, screw won and that is what we still call them today. Screw Aquatic Plants! LOL  (Photograph by: Ivan Mikolji)
Such a beautiful freshwater underwater gardens can only be shown on video or photographs, words are not enough to describe their magnificence. I hope to make a documentary called “Freshwater Natural Gardens” someday, which could teach people about the substrates and water parameters. By the way, we are looking for sponsors who can supply us with good water measurement equipment.  (Photograph by: Ivan Mikolji)
While it is easy to look at a photograph, nobody knows how difficult it is to get a great shot without professional cameras, lenses and underwater housings. We do miracles with amateur cameras and gear that our foundation can afford to buy. I had to take 67 pictures in order to get this shot. (Photograph by: Ivan Mikolji)
This interview was published at:
• Akvárium Magazine - Ivan Mikolji interview in Czech (English version).  Issue 25, September 2010