Book Focus: Author interview: Fishes of the Orinoco in the wild

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It could be the most anticipated fish book for 2020. Nathan Hill pins down author and photographer Ivan Mikolji to find out what’s going down in his latest project

Foreword: I was invited to write the foreword for this book, and now I’m writing the foreword to the interview of the book with my foreword. Strange times. 

Before the UK lockdown began, Venezuelan explorer, author, photographer, videographer, PFK contributor and conservationist Ivan Mikolji approached me, excited yet tentative. He wanted to show me the copy for a book he had been secretly working on, which was near complete. As I recall, he wanted to test the water with help to find a publisher, as well as to see if I could invest some time proof reading. 

When I opened it up — a simple enough document with minimal but compelling copy and bedecked with Ivan’s signature images — I was, I’m not ashamed to say, poleaxed.
I thought I had already seen Ivan’s best work through the features he had created for this very magazine. The reality was that I’d barely scuffed his considerable portfolio, and now I was exposed to it all. 

I witnessed images of fish I’d never seen before, and not just a few. Ivan’s collection, compiled through the course of his professional life, is more than other folks would take five lifetimes to amass. Even better, Ivan’s obsessive-compulsive diligence means that for every photograph comes reams of data. Whatever he could record at the time — location, temperature, sympatric species, camera settings — can all be embedded next to every image. 

I couldn’t find Ivan a publisher, and I was too busy to proof read, so I advised on the folks I trusted to help, and sent him on his way. But I kept an attentive eye on the progress of the publication. Visually, I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I’ll wager that you haven’t either. 

It’s fresh, informative, succinct, and it could be the most visually rewarding publication of its time.  

Ivan immersing himself in his work.

PFK: Ivan, what were the driving forces behind this book? How did it come to be? 

IM: First, I wanted to leave a legacy of the work I had done, in a format that would last for a long time. Second, this book was requested by many of the people that follow my work, including aquarists and scientists. Third, I wanted to create a book that could show people that there is so much to do in the aquarium hobby that does not involve an aquarium; what I call ‘beyond the aquarium’. Last but not least, it is intended to be a highly aesthetic educational tool that covers our motto: “You cannot preserve something that you don’t know exists.”   

How long has the book been in the making? How long has it taken to produce since work started? 

Since I started taking underwater photographs in late 2007, but I never felt enough ‘authority’ to write it until 2019. It took me a considerable time to understand how I could correctly insert the relationships between everything I was documenting, including minerals, water, plants, and animals. 

On December 20th, 2019 I made a New Year’s resolution to write a minimum of one or two fish entries a day for the book. By the end of June 2020, the task was finished. 

So it took me 13 years to get prepared and six months to write it.

Has working on this book energised you or has it drained you? 

Creating the book energised me, but now that it is finished I’m draining my mind thinking what to do next. Once I created this book, I felt like I was closing a stage in my life. 

My next project is not going to be another Fishes of the Orinoco book, so it is kind of sad to close that ‘stage’. It’s like an end of an era. 

Tell me about the format. What’s the size and shape of the book? 

As of now, we are near the 400-page count with a 10x10 inch (25x25cm approx.) hardcover format. I went to book stores and picked up many books, and every time I held a 10x10 inch book I said to myself, “this is it”. 

Pristine habitat images feature throughout.

How would you describe the content to someone who doesn’t know what it’s about? 

Imagine yourself floating in a crystal-clear river filled with some of your favourite tropical fish. When you look down at the river bottom you see Stingrays and schools of Corydoras. When you look to your right you see Cardinal tetras, and to your left you witness schools
of Severum cichlids. You lie there, motionless, observing, and narrating what you see, what the fish do. That’s what’s in the book.   

With each image, you have the technical details of the photo. What hardware did you use to take these pictures, and how long has it taken to hone your photographic skills? 

When I started my underwater journey, it was hard for me to find any information on the gear and settings used by others. I never took a photography lesson, so I had to experiment a lot. All of the images taken in the first three or four expeditions were useless. Placing the camera on AUTO did not deliver great results. It took me until 2010 to feel like I was taking the images I wanted and not the ones the camera wanted! So, it took me three to four years to master something by myself that I can now teach to someone else in 15 days or less. 

How many different species have you covered in total in here? 

The book covers the best images I have taken of 151 species of freshwater fish, divided into 89 genera and 28 families. It provides information about the fish and aquatic plants (44 species) that live sympatrically in the same habitat or microhabitat. I have also included photography tips, any relevant anecdotes, and personal observations of fish behaviour as seen in the wild.

An Apistogramma in the wild, and a typical example of the photographic calibre of the book.

What did you edit out of the book? What didn’t make the final cut? 

First, I should explain that I intended the book to be a work of art, and neither a fish atlas or an aquarium book. I wanted this to be a book that people would be proud to own, proud to show, and feel it was their own accomplishment. The images were carefully selected by Eduardo Planchart Licea, a renowned art curator, Josh Pickett, who is our graphic designer, and me.  

There were so many super great images that did not make it in the book because of size limitations.
We did not want to cram the images in.  We wanted a clean, minimalistic, modern art look, as though taking the reader on an adventure through a Fish Museum’s art gallery.

You decided to self-publish this work, tell me a little bit about the work involved with that. 

We decided to self-publish the book because we found no publishers. We didn’t try that hard, but the eight or ten publishers we contacted didn’t even answer our emails.
There is a lot of work in self-publishing, but luckily my sister, Yelka Mikolji, was on sabbatical and she came on board and helped tremendously. We also fell into the right hands when Josh Pickett offered to design the book. We had great help from super friends like Donald Taphorn, who did the scientific revision, Jeremy Gay and Max Pedley who proofread the copy. 

I also was extremely lucky to get help from FishBase and The ETYFish Project from the first email I sent them! All these people and institutions happily stepped up to help right away. 

You’re an author who has a lot of interaction with fishkeepers globally. How much input has the wider world of aquarium hobbyists had on the content? 

Totally! They all have had an input in all my work! I listen to and read all their comments. I don’t always respond because of time limitations but I do pay attention to what they have liked for almost 15 years.

This is why I want every person that has followed my work to know that this book is theirs too. The question I get asked the most is “Which fish goes with which fish?” and the book covers this, not only with fish but also with plants.

What do you hope this book will achieve within the fishkeeping community? 

I hope the book becomes a classic in the aquarium hobby; a cornerstone for any aquarist who dreams of going beyond the aquarium. I am living proof that anyone who wants to do something like this can achieve it if they choose to. I don’t think that I am particularly special, so if I can do it, anyone can do it. I want to inspire people to go outside and document all the native aquatic habitats in their countries.

Pristine habitat images feature throughout

What’s your favourite photograph in the book and why?  

I cannot say I have only one favourite. For example, one of my Corydoras aeneus shots is a favourite just because it was so technically challenging to take. 

A Hoplias malabaricus photo is another favourite because it was one of the first images which I ever took in those early, experimental days that turned out great! 

Others like Apistogramma megaptera and Apistogramma pedunculata images are favourites because they were used to describe the species. 

If I have to narrow it down, an Acestrorhynchus microlepis photo, which features on the front cover of the book, is also one of my favourites because it shows that a real habitat does not necessarily have to have plants, branches, or sand; the fish’s habitat is water.

What’s your favourite aquarium book ever? 

My favourite fish book was given to me by my father back in 1993 and I still have and reference it today. It is called ‘Gran Enciclopedia Ilustrada de los Peces’ (The Great Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fishes) by Stanislav Frank, 1971. My father used to read it to me and I was so happy when he handed it down to me.

Apart from that one, which has great sentimental value, I guess all the rest have been reference books which change in favouritism as my interests evolve and as time passes. When I started my discus hatchery in 2005, the book I memorized was ‘Discus for the Perfectionist’ by Jack Wattley. Nowadays, I am reading Frans Vermeulen’s ‘The Killi’s of the Lost World’.
Will we see a second volume in the future? 

I have given much thought to this since I finished the book and it is hard to say, but I think not. I am leaning towards doing a six-volume biotope book series, featuring in-depth information on the seven major biomes that are covered in this book. 

I was also contacted by Carlos Lasso, a great field researcher, to create a book on the Orinoco, showing a bit of everything, from birds to freshwater sponges with my images and his text. Happily, there is a lot to do.

What’s the release date, and how can readers purchase a copy? 

Since the beginning we have been aiming to have it available for pre-sale by October 2020. We are doing our best to keep to that schedule. As long as all goes well, we could be shipping them by the middle to end of November 2020.  For sure, Fishes of the Orinoco in the Wild will be getting to people’s doorsteps for the winter holidays.  

Readers will be able to purchase a copy on our website mikolji.com.  Right now, you can go to our website and leave your name and email to be notified when it goes on sale, and be kept up to date with promotions and special discounts.