River Explorer Draws Attention To The Magical World Of Unexplored Rivers

Even today, a large part of the natural world remains unknown to us. Thousands of species living in undiscovered wild destinations remain undocumented. And in a planet facing the sixth mass extinction, these species might even disappear before we set our eyes upon them, and we would lose precious ecological treasures without being aware of our loss. This is the reason why Ivan Mikolji believes in "You cannot preserve something that you don't know exists." Mikolji has made it his life's mission to explore the enigmatic aquatic world of South America and present his findings to the world. He delves into the depths of the continent's rivers to unravel the mysteries beneath the waters. His passion and tireless efforts have allowed him to discover new species, capture first live photos and videos of others, and assist scientists and consevationists in decoding and protecting the vulnerable riverine ecosystems of South America.

Ivan Mikolji
River explorer Ivan Mikolji 

Also an accomplished artist and author, Mikolji makes people fall in love with aquatic life through his engaging renditions of nature. In this article, Mikolji takes us on a tour of the wild rivers of South America and fascinates us with his marvelous photographs of the continent's wildlife. At the same time, he also reminds us about the vulnerability of these ecosystems to climate change and other anthropogenic impacts. 

Amazon leaffish (Monocirrhus polyacanthus) mimics fallen dead leaves from the riparian vegetation and use dead leaf crypsis for both defense and hunting for prey.

Today, "Ivan Mikolji" is not restricted to an individual but also refers to a cause whereby Ivan Mikolji and his team strive hard to document aquatic-related habitats and their flora and fauna. They also process the data and create comprehensible information to eco-educate the public about conservation issues. Below is the conversation between World Atlas and Ivan Mikolji:

What inspired you to become a river explorer?

It was a calling. Since I can remember, I have been attracted to rivers. I find them magical and mysterious. At a very young age, I would ride my bicycle to a rain drainage canal, which was quite far from my house, to catch wild guppies for my aquarium. Even today, every time I see a river, I want to explore it and see what lives in it.

How is river exploration connected to conservation?

My motto is that you cannot preserve something that you don’t know exists, which is what makes our work important and meaningful. In the Orinoco River basin, many aquatic animals and plant species have not been documented or have not been scientifically described yet. This is a fact, for, in many of our expeditions, we have found new species of fishes, freshwater sponges, and plants. So, we first must do an inventory of what we have, to be able to preserve it.  

smooth-fronted caiman (
A smooth-fronted caiman in a river of the Orinoco River basin.

Do you think aquatic life in rivers gets the attention it deserves?

I think that rivers do not get enough attention. A lot of emphasis is made on saltwater compared to freshwater. Even in the news, you see more attention towards what there is on Mars than of the new species we are discovering in continental bodies of water. This lack of awareness is a big problem for these fragile ecosystems as few people work on creating empathy towards them. I think they are extremely important and have noticed this unproportionate balance in freshwater education; that is why I have spent so many years working hard to show their beauty and create freshwater eco-awareness.

Beautiful river scene captured by Ivan Mikolji during his expeditions.

Have you noticed the quality of aquatic ecosystems change over the years?

Yes, I have, and most of these changes have been negative ones. Most of the problems are created by human intervention due to a lack of eco-education and awareness.

Since my first explorations, I had a vision of inspiring people to love nature by showing them the unknown and usually overlooked beauty on our planet. Even though pollution and many other problems are evident, I have chosen not to present them. I probably will someday, but I feel that there are many images and videos of that out there already, and the people who show it are doing a great job getting the information across.

Biotope from La Macarena, Colombia.
Biotope from La Macarena, Colombia. Caño Cristales river in the rainforest of La Macarena, Colombia, houses the Macarenia clavigera, a red aquatic plant endemic to the river.

What are the major threats to river ecosystems in South America?

There are many threats, mainly from humans, but these threats are not only to specific rivers, basins or countries. These threats are shared by nations and rivers across the planet. Every day there are more of us, and the earth, rivers, etc., do not grow. Every day we must be smarter on how we use our resources. At last, people are beginning to understand that the ecological problems of one place affect other places indirectly. Eco-problems are global problems.  

Amazon River dolphin
Amazon river dolphins documented by Ivan Mikolji

How do you spread awareness about the need to protect aquatic life in rivers?

I think that creating empathy towards these aquatic habitats is a long-term way of preserving them. A great example is the Wild Aquarium I created in Oaxaca, Mexico, with biologist Victor Ortiz. We brought school children to the upper unpolluted part of the river that went through the town, which has fish species in danger of going extinct (Profundulus oaxacae). We then set up an aquarium in the riverbank, and the children filled it up with rocks, aquatic plants, aquatic insects, and fish from the river. We then explained the critical role every organism played in the habitat and the consequences if one species disappears. The children then put everything back in the river. At that moment, that river was no longer “the river.” Now it was “their special river that had a fish that was going extinct and that they needed to preserve,” and that is how I think awareness should be spread.

Mikolji and team teaching schoolchildren about life in river ecosystems.

Please share one of your best expedition memories.

One of my best memories was discovering a paradisiac little beach in the middle of the rainforest. I was taking underwater images in the Colombian Western Guiana Shield for my latest book. I was far in the wilderness with no people around me for many miles. I stuck my head out of the water, saw the beach, and my jaw dropped at such a picture-perfect natural landscape. It had thin white sand, turquoise water, and Amazonian Moriche Palm Trees. I got out of the water, put down my gear, took my lead belt, mask and dive boots off and lay on the beach listening to the jungle sounds, enjoying a perfect soft breeze. Those are the moments that make me realize our little planet is a paradise.  

Prosthechea-vespa orchid documented by Ivan Mikolji during his expeditions.

What message do you have for our readers?

We need to protect continental bodies of water to preserve all the living organisms that are there. These organisms keep the water clean and in balance. When we unbalance the system, we start getting innumerable problems, for example, mosquito outbreaks and the diseases related to them such as malaria, dengue, chikungunya, zika, etc. Clean rivers are a source of drinking water, entertainment such as fishing, snorkeling, kayaking, and swimming. What can you do with a polluted river?

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