Greetings from the end of the world
Introducing Ákos Lumnitzer, discoverer of Sydney’s Pygmy Pipehorse
I watched a documentary many years ago about one of the sweetest, most intriguing creatures: the seadragon. I was so smitten by this little seahorse-like fish that lives under Sydney Harbor’s sunny waters, that I immediately began a search of the world-wide web looking for more photographs. That’s how I learned about Ákos Lumnitzer, who had left his homeland as a thirteen year old kid to live in Australia at the bottom of the earth. His photos have travelled the world and this little seahorse bears his name as an honor to the discovery. Ákos Lumnitzer moved away from the sea about ten years ago and has since rediscovered his passion for birds and is also a volunteer wildlife rescuer.
− Tell me about your childhood. How did you discover your love for animals and for nature?
− Thank God I can remember my younger days. My late mother taught me to read well before I reached school age so I was immediately captivated by reading books of all kinds. I was particularly interested in reading books by István Fekete, who wrote mainly for children and my favourite books of his were of a young boy who visits his uncle near Lake Balaton and learns to fend for himself. They used to have a pocket sized book collection for kids that covered a variety ofsubjects from marine life to gem stones and clouds and so on, which I read many times over. I also loved watching documentaries. One well known Hungarian wildlife film maker (István Homoki Nagy) who was also dubbed the Hungarian David Attenborough, had many nature films that were of great interest to me. Captain Cousteau was also quite influential as I always loved the water and had an ever growing interest in seeing what lies under the surface. When I was on vacation, I would always study the natural world around me; whether a wildflower or even butterflies sitting on cow droppings. As much as a kid could study, I was at it all the time. I think all these interests helped me greatly develop my love for the natural world around us. As well, I was always compassionate and wanted to adopt every stray cat I could find. Of course, living in a rented flat, owning a dog was out of the question. Nowadays, three dogs, six cats and my wife’s horse are the wonderful animals completing our lives. Most are also rescued from hardship, which makes our bond with them even more special.
− What do you remember of living in Hungary? Why did your parents move and why to Australia?
− That’s a good question. All I can say is that I remember that my mum always had food on the table and did everything to make my life great. She worked for the National Energy Authority and my dad was a tradesman of some sort, but I don’t remember much else. In 1985 they decided to move overseas to try and create better opportunities for us as a family. I guess things didn’t quite end that way, but they landed on their feet. I think Australia was the choice for it is far from the past, far from everything so things could be fresh and new. Needless to say that the wildlife in Australia is just spectacular.
− How did you discover the seahorse that many didn’t see before? Why did you become an underwater photographer?
− I’ve always loved the water, whether playing water polo or swimming in a lake or the ocean, I was a natural water baby. Scuba diving became a natural stepping stone to consummate my affection for the aquatic world. In the beginning, a fellow Hungarian encouraged me to take up spearfishing as a sport, and while it was fun, I soon realized that it was far more interesting to observe and learn about the fishes than it was to eat them. I officially learned to scuba dive in the winter of 1995, with a broken nose too, and I was not surprised that I knew more about fish species in general than even my diving instructor. It didn’t take me long to buy my first of many Nikonos cameras, which is a very difficult system to master. You need to be able to judge the distance between you and the subject so I wasted a lot of film to get shots right. What drew me into the photography even more was that I found so many strange animals that I just had to get to know. What better way than to record on film and learn about them from the photos on dry land?
I actually discovered the pipehorse by accident as I was returning to my favourite dive site to photograph a nudibranch that I saw a few days earlier curled around its egg deposit, waiting for them to hatch. About 30cm away I noticed a small white seahorse-like fish that really looked odd. I photographed it until I ran out of film. Realizing it was something special, I was almost jumping out of my skin while I was waiting for the lab to develop the images from the negatives. The problem was that none of my reference books had any information about this strange fish. Eventually, I became friends with a scientist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, who told me it was unknown to science. The sad part was that I had to then collect a couple of type specimens so those can be studied and compared to existing species. After careful study that took months, I was advised that it was a brand new species and they would name it in honor of me as the discoverer, because it was rather special.
− How did you develop your affection for birds?
− In 2001, my wife and I decided to settle down and buy a house. While we love the ocean, the astronomical cost of owning a property near the coastline drove us towards the western suburbs of Sydney, where housing was more affordable. We decided to settle close to the foot of the Blue Mountains, a world-heritage area. The reason we stopped diving is because it was a long drive just to find that the water was rough, or dirty; therefore, we got sick of being disappointed. Since I have always loved nature, I decided to focus on birds. Why? Their feathers have intricate patterns, their songs warm the coldest winter days, they live complex lives and each day is tough for them in the race for survival. In other words, it’s a challenge to capture them in camera at any given opportunity. Of course not all photos are good, but that’s what I show friends or the people around me. There are many failures during my quest to photograph and record. For me, the most important thing is that I have little or no effect at all on my subjects’ well being. All birds, or animals for that matter, have a circle of comfort. I try to not penetrate inside this circle, and using a super telephoto lens certainly helps me in achieving that goal. Some birds can be approached to within ten meters, yet birds like our mighty Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax) will flee from 300-400 meters from the photographer. At times like these, it would be useful to utilize a blind (hide) to conceal me, but I am not keen on being squashed in a small space and restricted in my ability to move and follow action. One thing that helps is to develop a good understanding of the behavior of the target species and work on perfecting a stealthy approach technique. I also love to wonder about my local forests at night, usually alone, as I love to see and photograph nocturnal animals and just love the solitude and peacefulness of the night.
− Why do you love nature photography? What does it mean to you and why do you want to share your work?
− What I love about nature photography is that no two adventures are the same. I often don’t have to travel more than 5-10km from my home to see incredible wildlife and photograph them. Every outing awaits me with unanticipated events, whether something that is not for the faint-hearted, for example a bird’s chick getting torn into pieces; they all make sense in the cycle of life and must be left undisturbed. After all, even the predators have to- and are entitled to - eat. We as humans have destroyed enough wilderness as is and it is usually nature that ends up losing when cities spread out wider and wider taking over the fields and areas where once forests stood tall. Many animals lose their homes in this process, but the more we can show people about the beauty in their own neighbourhood, the more awareness we can create and try and work towards protecting those last frontiers.