Though looks can't kill, this one just might. It's a close-up of the eye of Arothron mappa, also known as the scribbled pufferfish. It's hardly a man-eater, but don't try to turn it into sushi: Its flesh contains a neurotoxin that can be deadly.
The image was shot at night by photographer Murray S. Kaufman, while the pufferfish was dozing in a reef in the Sulawesi Sea. Diving off Mabul Island, near the southeast coast of Malaysian Borneo, Kaufman noticed the fish because it was a juvenile and, therefore, more colorful than the adult kind. "I got about a foot away from it when I snapped the picture," he says. "Usually you get one strobe shot and they take off, but I was able to get a few images."
The puffer is just one of countless examples of the otherworldly flora and fauna that bring the Los Angeles-based Kaufman back whenever he can to this part of Borneo, what he calls the "center of biodiversity" on the planet. "There are some photos I've published of species that still have not been properly identified by scientists," he says.
"What's really amazing is that images like this are so easy to find there," he says. "This was taken maybe 20 feet down. I just walked right in off the beach."He still shoots with film but is planning the inevitable transition to digital soon. Until then, he prefers his Nikon F4 with underwater housing, shooting with Fuji Velvia 50 or 100 film and two Ikelite color-corrected underwater strobes. "Shooting underwater is crazy because you're always moving, your subject is moving, the water plays tricks with the light, you can't change lenses. It can be a lot of work."
For Kaufman, the hassle is worth it if it can help preserve the dazzling beauty of the natural world that he loves. After seven years of exploring Borneo with his camera, both underwater and in the lush jungles on land, Kaufman turned his results into his first book, "Reefs and Rain Forests," which won the 2002 World Prize for Best Book of Underwater Images. Today, he uses the book's popularity to help promote sustainable ecotourism in Malaysia, emphasizing the creed of the underwater photographer: "Take only pictures, leave only bubbles."
So far, Kaufman says, the Malaysian government has made great strides in slowing down clear-cutting, protecting the 2.5 million acres of still-untouched rain forest and creating national parks on the island. "The goal is to make conservation profitable," he says. "My job is to let people know what's out there. A lot of wildlife is vanishing, and no one's cataloging it."
With all of his activism and trips to the South Pacific, it's a bit hard to believe that this is only one of Kaufman's professions. In his "day job," he's an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in Beverly Hills, Calif. In fact, before 1988, Kaufman rarely ever picked up a camera and learned how to use one only while taking scuba diving lessons.
"My profession provides me money so I can pay for all of this, but time is my real enemy," he says. While working on "Reefs," Kaufman split his time evenly between his surgery practice and his photography. Today, he says that he spends about 75 percent of his time on his practice while he considers his next photographic endeavor, perhaps Indonesia or Irian Jaya in New Guinea.
To see more of Kaufman's work without getting wet, visit his web site at murraykaufman.com