When Island photographer and painter Lanny McDowell went to sea to look for deep-water birds, he found more than he bargained for. Mr. McDowell is known for his avian photography, but on Sunday at the opening reception for his new exhibit at the Feldman Family Artspace at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, the focus was on dolphins.

The 14 photos in Dolphin Seas were taken during two trips, last September and this February, that brought Mr. McDowell and his fellow birders 20 miles or more from shore in search of pelagic birds that seldom make landfall. At sea, the boats were visited by common dolphins and many of Mr. McDowell’s images are nearly abstract in nature, featuring close-ups of the dolphins swimming in the bow wake as the boat surged through the waves.

Mr. McDowell said he held his camera over the side and clicked away. Only when reviewing the digital files did he discover the liquid bursts of beauty within the frames.

“I’m a painterly guy and I like close-to-abstract things,” he said.

The Bond depicts a mother dolphin and her calf serenely floating in a waveless sea as reflected sunlight gleams from the surface. Mercury Rising is filled with a sense of infinity as it captures the ocean’s ceaseless movement on a calm day

“I just think it’s sexy,” Mr. McDowell said of the photo.

The exhibit includes just one bird: a white-faced storm petrel, wings spread and legs extended, prancing lightly across a calm sea southeast of Noman’s Land. It was the first confirmed sighting of the species in the Martha’s Vineyard area, according to Island bird expert Susan Whiting, who was on the boat with Mr. McDowell for the September voyage.

Mr. McDowell’s show is on display through May 23 at the film center lobby. The images are also available on his website, lannymcdowellart.com.

Artists who display their work at the film center are chosen by a jury. Leslie Baker, Nancy Shaw Cramer and Kate Hancock reviewed 30 submissions for 2016 and chose 14. The show following Mr. McDowell’s will feature nature-themed art by students from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

The Martha’s Vineyard Film Center is located at 79 Beach Road, Vineyard Haven. To see the entire 2016 schedule, visit mvfilmsociety.com/art-at-the-feldman-family-artspace.