Courtney Platt’s detail photo of an orange ball anemone, part of a Cayman Islands National Gallery exhibit opening Friday, May 4, looks otherworldly.

Two bright orange semi-spheres sit atop long translucent stalks against a black background. They look almost like two spaceships taking off into the night.

It might not be what you’d expect to see in an exhibit titled “Coral Encounters.” But, in fact, the orange ball anemone is between an anemone and a coral, a corallimorph.

Other species depicted in the exhibit of underwater photography include carnation and great star corals, Christmas tree worms and feather duster worms. The exhibit runs through Aug. 16 and is being presented in connection with the International Year of the Reef.

Platt’s photo comes from a different year, one quite distant in terms of camera technology.

“It was taken back in the ‘80s,” Platt said. “That was shot with a Nikonos V camera using 35mm film.”

In addition to Platt, the exhibit features work by 20 other Cayman-based photographers, including Cathy Church, Dusty Norman, Emma Camp, Sharon Davies, Lauren Knuckey and Lindsay McGill.

Gallery director Natalie Urquhart said the time was right for the show.

“We’ve been interested in doing an underwater photography exhibit for a long time,” Urquhart said. “It seemed like a very timely exhibition. We hope it promotes dialogue, especially with children coming in and learning more about the reef in their backyard.”

Platt, who is scheduled to give a lecture July 25, says education is critical in protecting local reefs.

‘Spring Clean,’ a photograph of feather duster worms by Lauren Knuckey, is part of the the National Gallery’s new exhibit ‘Coral Encounters.’

He came to Cayman from Southern California in 1983 as a dive instructor, having already dabbled in underwater photography. Over the years, he has established himself as one of Cayman’s top resident photographers. His work has been featured in National Geographic six times.

He said he knew the photo he wanted when he went to shoot the photo of the elusive and nocturnal orange ball anemone featured in the show. It was shot at night on the wreck of the Balboa, off of George Town.

“I knew exactly which anemone I was going to shoot,” he added. “It was the only one I could find where I could isolate the tentacles with water behind it, which would be black in the photo.”

Focusing just on a couple of stalks of the anemone’s tentacles, he said, forced him to fine-tune the camera settings. The focus had to be within one millimeter of the target, he said.

He thinks the photo works because of its strong graphic nature.

“You have orange against black,” he said. “You also have the transparency of the tentacle itself, showing just a little bit of the texture on that tentacle.”

Platt said he’s hoping the exhibit of underwater wonders will draw attention to the problems with the reefs around Grand Cayman. Sea life has diminished drastically from what it was when he came here 35 years ago. He says overfishing is the biggest culprit.

“We filled our boats until the fish are gone,” Platt said. “And we continue to fish as if nothing is wrong. The average Caymanian, they just don’t know how crucial these fish are to the reef itself.”

Dusty Norman’s ‘Sea Rod’ is featured in the National Gallery’s new show ‘Coral Encounters.’

For instance, he said, parrot fish, which help keep the coral healthy by eating the algae that might otherwise invade the reef, have been vastly diminished in number in Cayman.

“If you go to Guam, they grossly overfished and lost their reef,” he said. “It’s completely covered by algae.”

Once that happens, it’s hard for a reef to recover.

Platt’s underwater photography today, he said, is usually focused on bringing attention to the health of the reef.

“My target has changed,” he said. “(Before) I would spend my time looking for the most gorgeous beautiful composition. Today, I’m relegated to documenting our decline. It’s a very different assignment, and a sad one. It has brought me to tears.”

He’s hoping events connected to the Year of the Reef, such as this exhibit, will bring more attention to the issue.

“The people that care about this issue need to speak up to the point where politicians see this as a voting issue,” Platt said. “This needs to be dealt with and it needs to be done soon. If we don’t strike now, while the iron is hot, it’s going to be gone.”

As part of the exhibit, the Cayman Islands Marine Institute will present one of its Reefs Go Live programs, on June 13. The film “Chasing Coral” will be screened on June 7. And a series of related lectures will be offered during the duration of the show. Details about each are available on the gallery’s website: nationalgallery.org.ky.

The gallery is on Esterley Tibbetts Highway, just south of Camana Bay. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is free. Call 945-8111.