MAUNA LANI REEF, Hawaii -- After a long, cold swim in the dark, we spotted it on the night reef with our dive lights: Octopus ornatus, the ornate octopus, a foot-long creature in an amber shade of orange with bright white spots and dashes along all its arms.
It sat stolidly in the light of the camera, 30 feet below the surface, unfazed by the attention. I reached out a finger and it touched me with its suctioned tentacles. When it scuttled in the other direction, I herded it between my cupped hands as it watched me attentively with searching golden eyes.
As if levitating, it smoothly lifted off and tried to jet over my head, but slowly enough that I could catch it gently in midair -- like handling a large bird, albeit one with eight sticky tentacles. Holding it at eye level, I looked into its eyes. I felt connected, sort of an octopus whisperer.
Then a tentacle slapped the front of my mask. The octopus crawled up my arm and vanished into the night.
I've been a marine biologist my entire professional life, spending more than 25 years researching the health of corals and sustainability of reefs. I'm captivated by the magic of sessile invertebrates like corals, sponges and sea squirts -- creatures vital to the ecosystem yet too often overlooked in favor of more visible animals like sharks and whales.
The filmmaker David O. Brown and I want to change that. To make a documentary, "Fragile Legacy," we are on a quest to lure these elusive and delicate invertebrates in front of the camera lens.
Our inspiration springs from an unlikely source: a collection of 570 superbly wrought, anatomically perfect glass sculptures of marine creatures from the 19th century.
These delicate folds and strands of glass make up the Blaschka collection of glass invertebrates at Cornell, of which I am the curator -- enchanting and impossibly rare jellyfishes of the open ocean; more common but equally beautiful octopus, squid, anemones and nudibranchs from British tide pools and Mediterranean shores.
They are the work of an extraordinary father-and-son team, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. Leopold Blaschka (1822-95) was a Czech immigrant to Dresden, in what is now Germany; on a trip to America in 1853, his ship was becalmed and he was enchanted by a spectacular display of bioluminescence from a type of jellyfish called a siphonophore.
He decided to study the jellyfish more closely and create their likenesses in glass. His first works were a set of anemones for the Dresden Natural History Museum in 1863, inspired by the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse's "British Sea-Anemones and Corals."
Leopold's son, Rudolf (1857-1939), was a keen natural historian in his own right, and an ardent aquarist, or aquarium keeper. He followed his father's lead, expanding in biodiversity to reach the edges of the animal kingdom. (And beyond: Later they created a comprehensive collection of flowers that is now on display at Harvard.)
To restore Cornell's vast collection -- bought from the Blaschkas themselves in 1885 -- a glassworker, Elizabeth R. Brill, has painstakingly cleaned each piece and glued back fragmented gills and wayward tentacles. The collection is on view at several galleries and the Johnson Museum of Art on the Cornell campus, and restored pieces can be seen in an online gallery.
The marine biodiversity recreated by the Blaschkas is a phantasmagorical view of life in the oceans. For they were artists as well as keen natural historians, with an eye for the forms that would enchant in glass and that were too rare or fragile to be seen readily. They were also superb teachers, eager to share the wonders of nature with students.
Their favorite subjects were the ephemeral, translucent, bright forms of the Cnidaria (anemones, jellyfish, corals), unshelled mollusks (nudibranchs, octopus and squid) and brilliant tentacled worms. Some of their most brilliant creations are of the different species of cephalopods, like the ornate octopus.
David Brown and I came to Hawaii with the goal of making videos of as many Blaschka cephalopod look-alikes as we could find. (The ornate octopus we found was not an exact match with the Blaschkas', but the common octopus was: Our glass counterpart still sits dusty and broken in its original shipping box, soon to be restored by Elizabeth.)
Our quest is also to use the Blaschka collection as a time capsule, to take a snapshot of change. How many of these creatures that were so common 150 years ago can still be found today?
The oceans are changing rapidly, with a 30 percent increase in acidity in the last 200 years, lethally stressful warming in many tropical seas, and significant coastal pollution and overfishing just about everywhere. If ever there was a time to compare the plentiful past with an ocean in jeopardy, that time would be now.
The chances of finding cephalopods are much improved while they are out foraging at night. So we did a series of night reef dives, followed by a "black water" dive three miles off the Kona coast.
That one put us in 1,000-foot-deep water, well after sunset, with the very real possibility of encountering tiger sharks and great white sharks. Floating in the current, the captain turned off all the boat's lights, the better to see bioluminescent "black magic."
We clipped onto our safety lines and slipped below the surface without lights, into darkness punctuated by bioluminescent splashes. We had to drift close to identify whether these splashes were from jellyfish, ctenophores, salps or squid. As we settled into our depth at 50 feet below the surface and turned on our dive lights, the sparkles of bioluminescence turned into a stream of tiny plankton floating by.
What I really hoped to see were siphonophores, the creatures that created the mid-Atlantic bioluminescence that so inspired Leopold Blaschka in 1853 and whose models are some of the most intricate in our collection.
For example, the glass model of Apolemia uvaria has the basic form of a siphonophore that I could see before me -- the large swimming bell, its powerhouse for fast movement, and the long dangling tentacles -- each capped with a deadly harpoon loaded with neurotoxin -- that are death traps for all manner of small shrimp and fish.
And the siphonophores put on quite a show for us, even if they were small and wickedly hard to film. They stretched out those long tentacles, hauling them in rapidly when prey arrived.
And when they encountered danger, their nervous systems fired a signal to muscles that zipped up the tentacles and powered the swimming bell to high speed. A three-foot-long string of stinging tentacles contracted in a flash to a three-inch stream of jet propulsion. (Somehow, the term "jellyfish" doesn't capture the extravagant evolution and biology at work here!)
Then I heard an underwater shout from David as he caught a picture of an exquisite tiny octopus zooming past.
The next stop in our quest is the Mediterranean, ground zero for Blaschka subjects. This month I head to Italy, to the Naples Marine Station, which supplied the glassmakers with many of their live animals.
Perhaps we'll find exact matches for such spectacular invertebrates as the curly tentacled octopus (Eledone moschata) and the giant siphonophore Apolemia uvaria, which at 20 feet long can dominate a Mediterranean food web. At any rate, we hope to find out whether they are surviving in the sea as magnificently as they do in glass.
C. Drew Harvell is the associate director for environment at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell, and curator of the Cornell Collection of Blaschka Invertebrate Models.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.