In 1852 a Bohemian glass blower, Leopold Blaschka, seeking solace in an ocean voyage after the death of his wife, became becalmed in mid-Atlantic. There he was entranced in the stillness of a May evening by several species of jellyfish, including the Portuguese man-of-war, and their light shows of bioluminescence.

Each jellyfish emerged as if spun from glass, coming into view as a small spot of greenish light and growing into a large sun-like figure, he recorded in his diary. Then, ten, a hundred of these suns lit up, forming an indescribably beautiful scene, “as if they wanted to lure the enchanted observer into a realm of fairies”.

The memory of this phenomenon stayed with Blaschka as he took over the family business of crafting glass eyes. His interest in depicting natural history developed through making glass orchids for princely patrons. After he moved to Dresden in 1863, Blaschka was commissioned by its natural history museum to depict sea animals, starting with anemones and squid.

With his son Rudolf as a full-time partner, Leopold went on to depict a whole glass tree of life, a “spineless menagerie” that would include jellyfish, sea slugs, octopuses, worms, brittle stars, sea cucumbers and sea squirts. These delicate marine invertebrates were depicted by heating glass in an open flame at a lamp-worker’s table. Curators at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, where large numbers are stored, say no one today is capable of such artistry.

The Blaschka invertebrate models, dispersed around the museums of Europe and America, now represent a time capsule of animals abundant 150 years ago. Some are now rare. All are caught up in the changes brought about by overfishing, warming water and acidification, which could doom the coral reefs within 50 years.

The counterpoint between art, the passage of time and damaged ecology is what makes A Sea of Glass a rewarding book. I would never have believed that I would find anemones, worms and sea squirts so fascinating, but in the hands of the professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University – and curator of the Blaschka marine invertebrate collection – it is hard not to.

Drew Harvell sets herself the task of finding in the wild as many as possible of the 569 creatures the Blaschkas depicted in glass, and this leads to a series of adventures, from diving in the dark in the open ocean off Hawaii, in waters known to hold great whites and tiger sharks, to finding herself in a bloom of mauve stinger jellyfish off Portofino. This jellyfish has proliferated so much due to the decline of its fishy predators that it now regularly closes tourist beaches in the Mediterranean. Like Harvell’s students, I thought worms mud-dull until I read her account of diving in Indonesia and happening with tremendous luck to find herself swimming amid a spawning aggregation of palolo worms.

Harvell’s fascination begins with a Blaschka octopus, dusty and broken though now beautifully restored in the Cornell collection, as the depiction measured up to one of the most intelligent and fascinating of animals. The Blaschkas’ artistry helps us to care about and therefore want to conserve not just octopuses, but also more unfamiliar creatures, including sea slugs, sea dragons and sea butterflies, the last already found to be dissolving as a result of ocean acidification.

The Blaschkas’ fragile glass models emerge from this book as a potent metaphor after decades of neglect and at a time when we need inspir-ation to protect the sea creatures their cre-ators loved. A single dynamite fisherman on an Indonesian reef, Harvell points out, can wipe out more than the 569 Blaschka creatures in the Cornell collection with a single charge.

I would have liked perhaps a little more history about these two extraordinary craftsmen naturalists, and whether and how their legacy survived the bombing of Dresden, and perhaps a fraction less about nudibranchs, but no one can take away the achievement of this beautifully written, multifaceted book, which opens the doors of marine ecology to new audiences at a critical time.

Charles Clover is a journalist and author and is executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation.