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Day 4: Meet researcher Helena McMonagle

By Michelle Cusolito

Helena is a graduate student in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. A former research assistant in Joel Llopiz’s lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, she is participating in this cruise as a WHOI guest student.

WHOI guest student Helena McMonagle aboard the Sarmiento de Gamboa. Photo by Marley Parker, @Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Can you explain your research in five words?

How do fish move carbon?

What are your daily tasks and responsibilities on the ship? 

I’m working primarily with an instrument called the MOCNESS: Multiple Opening and Closing Net and Environmental Sensing System. “Multiple opening and closing” refers to the fact that we can control when certain nets are opened or closed, so we can sample specific layers of the ocean and know which animals came from each layer.

I’m working on active carbon flux, meaning carbon that is actively moved by swimming organisms like fish. Fish consume carbon when they eat organisms at the sea surface at night. When they dive down into the twilight zone during the day to hide from predators, they can release that carbon in three ways:

  1. when they poop
  2. when they breathe
  3. if they are eaten or die.

I’m collecting information about what’s there, how much, and where they are through net sampling.

Helena McMonagle on deck of the Sarmiento de Gamboa. Photo by Marley Parker, @Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

What are your biggest challenges while conducting research at sea?

Seasickness! I usually only have it for the first two days and I’ve figured out through trial and error which seasickness medications work for me.

Being at sea can be isolating because sometimes we can’t communicate with loved ones back home, but on the flip side, we enjoy a very communal environment on board. We live in close quarters, which for me has been a good experience. There is a strong sense of community.

Sometimes there is a gym on board, but often there isn’t much time to exercise. Getting enough sleep can also be a challenge.


What is the most rewarding or fulfilling part of doing science at sea? 

Unexpected things always happen. We have to be good problem solvers to find ways to make things work. There’s a lot of jerry-rigging: using whatever we have around to try to fix something at sea because we can’t run down to the hardware store and pick up what we need.

Bristlemouth (Cyclothone sp) Photo by Paul Caiger, @Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Anglerfish. Photo by Larry Madin, @Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The creatures from the twilight zone are things that most people don’t get to see in real life. Many of them look terrifying up close. Some of these fish have huge teeth that are half the size of their head, but most are smaller than the palm of my hand. A lot of these animals produce their own light—they bioluminesce. That’s magical to see.

The bonding between shipmates is unique. Part of that is because we see each other when we’re vulnerable—when we’re seasick or really tired or we lose our equipment to the bottom of the ocean and can’t get it back. Or we miss people back on shore. All of these things bring us together because [laughs] we’re in the same boat.


What are some things you pack for a research cruise that might surprise people?

Pantyhose! They’re good for sending Styrofoam cups down to the deep sea to shrink them for souvenirs— and for storing samples (like frozen fish) in liquid nitrogen.

A Styrofoam cup will shrink to a fraction of its original size after being exposed to deep-sea pressures. The coffee bean gives a sense of the cup's scale. Photo by Michelle Cusolito, @Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution