Friday, May 10, 2024

An Ocean Adventure with Michelle Cusolito

A Window into the Ocean Twilight Zone: Twenty-Four Days of Science at Sea 
by Michelle Cusolito 
144 pages; ages 10 & up
‎Charlesbridge, 2024

This is an adventure story! Author, Michelle Cusolito takes readers on a twenty-four day research expedition with scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Destination: the North Atlantic. 

The scientists aboard Research Vessel (R/V) Sarmiento de Gamboa want to learn more about the ocean twilight zone. It lies about half a mile below the surface and scientists know “more about the surface of the moon than they know about the twilight zone,” says Michelle. The scientists are trying to learn more about the biodiversity and food webs in this zone, and how carbon moves from Earth’s atmosphere to the surface of the ocean, down through the twilight zone and eventually to the sea’s floor. To do that, they’ll use sophisticated equipment to help them collect and analyze samples from the ocean.

Chapter by chapter, Michelle introduces the reader to the vessel and the crew. As they head out to sea, she introduces the scientific equipment and the kind of data the researchers hope to collect. Of course, they don’t depend totally on new tech – there’s plenty of old-school ways to collect information about the ocean as they travel.

In one chapter, Michelle focuses on the MOCHNESS – not a monster, but a sophisticated collecting and sensing system. The nets collect creatures from different depths: lanternfish, octopuses, and a diversity of bioluminescent creatures. The sensors collect information about water temperature, salinity, oxygen and light levels. Other chapter focuses on cutting edge technology employed via water sled and underwater robots.

And then there’s the adventures: storms at sea, glitches in hardware that require creative solutions to recover equipment. I like how Michelle ends the book with a discussion  of the future of ocean science. She also presents early findings from the research trip and provides tips for kids who want to study the ocean. And the end pages are maps- so you won’t get lost as you travel along with the crew.

This was such a wild adventure story that I had to ask Michelle a Few Questions ...

Me: Tell us one surprising thing you learned from your adventure at sea. 

image provided by author
Michelle: I learned that Life Savers candies are used in a surprising way in ocean research! Here’s what I wrote in the book (page 79): Weights are attached to one of the candy rings, which is attached to the MINION [an underwater robot]. When the MINION is lowered overboard and into the ocean, the water dissolves the candy. Once the candy ring breaks, the weights fall off and the MINION reaches neutral buoyancy in the twilight zone, which means it hovers at a desired depth rather than sinking deeper or rising back to the surface. Not all Life Savers are up to this task, however. The ones that dissolve at the correct rate are individually wrapped fruit or butter rum ones, which are larger than those in a roll.
Me: How did you come to be part of the expedition? And what was your role/job? 

Michelle: It’s rare for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to bring a children’s book author out on an expedition where berths are in high demand. I’ve built a strong working relationship with WHOI since I first connected with them while researching for my first book—Flying Deep: Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible Alvin—nine years ago. I strongly believe in WHOI’s mission and do what I can to support it. Writing books that feature their research is one way to do that.
I had three jobs while at sea:
  1. Researching for my book. This included conducting interviews, taking notes, and shooting lots of photos and videos;
  2. Working with another science communicator on board—Marley Parker—to write daily blog posts about the expedition for WHOI; and
  3. Assisting the scientists as needed.
Photo © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Marley Parker

I generally worked 12-14+ hour days, just like everyone else. (It’s a 24/7 operation). I was on deck and in the lab with the scientists every day and during some overnight shifts. There were times when I’d go to bed at midnight and my alarm would go off at 3:00 am to go document the recovery of a piece of equipment. I’d be on deck working ten minutes later. (Except for the one time I was so exhausted that Marley couldn’t wake me!) 

I loved being in the action and assisting when needed. One of my favorite memories is from a day I helped process the animals brought up in the nets. I got to see creatures that most people will never see. The photo above is of me holding an Atolla Jelly from that day.

Me: A lot of your research was interviews and photos. How did you store your valuable information while at sea? 

Michelle: This expedition took place in May of 2021, so we had to quarantine in a hotel in Spain for two weeks before boarding the ship. While in quarantine, Marley and I conducted Zoom interviews with many of the scientists and engineers. This helped us get a head start on building our understanding of what we’d be observing. I took notes during the interviews, and we recorded them. I later transcribed those interviews. All of the work done in quarantine was backed up to the cloud because we had relatively good internet in the hotel. Once we got on the ship, it was a whole different ball game. 

We had a very poor internet connection on the ship. Marley and I struggled to email simple word documents and relatively small photos back to WHOI for our daily posts. We’d often have to send them late at night when most people were sleeping (and therefore, not using the internet).

On the ship, I took notes in regular old spiral notebooks - I used a total of four for this book! I had brought several pocket-sized notebooks (including a waterproof one) thinking I’d use them on deck, but I never did. There was no time for notetaking on deck. I’d do that as soon as I got back inside. 

I also kept a journal where I collaged and glued in memorabilia while in quarantine. I also recorded my personal feelings and thoughts, not necessarily intending to use them in the book, but a few bits did get in. (The sidebar on page 66-67 was pulled from my journal)

I also took thousands of photos and dozens of videos. I backed those up to an external drive.

Me: Thank you for taking us along on your ocean adventure, Michelle! 

Michelle is a member of #STEAMTeam2024. You can find out more about her at her website

Thanks for dropping by today. On Monday we'll be hanging out at Marvelous Middle Grade Monday with other  bloggers. It's over at Greg Pattridge’s blog, Always in the Middle, so hop over to see what other people are reading. Review copy provided by the publisher.


  1. This sounds like a cool book. And it's interesting to learn how they used lifesaver candies in their research.

  2. I have to agree with Natalie--VERY COOL!! I liked the lifesaver candies too. Who would have guessed?

  3. Way to go Michelle! The journey sounds fascinating and I'm glad it is available for young readers (and a few of us older ones) to follow and learn. Thanks for the insightful interview questions and answers. Happy MMGM!

  4. Wow, how cool that Ms. Cusolito got to go out to sea with the WHOI team, then document the whole journey in this fascinating book!! It's amazing how much diversity there is in undersea life—creatures that might as well be alien, they are so unlike what we see on land. Thank you so much for sharing this engrossing interview, Sue!!

  5. This sounds like a fascinating journey. Thanks for the interview and for introducing me to this terrific book. I'll be looking for it.