September 23, 2021 — Third-year Penn State Dickinson Law student Ryan Marr believes in taking advantage of opportunities that come his way. From studying in Tanzania to traveling to Bermuda, he says “yes” to any chance to see the world or learn something new. 

Ryan Marr
Ryan Marr '23

So when he was invited to participate in a project mapping an unexplored patch of the ocean floor with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Marr quickly signed up. He set sail on August 16 from Newport, Rhode Island, and arrived in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on September 2. 

“I have received a lot of questions like, ‘Why did you do this?’ and ‘What was the thinking behind going on this trip?’” said Marr. “Lawyers and legal students should not be scared to do internships or pursue experiences unrelated to the law. I think anytime you are able to speak from a position of experience rather than one of simply conjecture or what you have read in a brief, that makes you not only a more effective lawyer but also a better representative for who you work for.” 

The NOAA project, titled “2021 U.S. Blake Plateau Mapping,” aimed to map parts of the ocean that had never been explored. It included 24-hour-a-day acoustic exploration mapping throughout U.S. waters off the East Coast, many deeper than 650 feet. The voyage focused on the Blake Plateau, which averages a depth of more than 2,700 feet. 

“The greater goals with the mapping are ocean stewardship and preservation. We are looking at those unique habitats because we have absolutely no information on these areas,” said Marr. 

Marr had gone on an ocean mapping expedition previously. In 2018, he participated in a similar project mapping the deepwater areas southeast of Bermuda. At the time, Marr was enrolled in a master's program in maritime history and underwater archaeology. He kept in touch with his expedition leader on that voyage, who offered him the chance to participate in this summer’s mapping project.

he Okeanos Explorer
Marr set sail on the Okeanos Explorer, pictured here at port in Cape Canaveral, Florida. IMAGE: RYAN MARR

“Last time, we found a massive seamount, comparable to some of our larger volcanic mountains on the surface,” said Marr. “We are looking for unique features of the ocean floor that we did not know were located there. We are looking for things like methane seeps that create their own organic habitats.” 

Amidst the pandemic, the start of the trip looked different than Marr’s previous expedition. The crew was smaller, and everyone had to quarantine in Newport for nine days prior to getting on the vessel. Once there, the crew stayed onboard at port for another three days before departing. Everyone was tested three times for COVID-19 during the initial 12 days.

The crew took turns serving daily eight-hour shifts in the mapping operation. Those aboard concentrated on data acquisition, while offshore crew handled information processing. During his shift, Marr ensured data collection remained steady and accurate. 

Sonar Equipment
Pictured above is the Command Center on the Okeanos Explorer where the mapping team performs data acquisition and processing while monitoring active sonars. IMAGE: RYAN MARR

“One of the sonars we ran was a sub-bottom profiler, so this was a super low frequency that can go all the way through the bottom of the seafloor and show you the stratigraphy of the seafloor,” said Marr. “It would show indications based on the density of what type of material the seafloor is composed of. It is not always just mud; it could be different layers of rock or composite.” 

Marr knows how the information gathered on both of his expeditions will assist with greater oceanic preservation efforts. He also sees how the adventures fit into his career path, providing a universal template for communication. 

“I think we need to take care of our Earth as much as possible, especially the unexplored regions like the ocean,” said Marr. “It is a great negotiation or conversation starter with other communities if I am overseas. We are all very much tied into the maritime aspect of things, so I can speak to the scientific side and the access I have had to unique experiences and equipment.” 

Dickinson Law attracts students from diverse backgrounds who have exciting lived experiences before entering the Law School. In addition to earning his master’s, Marr spent eight months as an intern for a State Department program in Arusha, Tanzania, where he stayed with a local family.

Marr hopes to weave all of his experiences together once he graduates from Dickinson Law. He is interested in, among other pursuits, studying tribal law and assisting Native American communities. 

“I am currently working on a dissertation proposal for a Ph.D. I hope I might be able to combine my experience, to wrap criminology, legal analysis, ethnography, and ocean custodianship into one package with an interdisciplinary approach,” said Marr.