Larry Mayer

Excellence in Research Award

Professor of Earth Sciences and Engineering

College of Engineering and Physical Sciences

Director, Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping



Right: Larry Mayer is on the water, of course, at the UNH Coastal Marine Laboratory pier in New Castle, N.H.


Man overboard
Larry Mayer

It started with Jacques Cousteau and a book called Boy Beneath the Sea by Arthur C. Clarke, and by the time he was five years old Larry Mayer was snorkeling in his bathtub in the Bronx, New York.

In high school, Mayer earned a scuba diving license, which is not easy to do in New York City. He then plunged into oceanography as an undergraduate at the University of Rhode Island (URI) and turned down a free ride to medical school to continue his graduate and doctoral studies at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Larry Mayer even left his bride virtually standing at the altar to join an ocean drilling expedition that suddenly needed him. In fact, the only time Larry Mayer ever wavered in his quest to research the deep seafloor was when he became a finalist candidate to become a NASA astronaut. "Not becoming an astronaut is the one thing I regret," says Mayer. "I would have loved that."

Today, the founding director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping (CCOM) at UNH in Durham and co-director of the NOAA/UNH Joint Hydrographic Center since 2000 has come a long way from snorkeling in the bathtub. Mayer has made more than 60 sea expeditions, some of them lasting months at a time. He has totaled more than five years of his adult life at sea, researching the sediment types, habitats, and geology of the ocean floor.

"You need to go to sea with Larry to see him in his element," said Brian Calder, a CCOM research associate professor. "I've sat beside him on the boat a number of times and all of a sudden he would just start reciting poetry."

Between expeditions, Mayer has been a leading force in the development of a new mapping technology called "chirp" sonar, which offers far more granular detail of sediment composition and topography than "ping" sonar. He has helped develop advanced software, called Fledermaus, that offers 3–D visualizations of the huge volume of datapoints acquired by multibeam sonar mapping. A recipient of the Keen Medal in Marine Geology and the Distinguished Achievement Award for Outstanding International Leadership in Ocean Mapping from URI, Mayer has also served on the President's Panel on Ocean Exploration and recently chaired the National Academy of Sciences Committee, National Needs for Coastal Mapping and Charting.

"He's a classic multi–tasker," says Andy Armstrong, co–director of the Joint Hydrographic Center. "He touches everything at CCOM from Tom Webber dealing with interesting acoustic problems in high–frequency stuff, to Luciano Fonseca looking at deep water backscatter, to Colin Ware dealing with visualization. He keeps things on the rails," Armstrong adds. "He keeps us going forward in a way that's just spectacular."

Leading a team of 20 scientists, including nine from UNH, Mayer recently made his third expedition in a massive U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker to map an area of the Arctic ocean floor 500 miles north of Barrow, Alaska, known as the Chukchi Cap. The purpose of the mapping project was to survey the continental shelf north of Alaska to determine U.S. rights over the potential oil and gas reserves beneath the world's least known, but perhaps richest, seafloor.

Mayer would probably spend all of his time on a boat if he could, according to CCOM Research Professor Jim Gardner. "That's why I take him to sea with me for months at a time. He just really relaxes, and then he's happy as a clam."

—Kurt Aldag


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