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California and the West

Missing Scorpion Expert Fondly Recalled as Lifelong Adventurer

Tragedies: As hopes fade that Gary Polis will be found after boat overturned, somber students and colleagues remember his gift for teaching.

March 30, 2000|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAVIS, Calif. — To the scientific world, he was the leading expert on scorpions and spiders. To his students, he was the professor with the contagious enthusiasm for ecology. And to his UC Davis colleagues, he was an adventurer driven by curiosity.

Regardless of how they knew him, people from across the country spent Wednesday worrying about Gary A. Polis, the ecologist who disappeared Monday after his boat sank in the waters off Bahia de Los Angeles, a small village about 300 miles south of the U.S. border.

Three people have been confirmed dead in the boating accident, including Michael D. Rose, a 28-year-old postgraduate researcher who ran Polis' lab, and two ecology professors from Kyoto University: Takuya Abe, 55, and Masahiko Higashi, 45.

More than 100 Mexican soldiers joined authorities from the U.S. Coast Guard on Wednesday, combing land and sea for Polis, the expedition's 53-year-old leader, and Shigeru Nakano, 37, another Kyoto University researcher. By the end of the day, however, UC Davis officials said the two were presumed dead.

"The mood on the campus at this point is very, very sad," said UC Davis spokeswoman Lisa Lapin. "People are now learning and coming to the realization that our department chair, Gary Polis, will not be returning from Mexico.

"We are not optimistic at this point that there are any survivors," she added.

Lapin described families of the victims as devastated. She said she learned Wednesday that Rose's sister is to be married Saturday and that his parents are struggling with the prospect of a wedding and a funeral at the same time.

Counselors were on campus Wednesday to help students and colleagues from Polis' department deal with their grief. Others struggled to remain upbeat.

"We're just hoping against hope that Gary can still be found," said Blue Magruder, a spokeswoman for Maynard, Mass.-based Earthwatch Institute, which helped fund the ill-fated expedition.

Polis was among a group of 20 people who descended on the Sea of Cortes on Monday to study scorpion and spider populations on a series of tiny desert islands.

Accident survivor Gary Huxel, a postgraduate researcher, said he last saw Polis clinging to their boat, which began taking on water in rough conditions and then overturned.

UC Davis officials also had learned of another eyewitness who said it appeared Polis might have suffered a heart attack, said Pat Bailey, a university news service spokeswoman.

Huxel was one of four people who were able make the more than four-hour swim to shore and were eventually rescued by Mexican authorities.

U.S. officials and their Japanese counterparts arrived Wednesday in the town of San Quintin, where the bodies of three victims were brought, to arrange for their return to their respective countries.

A heavyweight in the world of ecology, Polis was the chairman of UC Davis' department of environmental science and policy and the president of the American Society of Naturalists. He has been the focus of a news segment by National Geographic Explorer and of the children's book "Scorpion Man."

"Being alone in the dark and surrounded by 20 scorpions would cause many people to scream in terror," wrote Laurence Pringle, the book's author. "Gary Polis relished the moment."

In the book, Polis dated his fascination with scorpions to a 1972 trip to the Santa Monica Mountains, when he saw a scorpion and discovered that little was known about them. His subsequent studies involving scorpions would lead him to make annual pilgrimages to the islands in the Sea of Cortes.

"He's been working on those islands for what must be well over 20 years," said Geerat J. Vermeij, a UC Davis geology professor and past president of the American Society of Naturalists. "He was just profoundly interested in learning how scorpions and spiders make a living in these Godforsaken places."

Polis spent many years studying the way ocean nutrients subsidized desert ecosystems, allowing creatures such as scorpions to thrive. He also studied scorpions, due in part to their predatory nature, which is so great that they engage in cannibalism. He sought to understand the effect their presence had on population dynamics.

"If you ask me do I love scorpions, I'd answer a flat no," Polis said in a 1990 interview with the New York Times. "I love the information I get from them."

And Polis, according to colleagues, was willing to take risks to pursue his passion.

"Gary was a bit of an adventurer," said Terry Page, chairman of the biology department at Vanderbilt University, where Polis taught for nearly two decades before starting at UC Davis in 1998. "He liked to go out in remote places and explore the environment."

But traveling to remote places, according to Vermeij, could also be dangerous.

"Anyone who goes out in the field in a remote area like that is a risk-taker," Vermeij said. "You know it's dangerous but you just hope for the best."

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