Davis researchers to continue fatal expedition

The Associated Press
Saturday September 30, 2000

SACRAMENTO – Researchers from the University of California, Davis, are preparing for a new expedition to the Sea of Cortez, six months after five of their colleagues died in a boating accident there. 

Accident survivor and postgraduate researcher Gary Huxel is among ecologists that will make the trek to the Mexican islands off Baja California in late October. 

Expedition leader and world-renowned scorpion expert Gary Polis died in March after a wave capsized the research team’s fiberglass boat. Postgraduate biology researcher Michael Rose and three Japanese scientists also died. 

Survivors say an unexpected weather shift caused the accident. 

The group was spending spring break week studying spiders and scorpions that inhabit small islands in the Sea of Cortez. The sea, also known as the Gulf of California, is 300 miles south of San Diego. 

Huxel said he was motivated to go back to the islands by Polis’ research. 

“It was funded by him and it’s something he, and all of us, would want to move to,” Huxel said. “Our focus has shifted, as it started to do under Gary, to a more experimental approach instead of counting organisms.” 

University officials said the March accident was a tragedy that could not have been prevented. Still, campus’ risk management officials have taken steps to advise students and researchers about the dangers of field trips, including travel abroad programs. 

“We’ve found that many departments already had things in place — safety manuals or orientation meetings before trips,” said Bonnie Robbins, a risk management specialist. 

“What was missing before was a repository for this information that one student could go to get that sort of information,” she said. 

The researchers have already been to the area off Baja California twice this summer. The area is located about 300 miles south of San Diego. 

“It’s definitely a weird feeling I can’t really express, to know that there is all this beauty there covering up some real dangers,” said Francisco Sanchez-Pinero, one of the lead researchers who had chosen to stay home during the fatal March expedition. 

Huxel said it was difficult to return, but added that he pursued the research for “the same reasons we got started.” The other three survivors are not yet ready to go back to the site, he said.