The silvery fish are the consummate California love story, performing their own love dance this time of year on the shores of our beaches under the light of the moon. Human audiences are transfixed.
We’ve seen this sort of courtship before. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Girl, now pregnant, buries her tush in the damp and gamey sand to lay her eggs.
Love. Does it get any better than this? I mean really.
If you’ve never seen a grunion run — yes, grunion are fish, not prairie chickens or close cousins of the snipe — I am here to tell you that we can all learn a little something from their steamy beach shenanigans. Forget the birds and the bees. I give you the mighty grunion, sans clothes and any sense of decency — the Lindsay Lohans of the great outdoors.
See, like many Californians, grunion just cannot resist a little canoodling in the sand. The females wiggle up out of the water. The males, as males are prone to do, can’t help but follow. One thing leads to another. A flirty smile. A warm embrace. It’s over in a matter of minutes. But the memories, they can last a lifetime.
Really, the grunion are so much better at this than we’ll ever be. How masterful? They do it all without a drop of tequila.
And they are our story, the fish, silvery as new dimes, normally run from Southern California north to Santa Barbara. Except for stretches of Baja California, grunion are found nowhere else in the world.
Each spring it happens — triggered by a glorious martini of high tides, moon phases and a sense of romance and survival no one quite understands.
"One of the things we’re really not sure of is how many grunion there are," says Pepperdine professor Karen Martin, one of the leading experts on the fish. "We don’t know if they’re going up in numbers, or going down."
Now, I’m of a mind that there are certain things all Californians must do. They should play a trifecta at least once at Santa Anita. They should catch a Rose Bowl on a postcard-perfect New Year’s Day.
They should spend long sultry evenings with the Dodgers or the Angels, and once — maybe only once — try their luck aboard a longboard.
Into this crazy decathlon of California treasures, let’s throw in a grunion run, under a full moon, the waves licking at your ankles. Admission: free.
"It is so spectacular and really beautiful," says Martin, who has studied the fish for 14 years. "I never get tired of it."
The grunion have it going on right now, at high tide during full and new moons, at Leo Carrillo, Venice, Belmont Shore, Seal. A bunch of groupies called Grunion Greeters, 500-plus strong, help to monitor their appearances and egg production. The heaviest runs are from April through June. But they appear as late as September.
The other night, just south of Newport, at the Crystal Cove cottages we all love but can never seem to get into, thousands of the 5-inch-long fish showed up, surfing in on the swells, watusi-ing up the beach, then shimmying back out again.
Martin was there with a couple assistants, including Mike Murrie, a Pepperdine journalism professor attempting to catch the activities on tape.
At first, it appeared like a beachy version of "The Blair Witch Project," five of us stumbling around in the dark at nearly midnight with a night vision scope. Though their appearances are usually timed to the moon, the grunion don’t always show. Tonight, a heron flies by — a natural predator, a telling sign. But by 11:15 p.m., five minutes after their predicted arrival, we’ve seen almost nothing.
Then a wave washes up, leaving dozens scattered along the sand. Show time.
Martin explains that the grunion can stay in the sand for 15 to 20 minutes because, like sea lions or seals, they are able to slow their metabolism to use less oxygen. Runs like this may be brief or last more than an hour. They are always at night (for schedules, go to http://www.grunion.org).
Sometimes, the fish are chased by predators such as sharks or even the occasional skunk working the surf line. They are easy pickings, and their worst enemies are often human. In fact, beginning this month, the grunion are open to anglers who are allowed to catch them only with bare hands, though Martin cautions against such activities.
"When you think of all the people in L.A., and the number of grunions, it’s not a fair fight," she says.
Martin also is an advocate of beach protections — overgrooming is one cause for concern — for the fertilized eggs remain in the sand till they are washed out of the sand by the next semilunar high tide, 10 days to two weeks later.
It’s past midnight now, and up and down the beach our little posse goes, the water warmer than you might expect, the sea breezes mild even at the late hour. The grunion are showing up in droves now, like a silver rug the ocean lays out, then the ocean takes away.
Yep, it’s showtime, for the mighty grunion, as endemic to our beaches as belly fat and tough leathery feet.
Marvel while you can.
They are small, slender fish with bluish green backs, silvery sides and bellies. Their snouts are bluntly rounded and are very slippery. The normal life span is three or four years, but individuals five years old have been found. The growth rate slows after the first spawning and stops completely during the spawning season. Consequently, adult fish grow only during the fall and winter.
California grunion spawn at night on the beach, from two to six nights after the full and new moon, beginning a little after high tide and continuing for several hours. As a wave breaks on the beach, the grunion swim as far up the slope as possible. The female arches her body, keeping her head up, and excavates the semi-fluid sand with her tail. As her tail sinks, the female twists her body and digs tail first until she is buried up to her pectoral fins. After the female is in the nest, up to eight males attempt to mate with her by curving around the female and releasing their milt as she deposits her eggs about four inches below the surface. After spawning, the males immediately retreat toward the ocean. The milt flows down the female’s body until it reaches the eggs and fertilizes them. The female twists free and returns to the sea with the next wave. The whole event can happen in 30 seconds, but some fish remain on the beach for several minutes.
Spawning may continue from March through August, with possibly an occasional extension into February and September. However, peak spawning is from late March through early June. Once mature, an individual may spawn during successive spawning periods at about 15-day intervals. Most females spawn about six times during the season. Counts of maturing ova to be laid at one spawning ranged from about 1,600 to about 3,600, with the larger females producing more eggs. A female might lay as many as 18,000 eggs over an entire season. The milt from the male might contain as many as one million sperm. Males may participate in several spawnings per run.
The eggs incubate a few inches deep in the sand above the level of subsequent waves. They are not immersed in seawater, but are kept moist by the residual water in the sand. While incubating, they are subject to predation by shore birds and sand-dwelling invertebrates. Under normal conditions, they do not have an opportunity to hatch until the next tide series high enough to reach them, in 10 or more days. Grunion eggs can extend incubation and delay hatching if tides do not reach them, for an additional four weeks after this initial hatching time. Most of the eggs will hatch in 10 days if provided with the seawater and agitation of the rising surf. The mechanical action of the waves is the environmental trigger for hatching.
A fishing license is required for persons 16 years and older to capture grunion. Grunion may be taken by sport fishermen using their hands only. No appliances of any kind may be used to catch grunion, and no holes may be dug in the beach to entrap them. Grunion may be taken on specified dates between March and the end of August.
Too much info? Sorry, but it’s facinating and very popular in So Cal. I hope that you can all experience it at least one time.
Weekend arriving soon so have a good one, especially you Dads out there.