Sam McManis

Sex on the beach: Witness the grunion run in Southern California

Outside Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, volunteers wade into the surf with plastic buckets to collect grunion, whose breeding schedule is linked to phases of the moon.
Outside Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, volunteers wade into the surf with plastic buckets to collect grunion, whose breeding schedule is linked to phases of the moon. Los Angeles Times file

My misspent youth – a period I try to repress but must confront now because it’s so tied to my fascination with the mythical (in my mind, anyway) fish called the grunion – mostly took place in the suburban sprawl of 1970s Orange County.

Not the Orange County of “The O.C.” or “Arrested Development,” and sure-as-heck not of “Real Housewives” fame. I lived deep inland, nowhere near the ocean, three freeways and a curtain of smog away, in fact.

It was in this middling milieu that I, a hopelessly naive adolescent, first learned of grunion runs. I heard it snickered about in low tones by the cool dudes, the ones who already could sprout a few hairs on their upper lip in the fresh hell that was junior high. I remember DJ Pat “Paraquat” Kelley on the required-listening rock station KMET talking each spring, with knowing salaciousness, about “going on a grunion ruuunnn.” In my hormonally hegemonic thinking, I somehow came to believe that grunion and the “run” people witnessed (or was it participated in?) was invoked merely as a euphemistic phrase for having a “hot date,” akin to “watching the submarine races” that the fictional ’50s kids employed on TV’s “Happy Days.”

Eventually, I was set straight. There actually is a fish called the grunion, I was assured, and their runs are sights to behold.

Still, part of me clings to the misguided belief that this whole grunion-run thing is an elaborate ruse, not quite fake-moon-landing elaborate but a thoroughly fictive hoax perpetrated upon the terminally gullible.

Irrational, I know. For I have seen the scores of grunion videos just a click away on YouTube – “grunion porn,” some marine biologists snarkily call the genre – and I have read the colorful nature stories about how these 6-inch squiggly silvery slivers of protoplasm flop on the beaches of Southern California and northern Baja, Mexico, twice monthly, from March to August, for three days after a full- and new-moon to enact an elaborate mating ritual.

I have been newly enthralled by grunion in recent years – call it an unexpected byproduct of my midlife crisis – and vowed to return to the land of my youth to witness a grunion run firsthand, something denied me so long ago. This seemed not only doable, but required. For one thing, I have a car now, to get to the beach cities, and a wife to accompany me. Why shouldn’t it be my time for a grunion ruuunnn?

Two problems immediately popped up. One, my wife has a job and, giving me major eye-roll, couldn’t be bothered to drop everything for some fishy expedition. And, two, when I started researching grunion on the Internet, the information put forth about actual dates and locations of spottings is vague and sketchy, which did little to quell my now-resurgent belief that grunion is a marine version of the Wyoming “jackalope.” (I was fooled by that one, too, as a kid.)

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife website has an impressive grunion page, replete with a mug shot and Latin designation (Leuresthes tenuis) of the slimy little things, and it also gives more facts than you need about grunion behavior. That site, as well as pages from Pepperdine University and the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, confirm that grunion hit the beaches to spawn in a new- and full-moon cycle. Also confirmed: that they stage their hook-ups on particularly sandy beaches just after evening high tide, apparently taking Wilson Pickett’s advice to wait ’til the midnight hour.

Delve further, though, as in trying to find exact spots to ogle grunion, and things get murky. Pepperdine’s grunion FAQ answers the query about the best spots to watch thusly: “There is no best spot. … Only the fish know where they’ll show up on any given predicted spawning night.” The Fish and Wildlife website is obtuse, too, printing something of a disclaimer in boldfaced type, stating it “does not recommend any particular beach because of changing safety conditions and local curfews.”

That small voice in the back of my mind, the one flashing “hoax” in all-caps neon, returned. But I recalled that those erstwhile facial-hair childhood prodigies always talked about Huntington Beach as the place to go. But HB, as locals call it, is huge; there are five piers there and the main beach alone spans two miles. If I were to just show up there at the appointed hour, I feared I’d literally be in the dark.

Fortunately, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium holds twice-monthly “Meet the Grunion” evening events from March to July. Visitors will hear a lecture from a grunion expert on why it’s one of the rare fish species that reproduces on land, watch a film showing the squirmy sex act on the sand and microscopic footage of when “milt” meets egg and new grunion life blossoms. They also can shake a glass container of fertilized eggs and observe the little-buggers pop out, with the catchy tune, “Call Me Maybe” serving as soundtrack. Then, shortly after high tide between 11 p.m. and midnight, the group will head to the adjoining beach, where, for at least the past 80 years, the grunion have treated like a no-tell motel.

 

To quell my lingering grunion doubts, I called Cabrillo beforehand to double-check. Programs director Larry Fukuhara spoke tentatively. Yes, he said, the mid-March grunion event would still be taking place, but he was “not all that optimistic” the grunion would show up. He mentioned something about a recent big storm that caused much beach erosion, the effects of El Niño, and the famously capricious nature of grunion. “But, sure, come on down,” he added. Tickets cost $5. What did I have to lose?

I figured a few other hardy souls would keep me company at the event, enable me blend in. (Because, you know, few things are more pathetic than the sight of a solo middle-age man lurking at a grunion run.) To my delight, though, more than 100 people showed up.

Mostly, it was families with young children, couples on dates, fishermen with plastic buckets, and biology students from Cal State Long Beach and Los Angeles Harbor College seeking extra credit.

All were dressed for the occasion, donning layers of fleece and beanies and gloves. It was 55 degrees (frigid, by L.A. standards) and gusty at 8 p.m. in San Pedro, the industrial and port town upon which the man-made Cabrillo beach juts into the harbor. As I mingled at the aquarium before the presentation, I sought out grunion veterans to get the lay of the land.

Wayne and Tracy Boyd of Long Beach, ahead of me in line: “Nope,” said Wayne, “First time for us.”

Shawn Suang and Anahi Garcia of Compton: “Don’t know much,” Suang said. “Just doing it for school credit.”

Torey Tschudian, with friend Bryan Karyijanian, both of Huntington Beach: “I have no clue. I heard it was dicey to see them. But my dad, he’s done it a lot of times. He’s an old pro. He’s not here tonight.”

Mike Lyon, of Annapolis, Md.: “We came last year and enjoyed the activities like hatching baby grunion by shaking up a glass. But we didn’t go to the beach. We left before midnight. Got tired.”

Finally, I ran into Naomi Pearson of Carson, who was with her son Elijah, an L.A. Harbor College student. She confirmed that grunion really do exist. She saw them as a child.

“I was maybe 6,” she said. “I haven’t been since then. What do I remember? It was exciting to go into the surf and watching all these fish, hundreds, move around. My older brother would catch them. He’d have a bucket and run all over the shore grabbing them with bare hands. My parents ate them. I never did, so I can’t tell you what they taste like.”

Buoyed by Pearson’s recollection, I moved to the wall-mounted flat-screen monitor, where footage of legions of grunion hitting the beach and burrowing into the sand played in a continuous loop. Others, like me, craned necks and gaped at the sight of silver flashes being deposited by the incoming tide in numbers so large as to cover nearly all the shore. The camera then zoomed to a close-up of a female grunion shimmying, tail first, into the sand until half her body was buried, at which point the male curls its body around the exposed female in a brief, but urgent, embrace, before slinking off into the surf. Then another wave would come in and carry the whole crew back to the water and deposit another battalion of spawners.

We would later learn, during the formal presentation in the John M. Olguin Auditorium, that the female deposits up to 3,000 eggs (the 1960s-era film showed them as orange and each the size of a pin head) in that brief burrowing. About the male’s “milt” that runs down the female’s scales and fertilizes the eggs – well, let’s just say it looks just like the term sounds, and leave it at that. We would later learn, too, that after a nine-day gestation period, the grunion embryo pops out of its translucent egg at the crashing of the waves and surfs out to the sea.

As the hour grew late and beach time beckoned, Matt Christopherson, a Cabrillo program assistant, tried to maintain order amid the murmuring in the auditorium by holding a Q and A. With many kids in the audience, the questions were refreshingly blunt.

One bold lad raised his hand and asked what everyone must have been thinking: “Will they show up?”

Christopherson: “Gosh, I wish I could give you that answer. This isn’t Disneyland. I can’t push a button and make them show up, right? This is a natural event. They’ll show or not show. I’ve been shut out before and had no fish at all, with a big crowd like this. It’s happened. But then I’ve only had 30 people, and the beach has been loaded.”

Question from a girl in the front row: “Why do so many males approach the females?”

Even people in the back of the auditorium could see Christopherson’s blush.

“That’s a question for your dad,” he stammered. “Is your dad here tonight? I’m not getting caught up in that.”

A few minutes before the grunion’s 11:05 p.m. scheduled arrival time, Christopherson and other reflective-vested guides herded us to the beach. This being a new moon, the beach was nearly pitch black. But, because Cabrillo is in an industrial area, with oil refineries and shipping ports in the distance, some light reflected off the water. People carried flash lights and pointed the beams at the oncoming rush of water in anticipation, which sent Christopherson into a tizzy, admonishing “Lights out! Lights out, please! Keep it dark for the grunion! Don’t scare them away!”

I won’t keep you in suspense much longer. Here is how the rest of the evening unfolded, in real time, as I eavesdropped on others waiting for grunion:

11:06: Boy, anticipatory: “Dad, you see anything? I see nothing.”

Dad, deflecting: “I see stars. Polaris must be over there. … At least we can look at the night sky.”

11:09: Boy, mildly whiny: “Dad, if there’s none coming, what’s the point of being here?”

Mom, placating: “Maybe we should come back in May, honey.”

11:11: Christopherson, stalking the shore, to the line of visitors on a sand berm: “The darker the better, please! Lights off!”

11:12: Couples huddle in the wind, cloaked in blankets, staring forlornly at the ebb and flow of the surf, like shipwreck survivors. The line has thinned a little.

Boy: “Mom, I found a sand dollar.”

Mom, with forced cheer: “Awesome.”

11:19: Still no grunion sightings. The crowd has halved. People are now flouting Christopherson’s no-lights admonition.

Teen girl to friend: “How can they even live in this cold weather?”

Friend: “They live in the water.”

11:26: Boy, face partially buried in his mom’s right hip: “They aren’t gonna come. I wanna go.”

They go.

I worry that the boy will, like me, grow up thinking grunion are mythical, an elaborate prank.

11:32: There’s a hub-bub 20 feet down the beach. Beams flash. By the time I make it to the action, a man is holding out an orange Home Depot bucket. Inside are two grunion wiggling in water. People take smartphone images as if one of the Kardashians had alighted on the beach. Word is, these were the only two grunion to beach themselves. I decide to hang out in this proven-grunion area, anyway.

11:46: Two-thirds of grunion-spotters have bagged it. I, then, am one of only about 20 people who see a lone grunion wash up not 10 feet in front of us. At first, a boy next to me mistakes it for kelp. It is a grunion, though. Yes, a single grunion flopping around, doing its part of the biological tango all by its lonesome.

I feel so lonely, sad for the solo grunion and for myself.

12:02: I leave.

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Grunion runs

Dates for this season’s Cabrillo Marine Aquarium “Meet the Grunion” program in Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro are: April 23, May 8, May 23, June 6, June 23, July 21. Cost is $5 general, $1 for children. More information: cabrillomarineaquarium.org

Note: The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has a web page (wildlife.ca.gov) dedicated to information of licenses needed to catch grunion and lists dates of the full and new moons when they are scheduled to appear, but does not specify which Southern California beaches they are liable to populate.

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