Keeping up with the grunion run

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The summer I stayed at the Malibu beach home of a novelist friend was a season of discovery. By day I looked for work with my newly minted bachelor's degree, and by night had a series of experiences you don't find in a classroom.

There was the night the house next door--a contemporary, tubular structure--burned down in a matter of minutes. The inferno consumed everything, leaving its two residents in shock, standing in our living room, reeking of smoke.

There was the night the Hollywood movie producer came for dinner and chatter about the novelist's latest screenplay, the waves crashing theatrically beneath the deck. Later that evening there would be skinny dipping, prompting my naïve notion that this is how people in California spend their summer vacation.

There was the very late night on the deck when we turned on the floodlights illuminating the waves, and captured the whole beach undulating like a shiny silvery sheet wafting in the breeze. I'd never seen anything like it, a remarkable show Nature stages at regular intervals every spring and summer. The running of the grunion.

It was a Dorothy-you're-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment like the one from my freshman year at college in Claremont. That was in early winter, after the first snow had fallen on Mt. Baldy, which loomed over the campus. Some students who had grown up nearby were excited about being able to "go to the snow."

Curious, I thought; in Colorado, where I come from, the snow comes to you.

In summer, in coastal SoCal, the grunion come to you. They're not running, of course, they're spawning, and although I've never again seen the abundance of that night in Malibu, it's an astonishing sight, even if only a handful of fish come to dance at your feet on the beach in the dark.

I went to the late show last night and was not disappointed.

It was a mild, muted, overcast evening. In stark contrast to crowds and noise earlier in the day, the beach was abandoned, except for a couple of silhouettes maybe a hundred yards toward the pier, one bearing a headlamp and carrying what looked like a bucket. We seemed to be the only people interested in the small, silvery blue-green creatures flopping around the hard, wet sand like the fish out of water that they are, if only for a minute.

You're allowed to catch grunion, if you have a fishing license, use only your hands and do not dig holes to entrap them. I'm told they're delicious, if dainty. But I'm not a catcher, I'm a watcher--if I'm going to eat flesh, I don't want to have had any kind of prior relationship with my meal. On the beach, at nearly midnight, flashlight in hand, I'm not looking for snacks, I'm looking for continuum.

Like many other creatures that share a moody planet with humans, grunion have faced challenges to viability. Beach erosion, pollution and harbor construction have resulted in a loss of spawning habitat. But their lot has improved now that harvesting is not permitted early in spring and beach-grooming is restricted on their spawning turf.

Floodlighting their Malibu bedroom all those summers ago didn't seem to impede grunion group lust, but I've read that these dinky little fish--they max out at 6 or 7 inches--are not keen on bright light. If they show up on the beach you've chosen--and that's never a given--they're not too shy to make piscine whoopee in the circle of a flashlight's glow.

If human procreation were dependent on the public dance to which these grunion are subjected, homo sapiens would be a threatened species. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, this is a peep show, and I feel a bit pervy, squatting to observe several fish who have ridden up the shore on an incoming wave become stranded in the wet sand. She gets vertical, wiggling her tail into the beach to dig a hole that nearly swallows her as the males circle her body. Sometimes there's only one male, sometimes there's a team.

You can't see it, but she's depositing eggs into the hole as the fellas release milt (fish sperm) that runs down her body and fertilizes the eggs. It takes maybe 15 seconds before the guys finish and swim back into the Pacific on the next available ebb, and no, the punch line need not be articulated. My flashlight is trained inches from her face as she wiggles up and out of the sand, and flops around awaiting the next wave.

Lots of fish seem to ride up and back without digging or depositing, females awaiting a partner--they're not going to leave a gift no one's home to receive. A fish is not a a fowl.

The fish follies occur for a couple of hours during the highest tides of the month on three or four sucessive nights. Eggs incubate in the sand and, if they aren't gobbled up by shorebirds, flies or beetles, hatch about 10 days later.

For fishermen and other human peepers, birth is not as exciting as conception. Hatchlings are only about 7mm long, and they're transparent. You couldn't see them with X-ray vision.

Although their name is derived from the Spanish word for "grunter," although they supposedly make a squeaking noise, all I've ever heard during a grunion run is the sound of the waves and human commentary about how weird the whole thing is. But objectively speaking, is the human act of making babies, and its attendant grunting and squeaking, any less strange?

After all these years since my first California summer, no other next-door neighbor's house has burned down, I haven't had dinner (or skinny dipped) with a Hollywood movie producer, but I regularly wander to the beach, late on a summer's eve, in the hopes the grunion are running in my direction. It's about continuum, about the resilience of nature, about being a visitor in the place you call home.

Photo: K. Martin/Grunion.org


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