June 12, 2021

A Midnight Mating Party for California's Most Exhibitionistic Fish

For 10 years since moving to LA, I'd wanted to go check out a coastal wildlife phenomenon known as the "grunion run."

And for 10 years, I'd put it off because I didn't like the idea of hauling my cookies to the beach late at night to witness a group of small, sardine-sized fish (the California grunion, Leuresthes tenuis) that may or may show up.  

But no matter how much of a crapshoot it may be, I knew I'd never see this summertime spawning event if I didn't at least show up and try.

"Ground zero" for the grunion run in Los Angeles County is Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, California—right across from the 24/7 activity of the Port of Los Angeles commercial harbor, which makes even an unlit beach under a waxing crescent moon relatively bright. 

But it still helped to use our flashlights to spot the grunion—at first appearing in dark murmurations on the glassy surface of the ocean water, and then catching the light in a silvery sparkle as they leapt into the air and splashed back down, a few of them eventually getting washed ashore. 

More than two hours after the 10 p.m. suggested "start time" of the run—and probably past the point that I would've given up and bailed if I'd been alone—I spotted one swirling around in the ebbing tide. All I kept saying is "I see one I see one I see one I see one" as I shone my cell phone flashlight on it and fumbled to get a picture. 

With a permit, you can actually fish for the migrating grunion with your bare hands—though we saw folks using buckets and nets, too. Those who catch them take them home to cook and eat them. 

Without a permit, you're not even allowed to touch them. We were just there to watch them, anyway. 

But that didn't keep one grunion from flopping around on the wet sand between my legs, eventually wriggling up on top of my left foot. 

It wasn't the massive orgy that I was hoping for—where the beach would be completely covered in females laying eggs and males fertilizing them—but it was more than I'd ever seen before. And nevertheless, it was fascinating. 

I still feel like I didn't really get the full experience, so maybe I'll try again someday. 
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