By midnight, an hour or so had passed since high tide arrived at La Jolla Shores. In the absence of moonlight to guide the steps of about four dozen adults and children, urban glare cast a gray-pink glow on the marine layer, and soft lighting from beachfront mansions further demystified the darkness.
The group had congregated on the beach at that wet, cold, late hour for one purpose: to watch the spawning ritual of Leuresthes tenuis-a pencil-length, silver fish known as grunion, native to ocean waters from California's Central Coast to Baja.
But initial anticipation wasn't focused on biology. The real mystery was whether or not the grunion would decide our beach was the right place to make an appearance that night-and, if so, whether only a dozen overly eager contenders or hundreds of flip-flopping bodies would show. In fact, the state Department of Fish and Game has noted that despite the fact that Southern Californians have been aware of the grunion phenomenon for at least 70 years, many people remain "skeptical of its existence."
Frommer's 2004 informs San Diego tourists that a "Grunion Run is a wacky local tradition that few visitors experience. But if someone invites you to hustle down to the beach for a late-night fishing expedition... do not be afraid." It also notes that the critters "make for decent eating" when fried, provided one catches them in the manner prescribed by law: with bare hands.
But the La Jolla event, located at a marine reserve and sponsored by Birch Aquarium at Scripps, was an observation-only expedition-not a fish fry.
Before escorting us to the beach, three perky aquarium employees presented an intro called "Grunion Theater." A reel-to-reel projector rattled out an ancient documentary, narrated with appropriate gravitas by a scholarly male voice. It soberly outlined grunion love timing (on full- or new-moon nights following the highest tides and peaking from late-March to early-June) and presented de rigueur fish-mating scenes.
At times, the film's information proved more graphic than some viewers could handle. In one scene, the rubber-gloved hands of a lab worker harvested eggs and milt (a "white liquid... produced by the male grunion") from live fish, provoking gasps and one loud exclamation of "Jesus Christ!" from the audience.
An invitation to "play our part in spawning tonight" turned out to be far less threatening than it sounded. Clear plastic cups, each containing sand, a few fertilized grunion eggs and seawater, were vigorously spoon-stirred, resulting in the emergence of tiny, nearly transparent baby grunion (which would later be released into the ocean).
Enchanted cooing erupted over the newly hatched fish, but mishaps did occur. "I killed one," a teenager confessed.
Again, the subject of grunion edibility was broached. "Who has eaten one? How are they?" one guide asked.
"Not too good..." a man responded.
Armed with flashlights, the crowd meandered down to the beach, causing several would-be fishermen (toting what appeared, in the dark, to be nets) to rapidly make themselves scarce. All that remained was to wait and see what the mushy waves would bring in.
Gradually, a few grunions washed ashore. Despite being advised to give some space to these first arrivals-or "scouts"-people scrambled toward any location the fish landed. Flashlight beams zigzagged across the wet sand as each wave receded. Those who passed on abandoning expensive athletic footwear retreated as if from a toxic substance every time water approached.
Then it happened: A large wave deposited hundreds of grunion-slim bodies darting like silver arrows-at our feet. The crowd went goofy with excitement. Children screamed. Adults whipped out digital cameras, bending down to snap close-ups of glassy eyes and gaping mouths. People standing in shallow water laughed at the sensation of countless fish slipping across their ankles.
"There's some action going on!" a youth exclaimed. "Go, baby, go!"
Suddenly, reports of disturbing goings-on circulated. A party of young grunion chasers, not affiliated with the Birch group, was allegedly scooping fish into a bucket-seemingly with the intent of keeping them.
A woman with a heavy German accent whipped out a cell-phone and dialed Fish and Game. After struggling to accurately describe to a department rep the perceived wrongdoing and its exact location, the exasperated woman finally just protested, "It is illegal!" Then, learning that it was just a false alarm-the fish were indeed being set free-the woman sheepishly told the official, "You can forget about it. If it happens again, I'll call you back."
One aquarium employee, legitimately collecting a few live specimens, observed that it had been an exceptional run in terms of numbers, but less significant in terms of the level of actual mating. He also noticed that a couple of the captured fish in his bucket had already expired, probably as a result of being trampled by overzealous spectators.Anthropomorphically speaking, one could only hope that they'd died happy.