The last time I saw a grunion run, I was with Luz, the 8th grade friend that I wrote about in DEAR BULLY. My husband (a Long Island native) had never experienced one, so we decided to remedy that this year.
For the uninitiated, grunion are slim, six-inch long fish that swim in the waters off the Pacific coastline, from Baja, Mexico to Santa Barbara, California. From spring through summer –roughly March through August–they perform a unique spawning ritual, commonly referred to as “grunion runs.”
During high tide, these silvery fish congregate in shallow waters. From one to three hours later–as if cued by some unseen signal–they ride the waves to shore. The females writhe and wriggle until they’ve positioned themselves beyond the frothy edge of the surf, where they use their tails and pectoral fins to burrow holes in the wet sand. They deposit anywhere from 1000-3,000 eggs into the safety of those beachfront nests, and once the hard work is finished, the males
show up to the party encircle the female and fertilize her brood. Then they float off into the sunset together the males beat a hasty retreat toward the water, leaving the female to twist free of the sand before returning again to the sea.
They prefer dark, quiet beaches for their fishy dalliances, but when the runs are at their peak, all bets are off. People come from miles around to watch. Some bring buckets and fishing licenses. Others — like my husband and me — come prepared with flashlights and cameras. Linked to the new and full moons, grunion runs are predictable in the abstract; but as any Fish and Game ranger will tell you, it’s not an exact science. In reality, runs occur at the whims of these creatures. You might see a one or two grunion, or the sand could be aglow in long, wriggling ribbons of silver. (Here's a YouTube video, should you want to preview this event.)
Anyway, we showed up at Doheny State Beach after 10:00 p.m. last Saturday night, as per the August 2012 Grunion Run schedule. The parking lot was almost empty, surprisingly so, and the beach was similarly deserted (lifeguard station included) save for the occasional flip-flop, plastic bottle and toy.
My husband pointed out Sagitarius, twinkling lights in an inky black sky, and we watched the misty marine layer roll in.
I walked along the foamy edge of the water, and though I took lots of pictures, I kept looking beyond my lens for a flash of silver. No such luck.
A flock of seagulls soon joined us, and a couple of families showed up after that. The sea tossed flotsom and jetsam onto the shore, but no grunion. Two hours later, we hadn’t seen any fish at all, save for the grunion that bumped around the edges of a little kid’s sand bucket.
When the last of the great blue herons took its leave, we saw that as a sign that we, too, should make our way home.
“Maybe it wasn’t meant to be,” I told myself, but in truth, I was sorely disappointed. I wanted so badly to recapture that early memory, and I wanted my husband to experience it for himself.
Bless his heart, my husband's more practical than I am. He threw a comforting arm around my shoulder. “Oh well, there’s always next year,” he said.
The more I
obsessed thought about it, the more convinced I was that we should go again on Sunday, the last grunion run of the year. And given some arm-twisting gentle persuasion, my husband eventually agreed. After previewing my photos from the previous night, he even helped me adjust the nighttime settings on my camera.
Someone told me that grunion prefer the jagged rocks near the jetty. Not so, if our experience that night was any indication. Sea debris covered the weathered stones, but the sand along the water's edge was empty.
A bevy of birds stood sentry at the ocean’s edge, so we followed their lead. No luck…not for the birds, and not for the camera-wielding visitors on their beach.
At the end of the night, I came up with nothing, save for the stories a knot of small boys shared with me when I asked about the handful of grunion, floating belly-up in their buckets. That, plus a handful of pictures, none of them perfect. But as I look over them again this morning, I’m not disappointed.
Willing something to happen won't make it so. The grunion will run again, in their own time. I'll become more adept with my camera, over time. But I'm reminded again that life's most valuable treasures are revealed to us in the here and now. Not the events we try wishing into existence, so much as twinkling constellations and irridescent seashells…the wondrous things that capture our imagination while we wait.