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Running with the Grunion

By David Haldane

March 25, 2024



I felt a little homesick the other day.

By “home,” I mean the coast of Southern California where I grew up and lived much of my life. By “sick” I mean nostalgic.

The thing that triggered it was a news item announcing the beginning of an event unique to that part of the world. I’m referring to the annual run of the grunion, the world’s only fish that mates on land.

Here’s how I described it in a Los Angeles Times piece three decades ago:

A line of people stood silently on the beach. They had left behind the bright lights and great whooshing wails of East Coast Highway. Now, like sentries in the night, they stood watching the water for any signs of life.

Slowly, the signs appeared. With an eerie flickering, a tiny white object flapped helplessly on the moonlit beach between the waves. In a minute, there were more. Soon, small shining fish covered the wet sand like a shimmering silver jacket.

The observers watched in silence as if to assure themselves that the vision was real. Then, seeming to respond to an inaudible signal, they broke ranks in unison, pouncing with buckets and flashlights in hand.

Another grunion run was in progress. The frenzy had begun.

I was describing the excitement engendered by thousands of silvery six-inch fish performing their annual mating ritual. It happens on the beaches from Southern California to Baja in two-week intervals every March through August. They wash ashore in pairs, then as the female burrows her tail in the sand, the male wraps himself around her to fertilize the eggs she will lay. When the next wave comes, the parents are gone. And two weeks later, so are their babies.

“Wow!” my Filipino wife exclaimed happily the first time she witnessed the spectacle. “What a lot of fish to eat!”

Not being a fish eater nor Filipino, my reaction was more subdued. “Oh, God,” I thought, “what a miracle of nature.” It was exactly the same sense of mystic awe I’d felt the night my father first took me to see the wonder as a small boy.

It’s not always easy to see. Sometimes you spend hours waiting at one spot only to learn that the grunion showed up somewhere else. Or the first fish on the beach get nabbed by eager folk, unaware that the disappearance of early scouts will discourage any others from coming.

But then there are those nights when your timing and location is perfect, and what follows is a sight like none other. Grunion is Spanish for “grunters,” referring to the soft sound made by the egg-laying females. Early Native Americans referred to it, as did the ship’s logs of Spanish explorers.

Over the years, authorities have enacted rules to protect the species. Licensed grunion enthusiasts must catch them by hand, only 30 per night, and only at certain designated times. And digging holes in the sand is strictly prohibited.

But those who have tasted the tiny fish, including my wife, say they’re well worth the trouble.

“Mm,” was all she could manage the first time she ate one. And then with slightly more emphasis, “Mm!”

For me, though, it’s all about miracles, the astounding ways in which nature renews itself with no help from us humans. Which is why I’m thinking of that grunion run today, thousands of miles from its path in the sand.

Sometimes the awe interferes with the catch.

“It was really neat,” a 17-year-old once gushed to me after waiting for hours with bucket in hand. “We huddled around them, pointed at them, and followed them back to the water.”

“How many did you catch?” I wondered.

“Not a one,” he sheepishly admitted. “They were laying their eggs, and we just didn’t feel right about grabbing them while they were mating.”

No harm done, I thought, there’s always next year.





David Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. His latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon. This column appears weekly in The Manila Times





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