Summertime is beach time in Southern California, even at night. Locals gather around bonfires, roast marshmallows and enjoy each other's company. On some very special nights, there's even sex — at least for the fish.
The grunion run happens only in the spring and summer months. Late at night, under the full and new moons, thousands of tiny, silvery fish swim to shore for a very peculiar mating ritual.
"The grunions are basically spawning tonight," says Larry Fukuhara, the program director at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro. "The females are coming out," he says. They'll burrow backwards into the sand about 2 or 3 inches. Then the males will "wrap around" and fertilize the eggs, Fukuhara adds.
Grunion look a lot like sardines, just a little bigger. They're native only to Southern California and the upper Baja Peninsula. On this night, the tiny, silvery fish are expected around 10:30 p.m. There is no guarantee of a grunion sighting, but Fukuhara stays positive.
It's a romantic evening for everyone involved, but especially for the grunion. Once fertilized, the eggs will wash back out to sea and become baby grunion that will soon come back ashore, just like their parents did.
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium offers a special grunion program to teach kids and their parents about this summertime ritual. Once the lecture and educational filmstrip end, crowds of families march down to the beach to try to track down a few of the fish. Some aquarium staff stand by to assist with their curiosity.
Participants receive their instructions: As the wave recedes, look for anything wiggling in the wet sand.
Four young girls claim they have seen some grunion wiggling on the shore, and they have plans for any they catch. One suggests frying and eating them. Another warns not to keep them as pets — dogs might eat them.
A wave washes back into the ocean, and there is a dash from the sand into the water. Children and adults splash madly, scouring piles of seaweed and dark water with flashlights and lighted cellphones for any signs of the silvery fish — no doubt an intimidating crowd for any 3-inch creature, grunion included.
The crowd's bravery is challenged, as well. With every cold wave that washes up, there is a chorus of shrieks and a simultaneous race back to the sand, attempting to avoid the salty surge.
Many of the buckets brought from home for the big haul are empty, but Ryan Caruso proudly holds two squirmy creatures in his pail.
Lisa Cane brought her 4-, 8-, 10- and 12-year-old.
"We're in with the nature and learning and having fun," she says.
And it is fun for everyone, until it's time to go home.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And, finally this hour, to the beaches of Southern California for our series, Summer Nights. When the moon is new or full and the tide is high, thousands of locals line the shores to watch small, silvery fish as they have sex on the beach. The fish are grunion and the event is the Grunion Run. The audience marvels at the mating ritual and then there's a free-for-all. Grab all the slimy little fish you can.
NPR's Amy Walters sent us this post card from San Pedro.
AMY WALTERS, BYLINE: So, it's Friday night. I've had a long week of work, as I'm sure a lot of you guys have, and no better in Southern California to let off a little steam than to head to the beach, which is where I've arrived to see the world famous Grunion Run.
There are people everywhere, big bonfires.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Later this evening about 10, 10:30, we'll all be going out to the beach together.
LARRY FUKUHARA: I'm Larry Fukuhara and I'm the program director here at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: On certain nights, (unintelligible) sandy California beaches are the scene of a spectacular display.
FUKUHARA: The grunions are basically spawning tonight. The females will come out and what they're going to be doing is burrow backwards into the sand about two to three inches. The male or males will wrap around and what they'll do is fertilize the eggs.
WALTERS: A romantic evening.
FUKUHARA: Oh, yes, yes. I'm glad you're here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Now, kids, please ask your parents what fertilization means. OK? Do that on the drive home. They'll love it.
FUKUHARA: Then, afterwards, we're going to go out to the beach with the rest of the people and, hopefully, see grunion.
WALTERS: What do you think? Are our odds good tonight?
FUKUHARA: Always good. We're always positive. Heck, yeah. Yeah. We're going to see grunion.
ANTHONY: Fish, 10, 20, 30, 100.
WALTERS: What's your name?
ANTHONY: Anthony (unintelligible).
WALTERS: And I heard that you are 10 years old. Is that right?
ANTHONY: Nine (unintelligible).
WALTERS: OK. So should we go see if there's going to be fish out there?
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: OK, folks, so what we're going to do is we're watching (unintelligible) wave recede, as it goes out, it leaves shiny, shimmery, wet sand and what you want to do is look for anything wiggling in that wet sand area. We're starting to get a couple reports that there's a couple fish here and there. Looks like we have a couple over to our left.
WALTERS: How long do we have to wait? Do you guys see any?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Yeah. They were silver and they were wiggling.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Sometimes, if you look in the waves, you can see them. As the wave curls up, you can see them in the waves.
WALTERS: What are you going to do with them once you catch them?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: You bring them home and fry them and eat them. You can't have them like pets. If you have dogs, your dogs are going to eat them.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Or we could fry them right there in the fire.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Yeah. Or maybe in our house when we get there.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Have fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)
WALTERS: I do think the most self-respecting grunion might be scared away by this tremendous Friday night crowd.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SHRIEKING)
WALTERS: Rest assured, that was not a grunion attack. That was merely a small wave. Did you get one?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: I got two. When it first came in, I got one and then, right here, I got one.
WALTERS: Are you going to name it?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: I don't know.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Oh, mine fell.
WALTERS: Oh, (unintelligible) flipping around. (Unintelligible).
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SHRIEKING)
LISA CANE: I have a four-year-old, a eight-year-old, 10-year-old and a 12-year-old.
WALTERS: Tell me your name.
CANE: Lisa Cane(ph). You know, we're in with the nature and learning and having fun.
WALTERS: So there's still some campfires burning. Still lots of folks in the water, but I've had a long week and it's Friday night and I'm headed home. How many s'mores did you eat?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Three.
BLOCK: That's NPR's Amy Walters enjoying the Grunion Run at the Cabrillo Aquarium in San Pedro, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.