No Grunions

I grew up in the Midwest where the thought of seeing thousands of silver fish wash onto a beach and shutter and squirm as they lay their eggs seemed exotic and wonderful. I’d seen films of it on TV. So when I learned a grunion run was expected during the August full moon I took my children to La Jolla Shores beach to see it happen.

As I drove there I had a feeling it might be a bust. I’d never done this, and nobody I knew had ever spoken of it. But the thought of letting my kids see such a spectacular natural event convinced me to take them to the beach past their bedtime.

It was a bust. We didn’t see a single grunion.

When we arrived, people where drinking beer around fire pits. Were they here to see the grunions? I didn’t think so. They just weren’t in that frame of mind. Finding a place to park was no problem. It wasn’t at all like driving to San Diego Bay to see 4th of July fireworks where traffic and parking would be hellish because fireworks were a sure thing. This was another bad sign.

We walked north from the main beach to the other side of Scripps Pier to find a part of the beach that was fairly dark. A fisherman told me this would be the best place to look for grunions. But even though we stayed until 11 p.m. (definitely prime time for the grunion run) we didn’t see any. Not one.

I say “not one” because one group of people I spoke with said they saw one grunion. Another group said they saw two. I might have found this encouraging… or at least evidence that I hadn’t imagined the whole thing. Still, I didn’t come here to see a couple of rouge fish taking the road less traveled. I wanted to see throngs of fish in a silvery spasm of egg laying.

By the time we had walked under Scripps Pier it was about ten o’clock and my 7-year-old daughter Sophie said she was tired and wanted to go home. She started to cry and insisted she be held. Nicholas, age 11, held out hope that he might actually see a grunion and kept scanning the beach with his flashlight. But the only small beasts we saw were the sand crabs. That’s what people called them.

The sand crabs were pretty cool. They were blond-colored crustaceans the size of your fingernail, and the beach was alive with them. As the surf receded they would be exposed to the air for a second, before burrowing again under the sand. It made the beach look alive.

As we wandered along, we talked to a man who had caught two shovelhead sharks. These were sharks about four feet long and lay in the sand dying as we stood there. A woman in the group said they were good to eat, something between cod and the kind of shark steak you’d buy at a butcher shop.

Nicholas, a sensitive boy, wondered aloud if sharks feel pain. I told him I was sure they did but they didn’t experience the dread and awareness that humans did. This became a conversation about consciousness and the souls of other creatures that I wasn’t quite prepared for.

The strangest thing I saw that night was just next to the pier. A group of young women in bikinis, who seemed to come out of nowhere, were wading in the dark waves and shrieking with excitement as they were chilled by the cold water and knocked off their feet by the waves.

On the way back to the car I carried Sophie and saw small groups of other people looking for grunion up and down the beach. They walked in groups of four or five with eyes cast down as their flashlight beams made circles in the sand.

Once Nicholas, Sophie and I lost hope of seeing grunion, our spirits were elevated and we talked about the things we had seen that night. My kids and I got in the car, covered with sand. We left the rushing sound of the ocean and drove inland, toward home.

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2 Comments on “No Grunions”

  1. Hey Tom–
    Way to battle through this morning…it must be hard at times to always be the even-keeled reporter. Keep up the good work—really enjoy your style.

  2. N.S. Says:

    Beautiful, Tom. Glad you are back. Kids belong at the beach at night to discover nature’s nocturnal secrets. I hope you take them more often.

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