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Around the South Bay

Now We Know What Makes the Grunion Run

July 25, 1985|GEORGE STEIN

Newly arrived in California and liking things salt-watery, my wife and I went to the grunion run last Friday. We got more--and less--than we bargained for. Friends had warned me: Grunion run? How about a snipe hunt?

A distant summer camp embarrassment came to mind. A certain trusting Boy Scout had sat for hours in a darkling Maine woods, swatting mosquitoes, waiting for the elusive snipe while the "friends" who had suggested the adventure were giggling in their bunks. No thank you. Not again.

Wiser minds prevailed.

Grunion really do run, my wife said. She had a brochure from the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro to prove it.

It promised a beach bonfire, a science lecture, storytelling, plenty of fun, maybe even grunion. The brochure said last Friday was the final grunion run for 1985. Dress warmly.

We went.

An Institution In Himself

Enter Mr. Grunion--John Olguin, a Southern California institution only slightly less known than the famed racing grunion.

By sheer luck, we happened to catch one of Olguin's last performances as master of ceremonies of the grunion run.

Olguin (pronounced ol-GEEN) said he may retire next year after he raises money for a statue to the late Stephen M. White, the U.S. senator who put the Los Angeles Harbor breakwater where it is.

The former Cabrillo Beach lifeguard who is now co-director of the museum, was in rare form.

More than 2,000 people were there, some veterans of many a grunion run, others newcomers like us, unsure whether grunion had fur, fins or shells. The crowd, equipped with blankets and buckets, filled every seat in the museum auditorium. Expressions of bored tolerance for the obligatory lecture hardly concealed the greediness that marks a fisherman ready for fish.

Nonetheless, Olguin, a rumpled man with a deceptively casual manner, soon had everyone right where he wanted them. On stage, the muscular young lifeguard of bygone days was still visible under the white beard and pleasant paunch of a vigorous 64-year-old.

Olguin explained that his goal was to mold thousands of strangers into a smoothly functioning team in 20 to 30 minutes.

Just one over-eager grunion watcher stomping across the sand could frighten off the fish and ruin it for everyone, he said.

So he took the audience back to the days of childhood. He was like a father--kind, good-natured, fun-loving but firm when it counted, the voice of authority.

More than 10,000 preschoolers go through the museum each year, he said, so pretend you are 3 or 4 years old.

In 1923 when he was 3, Olguin said, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper took his picture as he walked along Cabrillo Beach. Out came a blow-up of a little boy in a sailor's suit.

He insisted that the audience make walking motions in their seats--as if they were 3, walking along that beach.

"Do it!" he commanded. "Do it, do it, do it. If you don't do it, I'll make you come up here and do it in front of everyone. Do it!"

People in the audience plumped their feet.

The grunion female wiggles her tail into the sand to lay eggs. Everyone! Raise hands over heads and sway from side to side. As if you were a grunion.

"Do it! Do it! Do it!"

They did.

Then the film rolled, showing female grunion coming ashore to lay their eggs and the males following to fertilize them. During this mating frenzy it is permissible to catch grunion--considered a delicacy by many--but by using only the hands.

Mating occurs just after the highest tides, during the period when sand is deposited on beaches. (The eggs take nine days to ripen--they are ready just when rising tides wash away the sand--and they hatch only when the pounding of waves shakes the tiny grunion loose.)

In the pictures, the grunion--elongate silvery fish the size of medium cigars--writhed on the sand by the hundreds, by the thousands. On the beach it was a different story.

After the stifling auditorium, it was pleasant just to be by the water, quietly watching a gentle surf break and re-form golden images of the harbor lights. The stars were out. Noises were far away. Beach friendships were fast struck in quiet, reflective conversation. The sand felt good between toes.

It really did not matter that no grunion appeared after an hour, after two hours.

Flashlights and Pails Ready

At midnight, the crowd--still 2,000 strong--lined up just behind the wave line, flashlights at the ready, pails in hand, necks craning. Museum aides kept back the line, promising again and again the grunion would arrive "in a minute."

Many minutes later, if you squatted down and squinted along the sand, sometimes you could see a certain flipping on the sand. Great excitement. More waiting. More flipping.

Finally, the signal was given. Like lemmings, a wall of people dashed madly into the surf.

They shined flashlights everywhere. They darted here and about. They paddled the water. They sifted sand. They clustered around the lucky ones with a grunion or two.

Finally, spent, they all slowly made their way back up the beach. Then I began to understand why the grunion runs. It is not to mate. That is merely a ruse. The real reason should be obvious to any impartial observer.

Twice a month from March through July, thousands of humans gather at the sea's edge in the middle of the night for a strange ceremony bound to provoke the curiosity of any onlooker.

There is no question about it. The grunion is watching us.

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