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Runnin' with the GRUNION

To ichthyologists, they're a mystery. To the rest of us, they're the best show on the beach.

May 31, 2005|Janet Cromley | Times Staff Writer

BATHED IN MOONLIGHT, A FAT SEAL SPRAWLS on the sand and surveys the undulating blanket of silver and green that covers the shore at Long Beach. A strange slapping sound -- wet rubber against rubber -- fills the air. As far as the eye can see, the beach is slippery with grunion, jumpy little fish the size of ballpark franks, flopping around. An excellent late-night buffet.

For the last hour, grunion have been jumping out of the surf and pummeling the shore in a 30-second mating ritual that is unique in the animal kingdom. The seal, belly full of fish, isn't impressed. It snaps at a nearby grunion and then slowly lowers its head as if to say "No mas. No mas." It's hard being a seal during the grunion spawning season. So many grunion. So little time.

A massing army

Earlier in the evening, before the seal went fishing for dinner, grunion were massing just offshore, like an invading army under the cover of darkness, thick snakes below the shadowy dark waves.

Grunion watchers gathered on the beach and waited patiently. But their timing was off. The kids got cranky, and the beer ran out. The evening grew chilly, marriages were tested and eventually everyone went home disappointed, with sand in their shoes and mud on their shorts. They had just been initiated into a Southern California ritual: the abortive grunion run.

When the run finally started two hours later, the only ones left to see it were a few beachcombers and one lazy seal. As usual, the grunion were laughing.

Grunion are as much a part of Southern California culture as surfboards and the Hollywood sign, but without the romance. Any newsletter, club or soccer team with the name "grunion" isn't aiming for a shelf full of awards. Teenagers who've never seen the fish use them as alibis to stay out late. Frank Zappa penned a song for them, "The Beverly Hillbillies" devoted an entire episode to them, and still they get no respect.

But the hapless grunion is the only fish in the world that jumps out of the water onto the beach to spawn, which qualifies it as a bona fide international star in ichthyological circles. And it's only found in our backyard -- coastal California and the Gulf of California in Baja.

All of this renders the scrappy grunion a fitting mascot for our sun-drenched do-it-now culture. In Southern California, where so many of us arrived from somewhere else, we can relate to this fish-out-of-water story.

It's not surprising that after all these years of having grunion right under our noses, we think we know them. But although scientists are slowly piecing together some of the grunion puzzle -- they know, for example, that about 25 different parasites like to hang out on the diminutive fish -- they still haven't answered the most fundamental questions about them. They don't know, for example, where grunion go when they're not spawning. When it comes to understanding the grunion population -- the grunion gestalt -- scientists are just getting started.

This much we do know: From March through September, after the highest tides associated with a new or full moon, grunion surf the tide until they land in clusters onshore to spawn.

The female tunnels tail first into the liquid wet sand, then lays as many as 3,000 bright pink eggs -- 18,000 over the entire season -- while the male wiggles his way to a female and deposits his milt around her. The milt, which contains as many as a million sperm, filters down her body into the sandy tunnel she's built.

Males are capable of several trysts in one run. After spawning, the grunion work their way back to the breakers and return to the ocean. In a typical run, all will live to spawn another day.

Whoever coined the term "cold fish" never met a grunion.

Fish like no other

If the grunion had an agent, it would be Karen Martin, a professor of biology at Pepperdine University.

Pacing around her lab, Martin talks fast, words piling up, then spilling out as she pours salt water into a beaker of sand laced with grunion eggs. Within seconds, tiny grunion are darting around the beaker like sea monkeys.

Martin thrills to strange fish, like the climbing perch of India, which leaves the water to climb trees for no other reason than to watch the world go by.

"There's something scientifically interesting about a fish that jumps out of water," says Martin, who's been studying grunion for almost 10 years.

She has embarked on the most ambitious longitudinal population study of grunion since the 1940s. With help from a number of institutions and hundreds of volunteers, she is gathering data that she hopes will shed light on the sustainability of the grunion population and the health of the beaches they spawn on.

As Southern California beaches are subjected to more and more foot traffic and pollutants, the grunion may be the canary in the coal mine.

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