Grunions

When the gruns come running,
None can turn them back,
None on the seashore,
None in the wrack.

Since moving to Santa Barbara I’ve heard about grunion runs — times when the grunion come out onto the beach to spawn. There are supposed to be thousands of them at once. Apparently these runs occur all up and down the California Coast from Baja to SF, though the tables I’ve seen only give times for San Diego-Santa Barbara section. But they only happen around midnight (and only on a high tide right after a full or new moon — according to Ca. Dept. of Fish and Game‘s grunion schedule), and being someone who goes to sleep at 9:30 I’ve never been interested in waking up at midnight to bike down to the beach to look for fish that may not show.

It was Cynthia’s idea. She suggested we do it. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the whole thing, but I felt I should at least try once to see them. So I went along.

We went to the East Beach grill and parked our bikes and walked down to the beach. We got there about 11:20, and wandered east along the surfline.

No fish.

The beach here was somewhat peculiar. It looked as if a temporary dune were forming. The sand reached a small peak right above the surfline, and then dropped slightly as you headed to the land. The result was that there were puddles of slowly draining seawater behind the mini-dune.

After walking for about 20 minutes we found one fish. It wasn’t doing much of anything, just lying there beside a diminishing puddle. It looked stranded. There didn’t seem any way it could get back to the sea. So I picked it up and carried it to the ocean and threw it back in. I think technically this may have been illegal. It’s off season for grunion at the moment and people aren’t supposed to touch them, but I couldn’t leave it to die…
Grunion just lying there

I’d assumed it would be all or nothing, either we’d see an extraordinary mass of swarming spawning fish, or we’d see nothing. Most likely nothing. The internet was clear that they usually don’t show. It hadn’t occurred to me that we might see one or two. After seeing one fish I felt the trip had been worth while.

A little later we saw a Night Heron right at the surfline. Was it looking for grunion too? Wikipedia says that herons do prey upon grunion, so perhaps it was. But we saw no other birds on the beach, not even later when the run picked up a bit.
NightHeron

We’d been walking east along the beach and hadn’t seen much of anything so we decided to turn around and walk west.

It was now getting on toward midnight. We realized that the place to see the fish was right at the surfline after a big wave broke. We started to notice a fish here and there wriggling back to the water.

It seemed odd. Weren’t they coming to the beach to spawn? Why go to all the work to get yourself stranded on the beach out of the water — and then wriggle back to the water without doing anything.

But that’s what seemed to be happening.
Grunion Squirming Grunion Squirming
You can see the marks the fish has left in the wet sand as it jumps and squirms down the beach.

And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more —
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

A little later we started seeing two or three together stranded by a wave. This looked a bit more interesting. We walked over to one such spot and stood there watching as the fish squirmed back to the sea — and then — right in front of us — a fish popped out of the sand and then followed its own path down.

Looking back at it I think several males and a female swam up in the wave together. The female dug herself down in the sand while the wave was breaking and we probably didn’t even see her, what we saw were the males stranded by the retreating wave, presumably depositing milt in the female’s hole. Then they left, and a little later the female popped out of the sand herself and followed them.
Grunion Fish in Hole
Fish’s nose poking out of hole

Grunion Leaping out of sand Grunion Leaving Hole
Grunion Hole
The hole left by a fish

We noticed several of these events up close. But after a time there seemed fewer and fewer fish in the waves. Three big waves would come and leave no fish behind. And then a wave would deposit one or two… And most of the waves weren’t big now. The tide must have started receding.

We left about 12:30. I’d guess we saw about 50 fish. At first we counted diligently, but after I got up to about 12 it didn’t seem worth it. I’m glad I went. I’ve seen grunion spawning. Not the huge writhing masses I was expecting, but some, and it’s still pretty cool to see a fish pop out of the sand right at your feet.

A little more web-searching this morning found an online form to fill out if you’ve had a gunion sighting. So I did.

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