With midnight’s full moon glowing behind me, I am standing on the beach in Ocean Beach watching high-tide waves breaking and swooping towards me.
I feel the tingling water churning over my bare feet and up my eleven-year-old legs as it sweeps past me on its way to shore, then rushes back again to the ocean, revealing a large stretch of wet, shining, moonlit sand before me. I am wearing only a bathing suit and sweatshirt, sleeves rolled up high on my cold arms. I am looking for grunion.
The country is deep in depression, and any method of getting a free meal is worth pursuing. Families have brought their galvanized buckets to the beach, built bonfires in the sand, and are standing around near me in the breaking waves looking for the fish. Little old ladies who had come with the intent of just sitting by the fire and cooking, have left their shoes on the sand, and in their long stockings have gathered up their skirts with one hand and joined the crowd in the waves, hoping to catch some grunion with their other hand.
As each wave rushes back into the ocean, revealing again the large stretch of wet sand, I watch the smooth surface, looking for telltale glistening that will announce the seven-inch long little fishes, as the female stands on her tail and dances until she buries herself in a twelve-inch-deep hole in the sand. When the male finds her in her hole, by now filled with water, he swims circles around her, spewing his sperm. When the next big wave comes, the fertilized eggs are buried safely in the sand and the fish allow themselves to be swooshed back into the ocean to join their school, to patrol up and down the Pacific coast until the next high tide.
Aha. There is a glimmer of movement down near the incoming wave. I run down and grab at the fluttering wriggler with my hand, my fingers splayed, but the little fish escapes me, flops back to the sand, and the receding water quickly drags it back towards the next breaking wave. That wave crashes and swooshes over my legs on its way to shore. Sure enough, now there are three or four more flopping nesters digging into the bare, wet sand. I grab for another, and before I really have a grip on this fish the next wave has inundated the beach, and me. I can feel little grunion hitting against my bare legs. I reach down with both hands and grab fish from the water. Now there seems to be hundreds banging against my legs. As this wave recedes the whole area is covered with six inches of water full of silvery, flopping fish.
I reach again with both hands, fingers splayed, and as I close them I have six or eight grunion in each fist. I am so engrossed I barely notice what else is going on with the other people who are also after the little fish.
I run up to our campfire, and dump my catch into the bucket next to my mother, then run back into the breaking waves to catch more. By this time the whole beach is alive with people yelling with excitement, family dogs racing up and down along the water’s edge, barking ecstatically.
Many years later I take my own children, and then eventually my grandchildren, down to the beach late at night, to experience these little fish in their natural habitat. There doesn’t seem to be so many of the fish in the waves now, but the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro still offers a night-time educational program. It starts with a classic grunion video followed by interaction with grunion researchers and an opportunity to touch live tidepool animals. Then children and adults participate in stirring live grunion eggs in jars of sea water, the tumbling motion stimulating those eggs to hatch. Together, everyone walks the newly hatched fish down to the ocean at midnight to release them into the sea, and watch for the bigger fish dancing in the waves.