For a silvery California fish, a special moonlit night

Late at night, under the full and new moons, thousands of tiny, silvery grunion fish swim to shore for a very peculiar mating ritual, the grunion run.
Late at night, under the full and new moons, thousands of tiny, silvery grunion fish swim to shore for a very peculiar mating ritual, the grunion run. Jae C. Hong/AP

Summertime is beach time in Southern California, even at night. Locals gather around bonfires, roast marshmallows and enjoy each other's company. On some very special nights, there's even sex — at least for the fish.

The grunion run happens only in the spring and summer months. Late at night, under the full and new moons, thousands of tiny, silvery fish swim to shore for a very peculiar mating ritual.

"The grunions are basically spawning tonight," says Larry Fukuhara, the program director at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro. "The females are coming out," he says. They'll burrow backwards into the sand about 2 or 3 inches. Then the males will "wrap around" and fertilize the eggs, Fukuhara adds.

Grunion look a lot like sardines, just a little bigger. They're native only to Southern California and the upper Baja Peninsula. On this night, the tiny, silvery fish are expected around 10:30 p.m. There is no guarantee of a grunion sighting, but Fukuhara stays positive.

It's a romantic evening for everyone involved, but especially for the grunion. Once fertilized, the eggs will wash back out to sea and become baby grunion that will soon come back ashore, just like their parents did.

Cabrillo Marine Aquarium offers a special grunion program to teach kids and their parents about this summertime ritual. Once the lecture and educational filmstrip end, crowds of families march down to the beach to try to track down a few of the fish. Some aquarium staff stand by to assist with their curiosity.

Participants receive their instructions: As the wave recedes, look for anything wiggling in the wet sand.

Four young girls claim they have seen some grunion wiggling on the shore, and they have plans for any they catch. One suggests frying and eating them. Another warns not to keep them as pets — dogs might eat them.

A wave washes back into the ocean, and there is a dash from the sand into the water. Children and adults splash madly, scouring piles of seaweed and dark water with flashlights and lighted cellphones for any signs of the silvery fish — no doubt an intimidating crowd for any 3-inch creature, grunion included.

The crowd's bravery is challenged, as well. With every cold wave that washes up, there is a chorus of shrieks and a simultaneous race back to the sand, attempting to avoid the salty surge.

Many of the buckets brought from home for the big haul are empty, but Ryan Caruso proudly holds two squirmy creatures in his pail.

Lisa Cane brought her 4-, 8-, 10- and 12-year-old.

"We're in with the nature and learning and having fun," she says.

And it is fun for everyone, until it's time to go home.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio.

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