Fish That Walk

Grunions in ecstasy
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

No one knew for sure if they would run, but they were out there in the waves, lurking, waiting: the grunions.Grunions are the fish that walk on land. On certain nights in the months of May through August, they beach themselves by the thousands on Southern California shores, spawn, then catch the next wave out. No one knows how it got to be that way, but when it happens, it is quite a spectacle, and people like to watch. People like Larry Fukuhara, who on one such night stood by himself, apart from the crowd, staring out at the sea.

Some call Fukuhara the Fish Whisperer, but his real title is program director. He'd been watching and waiting for the grunions at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro for 29 years. In the waves were big schools of grunions, he said. He was certain.

Buoyed by his certainty, people gazed intently at the dark water.

The tide, the moon, the season, everything was perfect — except for the wind. It chopped up the water like a blender set too low. Who knew how the fish would react? Additionally, Fukuhara worried about the sand. "Because of El Niño, we lost a lot of sand this year. The beach is rocky," he said, shaking his head. "They don't like that."

Fukuhara sighed, inhaling the deep, loamy funk of the ocean.

"Wait!" someone said, spotting a glint of silver in the surf. "I think I see something!" Was it kelp? Was it rocks? Was it grunions? Flashlight beams shot through the dark and glanced off the waves.

No. False alarm. Just an empty potato-chip bag.

Then came the plaintive wail of a child: "Where are they, mommy?"

"Turn off your lights!" Fukuhara whispered. "Once you find your spot, do ... not ... move. They can feel your vibrations." People huddled together behind the sand berm for warmth, snuggling into blankets and puffy jackets. Night herons wheeled in the sky.

City folk are not the only wildlife attracted to the abundance of fish in the water. Fishermen come out to catch bass or halibut during grunion runs. One year, people came scrambling up to Fukuhara anxious about a dying sea lion. "He wasn't dying, though," Fukuhara recalls. "He was just so full of grunion he couldn't move." It was getting late. It was half past 11. By city decree, the beach closes at midnight, but grunion habits do not obey man's laws. To spawn or not to spawn, it was a fish's prerogative.

Earlier in the evening, in the hours immediately preceding the spawning, aquarium staffers whipped up piscatory excitement. They circulated fliers concerning a grunion "fish-tival" and grunion arts and crafts. In the aquarium courtyard, they taught people a wiggly, wiggly grunion dance.

"You'll be able to stand amongst the fish," project coordinator Diane Alps said.

A summer Friday night typically brings a crowd of 2,000 people. They were young and old and middle-aged. They were married. They were couples on dates. They were local students doing extra-credit assignments. They were babies in strollers and men in windbreakers and women in inappropriate high heels. They were teenage girls armed with cell phones and bored expressions. "What u doin?" one girl's friend texted.

"We're watching some fish," she texted back, then piled into the auditorium with the rest of the crowd to watch an old-timey documentary called Fish, Moon and Tides: The Grunion Story.

Afterward, Fukuhara took questions.

Young woman: "What do grunions eat?"

Fukuhara: "Grunions have very small mouths, so whatever fits."

Clearly, people are fascinated. To Fukuhara, this is good news. "My thing is, okay, if you go to the ocean and see a fish and go, 'Look! Look! A fish!' That's fascinating," he said. "Now think about a fish coming out of the water. People remember that as kids they got wet and cold and caught a flu. But they'll remember. If we can get 'em excited about the ocean, they'll protect the ocean."

Fukuhara is deeply tanned, lanky as an eel, with graying hair at the temples. He started working at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in the early 1980s. Back then, if 60 people showed up for a grunion run, it was considered a good night. Over time, however, the ratio of people to grunions shifted. Eventually the humans threatened to outnumber the fish.

Fukuhara attributes the shift less to his marketing prowess than to the inherent charm of the grunion. "This is something you won't see anywhere else in the whole wide world. That's what's so fascinating about these grunions," he said.

Some consider grunions a delicacy. One of the guys at the information booth volunteered that he'd eaten them, but didn't much care for their flavor. Unsurprisingly, Fukuhara has also eaten grunion. He scales them, filets them, sprinkles on salt and pepper, and fries them up in chopped garlic and scallions and rosemary.

Asked what they taste like, he said, "Chicken."

Alas, the grunions failed to show that night.

But two weeks later, on the next full moon, they were everywhere. The high tide washed them up on the sand. The females burrowed in, their upper bodies poking up like sock puppets. The males squirmed around them. On the scale of 0 to 5, 0 being zero fish, and 5 being, in Fukuhara's words, "so many fish they're flopping all over your shoes," it was a 5. It was a hoot. It was a real party.

"They're starting to build up now," he said excitedly.

Rocks clattered on the beach and fish jumped out of the water and the grunion researchers in white coats and Wellingtons grabbed them and tossed them into plastic buckets. People crowded in, snapping pictures.

"This is wild!" someone observed.

No one knows where grunions go after they spawn and tumble back into the ocean — whether they migrate to foreign waters, or take a vacation or what. For his part, Fukuhara suspects they mostly stay close by.

One young boy even serenaded the fish: "Whooo's that lay-dee? Sexy lady." He squinted into the sand. "This one's alive," he said. "No, someone stepped on it."

"Well," his father said. "That's part of nature, too."


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