Santa Monica Lookout
Santa Monica Visited by Creatures from the Sea
By Jason Islas
July 8, 2013 -- In the dead of night, they climb out of the black ocean onto beaches by the thousands, glowing under the moon's silver light.
While it may sound like a page out of an H.P. Lovecraft tale, it's actually an annual event that draws hundreds of curious spectators and fish-lovers to beaches throughout southern California, including Santa Monica: the running of the grunion.
Each year, like clockwork, millions of these sardine-like fish leave the relative safety of the surf for the wet sand where they spawn. Monday night is one of nearly 50 dates this year experts expect the grunion to come ashore.
“We've gone out there at midnight and one o'clock in the morning,” said Council member and life-long Santa Monica resident Bob Holbrook.
Over the course of the decades, Holbrook's grunion adventures have come to naught, though it is not for lack of trying.
“I've gone grunion hunting and I've never seen one,” he said. “I don't think Santa Monica is the best place.”
Though grunion have been known to spawn on Santa Monica's beaches, experts agree that it is not the ideal location to take in the annual mating ritual that takes place from early to late summer.
“It's best if it's a south-facing beach,” said Juliette McAllister, a spokesperson for the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, which offers several grunion programs to the public during the five-month spawning season.
“The females come up on to the sand,” McAllister said. “They wiggle their tails into the sand. Then the males will wrap themselves around the females.”
The ritual lasts several minutes while the eggs are laid in the sand until they hatch and the next high tide washes the hatchlings out to sea.
This year's season started in March, and experts estimate that it will continue through August. The next anticipated grunion run is on July 8 at 9:50 p.m., according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
On Wednesday, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium will offer a program, starting at 8 p.m., for those curious to learn more about the grunion. It's also a chance to see the little fish in action.
“Grunion are the object of a unique recreational fishery,” according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website. “These fish are famous for their remarkable spawning behavior, which evokes an 'I don’t believe it!' response from people seeing or hearing about it for the first time.”
Despite never actually seeing a grunion, Holbrook isn't a skeptic. “They are real,” he said.
He recalled his days at Santa Monica High School when he'd hear kids from Malibu talk about catching the slippery grunion.
“It's a social thing,” Holbrook said. “You have to pick them up with your hands.” Holbrook was referring to the regulations imposed by the State that prevent grunion hunters from using traps or tools to gather the fish.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife requires that anyone over the age of 16 who wants to catch grunion have a valid fishing license.
“Grunion may be taken by sport fishermen using hands only,” the Department's website reads. “No holes may be dug in the beach to entrap them.
“There is no bag limit, but fishermen may take only what they can use -- it is unlawful to waste fish,” it said.
What do grunion hunters do with their quarry?
“I guess people get them and eat them,” Holbrook said.
A quick Internet search reveals myriad recipes for the savory fish. “Grunion are best broiled, deep-fried or sautéed,” reads one recipe. Other recipes suggest making a sauce out of them, pickling them or putting fillet grunion in tacos.
For more information about the grunion, visit http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/grunion.asp.
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