The Venice Oceanarium celebrates the uniquely Californian ritual of watching thousands of spawning fish swarm the beach
By Rebecca Kuzins
Tim Rudnick vividly remembers the first time he saw a grunion run — the unusual spawning ritual in which thousands of the sardine-like fish swarm beaches to lay their eggs in sand along the water’s edge.
“It’s a life-changing experience to see this. It was for me,” said Rudnick, director of the Venice Oceanarium. “Many, many people I’ve talked to just go into reverie when they remember going to a grunion run.”
Rudnick hopes others will share a similar experience on Friday night, when the Venice Oceanarium sponsors its 20th annual Grunion Festival near the breakwater rocks at Venice Beach. Past events have drawn hundreds of people to the beach, including many families.
The California grunion grows to about six or seven inches long and can only be found along the coast of Southern California and northern Baja California.
Grunion “spawn completely out of water and lay their eggs on many sandy beaches in California. Shortly after high tide, on specific nights, sections of these beaches sometimes are covered with thousands of grunion dancing about on the sand,” according to grunion.com, an organization of scientists and environmentalists who study the fish.
During their “dance,” female grunion wiggle their bodies to bury their tales into the sand while male fish wrap themselves around their mates to fertilize the eggs.
Grunion runs typically occur between March and August, with peak runs happening April through June. The California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife prohibits people from fishing or collecting grunion during April and May and bans the use of fishing gear or sand barriers to catch them.
While people at the Venice grunion run can pick up a fish to look at it more closely, Rudnick says they must return these fish to the ocean. He also advises event-goers to bring a flashlight and wear clothes they won’t mind getting wet.
Although the grunion are expected to swarm the beach between 11 p.m. and midnight, Rudnick said there’s no way of knowing the precise time of their arrival, so people may have to wait. But patience will be richly rewarded.
“They play in the surf. It’s really a remarkable event,” he said. “It brings people down to the ocean and makes a connection. It’s a special time at night; people don’t get down to the ocean at night very much.”
Getting people to the ocean is the goal of the Venice Oceanarium, which seeks to provide a better understanding of the Pacific and the life within it.
The organization sets up exhibits on the Venice Pier, at the end of Washington Boulevard, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. each Sunday and also offers school and after-school programs. The nonprofit group will celebrate its 20th birthday in November with its annual reading of Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick.”
Rudnick says the Oceanarium is different from most ocean advocacy groups because its members are artists, not scientists, and it does not focus on conservation.
“There are other ways of looking at the ocean. We’re collecting plankton from the water to show people how alive the water is,” he said. “We’re more focused on the mystical, magical aspects of the ocean.”
The Grunion Festival begins at 11 p.m. Friday at the breakwater rocks on Venice Beach. For more information, visit veniceoceanarium.org.