"Everybody I know, once in their life, has gone out to watch grunion run, but I don't recall anyone actually seeing grunion. What, exactly, is your connection to the beast?" I'm on the phone with Melissa Studer, 33, marine conservationist and Grunion Greeter Project program coordinator.
"We train volunteers to go out and observe the grunion run," Studer says, "and report basic information back to our website. The info is used by a team of researchers from Pepperdine University.
"This year we'll be testing whether or not we can use grunion as an indicator species. Can grunion tell us about the ecological health of our beaches, whether our beaches are polluted or not?"
"There's a way of measuring...?"
Studer says, "Dr. Karen Martin [project manager] is setting up research sites, not only in San Diego, but all over Southern California. We'll have nine workshops training volunteers. Dr. Martin will be using their observations and data in her research."
"How many volunteers did you have in San Diego last year?"
"We had 150 people trained at our workshop, but the volunteer number is greater than that. Grunion Greeters work, at minimum, in pairs. We don't want anybody out there alone. So, you might partner with someone who didn't come to the training. If you include all those people, it's more like 200. That was last year."
"Big turnout, particularly since grunions run at night, right?"
"In the middle of the night, 10 to midnight, 11:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. They often run on weeknights, and the weather isn't always that great. Our volunteers come from all walks of life; many have 8-to-5 jobs."
I envision sea spray and harpoons and fields of grunions. "Sounds like fun. Is that what people usually say?"
"A lot of people say, 'Oh, I remember going out and trying to see a grunion run when I was growing up.' Or, 'Gosh, I've tried, but I've never actually seen grunion.' Or, 'They really exist? I thought it was an urban legend.'" Studer laughs, "I still get people who don't believe grunion exist. And then we get closet marine biologists who want to participate in a scientific study. And we have people who are planning on going out on a grunion run and figure, 'Well, if I'm already going out, I might as well participate in this project.'"
"Okay, volunteers are on the beach. What do they do?"
"We have an observation form. You don't need experience or know sciences or marine biology."
"I assume one bit of information you'd want is 'How many?'"
"You're not counting grunion. You're recording the strength of the run."
"How do you do that?"
"Dr. Martin developed the Walker Scale. It's a list of criteria. You mark off where there's zero to 50 fish spawning, where there are 50 to 100 fish in scattered areas, where there are hundreds of fish in several different areas, where there are thousands of fish, where there are so many fish that you could walk on them. You're looking at numbers of fish and over what length of the beach.
"You have to be patient," Studer says. "Sometimes grunion run when you get to the beach and that's great, but sometimes you'll wait an hour and a half. You record the time you're there and the time you see fish.
"At the workshops, we go over the difference between seeing grunion on the beach and seeing grunion spawn. There is a difference; females dig into the sand and then males wrap themselves around them. She's depositing eggs; males are depositing their milk, fertilizing the eggs."
"That's spawning?" That's where babies come from.
"That's spawning. But, at the beginning of the season you might see grunion on the beach, but what you're seeing is Boys Night Out. You're seeing the scouts, the males; there aren't any females. They're not spawning; they're checking things out."
Friday-night cruise. "What's the most fantastic grunion run you've seen?"
"There's one level on the scale that's a rare level; that's the one where you can't walk, there are so many fish on the beach. The next best would be thousands of fish. I've seen one of those."
"How long did that grunion run last?"
"It builds up and then it wanes down. I was out there for a half hour. At the beginning you're seeing the fish come in, and then you see them on the beach, and it's getting exciting, and more and more come in, and more and more, and before you know it, this spectacular run is happening, and then everything starts to dissipate."
It does sound like fun. "How long will you be greeting grunions?"
Peak season is considered April, May, and early June. There are ten different nights to choose from. You may go out and monitor once; if that's all the time you can give us, that's great. We hope you can give us at least two nights."