Stuck to Carol Ann Lindsay’s ’65 refrigerator is a list of the dates of the new and full moons from February through August. Beside each date is the exact time (often around midnight) of its highest tide. Each year Lindsay picks three of those dates and drives to one of several sandy beaches near her home in Carlsbad, Calif. There, in the dark, she watches and documents the unique mating ritual of six-inch, luminescent fish called grunion.
Lindsay is part of a corps of citizen scientists enlisted to help with a study conducted by Pepperdine University researchers in partnership with southern California aquariums, environmental groups and government agencies. In 2009 some 500 trained volunteers called “grunion greeters” will visit beaches at midnight to collect data on grunion spawning runs.
“It’s a phenomenon you have to see to believe,” said Lindsay.
“When the tide is almost at its highest, a couple of scouts swim in to see if the light is right and if the shore is undisturbed,” Lindsay said. “You can see them because they glow silvery in the dark. Then the scouts return to sea and communicate with the others. If there are fires on the beach or people with flashlights or a dog in the water, then no other fish come. But if the scouts find it safe, then about five minutes later the rest follow.”
Riding a wave to shore, the females perform a dance, standing on their tails to drill a hole in the sand and deposit some 3,000 bright orange eggs. The males then sidle up to the half-buried females and copy the dance, emitting milt to fertilize the eggs. With the next wave, the couples wash back to sea.
“It happens so fast it’s hard to photograph,” Lindsay said.
Her main job as a grunion greeter is to count the number of fish spawning on a particular stretch of beach on a particular night. “We guesstimate, using a one-to-five scale,” she explained. “A one means a few fish here or there. A five means thousands of fish, so you can’t walk without stepping on them.”
Besides the numbers, Lindsay reports beach conditions, both natural and artificial. “People don’t know that their fires and flashlights can stop the grunion from running or that it’s illegal to catch them in April and May, the peak spawning months. Part of my job is educating the public.”
She’s having an impact, noted Karen Martin, professor of biology at Pepperdine and executive director of the grunion project: “Citizen scientists like Carol sacrifice time, energy and even sleep to provide accurate, useful scientific data that is impossible to obtain any other way. Their commitment and keen observations have increased public involvement and improved management of California’s beaches.”
Besides contributing to science, Lindsay finds shore visits inspire her art. An award-winning artist and writer, she said many poems have come to her on the beach, including a grunion poem. Its last stanza reads:
For almost two dark hours I heard the music play,
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