This week, I talk with Jim DePompei of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in Los Angeles. This storied facility was founded over 75 years ago, so generations of locals have experienced its tanks and displays. What most (including me) remember, though, is the grunion dance.

A narrow thin silver fish on top of wet sand.


Back in the 1950s, one of the early aquarium directors named John Olguin started a program of teaching about grunion. Grunion are silversides – small fish in the smelt family – and pretty unremarkable except for this one thing: they dance.

For a few months every year, grunion visit wide, sandy beaches in Southern California around full and new moons – the highest tides. They use wavelets to coast as high up the beach as possible, and then they make burrows. Females wriggle backwards into the sand, making temporary holes in which they nestle – vertically, mind you – with their heads sticking up. Several males then come along and twist themselves around each female, fertilizing the eggs that she has deposited into the burrow.

The Grunion Dance!

The whole thing is quick but mesmerizing. And Cabrillo Marine Aquarium naturalists teach about these quirky fish, among other natural wonders, using a dance. Students wriggle and twist just like the grunion, learning about fish biology without realizing that they’re learning anything at all. And Cabrillo teachers don’t stop there – they use broad, dance-like sequences in a call-and-response pattern that they call do-it-do-it.

The grunion dance and the other do-it-do-its at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium are examples of what language educators call total physical response. TPR is a great strategy for informal educators to incorporate into their lessons – so I’ve put up a blog post here.

Not a grunion; also not a fox.
Photo by Patrice Schoefolt via Pexels

This Week’s Fun Fact!

The fun fact that follows this week’s podcast comes to us from naturalist Claire Dobie – and it’s all about how to tell fox and coyote tracks apart. I’ve blogged this week about how important the arts of observation and tracking are for learners – and how they sometimes work best in informal environments!

The Podcast

Enjoy this week’s conversation with Jim DePompei. As always, I would love to hear back from you about what you thought!

Podcast Audio Player
From Physical Response to Visitor Engagement
Jim DePompei, Program Director
Jim DePompei, Program Director
Jim DePompei, Program Director
Jim DePompei, Program Director


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