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A Strange Festival of Fishes: The Mysterious Mobile Bay Phenomenon of the "Jubilee"

Periodically, the northeastern and, less frequently, western shores of Mobile Bay will experience an event that the locals have termed a "jubilee." Among its other distinctions, Point Clear may be called "the Jubilee Center of the World" because the phenomenon occurs exclusively within six or eight miles up and down the beach, making it entirely unique to the area. No one knows when or at what area on the beach the next jubilee will occur. Most summers there are several, but this is never a guarantee, making the natural event even more special when it happens.

During a jubilee, many fish, crabs, and other wildlife will leave the deeper waters they usually inhabit and mass in large, dense shoals along the region's coastal areas. Thousands of fish and/or crabs and/or shrimp flock up on shore. On some occasions, it is primarily flounders that congregate. At other times, it is a "shrimp jubilee" or "crab jubilee," but generally, all three species, plus a few other fish and eels, are involved. Locals look forward to this time and frequently plan large parties around the large amounts of easily obtainable seafood during these jubilees. The folks who quickly gather after the first cry of "Jubilee! Jubilee!" have no trouble at all filling buckets, sacks, and even wash tubs with the high-priced delicacies of the deep. Despite the inconvenient hour—jubilees happen at night, often between midnight and dawn—it takes no time at all for a crowd to gather. The shoreline rings with shouts and laughter and squeals of excitement, and informality is the rule.

Blue crab, stingrays, eels, and flounder during a jubilee along the shores of Mobile Bay, Alabama

Written records of these events can be traced back to the late 19th century. While jubilees have not been positively explained by science, two theories exist, both based upon changing bay water. But the first scholarly treatment came in 1960, when Harold Loesch, a marine biology professor at Texas A&M University published "Sporadic Mass Shoreward Migrations of Demersal Fish and Crustaceans in Mobile Bay" which attributed the phenomenon to oxygen depletion events caused by decaying organic matter in the bay that, when conditions are perfect, drive the fish, crabs, and shrimp into shallower waters less affected by the oxygen shortage. Since Mobile Bay is fed by rivers, some believe the fish and shellfish may be dazed by a sudden merging of fresh and salt water. Others believe it's caused by changing temperature of the water, following heavy rains.

Despite this mystery of Mother Nature, no participant in a jubilee ever stopped to ponder the question of how the phenomenon came to be, which is just as well. After all, it would not be nearly as much fun if the strangeness of it all was explained away! The accompanying photograph above may not be pretty, but at least it proves jubilees are not imaginary. In fact, until this happened in 1952, no authentic pictures were available and, as a matter of fact, very little had been written on the subject. That said, it is admittedly difficult to remain sufficiently detached and aloof to operate a camera while a jubilee is going on, which may account for the fact that they went unphotographed for so long.

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