For Janet McGlothren, childhood summers on Mobile Bay were about one thing: jubilees.
McGlothren and her three brothers sometimes slept on the pier under the stars in hope of finding the first jubilee of the year and getting to be in the local paper. But one summer in the late 1960s, that honor went to another member of her family.
“That year we lived on the bay and we would get up in the mornings and check for a jubilee,” McGlothren told MeatEater. “One morning we didn’t get up early enough, and our dog, Scooter, started barking. He was in the paper for finding the first jubilee of the season.”
When the family raced down to the beach, they found a natural phenomenon that occurs regularly only in Mobile Bay, Alabama. The oxygen in the water reached such low levels that the bottom-dwelling critters—usually some combination of crabs, flounder, shrimp, eels, saltwater catfish, and stingrays—congregated in the shallow water to breathe.
The animals were lethargic from the effort and lack of oxygen, and McGlothren simply had to pick up the crabs and gig the flounder. Scooter was less interested in eating the catch and more interested in tossing the baby eels in the air.
“It’s a miraculous thing. It really is,” McGlothren said. “We’re very fortunate that we have such a phenomenon happen here, right where we live.”
What is a Jubilee? The earliest printed account of a jubilee comes from an 1867 newspaper article in The Daily Register: Mobile. Back then, scientists weren’t sure why sea creatures “forsake the deep water,” as the article put it. Now, we know a little more.
Jubilees happen during a specific set of circumstances that are only present from June to early October, Kevin Anson told MeatEater. Anson serves as the chief marine biologist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“A jubilee occurs when you have warm water temperatures, warm air temperatures, the decreased potential for oxygen exchange, and a lack of wind that usually circulates the water,” he said. “After a couple of days of this situation, the oxygen in the water column is used up.”
Pockets of oxygen-poor bottom water form the foundation of any jubilee event, according to Professor Richard K. Wallace, writing for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
These pockets are formed when calm conditions cause the water to stagnate and stratify: heavier saline water from the gulf settles to the bottom while fresh river water lies on top. This stratification keeps oxygen from moving into the lower water layer, and plant matter eats up whatever oxygen may be left.
A gentle east wind is the final ingredient. The wind is strong enough to move the top water layer offshore but not strong enough to mix the layers together. When the tide rises, it pushes the bottom water layer towards the shore and drives sea creatures in front of it.
Since animals like crab, flounder, and shrimp can’t swim over the top of the advancing bottom layer, they move towards the beach trying get enough oxygen to survive.
Most jubilees occur on the eastern shore of the bay between midnight and sunrise when photosynthetic activity has stopped and plant matter has reduced oxygen in the water to its lowest levels.
These events don’t usually kill fish and crustaceans. If left alone, most animals survive until conditions change and oxygen levels return to normal. Anson said the wake from a tanker ship is sometimes enough to end a jubilee. Other residents said that light rain will immediately re-oxygenate the water and the animals will disappear.
“There isn’t much mortality associated with jubilees, often because of the short-term nature of the event and they’re relatively small in geography,” Anson added. Some can last for several hours, but residents we spoke with said they’re most often over within one hour. A jubilee can stretch for a mile or less than 100 yards.
Anson also stressed that jubilees aren’t caused by pollution or other human inputs. While there is some evidence that groundwater runoffs may contribute to the phenomenon, jubilees have been occurring long before the area saw much pollution or industrialization.
And they don’t seem to occur anywhere else. Wallace reports that while similar events have been reported in other areas, Mobile Bay is the only place the phenomenon happens regularly. Anson pointed to the bay’s unique geography—its shallow water, long shoreline, and poor circulation—to explain the regular occurrence of the jubilees.
'Such Great Memories' The science behind jubilees is fascinating, but for the people of Mobile Bay, jubilees are more than just a set of natural circumstances.
“In the past, when you had a big jubilee, you’d feed the whole neighborhood for days. People didn’t have money, and they were hungry,” Stephanie Foster Middleton told MeatEater. Foster Middleton’s family has lived on the bay since 1942, and she recalls that in those days, jubilees were a “means of survival.”
As the century wore on and people became more affluent, McGlothren recalls both the abundance of fresh seafood and the importance of family and community. When they found a jubilee, her job as a kid was to call friends and family from a list they kept by the phone. Once everyone arrived at the beach, they’d “fill the freezer.”
“It was a family thing,” she explained. “There are such great memories.”
McGlothren has kept that family focus. She still sets her alarm for the early morning hours to look for jubilees so that when she finds one, she can show her grandkids.
Les Jeske had relatives who lived on Mobile Bay, and he remembers his uncle telling him about how residents would ring bells on their porches when they’d spotted a jubilee. He never saw a jubilee himself, but the idea always fascinated him, especially as an accomplished crabber who often spent an entire day bagging 60 to 70 crabs.
“To see crabs where you don’t have to put forth effort like that? I just can’t imagine. It’s like gathering Easter eggs on Easter Sunday. You’ve done nothing to earn them or pay for them. They’re just there as a free gift,” he said.
Jeske has also targeted flounder on Mobile Bay and he explained that, generally speaking, the fish can only be harvested in large numbers during the fall run out to the gulf.
“Other than that, flounder are hit and miss,” he said.
In contrast, McGlothren recalls gigging 30 to 40 flounder in a single jubilee. Foster Middleton sent MeatEater an image of more than 100 flounder from a jubilee in the 1950s. (Alabama currently limits flounder to five per person, which also applies during a jubilee.)
Image via Stephanie Foster Middleton
Fewer Mobile Bay residents pay attention to jubilees these days, but Joan Dunlap’s family is an exception. Her kids have become “obsessed” with finding jubilees, and they monitor factors like tidal patterns, moon phases, salinity, turbidity, wind speed, and water flow.
“They start smelling for it. They can feel the humidity and the density and stillness in the air. They start putting the art on top of the science,” Dunlap said.
When they find one, they let people know. “They start screaming when they finally get one, and we all go out there in the middle of the night,” Dunlap said. “I used to worry someone would think they’re burglars, but everyone knows it’s just a jubilee.”
Text threads (along with the screaming) have replaced porch bells as the preferred method of communication, but the appreciation of fresh seafood hasn’t changed a bit.
“We’re shrimp people,” Dunlap explained, adding that their favorite dish is hot buttered shrimp. “When they bring the shrimp in, I get pretty pumped.”
Even more than the science or the seafood, Dunlap appreciates the jubilee for the freedom it offers her kids.
“It’s not a supervised activity,” she said. Thanks to friendly neighbors, she feels comfortable letting her kids sleep in hammocks out on the beach in much the same way McGlothren described sleeping on the pier. It can be disruptive (the kids slam doors all night coming in and out of the house), but Dunlap likes that her kids can still have an experience that gives them a chance to go out on their own.
How Have Jubilees Changed? Anson said the Alabama DCNR doesn’t track jubilees, so from a scientific perspective, it’s tough to say whether jubilees have become more or less frequent. Mobile Bay residents offered mixed reports.
“It seems like 50 years ago, they had huge jubilees more frequently and now we don’t have them as frequently and they’re not as big,” Dunlap said. Her grandmother was born in 1900, and she told Dunlap that jubilees would happen “all the time” when she was a girl.
Foster Middleton agreed that jubilees appear to be smaller and less frequent, but she also pointed to the way Mobile Bay culture has shifted in the last century. Even if jubilees occurred as regularly, current bay residents might not know about them.
“When we were children, we’d go every night when we knew it was going to be close. Nothing could stop us. Most children now couldn’t climb out of bed at two in the morning if you blew them up with dynamite,” she said.
Jeske agreed. “What does a modern person who lives on Mobile Bay look like? Probably that’s a second home for them. The average person who lives on the bay isn’t going to be there at the right time to participate in it,” he said.
Seeing a jubilee requires interest, but it also requires access. “The beach has grown up so much. There’s not a lot of beach left,” McGlothren said. “There’s more bulkheads and jetties. You can’t get to the beach like you used to.”
Sometimes, when people build houses on the beach, they restrict access to the shoreline. Someone had done this the day before I spoke with Dunlap.
“Everybody is very upset because you have to be able to walk the beach,” she explained. “It’s like hunting. You have to have the freedom to be on public lands, the freedom to roam. When people cut out those freedoms, you can’t have those same kinds of experiences.”
Ultimately, Dunlap worries that her grandkids won’t be able to experience that freedom.
“My kids may be the last generation that get to experience this because so many wealthy people have moved into that area and they’re prohibiting access to the beach,” she said.
Even if they don’t prohibit access, property owners often install bulkheads and other “armoring” that prevents beach erosion but also limits the ability of residents to participate in jubilees. By 2012, more than 38% of property owners had built some sort of structure, and that number was expected to rise to 45% by 2020.
Jubilee Means 'Abundance' According to ancient Jewish tradition, a “jubilee” was proclaimed every fiftieth year, during which time slaves and prisoners were freed and debts were forgiven. It was also a time when the land was to remain fallow and the people would eat what they’d already harvested.
“For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you. You shall eat of its increase out of the field,” reads Leviticus 25:12.
Mobile Bay residents have been eating of that increase for more than 100 years at least. Science can explain the phenomenon, but to those who first witnessed it, it doubtless seemed like some kind of miracle.
Even today, as many hunters and anglers crisscross the country pursuing out-of-state opportunities, that miracle is limited to residents of Mobile Bay. Don’t think you’re going to drive down to the bay this summer and find a jubilee. They’re tough to locate and even tougher to predict, and the lucky few who are at the right place at the right time get to witness a scientific and cultural phenomenon found nowhere else on Earth.