In the minds of many, the fearsome white shark is a loner. It cares only about food, not its own kind. But new research indicates that some of the creatures may actually have friends.
Scientists with Ocearch, an organization that studies sharks and other marine life, have discovered two male white sharks that could be described as “buddies,” they said. The two animals have been traveling together since last December, when they were fitted with satellite tags off the coast of Georgia, Ocearch reported.
“We’ve never seen anything quite like this before,” Bob Hueter, the chief scientist at Ocearch, said in a video posted to the group’s Facebook page this week.
The two sharks, named Simon and Jekyll, swam “together in tandem” for more than 4,000 miles up the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, south of Quebec, where trackers last located them in late July, Dr. Hueter said in the video. When one was tagged on Dec. 4 and the other on Dec. 9, the fish were roughly nine feet long and were not yet of mating age.
Researchers at Ocearch are now testing blood samples from the sharks, which they collected in December, to see whether they could be siblings or half siblings. The findings could raise new questions about white shark migration patterns and relationships, and spawn new approaches to shark conservation, Dr. Hueter said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
At least since Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel “Jaws” and its celebrated film adaptation, Americans have regarded white sharks with both fear and awe. But as overfishing brings the shark population to the point of extinction, scientists have pushed for a new understanding of sharks as creatures to be protected, not demonized. The loss of sharks, who are apex predators, could disrupt the balance of entire marine ecosystems and threaten the food security of many countries.
The Ocearch findings are part of a broader body of research that has emerged in recent years that is challenging the public impression of white sharks as antisocial creatures, said Yannis Papastamatiou, an ecologist at Florida International University in Miami.
“Some species of shark can form quite strong social bonds and social groups,” he said.
But the bonds between sharks are likely different from those between humans. Sharks, Dr. Papastamatiou said, may spend time with each other in order to mate, more easily find food or fend off predators. (Killer whales, among others, are known to prey on sharks.)
In a 2020 study in the Pacific Ocean, Dr. Papastamatiou and other researchers found that a different shark species, known as the grey reef shark, tended to stick with the same social group for as long as four years. He said he had also observed white sharks “hanging out” with each other for hours in specific sites where the animals tend to gather.
Simon and Jekyll could add to that picture, he said, demonstrating that white sharks may “actually travel to and from these sites together.” They may even have more friends who are not yet tagged, he added.
Ocearch researchers have tagged 92 white sharks since 2012 to study the creatures’ migration and mating patterns, according to Dr. Hueter. So far, only Simon and Jekyll have moved together in such proximity.
Still, Dr. Hueter believes the two sharks are potentially groundbreaking and could draw more attention to the cause of shark conservation.
“In a way, it’s humanizing,” he said of the discovery, a reminder that “they have siblings. They have a mother. They have a father.”
“They’re just trying to make a living in the ocean,” he said. “And we need them for the balance of life in the sea.”