How Two Great White Shark ‘Buddies’ Could Change Perceptions of the Species

A pair of great white sharks named Simon and Jekyll have been swimming together for more than 4,000 miles in recent months

Great white shark underwater
Scientists know very little about the social behaviors of great white sharks, but they're trying to learn more. Ocearch

Great white sharks are typically loners, swimming through the world’s vast oceans largely on their own, in search of prey and mates. That’s why scientists were so perplexed—and intrigued—when they noticed an odd pattern in tracking data from two sharks, named Simon and Jekyll.

The two males have traveled more than 4,000 miles together since they were each fitted with tracking devices in December off the coast of Georgia. From there, they swam north through the Atlantic Ocean and had reached the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Quebec by late July.

“They’ve taken an unusually synchronous path north,” says Bob Hueter, chief scientist for Ocearch, the group tracking the sharks, to the Boston Herald’s Rick Sobey. “It’s the first time we’ve seen something like this, and it’s very interesting. It’s mysterious, and it’s exciting.”

Now, scientists are trying to puzzle out what’s going on. Are the two sharks friends? Are they brothers or half-siblings? And do they have more companions swimming with them that just aren’t tagged?

Researchers at Ocearch, a nonprofit that studies sharks and other marine animals, are now conducting genetic testing to see if Simon and Jekyll may be related. No matter their relationship, the pair’s unique behavior may prompt researchers to ask new and different questions in a bid to better understand the vulnerable species.

At the very least, the discovery that sharks may hang out together could impact conservation efforts. The team at Ocearch, for example, is working to shift the narrative around white sharks so that people will view them less as blood-thirsty monsters and more as vital players in a healthy ocean ecosystem worthy of protection. The group’s tagline is “facts over fear.”

To that end, the revelations about Simon and Jekyll are “humanizing,” as Hueter tells the New York Times’ Chang Che.

“They have siblings. They have a mother. They have a father,” he adds to the publication. “They’re just trying to make a living in the ocean, and we need them for the balance of life in the sea.”

Simon and Jekyll are adding to the limited understanding scientists have of sharks’ social behavior. In a 2020 study, researchers learned that grey reef sharks in the Pacific Ocean may spend time in groups for up to four years. Another paper recorded white sharks spending time together near Guadalupe Island in Mexico, perhaps as a strategy to learn where prey can be found or to eat the remains of another shark’s meal. In that region, some sharks were more social than others.

But beyond that, social behavior among sharks is “something that’s not particularly well-known,” as Hueter tells the Washington Post’s Kyle Melnick. “And it’s not thought to be something that they have much of, except in maybe isolated cases of certain species.”

The pair of sharks were named for the Georgia islands that scientists tagged them near: St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island. The two animals, which are likely between 10 and 15 years old, join the ranks of the 92 white sharks that Ocearch has tracked to date.

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