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Humpback Whale: From Photo to Postage Stamp

August 05, 2022

Young researcher captured image that will send envelopes across the nation.

Breaching humpback whale on U.S. Postal Service stamp Breaching humpback whale on U.S. Postal Service stamp. Courtesy of U.S. Postal Service.
Elliot Hazen at the helm of the R/V Auk searching for whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 2008
Then graduate student Elliott Hazen “at the helm” of the R/V Auk searching for whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 2008. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Elliott Hazen.

The U.S. Postal Service selected a photograph by NOAA Fisheries Research Scientist Elliott Hazen of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center for a new sheet of postage stamps celebrating our national marine sanctuaries. His photo became the stamp featuring a breaching humpback whale. This is the story behind the stamp as told by Elliott Hazen.

As a young graduate student, I was lucky to be introduced to the amazing and inspiring David Wiley. He heads the research program at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts. I was incredibly fortunate to spend the following six summers with Dave on Stellwagen Bank. I honed my skills as a field ecologist and studied the humpback whales and the food they depend on. Specifically, large aggregations of sand lance (Ammodytes sp.) create a seasonal buffet for humpback whales that rely on these fish and krill species offshore to put on weight for the winter. My project was to figure out when sand lance schools became energy-rich enough for hungry foraging whales, which was later published.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is an amazing place. Research groups like the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies know the identity and often the family tree of the whales that forage in the area, when they return to the sanctuary in a given season, and who they like to hang out with. We often saw whales like “Minnow,” who is featured in the stamp, returning year after year. I remember specifically watching a young adult whale learning how to bubble net feed for the first time alongside its mother, highlighting the generations of knowledge both in the whales and the researchers who study them.

Researchers on a boat watch a breaching humpback whale
Another view of the breaching whale with Elliott, at left, taking the photo. Photo courtesy of Ari Friedlaender/UC Santa Cruz.

We still do not know why whales decide to breach, but it’s an amazing opportunity to see the entirety of a whale’s body out of the water. It was even more amazing to be able to catch the event digitally as seen here in the stamp. Sometimes a whale will breach multiple times, while other times it’s a lone event. That makes it even harder to capture on film. For some reason, many of the whales seemed to breach as the sun started setting, both providing great lighting for photography but also a sort of goodbye to the day packed full of research. I still participate in similar research on whales here on the West Coast and prey in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. I look forward to the day that I am able to visit the researchers and whales, such as “Minnow,” that frequent Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary again soon. 

Learn more about the stamp collection celebrating NOAA's national marine sanctuaries 

National Marine Sanctuaries stamp collection
National Marine Sanctuaries stamp collection. Photo courtesy of U.S. Postal Service.

Last updated by Southwest Fisheries Science Center on August 16, 2022

Humpback Whale