New Zealand Post - official issuer of New Zealand stamps & commemorative coins


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Since 1978 whales have had total protection under New Zealand law but whaling once flourished on our coasts. The coastal waters and oceans surrounding New Zealand were rich in whale life and attracted hunters from the Northern Hemisphere as early as the late 1700s. Shore whaling stations were first established in New Zealand in Cook Strait and Fiordland areas in the 1800s, with the hunters preying on migrating right whales and humpbacks. The whalers were some of New Zealand's earliest settlers and their exploits make a graphic chapter in the nation's history. The last New Zealand whaling operation ended in 1964.

Issue information

Whales, like humans, are mammals. They are warm-blooded vertebrates, breathing air and giving birth to live young which they suckle. They first evolved on land but moved into the sea millions of years ago, developing specialised features which made them perfectly adapted for their watery environment. The world is inhabited by 113 species of aquatic mammals, divided into three orders. Two of them comprise sea lions, walruses, seals, dugongs and manatees. The third contains whales, dolphins and porpoises and is sub divided into toothed whales and baleen whales. Toothed whales have 'teeth', feeding on fish and squid and have only one blowhole. They include river dolphins, porpoises, dolphins, sperm whales, white whales and beaked whales. Baleen whales have no 'teeth' but are equipped with horny plates growing from the sides of the upper jaw for filtering krill and have two blowholes. They include grey whales, rorquals and right whales. Of the 76 known whale species, about half can be seen in New Zealand waters.

Whales are widely distributed throughout the world and some range vast areas of ocean in their migratory patterns to breed and feed. They are highly intelligent animals, use sonar to navigate and pinpoint prey, and make sounds for social communication. Almost nothing is known about some species because they have been seen so infrequently. A few are known only from specimens washed ashore dead, or even from bones. Authorities speculate that further species may yet be discovered. Until recently, the outlook for whales was bleak - whaling had wiped out two million of them, their by-products used for everything from shoe polish and lipstick to pet food and margarine. It was not until the 1980s that the 'Save the Whales' campaign really succeeded and true commercial whaling ceased just in time - some species were near extinction.

Product Listing for Whales

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Image Title Description Price
Single Stamp

Single 60c 'Humpback Whale" gummed stamp.

This Baleen whale's most distinctive feature is its long flippers which are almost one third of its body length and often white. The small dorsal fin is stepped or humped. Coloured black or grey, humpbacks have flat rounded heads. Females can measure up to 16 metres, males slightly less. Humpbacks are tremendously athletic for their size and often leap clear of the water, rolling in mid-air with flippers extended before crashing back into the sea. They are the most acrobatic of the larger whales. They can be seen passing through New Zealand and Australian coastal waters twice yearly during migration to their breeding grounds around Tonga, Niue and Rarotonga.

Single Stamp

Single 70c 'Killer Whale" gummed stamp.

Despite its name the toothed killer whale or orca is actually a dolphin, the largest of the family at up to nine metres in length. It has a deserved reputation as a killer, hunting fish, sea lions, penguins, other whales - even the giant blue. The killer whale, or orca, was once an object of fear to humans but  television documentaries have done much to modify such an attitude. It is observed intensively by scientists and whale lovers on the northwest coast of North America where pods or groups gather at certain times of the year. The torpedo-shaped animal is one of the most distinctive cetaceans because of its dramatic black and white colouring. The male, longer and much heavier than the female, has a striking long dorsal fin shaped like an isosceles triangle. The killer whale ranges the world and is common in New Zealand waters, sometimes cruising into major harbours and bays.

Single Stamp

Single 80c 'Southern Right Whale' gummed stamp.

This Baleen whale is confined to the Southern Hemisphere below about 20'S, was almost exterminated by 1840. A very slow swimmer, it was an easy target for whalers, was oil rich and floated well after death. It became the 'right' whale to pursue, thus acquiring its name. Right whales have been protected internationally since just before World War II and the population has recovered to the extent that there may be several thousand. They are still uncommon in New Zealand waters but are seen more frequently now. The female southern right whale, the larger of the sexes, grows to 18 metres in length and weighs about 50 tonnes. The species has a distinctive arched mouth and no dorsal fin. Little is known about the right whale's reproduction but the slow recovery in numbers and their three-year reproductive cycle suggest a slow breeding rate or high mortality.

Single Stamp

Single 85c 'Blue Whale' gummed stamp.

The majestic baleen blue whale is the world's largest living creature. Everything about this enormous whale is impressive. The length for the blue of the southern oceans, which is larger than blues north of the equator, is 25-30 metres - the largest ever recorded measuring 32 metres. Blue whales can weigh more than 150 tonnes which contrasts with the average 5.8 tonnes of bull African elephant, the largest land animal. Blue whales, as their name suggests, are coloured a bluish grey. The dorsal fin is small and is positioned so far back on the whale's body that it is normally seen only when the animal dives. Blues live in open oceans throughout the world and migrate north and south - from warm tropical waters where they mate in winter to summer feeding grounds in polar regions. Migration is along routes that are well known and used regularly. They feed in relatively shallow water and live almost exclusively on krill, eating up to four tonnes every day such are their energy requirements.

Single Stamp

Single $1.05 'Southern Bottlenose Whale' gummed stamp.

The bottlenose has a beak and bulbous forehead and it has the appearance many people associate with dolphins. Not a great deal is known about the southern bottlenose whale. It may be smaller than its northern relative and the colouring varies. Few have been seen and it has never been hunted commercially. Scientists do know that the southern bottlenose has a circumpolar distribution and it has been reported off New Zealand, South America, South Africa, Australia and in Antarctic waters. One writer says its northern limit was thought to be 20'S, but bottlenose whales seen near the equator in recent years may have been the southern species. The toothed bottlenose whale is a very sociable animal, never deserting wounded companions - meaning whalers were easily able to catch entire pods. This noble feature could be why there have been several strandings in New Zealand.

Single Stamp

Single $1.30 'Sperm Whale' gummed stamp.

The biggest of all the toothed whales, the sperm whale has a blunt and enormous head that accounts for as much as a third of its body length. It has a prominent underslung lower jaw. Males have been reported up to 18 metres in length but females are much smaller, not often reaching 12 metres. Both have a dorsal hump, two thirds of the way to the tail followed by a series of bumps or knuckles. The whale is named for the spermaceti organ in the head which produces a fatty wax-like substance thought to be involved in controlling the whale's buoyancy and enabling it to dive to depths of more than 2000 metres in search of squid and, around New Zealand, orange roughy. The whale can stay submerged for about an hour. Sperm whales are widely distributed in both hemispheres between 60'N and 70'S, migrating towards the poles in spring and returning in the autumn. 

First Day Cover First day cover with stamps. Cancelled on the first day of issue. $5.53
Presentation Pack Presentation pack containing a selection of stamp products from the issue and further information on the theme of the stamps. $6.80

Technical information

Date of issue:   2 November 1988
Designers: L Fisher, Auckland
Printers: Government Printing Office, New Zealand
Stamp size: 40mm x 28mm
Sheet size: 100 stamps per sheet
Process: Lithography
Perforation gauge: 13.5
Paper type: Red phosphor coated, unwatermarked.
Period of sale: These stamps remained on sale until 2 November 1989.