The U.S. Postal Service says they receive about 40,000 stamp suggestions a year, but only choose 25. So having your work become an actual stamp is incredibly rare. For California resident and underwater photographer, Norbert Wu, however, that dream became a reality last month. A rendering of Wu’s photograph of a Great White Shark has become a part of USPS’s new series, “Sharks Forever”. The stamps feature five species that inhabit American waters — the mako, thresher, great white, hammerhead, and whale shark.
Wu’s love of the sea came early growing up. Though, as a child, he didn’t expect to become a photographer. Like many kids, he dreamed of being a marine biologist.
“I fell into underwater photography as a better alternative to marine biology research,” he says. “It’s been a great way to travel and see the world. But at the age of six I wanted to become a marine biologist.”
Wu pursued this dream through college in California, then became a doctoral student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He was well on his way to being a researcher and biologist. However, one day, he was invited to go on a diving trip with underwater filmmaker, Howard Hall. And it changed everything.
“Howard invited me to go diving with blue sharks,” he says. “I eagerly accepted the invitation and saw my first shark in the wild. A mako shark made a close pass, and I saw my first blue sharks. These oceanic sharks are beautiful, gleaming creatures.”
Wu was enthralled with the experience, and only later realized that he had missed a meeting with his doctoral advisor because of it. He thought his reason, seeing actual sharks in the wild was enough of an excuse. It wasn’t. His professors and advisors weren’t impressed, and he realized he wasn’t on the right path. So Wu left the program to pursue what he realized was his real passion, actually seeing and capturing marine life on film.
Since then, Wu has become a prolific sealife photographer and filmmaker whose writing and photography has appeared in thousands of books, films, and magazines. He’s known not only for his beautiful photographs, but also his tireless work as a conservationist and ocean life advocate. He was awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) Artists and Writers Grants to document wildlife and research in Antarctica in 1997, 1999, and 2000. In 2000, he was awarded the Antarctica Service Medal of the United States of America “for his contributions to exploration and science in the U.S. Antarctic Program”, and he is the only photographer to have been awarded a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship, the world’s most prestigious award in ocean conservation and outreach.
As for the photograph that became a stamp, Wu says he saw the great white off the coast of Guadalupe Island in Mexico around 2006. It was a pretty average size, he says, “probably about 12 feet long, and perhaps 1300 pounds.” He’s taken many pictures of great whites before, but this one always jumps out to him as the “special one.”
“I was shooting from a shark cage,” he says. “It was the last day of the trip, late afternoon, and we had not had great luck in having sharks come by close enough for good photographs. I remember lying on my stomach in the cage, positioning my camera between the legs of about three to four other divers/photographers, all of us crowding to the front and thrusting our cameras out of the cage as a shark came by. As a long-time underwater photographer, I had a sense that I had gotten “the shot”. I had a gut feeling that the sunrays, the shark’s angle, and its proximity had all come together to create a memorable image.”
The stamp recreation has been a long process, about three years in the making, and so Wu has been happy to finally share the news with loved ones. It’s a big deal to have your image become a stamp. An honor that’s not lost on Wu. It’s also meaningful because of their tie to protecting sealife. The stamps, showcasing different sharks, come at a time when much of our ocean life is in grave danger. So USPS hopes that the images of the beautiful creatures will inspire people to see sharks not as scary, dangerous beasts but as magnificent sea life that should be protected. This philosophy lines up well with Wu’s lifelong mission of conservation. And even though he’s taken many pictures of the ocean, he’s still just as awed by the creatures as he was all those years ago, when a filmmaker took him on a dive, and he saw his first shark in the water.
“Photography has become a way of life for me,” Wu says. “At my best, I am both scientist and artist. The photographic possibilities underwater are truly endless, and discovering new life forms and learning about the interconnections between various species make my work a fascinating blend of science and art.” It’s a joy he doesn’t see fading anytime soon. “The animals and their habits are fascinating,” he continues. “And the colors and patterns of life continue to enthrall me, even after forty years of diving and thirty years of underwater photography.
You can buy Shark Forever stamps online at the USPS website.