Making Waves

Nelson Institute graduate student expands Wisconsin’s role in ocean conservation

December 19, 2018

Growing up in landlocked Tennessee, Kara Henderlight dreamed of the ocean. Although she was far from its rolling waves, she was determined to learn all that she could about the sea and the creatures that call it home. As a young adult, Henderlight explored career possibilities including marine biology, but was torn between her home in Tennessee and her dream of working by the ocean. At a crossroads after graduating from an undergraduate program in Environmental Science,  Henderlight decided she was ready to make her dream of working in whale and dolphin conservation a reality, and that’s when she found the Nelson Institute Environmental Conservation master’s program.

Developed to meet emerging global challenges and demands, the Nelson Institute Professional Programs are an accelerated, 15-month blended curriculum with on-campus and remote experiences to accommodate working professionals. Students attend courses in Madison for the summer and fall semester and then have classes online in the spring. The final, fourth semester is spent completing a leadership project, which is one of the reasons Henderlight decided to apply to the program.

“I was at a point where I had to make a decision about my future and the Nelson program was verbatim what I wanted to do,” said Henderlight. “I was ready to go to graduate school, but I was much more interested in sharing science with the public and engaging in conservation than working in a lab doing research. I like that the Nelson program is about outreach and education and that it allows for that engagement.”

In fact, Henderlight said the program was very supportive of her choosing her own path and making the curriculum work for her interests.

“A year or two before I applied, I actually reached out to [Director of the International & Professional Programs at Nelson Institute] Nathan [Schulfer] and he encouraged me to find a path or a focus and apply,” said Henderlight. “After I applied I spoke with [Program Coordinator for the Environmental Conservation Professional master’s] Meghan [Kautzer] and she was supportive and liked that my project idea was different.”

In particular, Henderlight’s idea was to work with whales and dolphins, or cetaceans, who were transitioning out of captivity.

“From a young age, I knew I wanted to study whales and dolphins,” said Henderlight. “I was interested in animal behavior and considered being a whale and dolphin trainer, but when Blackfish came out, my whole attitude shifted towards conservation and environmental science.”

Blackfish, a documentary about the challenges faced by whales and dolphins in captivity, inspired Henderlight to learn more about anti-captivity organizations and options for animals currently held in captivity. During this exploration, Henderlight became very interested in seaside sanctuaries, which are engineered areas off of the coast that serve as natural alternatives for whales and dolphins who have been held in aquariums, but cannot return to the wild. 

“Sanctuaries are available for many animals, so the idea is not new,” said Henderlight. “But, to date, there hasn’t been a lot of work in terms of seaside sanctuaries for cetaceans. There have been several proposals out there, including one for Lolita, the last southern-resident killer whale who is still in captivity. They haven’t worked out so far, but now there is a plan for a seaside sanctuary in Iceland.”

In fact, Henderlight is making plans to complete her Nelson Institute Environmental Conservation professional leadership project at the seaside sanctuary off Heimaey, Iceland. The sanctuary is made possible through a partnership between the Whale and Dolphin Conservation and SEA LIFE Trust (part of Merlin Entertainment), who Henderlight has been speaking with for a few months now. Henderlight says the plan is to move two beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, to the sanctuary from Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China. Merlin Entertainment, who recently purchased Changfeng Ocean World, is supportive of the move as they oppose whale and dolphin captivity. While Henderlight will not be a part of the move, she plans to arrive in Iceland in time to observe the first few months of operation at the seaside sanctuary and learn all that she can from the animal caregivers, communicators and leaders at the partnering organizations.

“I’m so excited to be at the forefront of this movement,” Henderlight said of her involvement in the project. “The seaside sanctuaries provide an alternative to captivity. This is a new wave of conservation.”

While Henderlight won’t leave for Iceland until May, she is already working with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation to plan the project and explore how she can best offer assistance.

“I’m planning to focus on outreach and education, hopefully making partnerships with local schools, universities, and more while I’m there,” said Henderlight. “I also hope to engage with citizen scientists and perhaps learn a bit more about beluga care.”

Although Henderlight is awaiting final plans regarding her project, she is continuing to network and explore additional conservation initiatives closer to home. In particular, Henderlight decided to start a chapter of the American Cetacean Society Student Coalition (ACSSC) at UW-Madison. With chapters around the United States, the ACSSC serves as a community-based learning organization for students interested in cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) and oceans.

“When I came to Madison, I was bummed to see that many students didn’t have a connection to the ocean, but I wanted to bridge that gap,” Henderlight said. “I wanted people to know that just because we don’t have whales here doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about them. There is a huge connection between the land and the sea and there is a lot we can do here to help with water quality, sustainable seafood, anti-captivity, plastic reduction, and more.”

In its early months as an organization the UW-Madison ACSSC is already brining in speakers and has plans for a conference in the spring that will bring in leaders from whale and dolphin organizations around the country as well as members of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Henderlight says this has been a great way to network. In fact, in starting the organization she was able to apply for a grant from UW-Madison that allowed her and the ACSSC officers to attend the American Cetacean Society (ACS) international conference in California in November. Henderlight says this networking opportunity has made a big difference and that she is excited for the future as she meets new people and her project progresses.

“Being a part of the Nelson Institute has given me the confidence to make these connections,” said Henderlight. “The program exposes you to so many different areas and there is so much support. Being able to interact like that takes away the intimidation and with that support I feel like I have the backing of the Nelson Institute and that I don’t have to be afraid to reach out and do something different.”

Photos courtesy of Kara Henderlight