Emily and the whale: close encounter inspires career

First-year veterinary student Emily Holmes bears a tattoo of GPS co-ordinates that symbolizes a turning point in her life — an amazing encounter that inspired her to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.

By Lynne Gunville

Holmes was 17 years old and working as a marine mammal naturalist on a private whale watching tour when two humpback whales came and played beside their boat. As Holmes watched in awe, one of the huge mammals surfaced beside her.

“It was such an incredible and humbling experience to have an animal the size of a school bus come and surface eye to eye with me,” says Holmes. “As cheesy as it sounds, the humpback staring at me with its head right against the vessel felt like a sign from the universe that I needed to work with animals.”

Holmes had been drawn to animals all her life. She grew up in Nanaimo, B.C., surrounded by a variety of pets that included cats, a leopard gecko, tree frogs, hermit crabs, fish and a variety of rescue animals. She recalls that her parents wanted to dissuade her from getting a dog, so they “threw every pet under the sun at me” — a crusade that resulted in a wide range of pet experiences for her.

By the time Holmes was 14, she was open to any new experiences involving animals, so she volunteered to help with the necropsy of a humpback whale that had been transported to Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre (WIC). Despite the smell of the two-week-old carcass, it was an incredible experience for Holmes who ended up working at the centre for the next eight years.

In her position as an interpreter at the WIC, Holmes had a diverse job description that included performing necropsies, flensing (stripping) carcasses and articulating skeletons. While she loved everything about her work, she particularly enjoyed the public education aspect — the chance to educate people and spark their interest in animals.

“I had the chance to speak with literally thousands of people regarding animals,” says Holmes. “I educated people about marine mammal behaviour, anatomy, ecology and conservation by leading tours and answering questions.”

After Holmes’s life-changing experience with the humpback whale, she set out to pursue a veterinary career and expanded her experience with animals by volunteering at Nanaimo’s SPCA as well as a variety of small animal hospitals.

She especially appreciated the support she received at Prince George’s Ospika Animal Hospital where Dr. Rebecca MacLellan and the rest of the clinic team trusted her to interact with the clients and took time to show her the various treatments, tests and procedures.

Holmes also focused on maintaining a high academic standing as she pursued a Bachelor of Science degree while taking classes at the University of Northern British Columbia and the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

At USask Holmes’s continued interest in whales led to her research investigating killer whale populations. In 2019, her talk on killer whales received the best undergraduate student presentation at “Our Common Future,” an undergraduate research symposium highlighting USask student projects and research that focus on environmental and sustainability issues.

“I love presenting, and it was amazing to present in a university setting,” says Holmes. “Living on the island, whales are part of the coastal culture, and working so closely with them as well as the amazing scientists who study them really made me even more interested.”

Now that Holmes has begun her studies at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), she’s excited by the opportunities available to her and is particularly enjoying her classes in anatomy and veterinary business.

She anticipates working in a small animal private practice after graduation — preferably in a remote part of Western Canada where she can promote animal welfare in a community with limited access to veterinary medicine.

Holmes’s passion for whales has not diminished, and she plans to continue educating and inspiring interest in all animals — her favourite aspect of working at the Whale Interpretive Centre.

“That was always the most interesting part for me; making people passionate about saving animals and participating in conservation,” says Holmes. “I found it so interesting how a little bit of information could change someone’s perspective so quickly. Steve Irwin’s quote is absolutely true: ‘Share my wildlife with me. Because humans want to save things that they love.’”