Five years ago today, the orca mother J35 — also known as Tahlequah — gave birth to a calf who died shortly thereafter. In response, Tahlequah proceeded to carry her daughter’s body across the Salish Sea for 17 days, a 1600 kilometre journey of mourning that went viral at the time.

I was among the millions worldwide who were touched by her odyssey. Years earlier, as a teenager, my father and brother passed away. When Tahlequah physicalized her experience of grief, seeming to dance with her child through the waves, it was wrenching to witness.

In a way, she gave me permission to feel the things I had struggled to express. As those deep emotions awakened in me, I became impassioned about Tahlequah and resolved to make a film giving voice to her actions.

Using animation to retell her true story, it took roughly 17 months — one for each of Tahlequah’s 17 days — to create the short film Tahlequah the Whale: A Dance of Grief.

I became impassioned about Tahlequah and resolved to make a film giving voice to her actions.

Working on the project was intensely emotional. Witnessing an animated Tahlequah holding her baby, I imagined my own mother cradling my brother’s head for the final time, after he died at 23 years of age.

Listening to our orchestral soundtrack, I heard a tribute to my late father Yakov, a renowned conductor, and his life’s work. But most of all, I thought of where the real Tahlequah might be and how my team and I could try to honour her.

With help from the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Wash., our film features actual archival audio of Tahlequah crying out as she carried her newborn, captured by hydrophones in 2018.

The responsibility to do her justice felt enormous.

The soundtrack of the short film Tahlequah the Whale: A Dance of Grief debuts July 24, which is also the fifth anniversary of the mother orca's 1,600-kilometre, 17-day journey to lay her daughter's body to rest.

In May 2023, Tahlequah had its world premiere at the Oscar-qualifying Animayo Film Festival in Gran Canaria, Spain. It was awarded the Special Mention of the Festival and continues to travel the festival circuit, counting Dr. Jane Goodall among its environmental supporters.

When I watch the finished film, I feel as though my father and brother are alive again. It is an almost ecstatic experience. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but the project was partly an attempt to bring them back to life. But once the credits roll and the lights come up, I am snapped back to the reality that they are not returning, and that I have failed.

As I see it, grief is proportionate to how deeply we love someone. Just as matter cannot be created or destroyed, the vacuum of loss is filled with an equally sized love. If we allow it, that love can turbocharge us like a superpower and show us the best of who we really are.

After the film’s premiere, I hiked the Maspalomas sand dunes in Gran Canaria, reaching a gorgeous expanse of ocean. In the setting sun, with the dunes behind me, I scattered my father’s and brother’s ashes into the water and the wind. By finally letting go of her daughter’s body, Tahlequah helped me lay my own loved ones to rest.

Today, when I observe the beauty in the world, my grief reflects back the faces of my family. When I hear the pain of others, I often recognize the depths of despair that I, too, have endured. So while I cannot bring back the loved ones for whom I will always ache, the pain has made me infinitely richer.

And in the face of a changing climate that threatens humans and orcas alike, it is increasingly urgent that we use each loss to motivate change.

In 2020, Tahlequah gave birth to a son, J57, also known as Phoenix. From the ashes of her grief, another Phoenix may rise, if we allow it: we can take action now to save these endangered southern resident orcas.

We can remove the Lower Snake River dams that disrupt their food supply, reduce the Salish Sea pollution and vessel traffic that imperil them and secure a habitable planet for both ourselves and our orca kin.

Though the window to act is finite, we still have the power to ensure that Tahlequah never loses another child. What better monument could we make to a mother’s love?

Daniel Kreizberg is an award-winning filmmaker and actor based in New York City. He graduated with honours from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and made his stage debut performing at Carnegie Hall. In 2023, Daniel wrote, directed and narrated Tahlequah the Whale: A Dance of Grief, which is currently in film festivals. In addition, he is an accomplished producer and editor who has worked with a wide variety of companies.