Mar 21, 2019

The Best Nature Documentaries Ever Made

Love learning? Love the natural world? If you enjoy soaking up every piece of information in education shows and films and also happen to be particularly interested in the world around you, there’s a whole wealth of documentaries made just for you: nature documentaries.

Nature documentaries can explore so many avenues, from life in the Earth’s deserts to underwater phenomena to the changing habits of different animal species. In fact, with nature documentaries, you can learn more about our world without having to leave your couch. And thanks to improvements in cinematic technology and the popularity of streaming, nature documentaries have improved by leaps and bounds – and you can watch them anywhere, any time.

Take some time to dive into never-before-seen species of land and sea mammals, insects, and other inhabitants of the natural world as they go about their normal routines in nature documentaries. Every documentary offers an amazing chance to learn about our environment and discuss how our actions impact the living world around us. If you’re looking for an enthralling film to watch, check out these inspiring nature documentaries.


  • One of the very first nature documentaries to achieve mainstream popularity is Planet Earth, a BBC documentary series that was released in 2006. It was the first nature documentary series to be filmed in high definition and featured eleven hour-long episodes that focused on a myriad of different habitats. Some of the episodes featured close-up footage of animals that had never been caught on camera before. Each episode was followed by a featurette called Planet Earth Diaries, which gave viewers an inside look at how the episode was filmed, and the difficulties that the crew encountered while getting the perfect shot. Planet Earth has received many awards, and was followed up by a sequel, Planet Earth II, in 2016.

  • Although Planet Earth received a lot of critical hype when it was released, it actually wasn’t the first documentary series of its kind. One of the very first major modern documentary series’ released by the BBC was actually The Blue Planet, which premiered in 2001. The eight-episode series followed the natural history of the world’s oceans, and was filmed over the course of five years. The filmmakers traveled all over the globe, crossing from pole to pole in search of the best shot. The series received a number of awards for its music and cinematography, and even had a newly-discovered species of phytoplankton (Syracosphaera azureaplaneta) named in its honor in 2018.

  • Instead of focusing on a planetary scope, Virunga focuses on one small area of the world. This documentary film, which was directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, tracked the conservation work of park rangers working within the Virunga National Park in the Congo, as they tried to weather a brutal militia rebellion while simultaneously protecting the park from oil drilling. At stake is the world’s last refuge for mountain gorillas, and all that stands between them and extinction are the brave park wardens. Virunga premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014, and was released on Netflix shortly afterwards.

  • Chasing Ice has become well-known in the natural science community for producing some of the best glacier calving footage ever shot. The documentary film was directed by Jeff Orlowski and followed nature photographer James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey team, who seek to publicize the effects of climate change by capturing footage of glaciers breaking apart (calving) as they melt away. The calving of Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland is the most remarkable event shown in the film, and was described by the photographers as “like watching a city break apart.” The movie even received an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Before My Time”.

  • If you’ve ever visited a marine theme park like SeaWorld or Marineland, you definitely need to watch Blackfish. It’s an honest look at the consequences of keeping large marine mammals like whales and dolphins in captivity. The story focuses on Tilikum, an orca whale who was captured in the wild in 1983 and since then has been a fixture of SeaWorld Orlando. In 2010, Tilikum caused the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, which was the fourth time that a trainer was killed by an orca at SeaWorld. The film features interviews with people who witnessed her death, as well as other SeaWorld trainers and orca experts. The movie is an indictment of the practice of keeping marine mammals in captivity, and prompted many celebrities to cancel appearances at SeaWorld and call for an end to the harmful practice.

  • Originally produced in 1980 by PBS, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is a 13-part series hosted by Carl Sagan that discusses subjects like astrology, physics, and the history of our relationship with the cosmos. In each episode, Sagan discusses complex concepts like evolution, constellations, and the origins of the universe in simple layman’s terms, using complex computer animations from his time, which helps to simplify these difficult topics. It was a groundbreaking program when it was released, and recently a sequel was made with Neil deGrasse Tyson as the host, produced by the two surviving creators of the original program, Ann Druyan (Sagan’s widow) and Steven Soter.   

  • If you’re interested in the way animals have adapted to life on Earth over the course of our brief existence on the planet, you should definitely check out Life, a 2009 BBC documentary series similar to Planet Earth, that focuses on interesting behavioral patterns found in nature. The short featurette that followed each of the ten episode is called Life on Location, and like the post-episode featurette in Planet Earth, pulled back the curtain to show how film crews caught particularly magnificent shots. Several of the most remarkable moments, like the year-long time-lapse of a woodland forest, and the humpback whale heat run, were multi-year projects that were only possible because of the brand-new super high-speed cameras used in the shoot.

  • The incredible biodiversity of the continent of Africa is showcased in the 2013 BBC Natural History Unit documentary Africa. Six episodes, which are set in different regions, show the incredible geography of the continent and the amazing wildlife that make their home there. The last episode is titled “The Future” and is a rallying call for conservationists. In the episode, host David Attenborough visits a sea turtle rehabilitation center, and showcases organizations that help protect endangered species like the mountain gorilla and black rhino.

  • Natural World is an epic BBC documentary series that has been running since 1983. There are nearly 500 episodes in the show’s back catalogue, and it’s been a staple of the BBC Natural History Unit for decades. Ten programs are broadcast every year, each focusing on a specific element of the natural world. One of the most famous programs in this series is Honey Badgers: Masters of Mayhem, which aired in 2014. It was an hour-long look at the honey badger, which later spawned a wildly successful viral video of a New York comedian narrating over the BBC’s original footage.

  • Another spectacular BBC documentary that uses brand-new photographic technology is Life in the Undergrowth, which focuses on invertebrates and other tiny creatures that are often too small to see with our naked eye. The five-episode series focused on everyday invertebrates like the house fly, but was also able to capture rare events like the emergence of the 17-year cicada in North America. If you’re interested in certain unique invertebrates, the BBC published an online guide that lists the various species profiled, as well as some key facts. The detail that the high-definition cameras are able to pick up is extraordinary, and many noteworthy events were captured for the very first time.  

  • One of the best opportunities we’ve had to glimpse the Great Barrier Reef is by watching Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough, another wonderful BBC series that aired in 2015 and 2016. Although there were only three episodes made- entitled “Builders”, “Visitors”, and “Survival”- the filmmakers packed in a ton of information on the history of the famous reef, featured never-before-seen corals and marine life, and highlighted the ongoing conservation efforts that are attempting to turn back the clock on the extensively damaged reef.  

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