With so many streaming platforms offering stunning nature documentaries on demand, the world really is your oyster. We’ve searched high and low to bring you a list of the very best television series and films that showcase our fascinating planet – and the people striving to protect it.
Get the low-down on the best new nature documentaries of 2020, from Elephant, narrated by the Duchess of Sussex, which follows a herd as they navigate the Kalahari Desert, to the adorable Wild Animal Babies with Patrick Aryee.
But we didn’t want to leave out some classic gems from the past. Discover our round-up of the best nature documentaries of all time. Delve into the archives and get lost in David’s Attenborough’s ground-breaking Life on Earth BBC series from 1979, or learn all about the work of Jane Goodall in Jane, which celebrates the life of the renowned primatologist.
Take your pick, and witness the world’s most incredible wildlife from your armchair.
Best nature documentaries released in 2020
David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet (2020)
Following a one-night only showing in cinemas, David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet will be available to stream on Netflix from Sunday 4 October 2020.
Produced by Silverback Films and WWF for Netflix, it charts the devastating changes that the broadcaster and conservationist has witnessed during his lifetime. His career has seen him visit every continent, and share much of the world’s natural wonders with millions of people around the globe.
“At 94 years old, his knowledge and insight of the natural world remains as relevant and cherished today as it was the first time he introduced the British public to pangolins and sloths on television,” says Keith Scholey, executive producer at Silverback Films. “This new film will bring together those historic moments with his views on the current problems our natural world faces and how we can solve them.”
There’s plenty of nostalgia, with visits to a former quarry in Tilton that Attenborough visited as a child, to search for fossils, and clips from a variety of his previous programmes – such as sitting among mountain gorillas, watching albatrosses, and saying “boo” to a sloth.
But there’s also time spent looking ahead. “This film is my witness statement, and my vision for the future. The story of how we came to make this, our greatest mistake, and how, if we act now, we can yet make it right.
Tiny World (2020)
If you’re a fan of the often-overlooked small species, then this series on the “tiny heroes” is for you. Written by Planet Earth II’s showrunner Tom Hugh-Jones, Tiny World is narrated by Paul Rudd, who played the miniature superhero Ant-Man in the Marvel films.
Over 200 species were filmed over the course of nearly a decade, including the diminutive Cuban bee hummingbird, and Africa’s smallest carnivore, the dwarf mongoose. The majority of filming took place in the wild, though in some cases – due to animal welfare considerations – captive animals were filmed.
The first six episodes are available to stream now, each focussing on a different habitat: savannah, jungle, island, outback, woodland, and garden. The remaining six episodes will be released in 2021.
Extinction: The Facts (2020)
From the start, it’s clear that this Attenborough documentary is going to be a tough and emotional watch. The programme follows on from a 2019 UN report, which showed that a million species face extinction. It also touches on the link between human encroachment into wild animals’ habitats and the coronavirus pandemic.
Following on from presenting Climate Change: The Facts last year, Sir David Attenborough’s latest hard-hitting documentary for the BBC looks at the crisis of biodiversity loss.
“Over the course of my life, I’ve encountered some of the world’s most remarkable species of animals. Only now do I realise just how lucky I’ve been. Many of these wonders seem set to disappear forever. We’re facing a crisis, one that has heavy consequences for us all.”“Unique animals with complex and varied lives disappearing from our planet forever isn’t just disturbing, it’s deeply tragic. But this is about more than just losing the wonders of nature, the consequences of these losses for us as a species are far-reaching and profound.”
Night on Earth (2020)
What do animals get up to while we’re tucked up in bed? Using new low-light camera technology, this six-part series from the producer of Planet Earth II reveals the night-time antics of creatures across the globe, from urban otters moving through city streets to the whale sharks that exist in the depths of our dark oceans.
After the mind-bending achievements of wildlife filmmakers in recent years, it has become ever more challenging to push the boundaries and provide a new slant on the traditional nature documentary. Despite this, Night on Earth manages to present an eye-opening new perspective.
Virunga is titled after Virunga National Park in the Congo — “one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet,” according to the park’s website, and home to an endangered group of mountain gorillas. This Netflix documentary not only aims to capture the wildlife in the national park, but also the dedication of teams aiming to protect it and the militia that target it. A year after Virunga was released, Netflix also provided a behind-the-scenes look at its production, with particular focus on the gorillas it features. Since the documentary’s release just a few years ago, the park has been temporarily closed to the public due to an increase in violence.
Chasing Coral (2017)
After directing Chasing Ice in 2012, Jeff Orlowski turned his focus from the arctic to the ocean with Chasing Coral in 2017. The latter documents coral bleaching and the environmental impact of carbon emissions and pesticides on the reefs. Like many films on this list, this Netflix documentary is a call to consciousness regarding the tangible, quantifiable impacts of global warming.
Understandably, many will be drawn to this documentary film by the narrator: Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Cambridge, no less. The story follows one herd of elephants as they make their way across the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi river in search of water.
It is an emotional tale, full of stunning visuals and not without some sadness along the way. Markle’s engaging voiceover and the anthropomorphic naming of the family’s individuals are sure to draw in younger viewers too.
Diving with Dolphins (2020)
First came Dolphin Reef in 2019, a spellbinding nature documentary film from Disney that followed the coming-of-age story of Echo, a Pacific bottlenose dolphin. Diving with Dolphins is the follow-on behind-the-scenes documentary that takes an intriguing look at just how the cinematographers and scientists managed to capture the underwater footage.
Discover how the filmmakers grappled with filming in multiple oceans around the world and responsibly following these the movements of these sensitive and fast-moving cetaceans. There are important messages about fishing, pollution and preserving our mesmerizingly beautiful coral reefs, making this an inspiring and educational watch.
Watching lar gibbons travelling at breakneck speed through the treetops, backflipping off branches and leaping distances that make for heart-in-mouth moments, not only left us in complete awe of these animals but also the nifty camerawork needed to capture such footage (all is revealed in the behind-the- scenes section at the end of episode two).
This is just one of the many impressive primates packed into this three-part series – with hundreds of species around the world, there are plenty of diverse characters for us to meet. Focussing on everything from little-known drills to wide-eyed bushbabies, Primates flits across the globe, stopping off in Brazil, China, Madagascar and myriad other locations – albeit fleetingly in some cases.
Interesting behaviour and group dynamics, new discoveries and fascinating biology are brought to light within each episode – did you know a spider monkey has a palm-like pad on its prehensile tail, to help it gain a decent grip?
Deep Ocean: Giants of the Antarctic Deep (2020)
“It’s the coldest place on Earth. A world locked away under snow and ice. So hostile and inaccessible, it has long concealed its secrets from us.” A mysterious start to this BBC Four documentary, narrated by David Attenborough.
This programme follows the journey of a scientific expedition on MV Alucia, exploring the icy waters around Antarctica. On average, the ocean here measures between 4,000–5,000m in depth, so the team must use deep-sea submersibles that can carry passengers and descend to 1,000m – the first time this has been done here.
The dives reveal a diversity of extraordinary creatures, many of which are new to science. They also find astonishingly large species, a phenomenon known as polar gigantism, including squids and jellyfish.
Planet Earth: A Celebration (2020)
Earlier in 2020, BBC One announced a unique collaboration for a special natural history documentary, titled Planet Earth: A Celebration, which aimed to lift viewers’ spirits during the uncertain times of the coronavirus pandemic.
Celebrated broadcaster Sir David Attenborough recorded a new narration for the programme, which featured eight sequences from Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II.
Award winning composer Hans Zimmer, whose work includes The Lion King, the Pirates of the Caribbean series and The Dark Knight trilogy, as well as the scores for Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II and Seven Worlds, One Planet was joined by Jacob Shea and the team at Bleeding Fingers.
They created new compositions, and rearranged the original scores, with the string section performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Brit and Mercury Prize-winner rapper Dave accompanied the orchestra and performed on the grand piano.
Jane Goodall: The Hope (2020)
Released on Earth Day 2020, this film from National Geographic charts the progress of Jane Goodall over the 60 years since she moved on from her ground-breaking discoveries as a primatologist and became an activist for global environmental change.
The cameras follow Goodall as she travels the world meeting schoolchildren, tech giants and royals, with the mission of igniting positive change and inspiring hope in the next generation.
Best nature documentaries of all time
Life on Earth (1979)
Think nature documentary and instantly the soothing tones of David Attenborough come to mind. Now in his nineties, Attenborough, spent over 25 years creating acclaimed and award-winning series with the BBC Natural History Unit and is something of a deity in the wildlife world.
Life on Earth features a young Attenborough and set a benchmark for natural history documentaries, firmly placing the broadcaster as a household name. It provides a comprehensive story of life, from the very first primitive cells to the evolution of homo sapiens. This is a must-see, even if it is just to watch the best remembered sequence when Attenborough comes face to face with an adult female gorilla in Rwanda (hint: twelfth episode).
The Blue Planet I (2001)
David Attenborough narrates the natural history of the world’s oceans in this beautifully-filmed documentary.
March of the Penguins (2005)
This incredible wildlife documentary follows the survival and mating ritual of Antarctica’s emperor penguins.
Planet Earth I (2006)
Take a journey across 204 locations in 62 countries in this fascinating nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough
Frozen Planet (2011)
Join David Attenborough on an extraordinary journey across the polar regions of our planet in this chilling nature documentary.
A memorable film which exposed the troubling world of marine amusement parks. It follows the story one particular performing orca called Tilikum and we learn of the species’ intelligence and the cruelty of lifelong confinement at Sea World.
Blackfish is not easy watching, but it is a deserving member of the best nature documentaries of all time category for causing lasting changes in the highly profitable sea park industry.
How the Wild West Was Won (2014)
Bushcraft expert Ray Mears explores the natural landscape that shaped the Wild West and the challenges the environment presented for Native Americans.
Before the Flood (2016)
Leonardo DiCarprio features in this dramatic film on the impact climate change is having on the planet.
Planet Earth II (2016)
Continuing on from Planet Earth I, David Attenborough returns to share more tales and wonders from the animal kingdom.
Chasing Coral (2017)
Winner of the Audience Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, this documentary follows a team of divers, scientists and photographers as they document the disappearance of coral reefs and fight for its protection.
The storyline is gripping, the camera work is sublime, and the subject matter couldn’t be more important. This was director Jeff Orlowski’s wake-up call to the world that we are fast running out of time to protect this precious ecosystem.
JANE by Brett Morgen (2017)
Brett Morgan tells the story of Jane, a woman whose research into chimpanzees revolutionised our understanding of the natural world.
The Blue Planet II (2017)
David Attenborough returns to share more ocean mysteries and creatures in Blue Planet II.
The Planets (2019)
Professor Brian Cox explores the dramatic lives of the eight majestic planets/worlds that make up our solar system.
Our Planet (2019)
Our Planet showcases the world’s most incredible species and at-risk habitats – from vast deserts and African plains, to our deep oceans and icy Artic landscapes.
It is a collaboration between Netflix, Silverback Films – led by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, who worked on the critically acclaimed Planet Earth and Blue Planet series – and the WWF which offered advice and access to filming locations.
You might think that there can’t possibly be anything that Planet Earth and other Attenborough documentaries haven’t covered before, but Our Planet is different.
The series presents all all-encompassing view of Earth as a unified ecosystem, with each episode moving seamlessly between interconnecting habitats, unfragmented by geographical borders.
Though at times it lacks a depth of information in its attempt to span the entire planet, as Attenborough states in episode one, its broad aim is to “celebrate the natural wonders that remain, and reveal what we must preserve to ensure people and nature thrive.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/ZVjo86OEeFc?feature=oembed&enablejsapi=1&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.discoverwildlife.com
The WWF Living Planet Report 2018 revealed that there has been a shocking 60% decline in populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians since 1970.
“We’re the first generation to know the full impact of what we’re doing to our planet, and the last that has the chance to do anything about it,” says executive producer and executive director of WWF-UK Colin Butfield. “We’re at a unique moment in our history where we have the chance to put things right and start on the path towards a better future.”
This is where Our Planet comes in. “Partnering with Netflix and WWF gives us the ability to reach and enthuse global audiences with the wonder and importance of the natural world,” says Alastair Fothergill, executive producer of Silverback Films.