Best Nature Documentaries Of All Time
Nature documentaries are one of the most entertaining and fascinating ways to learn about our planet and the creatures that inhabit it. Whether it’s deep sea caverns where the sun is a foreign concept, luscious rainforests in the thick of the Amazon or the wild plains of Africa, there is a nature documentary out there that explores and records just how strange life on this planet can get. We compile a list of the best nature documentaries ever created, so get your popcorn and duvet ready and be prepared to be educated and blown away.
Nothing looks so candescent and spectacular as a well-shot nature documentary playing on a high definition TV. There’s something about watching a jaguar in ultra-slow motion leaping through the forest onto terror-stricken prey that piques our morbid curiosity and brings about boundless wonderment at the harshness and raw beauty of nature. It’s like slowing down to look at a car crash, except you don’t have to feel guilty about it. The documentaries on our list will provide you with not just lethal predators at their gruesome best, but fascinating insights into our natural environments and how the living things around them adapt to change, thrive and survive. There’s also some truly awe-inspiring documentaries on the rest of the universe – the cosmos, the planets, and the endlessly fascinating things that occur in nature outside of our own planet.
Number 1 – Planet Earth
Planet Earth, produced by the BBC, is widely regarded as the greatest series of nature documentaries to ever have been created. It was a ridiculously ambitious project, costing £16 million and taking four years to film, and having a crew of over 70 camera operators filming in 204 locations in 62 countries on all seven continents. In total, the crew spent a combined time of over 5.4 years in the field, and the results are stunning.
The series is comprised of 11 episodes, each covering a different part of the planet in extreme and unflinching detail. You’ll see mountains, frozen tundras, shallow and deep seas, seasonal forests, scorching deserts, rivers and lakes, pitch-black caves and Africa’s great plains.
The series was one of the first to be shot in full HD, and it shows – the camerawork is phenomenal, every shot perfectly placed and providing crystal clear views of unaware animals going about their business in ever more fascinating ways. Some of the locations were so remote and difficult to get to that the production team added a mini-documentary making-of segment to the end of each episode, and some of these are more heart stopping and nail-biting than the actual documentaries themselves.
The series has too many highlights to mention, but several standout moments include a scene in which a group of desperately hungry lions set upon a herd of elephants, hoping to seek out the calves amid the lurching, giant masses of the adult elephants, and a ‘making-of’ scene depicting the film crew’s hazardous journey deep into the Arctic, where equipment fails, food supplies are low, and the crew are exposed to the ever increasing threat of ice breaking underneath their weight, potentially exposing them to the freezing waters below.
Number 2 – Evolution
This tragically underrated 7-part series from PBS is without doubt the best documentary ever made to cover the topic of evolution. It explores in an extraordinary amount of detail the mechanisms that allowed single-celled organisms to evolve over billions of years to the sophisticated animal that is us – humans. The documentary also emphasises the fact that we are actually very, very new to this planet – human civilization stretches back merely thousands of years, a blink of an eye in the scheme of the planet as a whole.
This fact is brilliantly explained in the documentary through the use of an analogy of an hour of time. If one hour represents the entire history of Earth, the period of the planet with animal life represents the last ten minutes of that hour. Eight of those ten minutes were spent with the only form of animal life on the planet being single celled organisms. All of human history; our evolution and branching away from the more primitive primates, our building of great civilizations, our development of language and culture – happened in the last one hundredth of a second of that hour. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?
Some of the more fascinating parts of the documentary are segments where the researchers and documentary team explore highly unusual or noteworthy developments in evolutionary history, like how the whale came about, or how the human brain grew and evolved so rapidly compared to our ancestors, but the entire series is spellbinding, and if you’ve ever had an unanswered question about evolution (and who hasn’t?) then the answer you’re looking for is probably covered somewhere in this labyrinthine and epic documentary series.
Number 3 – Africa
This, one of the more recent David Attenborough documentaries, is an enlightening and absorbing look into some of the harshest and most unforgiving environments on the planet, those found in Africa.
The series explores five different regions of Africa, from the Kalahari, to the Savannah, the Congo, Cape, and the Sahara. The first episode, Kalahari, takes us to the world’s biggest underground lake, underneath the Kalahari Desert, and how it is home to a rare fish species that has existed since prehistoric times. The survival of the fish after all these millennia is a fascinating topic and the show highlights the day-to-day life and behaviour of the fish brilliantly.
In another extraordinary scene, an enormous and bewildering assortment of creatures who you would normally find fighting to the death become allies for a brief moment as they congregate on the only source of water for miles, a glistening oasis in the desert. It is truly a beautiful scene, shot in the most splendid of high definition. BBC’s Africa is, in fact, probably the most beautifully shot nature documentary in existence – if you need one documentary to show off that new 1080p 60 inch TV, make it this one.
Number 4 – Microcosmos
Microcosmos is utterly engaging. A French-made documentary about insect life in meadows and ponds in France, utilising astonishing close-ups, poignant slow motion, and stunning time-lapse photography, it was released in 1996 to an underwhelming response in the United States, but soon grew in popularity to become a cult documentary classic as more and more became aware of the revolutionary (at the time) photographic techniques and visual effects.
It still more than holds up today, even in a world of staggering 3D effects and high resolution gaming, as the miniature world of insects that goes by the average human largely unnoticed is brought to life, as you see bees collecting nectar, ladybugs eating mites, snails mating, spiders wrapping their prey, scarab beetles struggling to push their dung balls uphill, and underwater spiders creating air bubbles to breathe in. The ingenious photography really takes you into the world of the insect, as mere blades of grass become towering skyscrapers, and drops of rain form vast, colossal oceans.
Number 5 – Human Planet
While most of the other documentaries in the list so far focus on telling the stories of the other animals that we share this planet with, Human Planet, as the name suggests, is a documentary that exhibits how we, humans, have forged our legacy on this planet, and have manipulated and exploited every rich and resource of the planet to help further our survival in a world that, at times, wants to kill us.
How we have carved a life for ourselves in almost every possible habitat on Earth is testament indeed to human ingenuity and spirit.
The series focuses on the more extreme habitats that humans have spread to, such as the deep jungles of South America and other equatorial regions, the incredibly harsh deserts of Africa, the Altai mountains of Mongolia, and the island archipelagos of Indonesia.
Watching these remote and primitive cultures, some of which are living in exact same way they have for tens of thousands of years, is intriguing, as they all manage to find unexpected ways to adapt to their environment and the threats around them – for example, witness how members of a a certain Amazonian tribe perfectly mimic the cries of over 10 different species of animals to attract them, so they can more easily find prey to feed their families.
Number 6 – Life in Cold Blood
Reptiles and amphibians are the focus of this series of brilliant documentaries by the BBC, once again presented by the world’s foremost authority on the natural world, David Attenborough. This series, filmed in 2007 and 2008, explores the habitats and behaviour of reptiles, and their lives are, in many ways, more interesting and bizarre than you’d realize.
Attenborough turns the filming of nature into an artform, interspersing sequences of raw beauty and startlingly rare glimpses of animal behaviour with insightful and charming commentary, providing entertainment and education value matched by so few in the documentary world.
Number 7 – Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas
Eternal Enemies, a National Geographic project filmed in Botswana to observe the daily struggle for survival and document the violent conflict between lions and hyenas, is a truly seminal production that changed the face of documentary making forever.
Never before had a documentary captured so vividly the sheer brutality of the animal kingdom. But the violence and brutality in Eternal Enemies does not arise merely out of competition for food, or shelter – no, the conflict between lions and hyenas is some gangster shit. Witness as packs of lions and hyenas form gangs and engage in all-out territorial warfare on each other, planning ambushes and sneak attacks – the animal world’s version of the drive-by shooting.
The documentary is old, no doubt, filmed in 1992, but the cinematography is well ahead of its time and the raging conflict is captured in stunning detail, complete with brilliant and moving commentary by Powers Boothe, the Texan actor of Sin City and Deadwood fame.
Number 8 – Through the Wormhole
Through the Wormhole is a brilliant documentary series by the Science Channel and attempts bravely to answer the big questions that face humanity, such as:
- Where did the universe come from?
- Is there a Creator?
- What happened before the beginning of the universe?
- Are we alone in the universe?
- Is time travel possible?
Yeah, these are deep questions. But Through the Wormhole offers deep answers, seeking the expert knowledge of a panel of ‘rock-star’ scientists such as Brain Cox and Michio Kaku, with the smooth, comforting narration of Morgan Freeman to help you stay sane as the show veers into the incredibly bizarre and intriguing. If you’ve ever wondered aloud to yourself, ‘Just what would happen if two galaxies collided?’, this is the show for you.
Number 9 – Life in the Undergrowth
Life in the Undergrowth is another of the epic nature documentaries hosted by David Attenborough, and this time the great man and his crew explore the mysterious and captivating world of the ‘undergrowth’ – that oft-unseen world inhabited by ants, stick insects, digger bees and beetles, among a myriad of others. There are 5 parts in total to this epic series, each part focusing on a different ecosystem or habitat. They include:
- Invasion of the Land – A look at how the first lifeforms that were bound to the sea eventually crawled up onto the beaches and evolved into land animals, becoming the predecessors of many species we know today, including ourselves.
- Taking to the Air – This episode explores the air above us inhabited by birds, and the intriguing relationships and behavioural patterns displayed by them.
- The Silk Spinners – Focuses on the bizarre world of invertebrates, some of which make ingenious use of silk to capture their prey.
- Intimate Relations – On symbiotic, parasitic and commensal relationships between various invertebrate species and between invertebrates and plants.
- Supersocieties – This episode shows us the insects that form colonies and supercolonies, such as bees, wasps and ants.
The show succeeds in showing us a world that is at times, too bizarre to even be real, and will ensure you never look at a simple grasshopper or ant the same way again.
Number 10 – The Blue Planet
BBC’s The Blue Planet is an exquisitely made documentary capturing the sheer beauty and scope of the world’s oceans, and the creatures that live within it.
The series opens with the sheer power and beauty of the blue whale, the largest animal ever to have lived on our planet, weighting over 200 tons and having a tongue that weighs more than an entire elephant – yes, you read correctly – the tongue of the blue whale is heavier than an elephant. That’s one heavy animal.
The camerawork employed throughout the series is nothing short of phenomenal, as you find yourself questioning just how they managed to film such strange events and animals in the deep depths of the underseas, such as bioluminescent jellies and transparent squid floating about, oblivious to the outside world or to our existence.
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