Sound familiar? This is the Nat Geo-style nature “documentary” that makes me instantly want to close the window or turn off my TV. Natural history for idiots. Yes, I’m a nature documentary snob.
A large part of my obsession with nature travel and wildlife tourism has to do with the fact that nature documentaries were some of the only media I was allowed to watch as a kid.
My parents banned cable television in my house when I was around 7-8 years old, which I think was overkill, but one thing they did to compensate was to take me to the local public library every week to sign out books and VHS tapes. I probably saw every National Geographic (when it wasn’t ridiculous, Americanized infotainment owned by Disney), Eye Witness and PBS Nova documentary they had.
Over the years, the nature documentary has been one of my favourite types of media. There are plenty of great documentarians out there and with the advent of the streaming services, a lot of really good nature documentaries to choose from. There are too many for any streaming platform to realistically buy the rights to and feature, however, as well as plenty of more obscure ones that may not have the mass appeal of something like BBC’s Planet Earth.
With that said, below is my list of lesser-known conservation-oriented and nature documentaries that I think any nature traveler should see. Some of them are specific to certain animal groups while others are country, region or issue-specific. They are:
- A Murder of Crows
- Life in Cold Blood
- Brothers in Blood: The Lions of Sabi Sands
- My Octopus Teacher
- Man-Eating Tigers of the Sundarbans
- Drowning in Plastic
- Nature’s Greatest Secret: The Coral Triangle
- Treasures of Nature: Lake Malawi National Park
- Colombia Wild Magic
- Gorillas of Gabon
Crows are members of the Corvidae family, which also includes birds like magpies, jays, rooks, ravens and others. And yes, a group of crows is, in fact, called a “murder.”
The term “murder” has to do with the fact that crows, in many places around the world, are omnivorous, opportunistic scavengers and are often associated with death. In North American Indigenous folklore, they are cunning tricksters, which I think is much fairer symbolism.
Crows are some of the most intelligent animals on earth. They learn, play, pass on knowledge, imprint, and have complex communication and sophisticated social lives.
As someone from the Pacific Northwest, I spent most of my life around crows and, while many people in the region view them as noisy and messy pests, noisy and messy though they are, I’ve always had a soft spot for crows and this documentary made me feel vindicated, doing these amazing animals the justice they deserve.
Life in Cold Blood is a reptile-focused series from the BBC that was released in 2008 in the wake of their wildly popular and successful Planet Earth and Blue Planet series. It is also hosted and narrated by David Attenborough (my favourite person in the world), and it is still one of, if not my absolute favourite reptile and amphibian nature documentaries of all time.
It didn’t get the love or recognition that other BBC docs got/get because it doesn’t feature or focus on the same iconic species that you get to see in the more mainstream ones, but you get the same amazing painstaking production you get from any other BBC offering.
The documentary is nearly five hours long and is divided into 5 episodes:
- Episode 1: The Cold-Blooded Truth
- Episode 2: Land Invaders
- Episode 3: Dragons of the Dry
- Episode 4: Sophisticated Serpents
- Episode 5: Armoured Giants
Episode 1 is an overview of reptiles and amphibians as groups of animals, including their evolutionary history and success. Episode 2 looks at the earliest cold-blooded land-dwelling animals, salamanders, and the processes by which the first fish to emerge from the sea colonized the land, as well as a wide range of frogs and other amphibians.
Episode 3 is all about lizards, while episode 4 focuses on snakes and episode 5 is all about turtles, tortoises and crocodilians.
This is without a doubt the best lion documentary out there and maybe even one of the best nature documentaries made about Africa. I never get tired of recommending this to people and I still watch it once a year.
Directed by incredible nature documentarian Daniel Huertas, whose credits include BBC’s “Natural World: My Congo,” BBC Earth’s feature film “My Earth” and BBC’s award-winning “Our Planet,” Brothers in Blood is a 16-year project that follows the legendary Mapogo male lion coalition–a group of six brothers who conquered the largest territory ever taken over by a single pride.
The footage is spectacular and includes plenty of harrowing fights, infanticide, hunts, bonding, betrayal and death. Even better, it does it all without making it feel like you’re watching Shark Week. For me, this is one of the most amazing pieces of natural history ever recorded and it doesn’t get anywhere near the acclaim that it deserves for its footage, storytelling and effort.
I love octopuses. Along with moray eels, they are one of my favourite animals to observe and photograph on a reef.
I first saw an octopus when I was around 7 years old. I was beachcombing on Vancouver Island with my dad, flipping rocks looking for gunnels and crabs, when low and behold, a small octopus. I let it crawl onto my hand and it proceeded to squirt me water, which I was very amused by.
I put it in a bucket to observe for a few moments, before releasing it back to the safety of its boulder, and from that point on I was officially an octopus fan.
My Octopus Teacher is the dramatized story of a South African filmmaker who forges what appears to be a genuine relationship with an octopus he free dives with day after day. Despite humans and octopuses parting ways evolutionarily around half-a-billion years ago, there are very obvious, bewildering and beautiful similarities between human beings and octopuses on display in this Netflix original documentary.
Anyone moderately familiar with nature and marine life likely knows at this point that octopuses are both curious and intelligent. From Paul the World Cup winner picking octopus to viral videos of octopus escapes at public aquariums, the world is a lot more conscious of how wonderful these creatures are.
The Sundarbans, or Sundarbans Reserve Forest, in Southwest Bangladesh, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest continuous mangrove forest in the world. It is very near the top of my bucket list of places to see and one of the best places in the world to observe Bengal tigers.
But because the Sundarbans contain the largest population of tigers in the world, it is also where tigers and human beings most come into conflict.
The tigers here kill some 50 people every year, meaning that preemptive and revenge killings by humans pose a major threat to the survival of this iconic endangered species. Ensuring that they stay within the reserve and out of human habitation is the key to their survival.
The documentary is an expose on this ecosystem and the dynamics between humans and tigers, where people living in wild areas try to navigate a life in which they are still very much part of the food chain and not always at the top of it.
In addition to really great footage and cinematography, this is one of those nature documentaries that try to provide an unvarnished look into the realities of life and conservation for vulnerable people living in biodiversity hotspots. I wrote an article on nature travel and wildlife tourism that provides additional insight into some of the ways in which nature-focused tourism that promotes and funds conservation can have a positive impact on these kinds of areas.
The documentary is a BBC production, but unfortunately, it is not available on the BBC’s website, nor can I find a high-quality version of it anywhere online. It is currently available for free on YouTube and Daily Motion, but it is potato quality.
I’ve included the link in the title above just in case you want to try and tough it out. That said, if anyone finds an HD version of it, PLEASE let me know in the comments or send me an email and I will be eternally grateful.
I asked a biologist friend of mine in Colombia once what he thinks when he flies over the heavily deforested parts of the Colombian Amazon and looks out the window. His response was “I don’t look out the window.”
This is kind of how I feel about anything that has to do with plastic pollution and the ocean. One of my biggest fears is that the marine ecosystems I love so much will disappear within my lifetime, or be so heavily denuded of life and degraded by acidification, pollution and overfishing, that it will be too painful to visit places I love.
These places are already, quite literally, drowning in plastic. Anyone who has dove or snorkeled anywhere in the tropics (especially in Asia) would have to be blind not to have noticed the depressing amount of plastic that often accompanies otherwise spectacular trips below the waves.
Drowning in plastic is one of those documentaries that anyone who loves the ocean and marine life should force themselves to watch, regardless of how demoralizing it is, because there is no use burying your head in the sand. Wildlife biologist Liz Bonnin does the unpleasant work of laying out the facts and getting the painful truth from the world’s leading marine biologists.
The coral triangle refers to a region of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, including the water surrounding the Philippines, much of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste. It is home to the most diverse coral reef ecosystems in the world and it is a place I have had the good fortune to visit a few times.
The documentary’s summary contends that “The exploration and management of the Coral Triangle may well hold the key to the survival of marine species from all over the world” and it is likely not an exaggeration.
It is split into three episodes:
- Episode 1: A Deep Secret–this episode explores the geological history that is key to the region’s richness
- Episode 2: A Moveable Feast–this episode explains how the region, which sits at the convergence of three major oceans, acts as a “highway” for the ocean’s large pelagic fish and predators
- Episode 3: Paradise Under Pressure–this episode looks at how human impact on the region is playing out and what it means for the survival of the ecosystems and the people who depend on them.
If you go by the handful of reviews, you would think this documentary was boring. While it certainly doesn’t have the budget of a BBC production (nothing does), if you are a real coral reef aficionado, this might end up becoming one of your favourite coral triangle nature documentaries. Boring is definitely not a fair assessment.
Lake Malawi National park is another one of the places at the top of my bucket list. If you are a freshwater fish lover, lake Malawi needs no introduction. It is one of the best places in the world to see African cichlids:
It’s on my list because it is a country and diversity hotspot in Africa that doesn’t get nearly as much love as it deserves. One of the poorest places in the world, Malawi is a tiny, isolated country in southern Africa that most people either don’t know exists or will never have the desire or resources to see.
I don’t think I will be making my way to Malawi any time soon, and I’m glad Treasures of Nature allows me to live vicariously through this documentary. This is definitely one of the best nature documentaries covering this enormous rift lake and one of few that show you the spectacular underwater world of these lakes that not many foreigners know about or have seen.
Colombia has been my on and off home since 2015 and I have had the privilege to see quite a bit of the country as well as a large number of birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and mammals. From the forests of the Amazon to the Savannah of the Orinoco to the jungle-fringed Pacific and Caribbean coasts, Colombia is one of the most naturally diverse countries on earth.
It is equally reflected by its flora and fauna: Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world after Brazil.
Wild Magic takes you on a tour of 20 different Colombian ecosystems, shot across 85 unique locations and introduces you to Colombia’s iconic animals like the Andean Condor, the Jaguar and the Golden Poison Frog, as well as plenty of lesser-known ones.
Music is always an integral component of anything cinematic, and music lovers will enjoy this documentary for the score alone. It features contributions by iconic Colombian artists like Carlos Vives, Juanes, ChoQuibTown, Walter Silva, Aterciopelados, and Andres Castro, all of which are performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia.
I also really loved Magia Salvaje because it inspired so many Colombians. Colombia rarely gets media attention for anything other than drug trafficking and corruption, and this masterpiece directs attention to what Colombia should really be famous for: in addition to its musical contributions, the country’s almost unparalleled natural beauty. One of the best nature documentaries about one of the most naturally blessed countries in the world.
Gabon, like Malawi, is another one of those African countries that are small and off the beaten track, so it never makes international headlines. This means that nature documentaries covering Gabon are few and far between. Gabon is also one of the few countries in Africa where you can see the world’s remaining lowland gorillas in the wild.
Gorillas of Gabon is a Smithsonian Institute production and it is primarily a documentary about conservation. The documentary follows a team of local conservationists and international researchers as they attempt to acclimate the shy and potentially quite aggressive local gorilla population to the presence of humans so that it is easier for foreign tourists to come and see them.
On its face, it sounds kind of vapid, but this is one of those nature documentaries that give you a deep dive into the realities of conservation in places like Gabon, where the survival of these animals is largely dependent on wealthy foreigners paying to come and observe them.
Why You Should Watch Nature Documentaries
I think nature documentaries are an important educational and activism tool because, without them, the natural world tends to be out of sight, out of mind for most people. We are so urban and so consumed by bread and circus at this stage in our history, that I think people need to be made aware of what still exists (and is threatened) out there.
Whether you regularly watch nature documentaries and are always on the lookout for new ones or have niche nature and wildlife interests that you struggle to find nature documentaries covering, I hope you find inspiration on the above list.