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30 best nature documentaries of all time

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Netflix

30 best nature documentaries of all time

Captivated by the mating habits of jellyfish, elephants mourning their ancestors, and proud lionesses cuddling their cubs, audiences love to peer into the private lives of creatures great and small––particularly in spectacular settings around the world. A study conducted by the BBC together with the University of California Berkeley revealed just why viewers choose to kick back and tune into programs like “Honey Badgers: Masters of Mayhem” and “The Tigers of Scotland”⁠—nature documentaries trigger the neurochemicals of happiness, reducing the stress and anxieties of modern life. 

Some of the best exponents of the genre come from the BBC Natural History Unit, which has been cranking out award-winning nature documentaries since 1957, often in conjunction with natural historian and television producer Sir David Attenborough. Now in his 90s, Attenborough has worked with the BBC for over 25 years and is the genius behind several acclaimed series, including “Life” and “The Blue Planet,” which continue to be watched by millions of people worldwide.

In recent years, a growing number of filmmakers have used their platform to raise public consciousness about the many threats posed by global warming. Coral bleaching, rising sea levels, and melting polar ice-caps have all been addressed in documentaries, as well as the significant role played by human beings concerning climate change. Celebrity activists, including United Nations Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio, Laurence Fishburne, and Oprah Winfrey, have also lent their status to the movement, behind the camera as well as in front of it. 

Stacker put together a list of the 30 best nature documentaries of all time, based on IMDb user ratings. Consideration went to documentaries and single-season documentary miniseries focused on plants, animals, and the environment. Scroll through the slideshow and find out which films exposed barbarous ancient fishing practices, employed revolutionary photography techniques, or were recently outed for faking content. 

You may also like: Rare animals featured in Planet Earth, Our Planet, and other nature documentaries

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Netflix

#30. Chasing Coral (2017)

- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Votes: 7,629
- Runtime: 100 min

“Chasing Coral” has all the elements of a blockbuster Hollywood thriller: a suspenseful storyline, powerful emotional impact, and stunning visuals. Coral death, also known as “coral bleaching,” has skyrocketed worldwide due to global warming. This Netflix documentary, directed by Jeff Orlowski, chronicles a talented team racing to invent the first underwater time-lapse camera to capture the phenomenon as it unfolds. 

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Oceanic Preservation Society

#29. Racing Extinction (2015)

- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Votes: 6,968
- Runtime: 90 min

“Racing Extinction” explores the devastating effects of climate change on the world’s oceans. Human activity—notably energy consumption—currently threatens half of the world’s aquatic species with mass extinction. Helmed by Academy Award-winning director Louie Psihoyos, this 2015 documentary urges viewers to act before it’s too late.

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Netflix

#28. Virunga (2014)

- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Votes: 9,027
- Runtime: 100 min

Virunga National Park, located in the East Congo, is home to some of the world’s most diverse flora and fauna—including the last remaining community of mountain gorillas. Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, “Virunga” tells the story of the dedicated park rangers entrusted with protecting this UNESCO World Heritage site from both poachers and armed militia.

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Ratpac Documentary Films

#27. Before the Flood (2016)

- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Votes: 23,483
- Runtime: 96 min

In “Before the Flood,” United Nations Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio takes viewers on a journey around the world, illustrating the threat posed by global warming. Directed by Academy Award-winner Fisher Stevens, this National Geographic production practices what it preaches, offsetting carbon emissions created during production with a voluntary carbon tax.

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Flying Elephants Productions

#26. Ashes and Snow (2005)

- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Votes: 3,659
- Runtime: 62 min

Laurence Fishburne narrates “Ashes and Snow,” which documents the astonishing relationship between human beings and the animal world. Haunting still images are intertwined with filmed footage in this poetic meditation by filmmaker Gregory Colbert. 

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Appian Way

#25. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014)

- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Votes: 17,816
- Runtime: 90 min

Kip Andersons’ Indiegogo-funded “Cowspiracy” highlights the uncomfortable relationship between big agriculture and carbon emissions. As much a movement as a documentary, “Cowspiracy” urges its audience to eschew animal products in an empowering, grassroots campaign to battle climate change. A 2015 cut of the film released on Netflix was produced by celebrity activist Leonardo DiCaprio.

 

 

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American Zoetrope

#24. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Votes: 32,068
- Runtime: 86 min

“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi word that translates to “life out of balance” and is also the subject of director Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 documentary, which details the inherent conflict between nature and urbanism. An original score by legendary composer Philip Glass complements the stunning cinematography. 

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Mimosa Films

#23. Beautiful People (1974)

- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Votes: 3,433
- Runtime: 92 min

Directed by Jamie Uys of “The Gods Must Be Crazy” fame, “Beautiful People” (also released as “Animals are Beautiful People”) takes a gentle and frequently humorous look at South African wildlife. A scene in which inebriated animals indulge in fermented fruit is one of the highlights of this 1975 Golden Globe winner. 

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National Geographic Films

#22. The Last Lions (2011)

- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Votes: 3,829
- Runtime: 88 min

The brainchild of conservationists and filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert, “The Last Lions” plays like a feature film as it chronicles the trials and tribulations of Ma di Tau—a remarkable lioness committed to defending her family in Botswana’s treacherous Okavango Delta. Narrated by actor Jeremy Irons, the film draws attention to the plight of the wild lion population, which has dwindled from approximately 450,000 to 20,000 in the last 50 years.

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BBC Natural History Unit (NHU)

#21. Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (2001)

- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Votes: 2,339
- Runtime: 240 min

A sequel to “Walking with Dinosaurs,” this joint BBC/Discovery Channel effort explores life on Earth immediately after the big lizards became extinct. Sir Kenneth Brannagh narrates this three-hour look at the habits and habitats of wooly mammoths and saber-tooth lions.

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Oceanic Preservation Society

#20. The Cove (2009)

- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Votes: 45,340
- Runtime: 92 min

Using high-definition cameras disguised as rocks, director Louie Psihoyos and his crew exposed the covert and cruel practice of dolphin drive-hunting in Taiji, Japan, whereby schools of dolphins are hoarded into coves, trapped, and killed for profit. Winner of the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, “The Cove” sparked outrage among animal activists worldwide as well as a hotly contested backlash against the Japanese fishing community.

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Decia Films/Sony Pictures Classics

#19. The Salt of the Earth (2014)

- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Votes: 17,367
- Runtime: 110 min

“The Salt of the Earth” follows acclaimed septuagenarian photographer Sebastião Salgado in his quest to document the planet’s most arresting landscapes and their inhabitants. Directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (the subject’s son), together with indie icon Wim Wenders, the film was nominated for the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

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BBC Natural History

#18. Wild China (2008)

- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Votes: 2,468
- Runtime: 310 min

This groundbreaking six-part series transported never-before-seen images of Chinese wildlife into homes around the world. A Sino-British production, the project took more than two years to complete and includes rare footage of some of China’s most remote regions, including the Mongolian steppes and the Yuanyang rice terraces.

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Oscilloscope Pictures

#17. Samsara (2011)

- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Votes: 29,892
- Runtime: 102 min

From “Baraka” filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, this mesmerizing, non-narrative documentary was filmed over a period of five years in over 25 different countries. Shot using visually superior 70mm film, “Samsara” explores human spirituality as it relates to the Earth’s natural rhythms

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EuropaCorp

#16. Home (2009)

- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Votes: 20,559
- Runtime: 120 min

Earth, home to all human beings, is the star of this stunning documentary by French director Luc Besson. The film showcases awe-inspiring aerial landscapes from 54 different countries while simultaneously citing alarming statistics about climate change and its potentially devastating effects.

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#15. Wild Pacific (2009)

- IMDb user rating: 8.8
- Votes: 2,104
- Runtime: 353 min

Released as “South Pacific” in the U.K., this six-part BBC series narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch explores the unique ecosystems of isolated South Pacific islands, including the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Palau, and Palmyra. Shot entirely in high definition, the final installment highlights climate-related dangers such as rising seas, overfishing, and reef damage. 

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#14. Frozen Planet (2011)

- IMDb user rating: 8.9
- Votes: 22,789
- Runtime: 360 min

Polar bears and penguins are front and center in this high-definition look at life both above and below the ice. A BBC classic presented by natural historian and television personality Sir David Attenborough, “Frozen Planet” focuses on the Arctic and Antarctic—the two regions on the planet at greatest risk from global warming. 

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#13. Wonders of the Universe (2011)

- IMDb user rating: 8.9
- Votes: 3,525
- Runtime: 242 min

University of Manchester physicist Brian Cox contemplates the origins of the universe and the history of man in this cerebral, four-part BBC documentary. A follow up to the 2010 series “Wonders of the Solar System,” Cox turns to science for answers to existential questions that have plagued humanity since the dawn of time.

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#12. The Blue Planet (2001)

- IMDb user rating: 8.9
- Votes: 28,564
- Runtime: 389 min

Approximately three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered by water—the subject of this riveting eight-part BBC series narrated by David Attenborough, which took home four Emmys and a Peabody Award. In 2018, a newly discovered species of ocean plankton was christened Syracosphaera azureaplaneta in honor of the series.

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#11. Africa (2013)

- IMDb user rating: 8.9
- Votes: 11,847
- Runtime: 360 min

“Africa” takes viewers on an unprecedented journey across the deserts, savannahs, and jungles of this geographically diverse continent. Presented by David Attenborough, “Africa” is just one of several BBC documentaries funded by Chinese state broadcasting network China Central Television.

 

 

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#10. Nature's Most Amazing Events (2009)

- IMDb user rating: 9.0
- Votes: 2,834
- Runtime: 294 min

“Nature’s Most Amazing Events” turns the camera lens on some of the most fascinating wildlife on the planet, including polar bears, sharks, and enormous schools of sardines. Aerial photography and time-lapse imagery are the hallmarks of this six-hour collaboration between The Discovery Channel and the BBC. 

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#9. Life in the Undergrowth (2005)

- IMDb user rating: 9.1
- Votes: 3,280
- Runtime: 251 min

Another David Attenborough vehicle, this 2005 BBC documentary exposes the secret lives of insects. Employing the latest technological advances in macrophotography, “Life in the Undergrowth” raised the bar for wildlife documentary filmmaking.

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#8. The Life of Mammals (2002)

- IMDb user rating: 9.1
- Votes: 3,627
- Runtime: 501 min

A follow-up to BBC’s “The Life of Birds,” “The Life of Mammals” explores the origins and habits of arguably the planet’s most engaging and improvising inhabitants. Highlights include nonagenarian presenter David Attenborough startling an unsuspecting sloth.

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#7. Human Planet (2011)

- IMDb user rating: 9.1
- Votes: 20,980
- Runtime: 421 min

“Human Planet,” another BBC/Discovery project, examines how people survive in some of the most brutal environments on the planet by building relationships with animals. Rocked by scandal in 2018, the documentary was pulled from Netflix amidst accusations of faked footage.

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#6. Life (2009)

- IMDb user rating: 9.1
- Votes: 34,538
- Runtime: 473 min

A BBC/Discovery co-production, “Life” focuses on Charles Darwin’s “struggle for existence.”  Presenter David Attenborough narrated the original U.K. version of the film, but was replaced by Oprah Winfrey for the documentary’s U.S. release.

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#5. The Hunt (2015)

- IMDb user rating: 9.3
- Votes: 3,170
- Runtime: 305 min

It’s “kill or be killed” in this high-stakes BBC series, which casts killer whales and polar bears in a sympathetic light. Narrated by David Attenborough, “The Hunt” employed novel filming techniques to get the perfect shot, including cameras suspended from elephants.

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Netflix

#4. Our Planet (2019)

- IMDb user rating: 9.3
- Votes: 14,373
- Runtime: 403 min

The new Netflix film “Our Planet” isn’t a BBC production, but it sure looks like one. Produced by the same team responsible for “Planet Earth” and featuring the venerable David Attenborough, the film goes where many earlier nature documentaries feared to tread, compelling audiences to accept their own role in the destruction of the environment.

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#3. Blue Planet II (2017)

- IMDb user rating: 9.3
- Votes: 21,532
- Runtime: 364 min

This sequel to the 2001 BBC series “Blue Planet” takes a second look at the high seas with new technology built especially for the follow-up series. Presenter David Attenborough guides viewers through the mating practices of ocean dwellers and warns against the dangers of global warming.

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British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

#2. Planet Earth (2006)

- IMDb user rating: 9.4
- Votes: 150,506
- Runtime: 538 min

The BBC’s most expensive nature project, this remarkable 11-part series transported audiences to a panoply of natural habitats spread over 64 different countries. Actress Sigourney Weaver narrates the U.S. release, stepping in for icon of British natural history, David Attenborough. 

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BBC Natural History Unit (NHU)

#1. Planet Earth II (2016)

- IMDb user rating: 9.5
- Votes: 76,141
- Runtime: 298 min

“Planet Earth II” treads the same terrain as its predecessor, the 2006 mega-documentary “Planet Earth.” All manner of creatures eat, hunt and mate, but a decade later they do so in Ultra-HD, which makes for even more riveting viewing. 

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