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30 best nature documentaries of all time

Not interested in reality shows? Check out these nature documentaries.
Coral bleaching, rising sea levels, farm animal cruelty, and melting polar ice-caps have all been addressed in documentaries, as well as the significant role played by human beings concerning climate change and environmental degradation.

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 stress and anxiety. 

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 platforms to raise public consciousness about the many threats posed by global warming. Coral bleaching, rising sea levels, farm animal cruelty, and melting polar ice-caps have all been addressed in documentaries, as well as the significant role played by human beings concerning climate change and environmental degradation. Celebrity activists, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Laurence Fishburne, Oprah Winfrey, and Joaquin Phoenix 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. Read on to find out which films exposed barbarous ancient fishing practices, employed revolutionary photography techniques, or were recently outed for faking content.

#30. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014)

- Directors: Kip Andersen, Keegan Kuhn
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 90 minutes

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.

#29. Before the Flood (2016)

- Director: Fisher Stevens
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Metascore: 63
- Runtime: 96 minutes

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.

#28. Free Solo (2018)

- Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Metascore: 83
- Runtime: 100 minutes

“Free Solo” is the term for the kind of climbing done alone (“solo”) and without the usual harnesses, ropes, and carabiners that most rock climbers use as a form of security and safety (“free” of that stuff). The documentary captures climber Alex Honnold’s free solo climbs up virtually vertical slabs of rock, capturing with dizzying clarity just how dangerous these climbs are. The film builds to his ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park—a well-known climbing destination of 3,000-plus feet. 

#27. Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (2001)

- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Votes: 2,650

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.

#26. Beautiful People (1974)

- Director: Jamie Uys
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 92 minutes

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.

#25. The Last Lions (2011)

- Director: Dereck Joubert
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Metascore: 69
- Runtime: 88 minutes

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.

#24. Racing Extinction (2015)

- Director: Louie Psihoyos
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Metascore: 81
- Runtime: 90 minutes

“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.

#23. Seaspiracy (2021)

- Director: Ali Tabrizi
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 89 minutes

The global fishing industry is bad. That's what director Ali Tabrizi comes to realize, after initially setting out to capture the glories under the ocean’s surface. What he finds instead is a “Seaspiracy,” as the miracles of marine life are poisoned, destroyed, and otherwise harmed by humans. Between damaging fishing practices, wastes like plastic that never really go away, archaic hunting practices, and general pollution and noises, the seas are being slowly killed.

#22. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

- Director: Godfrey Reggio
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Metascore: 72
- Runtime: 86 minutes

“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.

#21. Wild China (2008)

- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Votes: 2,664

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.

#20. The Cove (2009)

- Director: Louie Psihoyos
- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Metascore: 84
- Runtime: 92 minutes

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.

#19. The Salt of the Earth (2014)

- Directors: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Metascore: 83
- Runtime: 110 minutes

“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.

#18. Samsara (2011)

- Director: Ron Fricke
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Metascore: 65
- Runtime: 102 minutes

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.

#17. Home (2009)

- Director: Yann Arthus-Bertrand
- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Metascore: 47
- Runtime: 118 minutes

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.

#16. Wild Pacific (2009)

- IMDb user rating: 8.7
- Votes: 2,230

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.

#15. Wonders of the Universe (2011)

- IMDb user rating: 8.9
- Votes: 3,892

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 consciousness. 

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

- IMDb user rating: 9.0
- Votes: 3,021

“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.

#13. Life in the Undergrowth (2005)

- IMDb user rating: 9.0
- Votes: 3,458

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.

#12. Africa (2013)

- IMDb user rating: 9.0
- Votes: 14,355

“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.

#11. Human Planet (2011)

- IMDb user rating: 9.0
- Votes: 24,030

“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.

#10. Frozen Planet (2011)

- IMDb user rating: 9.0
- Votes: 27,270

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.

#9. The Blue Planet (2001)

- IMDb user rating: 9.0
- Votes: 35,491

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.

#8. Dominion (2018)

- Director: Chris Delforce
- IMDb user rating: 9.1
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 120 minutes

Infamous for shocking and disturbing footage of animal cruelty, “Dominion” forces viewers to confront how the sausage gets made—in this case, how the hamburgers, ribs, and chicken breasts people enjoy are the end result of the nauseating practices of meat farming. The creators behind this documentary managed to get footage inside large-scale production farms and plants, using hidden cameras and drones to capture truly upsetting scenes of animal abuse that are a routine part of getting meat onto plates.  Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara narrate.

#7. The Life of Mammals (2002)

- IMDb user rating: 9.1
- Votes: 3,804

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 hanging out with a sloth.

#6. Life (2009)

- IMDb user rating: 9.1
- Votes: 38,298

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.

#5. The Hunt (2015)

- IMDb user rating: 9.3
- Votes: 3,793

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.

#4. Blue Planet II (2017)

- IMDb user rating: 9.3
- Votes: 34,387

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.

#3. Our Planet (2019)

- IMDb user rating: 9.3
- Votes: 34,571

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.

#2. Planet Earth (2006)

- IMDb user rating: 9.4
- Votes: 169,174

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. Actor Sigourney Weaver narrates the U.S. release, stepping in for icon of British natural history, David Attenborough.

#1. Planet Earth II (2016)

- IMDb user rating: 9.5
- Votes: 99,168

“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.