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20 Groundbreaking Nature Documentaries You Should Watch to Travel the Globe Right Now

From Planet Earth to America's National Parks and Our Planet, these are the breathtaking nature docuseries and films you should be watching

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Kaitlin Thomas

As states across the U.S. reopen and we prepare to enter the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic, you might be inclined to venture out into nature for a little peace and quiet and fresh air. But if you can't make it to the woods or your nearby parks, or if you'd prefer to shelter in place a little while longer to protect yourself and your family, you can still celebrate our beautiful planet from the comfort of your own home thanks to a growing selection of nature-themed programming, some of which focuses on protecting the planet from humanity's harmful influence on the natural world.

These are not the boring nature documentaries of middle school either; many are educational, yes, but through groundbreaking advances in technology, many more are also breathtaking works of art that take you to far-flung locales to experience the area's flora and wildlife. So check out the documentaries and series below and remember to keep doing your part to protect and care for yourselves but also this strange planet we call home.

The Best Binge-Worthy TV Shows and Movies to Watch While in Quarantine

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Planet Earth (2006) and Planet Earth II(2016)

Watch it on: Amazon Prime (rent or buy)

There is no better place to start than this. The BBC Natural History Unit has been producing incredible nature documentaries and series for years, with the Planet Earth series, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, being one of the most visible and breathtaking examples of this. The Emmy-winning series, the first of the BBC docs to be filmed in high-definition, celebrates the variety of life on Earth by taking viewers around the world to visit different habitats and the creatures who call them home. It was followed 10 years later by Planet Earth II, which once again explored our fascinating planet through the eyes of various creatures, including a young iguana whose fierce will to survive was caught on camera as it was chased by a snake. The video (above) is some of the best television we've ever seen, as well as some of the most tense. The series left Netflix at the end of last year ahead of the launch of Discovery's upcoming SVOD service, but you can rent or purchase episodes through Amazon Prime. BBC America is also airing a marathon of Planet Earth II beginning Wednesday April 22 at 3 p.m. ET.



The Blue Planet(2001) and Blue Planet II(2018)

180626-blue-planet-3.jpg

Blue Planet II

BBC 2017

Watch it on: Amazon Prime (rent or buy)

The Blue Planetand Blue Planet II, again from the BBC Natural History Unit, are the aquatic-themed cousins of the Planet Earth series. The programs go beneath the rippling surface of Earth's oceans to explore, in high-definition, the mysteries of the deep and the creatures who call these waters home. But it's not all fun and weird fish: Blue Planet II also carefully highlights the harmful effects humans have on Earth's waters. The final episode is dedicated to humanity's influence, though the theme is prevalent throughout the seven awe-inspiring episodes. It's a stark reminder that we are to blame for the ongoing destruction of not just our home, but the homes of many other creatures, making the series a necessary addition to the growing slate of nature documentaries. It too left Netflix late last year, but you can catch all of Blue Planet II beginning Tuesday, April 21 at 3 p.m. ET.



Ice on Fire (2019)

Ice on Fire

Ice on Fire

HBO

Watch it on: HBO, HBO Go, and HBO Now

Climate change is a tricky subject to navigate. You can't run around screaming, "The planet is on fire, we're all doomed!" and you can't just assume that a scientist is going to fix everything for you. (Also, this goes without saying: You can't deny it, dummy.) Eco warrior Leonardo DiCaprio's documentary Ice on Fire finds the balance perfectly, giving stern warnings about the dangers of climate change, backed up by facts and figures while also providing ways to counteract our carbon output through ocean farming (which is really cool!), urban gardening, and more. Ice on Fire, narrated by DiCaprio and involving dozens of interviews with experts in their fields, is frightening in the face of our uphill battle to save the planet, but it's also beautiful as it constantly leaps from one part of the planet to the next, reminding us exactly what's at stake if we don't act soon. - Tim Surette



Dolphin Reef (2018) and Diving With Dolphins (2020)

Dolphin Reef

Dolphin Reef

Disney+

Watch it on: Disney+

Everyone loves dolphins, yes? They're incredibly smart! They're undoubtedly cute! They're some of the most enchanting creatures in the animal kingdom! And now they're the star of their own Disneynature documentary and making-of documentary. Dolphin Reef is narrated by Natalie Portman and follows Echo, a young Pacific bottlenose dolphin interested in exploring the coral reef and the creatures who call it home. Throughout the film, viewers follow Echo as he learns to survive on his own and learns more about his environment. In the new doc Diving With Dolphins, filmmakers chronicle the making of Dolphin Reef, going behind the scenes to see how researchers and filmmakers are working to shed light on the ocean's thriving depths, which is an equally fascinating piece of art.



Jane (2017) and Jane Goodall: The Hope (2020)

Jane

Jane

Hugo van Lawick, National Geographic Creative

Watch it on: Hulu and Disney+

If you've never heard of primatologist Jane Goodall or her research with chimpanzees, the 2017 documentary Jane is a beautiful, intimate, and fascinating look at her life and her life's work, which challenged the male-dominated views of the time and revolutionized our understanding not just of chimpanzees but of humanity as well. The Emmy-winning documentary, written by Brett Morgen, features more than 100 hours of never-before-seen footage originally shot by Goodall's late ex-husband, the famed wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, which was thought to have been lost until a few years ago, and focuses on the very beginnings of Goodall's research, which has allowed her to become one of the world's most admired conservationists.

After you watch Jane, be sure to follow it up with Jane Goodall: The Hope, which debuts Wednesday, April 22, at 9/8c on National Geographic and Nat Geo WILD but is also streaming on Disney+. The two-hour special picks up where Jane left off and follows Goodall through her travels and chronicles her determination to spread a message of hope. Depicting her transformation from scientist to inspirational activist, the film also features an extensive collection of footage and photographs that span more than seven decades.



My Life as a Turkey(2011)

Watch it on: PBS Passport

"I'm ignorant about being a turkey mother," naturalist Joe Hutto says before becoming one in his experiment that's documented in the extraordinary, Emmy-winning program My Life as a Turkey. Hutto spent almost two years with wild turkey chicks after the birds imprinted on him and believed he was their mother, and the journey he goes on involves more than learning about their behavior. It's a transformative experience that shatters the line between humans and animals. The craziest part of all this is that his experiment is re-created for the documentary, which provides darling visuals as Hutto recounts what happened. Moving, profound and spiritual, My Life as a Turkey is one of the best nature documentaries ever made. - Tim Surette



Unlikely Animal Friends(2012)

Watch it on: Disney+

Disney+ is home to a lot of great nature programming thanks to National Geographic, and if you're looking for something that will warm your heart and bring a smile to your face, the docuseries Unlikely Animal Friendsis exactly what you're looking for. The series tells multiple stories of surprising friendships that have blossomed between different species and allowed them to forge deep, lasting bonds. If you're like us and have fallen in love with the puppies and cheetahs at the Cincinnati Zoo, this show is for you. It is guaranteed to brighten your mood.



Hostile Planet (2019)

Hostile Planet

Hostile Planet

National Geographic

Watch it on: Disney+

The title should have given it away, but the six-part docuseries Hostile Planet, hosted by Bear Grylls, is not a particularly easy series to watch. The show explores some of Earth's most hostile environments -- mountain sides as well as grasslands, deserts, and oceans -- and the struggles the animals in these places must go through just to survive. Watching animals tumble off cliffs or fight for their lives has a sobering effect and will make you appreciate that you're safe at home on your couch right now. But even though it's hard to watch -- I seriously can't stress enough the hardships caught on camera -- it will make you appreciate the strength of these creatures too.



The Biggest Little Farm (2018)

The Biggest Little Farm

The Biggest Little Farm

Hulu/screengrab

Watch it on: Hulu

If you're like me, then the thought of watching a white couple from Los Angeles give up city life to start an organic farm sounds like a hard pass. But in the documentary The Biggest Little Farm, self-righteousness and hipster woke culture isn't the star; nature in all her splendid beauty is. This stunning documentary manages to capture the power of life with incredible footage of flora and fauna, and the positive impact that humans can have, for a change, as the duo transforms neglected acreage into a thriving ecosystem where every animal big and small plays a part. It's a good watch for the whole family, though there are some basic facts of life on full display here. This is one of those rare films where you'll leave it feeling that you can make a difference. -Tim Surette



Animal Babies: First Year on Earth (2019)

Animal Babies: First Year on Earth

Animal Babies: First Year on Earth

BBC Studios

Watch it on: PBS Passport

Animal Babies: First Year on Earth is a three-episode docuseries that takes viewers around the world and explores the first year of life for six different animals, including elephants, sea otters, and more. It's a fact that nothing is cuter than a baby animal, and this series more than delivers on cuteness, but this recommendation also has to come with a bit of a warning: These animals also face a number of challenges, especially when they're just starting out, so while the show will certainly fill your heart with joy, it's not completely without moments of danger either.



America's National Parks(2015) and The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)

The National Parks: America's Greatest Idea

The National Parks: America's Greatest Idea

Photo by Craig Mellish, PBS

Watch it on: Disney+; Amazon Prime

Take a spin around some of North America's greatest natural attractions in National Geographic's docuseries America's National Parks. The eight-episode series, streaming on Disney+, takes you inside Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Everglades, the Great Smoky Mountains, and more, offering unparalleled views and up-close-and-personal access to the wildlife within these breathtaking locales. Then follow it up with Ken Burns' six-part documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea, streaming on Amazon Prime, to find out more about the parks and trace their history.



Dynasties(2018)

Watch it on: Amazon Prime (buy or rent)

In the five-episode docuseries Dynasties, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, five endangered species -- lions, painted wolves, tigers, chimpanzees, and emperor penguins -- are followed for two or more years, with cameras capturing the highs and lows of their lives as they struggle to survive in increasingly dangerous environments. The show, another BBC production, puts into perspective the same things Blue Planet II tried to highlight in the ocean, which is that many of the challenges animals face are a direct result of human contact or humanity's growing presence in their lands. The series isn't always easy to watch, like when Charm, the leader of the Marsh lion pride in Africa, has to abandon her son because he is too ill to walk after being poisoned by humans and she must find a home for the rest of the pride. But the show is careful to also leave viewers with a sense of hope for the next generation of animals. It's a powerful series, and the only downside is that it doesn't quite feel long enough. BBC America is running a marathon beginning Thursday, April 23 at 6 p.m. ET



Our Planet (2019)

Our Planet

Our Planet

Sophie Lanfear / Silverback/Netflix

Watch it on: Netflix

Netflix's eight-episode docuseries Our Planet comes from the creators of the BBC's Planet Earth in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and exposes viewers to the harsh realities currently challenging the natural world. Featuring insightful but pointed commentary about why these environments are all worth saving, the series is aided by an unflinching look at the ways in which Earth has been damaged by our own hands. It's yet another powerful show that should be added to your must-watch list.



Elephant (2020)

Elephant

Elephant

Disney+

Watch it on: Disney+

If you only have time for a movie and not an entire docuseries, Disney+'s new documentary Elephant, narrated by Meghan Markle, follows African elephants as they travel across the desert, facing great challenges, including high heat and various predators, in order to reach a grassy paradise. The documentary isn't without moments of sadness -- not every elephant survives the arduous journey -- but it's not as graphic as perhaps some of the other footage seen in other nature documentaries either.



Absurd Planet (2020)

Watch it on: Netflix

Netflix's Absurd Planet is not one of those boring series with monotonous voiceover that puts you to sleep, nor is it a calming doc with an Enya soundtrack that will make you dream of taking exotic vacations. Absurd Planet has evolved from WIRED's Absurd Creature column, and it highlights some of the world's weirdest creatures in some of the weirdest ways. Narrated by Mother Nature (voiced by Afi Ekulona), the show kicks things off with the dung beetle, but there are plenty more fascinating creatures within the show's 12 episodes, so if you need a good laugh and still want to watch something educational and kid-friendly, this is kind of perfect.