In stressful times like this, I find the best way to keep myself sane is to keep myself distracted. And so in my house we’ve started watching nature documentaries every-other night, working through the long list of things we kept meaning to watch someday, while trying to bring the outdoors inside.
Here are the best nature documentaries on our list… from volcanoes to ivory poaching, from coral reefs to tree rings.
You’ll notice that some old favorites aren’t on the list, because we wanted to bring you new films that you haven’t already seen a million times. But if you still haven’t watched the classics — Planet Earth, Blue Planet, Our Planet, Madagascar, South Pacific — then go watch those, too!
And if we missed anything, write in with your favorites in the comments.
(Note: Most of these films are available on popular streaming or video rental services, like Netflix, Hulu, Vimeo, iTunes, or Amazon. Exactly which service depends on your location.)
Night On Earth
2020 | Netflix
“When the light fades, new worlds awake.” This recently released Netflix documentary uses new, low-light and thermal imaging technology to reveal what happens in nature under the cover of darkness. It’s incredible to watch, especially for viewers like me who grew up with nature docos peppered with blurry night-vision film or infrared, animal-shaped blobs on screen.
Fans of Planet Earth II will find the six-part series familiar, as it covers night in different biomes, including plains, frozen worlds, jungles, the dark seas, and human cities. I’m only one episode in and I’m already restraining myself from binge-watching the entire series in one go.
The Ivory Game
2016 | Netflix
Most people consider ivory poachers lone villagers who take desperate actions to feed their families. But the truth is that poaching is orchestrated by complex and sophisticated international organized crime rings on the scale of the drug trade. These crime syndicates murder one elephant every 15 minutes and threaten thousands of people with violence.
The Ivory Game unfolds less like a wildlife documentary and more like a spy thriller, following the deadly trail of ivory crime from the Serengeti to the streets of China. It’s hands-down the best wildlife documentary I’ve ever seen. And it’s also one of the most upsetting. It can be incredibly hard to watch at times, but that’s exactly why it’s so important.
2017 | Netflix
What does a reef look like as it dies? The answer is more beautiful and disturbing than you ever imagined. Chasing Coral follows a team of scientists, divers, and underwater photographers as they race to document the unprecedented coral bleaching event that devastated reefs around the world in 2016.
The time-lapse sequences of bleaching will turn your stomach. But above all this is a story about the dedication and determination of conservationists trying to show the world what is happening, before it’s too late.
If you like Chasing Coral, check out the award-winning Chasing Ice, the 2012 film about about the efforts of nature photographer James Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey to document the catastrophic decline of sea ice.
Into the Inferno
2016 | Netflix
This one is for the geology nerds out there. With his usual penchant for drama and unmistakable Austrian accent, Werner Herzog captures the spectacle of volcanoes in all their glory — their beauty, their power, and the danger they pose to us all.
From Erte Ale to Iceland, Into the Inferno also explores what life is like for the people living alongside some of the most dramatic and dangerous volcanoes in the world. Herzog and volcanologist and co-director Clive Oppenheimer combine mesmerizing footage with science, history, and human culture.
2014 | Netflix
In the forests of Virunga National Park, the world’s last population of mountain gorillas lives on. But even here they aren’t safe. This powerful film follows conservationists, rangers, and journalists fighting to protect the gorillas from armed conflict, poaching, and international oil companies. It’s a fight they describe as a war — one that threatens to engulf not only the gorillas, but the lives of people living on the forest’s edge.
The filmmakers originally intended to document the ongoing conservation successes and help promote tourism to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But violent conflict erupted just weeks after they started filming, and the filmmakers quickly shifted focus to document the dangers and struggles behind the scenes.
2019 | Patagonia Films
Trees are the oldest living creatures that most people interact with in their short time on Earth. And the history of our world is written into their rings.
Treeline follows a group of skiers, snowboarders, and scientists as they explore different forests around the world — the birch forests of Japan, the redcedars of British Columbia, and the bristlecone pines of Nevada. The film explores the ways in which people and forests interact throughout human history, from skiing to religion. (You can find the full-length film on YouTube here.)
Emptying the Skies
2013 | Vimeo
Even songbirds aren’t safe. Emptying the Skies chronicles the songbird poaching trade in southern Europe, where millions of birds are captured and killed to fuel an international black market. Many European songbird species are declining — with some facing extinction — in the wake of the slaughter.
The filmmakers follow a dedicated group of conservationists and activists who risk their lives for the birds, destring trips, freeing birds, and thwarting poachers. The documentary originated in Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 New Yorker essay on the same topic.