The New Year marked the arrival of another new, brand-specific streaming service: Discovery+. Since Discovery+ is the home of HGTV, Food Network, TLC, and more, there’s a wide swathe of reality programming on the streamer. But its hidden gem is the Planet Earth channel, where you can find a long list of nature documentaries from the BBC’s Natural History Unit. This filmmaking unit has, over nearly seven decades, worked to create the fullest possible documentation of the natural world that exists outside the borders of humanity.
Throughout the past two decades, thanks primarily to the advent of high-definition television, the BBC Natural History Unit has made must-see documentaries that offer some of the most hypnotic pieces of 21st-century filmmaking. Though some of these documentaries present an unflinching depiction of survival of the fittest, the soothing, professorial voice of Sir David Attenborough sets a tone of matter-of-fact calm that counterbalances even the most tense animal attack. Now that you can access them all in one place, and you may be in need of a less, shall we say, stressful depiction of life’s struggles, let’s highlight the 12 best nature docs to stream on Discovery+.
The Blue Planet (2001)
Though the BBC Natural History Unit had a long filmography prior to the 21st century, it was with The Blue Planet that it approached another level of exploration of the natural world. With the iconic Attenborough as the calm and steady narrator, The Blue Planet goes underwater to highlight the denizens of the deep, with creatures from dolphins to sardines to blue whales getting a turn in the spotlight. The one major difference between The Blue Planet and all of the other titles on this list is technological: the eight-episode docuseries was filmed in standard definition, limiting the grandeur of what’s detailed.
Planet Earth (2006)
For many viewers, the value of HDTV came courtesy of this remarkable 11-episode docuseries. Planet Earth reunited the team behind The Blue Planet, including Attenborough and producer Alastair Fothergill, but the scope of this project was much larger. As it hops from forests to jungles to the Arctic, Planet Earth is as much a travelogue as it is a document of how myriad species live in a modern world that’s being ravaged due to climate change. Planet Earth stands out 15 years later as an HD template for future docuseries, offering jaw-dropping clarity to the most beautiful creatures and landscapes on our planet.
Nature’s Great Events (2009)
Though many titles on the Planet Earth channel typically fall into a recognizable subcategory of nature documentaries — offering a wide overview of natural life on the entire planet or in a specific area — Nature’s Great Events zigs instead of zags. As the title implies, the six-episode series focuses on six events in the animal kingdom that occur each year. Some may be vaguely familiar to non-nature buffs, such as the salmon run on North America’s Western coast, or the migration of animals on the Serengeti. But Nature’s Great Events stands out because it highlights the BBC Natural History Unit’s novel approach to documenting the natural world without always relying on the same formula.
What do animals have to do to survive to another day? Survival of the fittest is a familiar phrase, but the way in which the BBC Natural History Unit drilled down on the concept in its follow-up series to Planet Earth is cleverly handled, while offering some of the most breathtaking high-definition photography of animals and wildlife ever recorded. As always, Attenborough’s steady voice guides the audience through the lives of everything from reptiles to birds to insects (with miniature HD cameras capturing incredible footage of the latter).
Frozen Planet (2011)
Just as The Blue Planet focused squarely on the world underwater, Frozen Planet turns its attention to the Arctic and Antarctica. The seven-episode series is no less urgent a decade later: The thematic undercurrent of these episodes is the devastating effect of climate change, a scourge keenly felt in the iciest of environments. Though Frozen Planet offers up the requisite beautiful nature imagery, it’s most striking because the impact of climate change is impossible to ignore. Even though Discovery+ hasn’t made the final episode available — fittingly titled “On Thin Ice,” it features Attenborough onscreen — the rest of the series grapples with the future of this frozen tundra.
So many of the BBC docuseries are wide and expansive, looking at the entire world in just a matter of hours. Africa, by its very title, has a more limited point of view. Over six episodes, this series drops down onto the continent to explore its distinctive locations and how wildlife survive in places like the Congo and the Sahara Desert. Africa gets up close in sometimes-painful ways, as in an episode that depicts the starvation death an elephant calf. Though scenes like that are heartbreaking, they represent an important commitment on the filmmakers’ part to observe without meddling, especially at the most difficult moments.
Life Story (2014)
Though Life documented the various struggles of animals to survive in their natural habitats, Life Story focuses more on the circle-of-life theme. The six-episode series follows animals from the time they’re born to when they become parents themselves. There’s still plenty of the same action that typifies these series, in which predators stalk their prey, but the most beautiful footage is in the quiet moments. Consider the puffer fish highlighted in one episode, as it makes crop circles in the sand as part of the courtship ritual — behavior rarely seen before. You can’t find this kind of hypnotic, unforgettable imagery anywhere else.
The Hunt (2015)
One of the most visceral scenes in any nature doc is the depiction of animals on the hunt (or, conversely, animals attempting to avoid being hunted). The Hunt is a seven-episode series that’s chock-full of these scenes, focusing on how hunting plays out in environments as distinct as the Arctic, the jungle, and everywhere in between. As with series like Frozen Planet, conservation and climate change are a running current throughout; here, the final episode is dedicated to following the scientists trying to save an endangered predator. The finale provides a necessary glimpse into the desperate situation many animals face.
Planet Earth II (2016)
Yes, even documentaries aren’t immune to sequels. Ten years after the stunning international success of Planet Earth, the BBC Natural History Unit and David Attenborough returned with Planet Earth II. And just as Planet Earth felt groundbreaking for its high-definition depictions of the natural world, so too does Planet Earth II, which was the first TV series produced by the BBC in 4K HD. Even if you don’t have an ultrahigh-definition television, you’ll spot the difference. The clarity of images in the six-part series is frankly awe-inspiring. The climactic episode documents how animals’ natural habitats are endangered by urban sprawl, highlighting anew Attenborough’s focus on conservation in a high-tech world. Though Planet Earth II is shorter than its predecessor, it’s no less a feast for the eyes.
Blue Planet II (2017)
And one sequel leads to another. Blue Planet II, of course, offers a much more pronounced shift forward compared to the 2001 docuseries The Blue Planet. The 2017 seven-episode series is a 4K HD production, whereas its predecessor was an SD affair. The series is more effective and forceful in highlighting how our modern lifestyle damages marine environments. Most of us know that pollution and littering can destroy sea life, but Blue Planet II shows us this destruction in grim and unsparing detail. Let this serve as a reminder to recycle and conserve.
Not every great nature documentary features the voice of Sir David Attenborough (though you can be forgiven for assuming otherwise). One standout that doesn’t include Attenborough’s stentorian tones is the 2019 docuseries Serengeti. Narrated by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, this six-episode event narrows its focus down to one of the most well-known regions in Africa to look at how the animals there survive the harsh environment. Serengeti stands out because Nyong’o, unlike a number of other celebrity narrators in nature documentaries, isn’t an intrusive presence, instead striking a tone that doesn’t distract from the action onscreen. It’s a rare talent and one that elevates this series.
A Perfect Planet (2021)
When Discovery+ went live at the start of 2021, one of the many new series highlighted is the latest from the BBC Natural History Unit, A Perfect Planet. Narrated again by Attenborough, this five-episode series is the only current nature docuseries from the unit that’s been made during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though Attenborough narrated this one from the confines of his home, it doesn’t impact its quality. A Perfect Planet focuses as much on the natural environment itself as it does on its denizens. Title aside, the series remains as clear-eyed as others from the BBC about our own impact on nature. A Perfect Planet is a reminder that if we enjoy the documentation of Earth’s beauty, it’s up to us to keep it beautiful.