Nature documentaries streaming guide

Kevin Jorgeson, Tommy Caldwell’s climbing partner, rests in a portaledge during the duo’s 2015 Dawn Wall ascent. (Photo courtesy of IMDb)

With Los Angeles shutting down beaches and trails and gloomy April weather settling in, you might be getting a bit stir-crazy. Not to fear — you can still get a taste of the outdoors from the comfort of your couch. So while your hiking boots wait patiently in the closet for their next adventure, indulge in some guilt-free streaming with these recommended nature documentaries. 


“March of the Penguins 2: The Next Step”

This 2017 documentary might not be a new release, but it’s surely a classic. In a follow-up to the wildly popular “March of the Penguins” released in 2005, director Luc Jacquet revisits the Antarctic to follow the story of two emperor penguins struggling to overcome the hostile conditions of the continent. If you enjoyed the original, you won’t be let down by the sequel. 

“Great Shark Chow Down”

If you want something a little more adrenaline-inducing, “Great Shark Chow Down” will do the job. The series follows filmmakers and scientists as they go to the biggest feeding grounds for sharks and track how the species’ hunting style has evolved over time. Be forewarned that it has got some brutal imagery; this is for those with a strong stomach and a serious love of Shark Week. Yes, it’s a bit “Jaws”esque, but hey, it’s educational! 

“Free Solo”

This feature documentary follows Alex Honnold, a free-solo climber, as he attempts to scale the Freerider route on Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan. Yes, that’s right: Honnold’s lifelong dream is to climb the 3,300-foot sheer cliffside with nothing but his hands. The stakes are very, very high; it’s a death-defying pursuit, one that’s never been pulled off before. Honnold’s dizzying escapades will make even the most stoic viewer’s heart pound, but despite its vertigo-inducing visuals, the film garnered unanimously positive reviews from critics and rustled up a few award nominations as well. This pick will definitely keep you glued to your seat for the full 100-minute runtime.


“The Dawn Wall”

If you’ve already seen “Free Solo,” consider “The Dawn Wall,” its unofficial prequel. In 2015, rock climbing partners Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson captured the media’s attention with their attempt to scale the steepest face of the El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite, known as the Dawn Wall. Directors Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer, long-time documentarians of extreme athletes, follow the duo’s bid over 19 days to become the first to scale the Dawn Wall. It’s a nerve-wracking watch, but the adrenaline rush is well worth it. Not to mention, there’s a rather harrowing account of Caldwell’s experience as a hostage in Kyrgyzstan during a climbing trip back in 2000. The film cleaned up in the 2018 award season, even winning the audience award at the SXSW Film Festival. 

“Our Planet”

If you haven’t gotten around to watching this popular 2019 release, now’s the time — there are talks of the second season being released this summer. This nature docuseries, Netflix’s most ambitious to date, took four years of filming to create. But it’s clear the time was worth it, as the series has struck a chord among audience members and critics alike. 

Broadcaster and natural historian David Attenborough narrates the eight-episode season, examining the impact of climate change on ecosystems spanning approximately 50 countries. Viewers are transported from the plains of the Serengeti to the icy Arctic Circle to the Congo rainforests and more. Filled with images of Earth’s remaining natural spaces, the series is as aesthetically pleasing as it is educational. Plus, is there anything as soothing as Attenborough’s voice? 

“Night on Earth” 

This documentary uses high-tech cameras to portray the nocturnal lives of wild animals in settings ranging from the cityscape to the sea across seven mind-bending episodes. It’s Earth as you’ve never seen it before: Cheetahs glow in the dark and stars spiral overhead while elephants lumber through the darkness. The imagery borders on magical, and it’s a welcomed change of pace from brightly-lit, often oversaturated nature documentaries. The stunning visuals are overlaid by the soothing voice of “Orange Is The New Black” actress Samira Wiley. If you’re looking to be captivated by spectacular optics, this is the documentary for you. 

“Magical Andes” 

This six-episode series is perfect for those seeking a little sociocultural exploration. Each episode follows a character from one of the South American countries (including Chile, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia) that the Andes crosses. Between breathtaking shots of the mountainside, each subject explains their connection to the land and the reason they’re rooted to it. The Andes mountain range inspires those who live near them, and they’ll inspire you, too, if you watch this series. 


“African Cats”

With Disney+ offering many of its Disneynature documentary films and series, there’s plenty to choose from. Sick of watching “The Lion King” on loop? “African Cats,” narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, follows two families of big cats struggling to survive in a Kenyan reserve. One is a family of cheetahs facing conflict with a band of roving hyenas; the other a lion pride threatened by an exiled lion. (Yes, those plot points do sound awfully familiar.) It’s a great change of pace from the films Disney has to offer, and there’s no doubt you’ll be entertained. 


This film follows the life of Oscar, an orphaned chimpanzee. He’s adopted into a group that’s threatened by a set of rival chimps that’s headed by a chimpanzee aptly named Scar. This is an excellent pick for those new to nature documentaries. Narrated by actor Tim Allen, the events of Oscar’s life are remarkably Disney-ish. And it’s not too long, either — the entire 75-minute runtime is compelling.