The terms “icon” and “legend” get thrown around a lot these days, but most can agree that nobody is more worthy of such mighty titles than Sir David Attenborough.
With a career in film, television and radio spanning a staggering 70 years, the British broadcaster, biologist, natural historian & author has made and narrated over 100 documentaries. Recognition so far includes 32 honorary degrees from UK universities, 26 awards, 18 nominations, 7 creatures and fossils named after him and 2 Knighthood’s.
Now 96 years young, Attenborough’s globetrotting days may be behind him, but that doesn’t mean his passion or productivity has waned with age. Quite the opposite actually.
From working with Obama and Björk, to teaming up with The Queen and Prince William, Attenborough’s influence reaches far and wide, and his instantly distinctive voice, warmth and wisdom resonates with people from all walks of life. After all, his concern is our concern - the health of our planet – and we’d do well to take heed of his opinions and advice when it comes to wildlife protection and climate change.
Although all David Attenborough documentaries are worthy of our time and attention, read on to explore our list of what we think are his top 10 …
1. Life on Earth (1979)
Travelling all over the world to trace the story of the evolution of life on earth, this is one of David Attenborough’s first critically acclaimed films. Split into 13 episodes, the covert camerawork used to capture candid clips of animals in their natural environment were considered ground-breaking at the time. It also featured a famous scene that Attenborough described as "one of the most exciting encounters” of his life - playing with mountain gorillas in Dian Fossey's Rwandan sanctuary.
2. Planet Earth (2006)
Here’s a good rule of thumb: when David Attenborough documentaries have the word ‘planet’ in the title, they’re going to be good. Kicking off a franchise, Planet Earth was the most expensive BBC nature documentary and the first to be filmed in HD. Taking 4 years to film, it covered incredible conditions, landscapes & events across 64 different countries, from one animal's first flight to another's last fight. On the ice, in the mountains & forests, deserts, caves, rivers & everything in-between – plus a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges of filming each episode.
3. Frozen Planet (2011)
David Attenborough documentaries have always struck a great balance between being educational and cinematic, and none more so than Frozen Planet. Narrated by Alec Bladwin, it’s an up-close-and-personal portrait of the animals and ecosystems of the Arctic and Antarctic. In six episodes - filmed over 2,300 days – it follows the lives and trials and tribulations of polar bears, killer whales, wolves & penguins, and the seventh talks about the effect global warming is having on the polar regions and the rest of the planet.
4. David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef: An Interactive Journey (2015)
Almost 60 years after he first visited Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, David Attenborough returns with the latest tech and a film crew for a series about the creatures that call it home. Episode 1 is onboard research vessel MV Alucia, looking at clownfish and sea anemones. Episode 2 is a trip to Osprey Reef to see hammerhead sharks, Raine Island for green sea turtles, and Lady Elliot Island to track manta rays. Episode 3 explores the reef’s main threats beside climate change, such as cyclones and crown-of-thorns starfishes.
5. Blue Planet II (2017)
Using the latest, state-of-the-art, underwater cinematography, this documentary gives viewers an intimate view of life beneath the waves, capturing creatures & behaviours in ways never seen before. Even more popular than the original Blue Planet series in 2001, it took 4 years to make (involving 125 trips across 39 countries and footage compiled from over 4,000 dives) and has been credited with sparking more public & political awareness about marine plastic pollution, which was dubbed "the Blue Planet effect".
6. Seven Worlds, One Planet (2019)
The earth is split into seven continents and life exists on each one. In Seven Worlds, One Planet, Attenborough and his crew gets to know the lifeforms unique to each country, such as bears & rhinos in Asia, chimps & cheetahs in Africa, alligators & fireflies in North America, anacondas & Amazonian monkeys in South America, seals & starfish in Antarctica, wolves & Iberian lynxes in Europe, and cassowaries & kangaroos in Australia. It’s made all the more epic with music from Hans Zimmer and Sia.
7. Extinction: The Facts (2020)
As far as David Attenborough documentaries go, this one is an eyeopener. Shocking yet significant, Extinction: The Fact tells how we’re in the grips of our sixth mass extinction – and it’s happening 100 times faster than the natural evolutionary rate. With climate change and human activities such as overfishing, poaching and illegal trade as the main causes, 1 million species are now at risk of dying out. However, it’s not all doom and gloom, as Attenborough and a team of experts show us a variety of potential solutions.
8. A Life on Our Planet (2020)
If you’re after the ultimate David Attenborough documentary, this might just be it. Covering his many decades of work and travel, it’s insight into the man, the myth, the legend and the highlights of his career, as well as his opinions on humanity’s impact on the natural world. There’s a lingering message of hope though, as Attenborough advocates that there’s still time to act. Described as his “witness statement”, it was released on Netflix along with a companion book, A Life on Our Planet.
9. The Year The Earth Changed (2021)
In his first film for Apple TV+, Attenborough explores how COVID-19 and travel restrictions have not only impacted humans, but the behaviours of the animals and organisms around us. Whilst we humans suffered, many of the world’s wildlife used the time we were living in lockdown to reclaim their habitats & habits. Featuring exclusive footage, it shows the positive side of the pandemic, as it gave the environment time to heal and bounce back and gave people a chance to engage with nature in ways they never have before.
10. The Green Planet (2022)
This fantastic five-part series explores the weird & wonderful world of different plants from all over the planet. From tropical forest flowers and trees, to desert shrubs and submerged, emergent, and free-floating aquatic plants, this latest David Attenborough documentary uses time-lapse photography, drones and camera rigs aptly named "Triffids” to show plant movements sped up in real time. A must-see for all nature lovers, whether you’ve got a growing greenery at home or need tips on how to keep your pot plants alive.