Ocean documentaries you should totally watch

Erin E Williams

THE WASHINGTON POST – Nearly a year into the pandemic, as each winter day somehow feels both too short and incredibly long, my go-to daydream is an afternoon next to the ocean. Familiar or far-flung, crowded or serene, developed or desolate – anywhere works as long as I can envision spreading a towel on the sand and soaking up the sun.

Documentaries can tide us over until daydreams like mine become a reality. From our couches, we can expand our understanding of the ocean, plunging into waters from the Great Barrier Reef to the Marianis Trench. Meeting athletes, explorers and conservationists who surf big waves, breaking new ground and protecting marine life. And experiencing the perspectives of animals that inhabit gorgeously intricate undersea worlds.

Since the early 1980s, acclaimed wildlife filmmaker and marine biologist Rick Rosenthal has worked on many documentaries, including Planet Earth and The Blue Planet, for which he was the principal cameraman, and Blue Planet II, for which he was a consultant.

“These documentaries have become much more cinematic,” Rosenthal said, citing innovations such as digital movie cameras and drones that can more easily record animals’ behaviors without disturbing them.

New technologies also allow filmmakers to illuminate how humans are interacting with oceans in ways that we never thought possible, for better or worse; Rosenthal pointed out that because of ocean degradation and climate change, “things out there are changing drastically. It’s getting harder and taking more time to find locations and stories.”
The following documentary films and television series, loosely grouped by topic, will give you a deep dive into the oceans, their complexities and their vulnerabilities:

Wildlife filmmaker and marine biologist Rick Rosenthal, pictured filming wild salmon in a British Columbian stream, says new technologies have allowed nature documentaries to become ‘more cinematic’. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST


– Blue Planet II (Amazon Prime, Discovery Plus). Four years in the making, this awe-inspiring 2017 BBC series – hosted by David Attenborough, like many of the selections below – sent camera crews to every ocean, from the Galapagos to the sea floor below Antarctica’s ice. Each episode documents extraordinary animal behaviours and immerses viewers in marine ecosystems, from their vast wildernesses to their tiniest inhabitants. And don’t forget the original Blue Planet, which first brought the oceans’ natural history to the world in 2001. (Rent or buy on Amazon Prime, watch on Discovery Plus.)

– Life (Amazon Prime, Discovery Plus). The Fish and Creatures of the Deep are two of 10 episodes in the 2009 BBC documentary series narrated by Attenborough that capture a profusion of marine life around the world. Visit Australia, where cuttlefish trick each other and sea dragons dance together. In Japan, mudskippers leap high in the air; in Hawaii, gobies climb waterfalls. Stick around for a glimpse behind the camera as Rosenthal films sailfish hunting in the open ocean.

– Our Planet (Netflix). In collaboration with Silverback Films and World Wildlife Fund, this Netflix series takes viewers for a voyage on The High Seas. One of eight episodes in the 2019 documentary series narrated by Attenborough, it highlights a blue whale mother and calf’s intimate bond before plunging a half mile below the surface to meet bizarre and mysterious deep-sea creatures. In another episode, Coastal Seas, tour coral reefs, fields of sea grass and kelp forests before celebrating recovery in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, where a former shark fishing camp has transformed into a baby shark nursery.

– David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef (Amazon Prime). Using some of the newest submersibles, this three-part Smithsonian series from 2015 provides a new perspective on Earth’s largest living structure. Explore some of the most remote corners of the Great Barrier Reef, including some of its approximately 900 islands and 3,000 reefs. Meet mantis shrimp, visit mangrove nurseries and learn about the reef’s origins and cultural history. And share Attenborough’s elation as he spots a green sea turtle on his first night dive.


– Kim Swims (Amazon Prime). This inspirational 2017 film by Kate Webber and David Orr profiles Kim Chambers’s quest to swim solo from shark-inhabited Farallon Islands waters, 30 miles off San Francisco, to the Golden Gate Bridge. Becoming a marathon open-water swimmer after nearly losing a leg in an accident, Chambers is the sixth person to complete the Oceans Seven, the world’s most notoriously difficult swims. Her journey underscores human perseverance and nature’s healing power.

– Momentum Generation (HBO Max). In this 2018 HBO documentary by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, the ocean is a refuge and a stage for some of the world’s most influential surfers, framing a story about an evolving sport and ambition, conflict and the families we create.


– Mission Blue (Netflix). Fisher Stevens and Robert Nixon’s 2014 Netflix documentary about pioneering oceanographer, explorer and advocate Sylvia Earle showcases not only her barrier-smashing career, but her lifelong dedication to the oceans and their inhabitants. Earle describes the changes she’s witnessed in more than 60 years of diving and deep-sea exploration, from catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon spill to global disasters including shark finning, overfishing and climate change.

– James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (Amazon Prime). Directors John Bruno, Andrew Wight and Ray Quint let viewers accompany filmmaker and explorer James Cameron on a very long expedition: one that descends 35,787 feet to the Mariana Trench, the world’s deepest spot. In this 2014 film, Cameron and his team of scientists design and build a submersible and science platform for the solo voyage to the lunar-like ocean bottom. Along the way, they discover 68 new species: a drop in a very large bucket, since the deep ocean remains almost completely unexplored.