5 wildlife docos every traveller should watch before booking your 2018 holidays

No, I’m not talking about Blue Planet II. While I love a good Attenborough doco – and his latest series does a decent job of highlighting the fragility of our planet and our responsibility to protect it – there have been some excellent, harder-hitting nature and wildlife-centred documentaries released over the past couple of years that, collectively, have arguably had a greater impact than the most expensive BBC productions to date. In exposing the ugly truths about the plight of the world’s wildlife and the naive compliance of governments, tourism operators and tourists themselves in the demise of many species, these films are guaranteed to inspire you to make more informed decisions, not just about the tourism enterprises you support on your travels, but about the choices you make in your day-to-day life. Here are five of my faves worth watching before your next trip.

Coral reefs support 25 per cent of the planet’s marine life, like this angry clown fish © Timmy Page

Chasing Coral, 2017

The result of more than 500 hours of footage shot over three years, this timely doco directed by Jeff Orlowski and Richard Vevers, the founder of the Ocean Agency, explores why coral reefs – which are living creatures – around the world are vanishing at an unprecedented rate, and highlights how stuffed the planet would be without reefs, which support 25 per cent of the world’s marine life and more than 500 million people. If the footage of Technicolor corals fading to a ghostly brittle white doesn’t prompt you to reassess your lifestyle habits that may be contributing to the problem…well, that’s even more depressing than the plight of the coral.
Watch it: On Netflix.

Seabirds mistake plastics for food, which can be fatal. Image by Susan White for USFWS / Flickr CC BY 2.0

A Plastic Ocean, 2016

Highlighting the plight of marine animals living in a sea awash with a reported eight million metric tonnes of plastic, this eyeopening documentary – described by David Attenborough himself as “the most important film of our time” – came about following Australian journalist Craig Leeson’s discovery of a giant field of plastic sludge off Sri Lanka while searching for elusive blue whales. While it can be emotionally challenging to watch a Bryde’s whale with six square metres of plastic sheeting in its stomach take its final breaths, not to mention Australian research scientist Dr Jennifer Lavers open up dead seabirds to reveal bellies full of plastics that led to their slow, agonising deaths, the graphic footage does an effective job of shocking viewers into reassessing their use of harmful plastics.
Watch it: For a few dollars via the Plastic Oceans website.

Spotting wild lions is more fun than walking with captive cats, even when your photos suck © Sarah Reid

Blood Lions, 2015

If you’ve always loved the idea of the ‘walking with lions’ experience you’ve seen on your mates’ Facebook profiles, watch this doco first. Following acclaimed environmental journalist and safari operator Ian Michler and hunter Rick Swazey on their journey to uncover the realities about the multi-million dollar predator breeding and canned lion hunting industries in South Africa, the film exposes how the authorities and most professional hunting and tourism bodies have become complicit in allowing these brutal industries to flourish.

There are thought to be around 8000 captive-bred lions in South Africa, many of which begin their lives at so-called ‘conservation centres’ where tourists are duped into paying to interact with them, before being on-sold to canned hunting farms, or sliced up to supply the illegal lion bone trade. Difficult to watch in parts, Blood Lions is a compelling call-to-action to everyone from governments to travellers to Africa.
Watch it: For a few dollars on the Blood Lions website.

The world’s last remaining mountain gorillas face an uphill battle for survival © Sarah Reid

Virunga, 2014

Following the courageous efforts of rangers in eastern Congo’s Virunga National Park to protect the Unesco-listed park’s resident gorilla population from armed militia, poachers and the dark forces struggling to control Congo’s rich natural resources, this gripping documentary shines a tragic light on the plight of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas, less than 1000 of which are thought to remain in the steamy jungles of Virunga National Park and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Executive-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, this brilliant piece of investigative journalism is essential viewing for fans of gorillas, especially those considering a gorilla-spotting trip. Read my guide to planning a responsible gorilla-spotting trip here.
Watch it: On Netflix.

SeaWorld’s orca shows will end in 2019. And amen to that. Image by Milan Boers / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Blackfish, 2013

Now famously known as the documentary that brought SeaWorld to its knees (and promise to stop breeding orcas), this heartbreaking doco charts the life of Tilikum, an orca that spent its whole life in captivity, mostly at SeaWorld, after being poached from the wild as a baby. Comprised largely of interviews with a raft of former SeaWorld staff, with only a few scenes that may unsettle squeamish viewers, Blackfish exposes both the inhumanity of keeping cetaceans in captivity as well as the dangers it poses to humans, with Tilikum (who died at SeaWorld Orlando in 2017) exposed as being involved in the deaths of three people. While the film has since prompted hundreds of operators worldwide to drop captive dolphin swims from their tours, this harmful activity still continues in many countries around the world.
Watch it: For a few dollars via iTunes or on DVD from the Blackfish website.