The oceans are home to millions of creatures and play an important role in Earth’s ecosystem. Yet, they face potentially irreversible damage due to pollution wrought by humans.
Underwater biospheres that took millennia to form have been destroyed in a matter of months, while once-abundant species have now become endangered.
Visual media can be a very powerful form of raising awareness, as can be seen by the recent popularity of documentaries. Starting with Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, there have been several short films and studies that have provided viewers with an in-depth understanding of how their actions could spell doom for thousands of creatures that also call Earth home.
In this article, we take a look at 15 ocean documentaries that are bound to change how you look at our water bodies. With notable names making an appearance, such as Sir David Attenborough, Alastair Fothergill, Natalie Portman, and Rob Stewart, here is our list of 15 must-watch ocean documentaries.
1. The Blue Planet: A Natural History of the Oceans (2001)
Narrated by Sir David Attenborough and produced by BBC
From the highly acclaimed BBC Natural History Unit, The Blue Planet has been the forerunner for documentaries on Earth’s oceans. Aired in September 2001, it is a series of eight episodes that explore the oceans. With unimaginable filmed footage, it pioneered underwater photography and pressed the need for informative and interesting documentaries on the oceans.
The Blue Planet won critical acclaim, with multiple Emmy and BAFTA awards over its 2-month run time. Executive producer Alastair Fothergill is a common name when it comes to documentaries on nature, and he teams up well with composer George Fenton to deliver an exciting view of below the ocean’s surface.
Narrated by Sir Attenborough, the film faced multiple challenges, since oceanography was still a relatively unexplored field. The effort that went in over 5 years to film and document their observations can be well appreciated in each 50-minute episode.
Some of the exciting scenes to watch out for are blue whale migration routes, the famed sardine run near South Africa, and the hunting of grey whales by orca. The show was a huge success, with a viewership of over 12 million people upon release. It also spawned other documentaries that focused on exploring the ocean.
2. The Blue Planet 2 (2017)
Narrated by Sir David Attenborough and produced by BBC
Following the hugely successful release of The Blue Planet in 2001, Blue Planet 2 brought back the original crew over 15 years after the first season. The main addition to the team was famed composer Hans Zimmer.
Premiering in early 2018, the show went on to win at the National Television Awards and the 2018 BAFTAs. Voiced in the signature style of Sir Attenborough, it focuses on different aspects of the ocean, touching upon pertinent issues such as pollution.
With filming beginning in 2013, the series revisited some of the sites to record changes to the oceans. It undertook over 4,000 dives and collected 6,000 hours of underwater footage.
Covering 39 countries, it was released in 7 50-minute episodes followed by a 90-minute compilation. Some episodes were critically acclaimed for their message, including One Ocean, The Deep, and Mother Pilot Whale Grieves. It is sure to leave the viewers with a feeling of responsibility towards Earth’s oceans.
The main impact of this series was the awareness it raised towards plastic pollution. This led to BBC banning single-use plastic on its facilities, followed by this being implemented to some extent across the UK. It also sparked renewed interest in courses on marine biology, dubbed the “Blue Planet Effect”. The series also became a hit in China and coincided with a plan between the UK and China to tackle plastic pollution.
3. Chasing Coral (2017)
Directed by Jeff Orlowski
Following the success of Chasing Ice by director Jeff Orlowski in 2012, the production team came together to work on a critically acclaimed documentary that focused on the coral reefs that inhabit Earth’s oceans. A group of scientists, divers, and photographers embarked on a mission to uncover the health of coral reefs and recorded over 500 hours of underwater film.
They also focused on the impacts of pollution on these corals, including coral bleaching samples which they collected from over 30 countries. Collected by volunteers, the crew of the movie brought together people from diverse locations to help save their reefs. They received support from 500+ individuals spread all over the world.
The film was a success, winning the coveted Audience Award under the US Documentary section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It also sparked renewed interest in marine studies across the US. This success led the team to form the “Chasing Coral Campaign” that looks to sustain and help coral reefs bloom. As an impact campaign, they use local community support to create positive changes in coral health.
4. Mission Blue (2014)
Directed by Fisher Stevens and Robert Nixon
Following the life and efforts of famed marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Alice Earle, Mission Blue is a standout film that highlights the problems plaguing today’s oceans.
It looks at the problems of pollution, climate change, and overfishing, that threaten several marine species. Along with renowned marine biologist Barbara Block, the film takes on some of the most sensitive issues that need to be addressed today.
With several hundred hours of underwater footage covering locations such as Bermuda, Ecuador, and the United States, it premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Filmed along with James Cameron and Mike DeGruy, it created a major stir upon release.
The film went on to be a hit, winning the News & Documentary Emmy Award in 2015. The immense success of Mission Blue and the international awareness it raised led to the formation of the Sylvia Earle Alliance.
This Alliance worked towards creating the Mission Blue Campaign and Group that has helped improve marine health. Today, this group has built awareness and created a positive change for Earth’s marine creatures.
5. Dolphin Reef (2018)
Narrated by Natalie Portman and directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill
Voiced by award-winning actress and wildlife enthusiast Natalie Portman, Dolphin Reef is a heartwarming and touching tale of a dolphin pod.
Spanning the journey of a young bottlenose dolphin named Echo, the documentary covers the upbringing and eventual maturity of young dolphins.
Interestingly, it also covers other marine creatures commonly found in corals, such as the peacock mantis shrimp, humpback whales, green hump head parrotfish, killer whales, and cuttlefish. The whole documentary was shot in and around the Red Sea, where these creatures could be freely filmed.
This particular location was chosen since the dolphin pod allowed the divers to approach them. Along with the original dolphin’s tale, this allowed the film to capture other elements of life on a coral reef. Produced by the Disneynature label, it is their 14th documentary and went on to become a success.
It won special acclaim for raising awareness on the struggles faced by dolphins, to the younger audience. It also raised awareness of the situation many coral reefs are currently in. Keith Scholey, the director, mentioned how during filming, the crew witnessed over 1/3rd of the reef die from pollution.
6. A Plastic Ocean (2016)
Directed by Craig Leeson
A Plastic Ocean is a breakout film that raises uncomfortable questions and makes the viewer realize the extent to which pollution has harmed Earth’s oceans. Shot over several countries and their water bodies, it looks at the impact of plastic pollution and the uncertain future that awaits us all. Centred around the Pacific Ocean gyre, the crew brought on experts, researchers, and scientists to help them collate data. After several hours of filming, they collected enough evidence to show that the oceans were turning toxic with microplastic spreading.
Producer Jo Ruxton had previously taken part in expeditions to witness plastic pollution near San Francisco, which is what inspired the filming of A Plastic Ocean. The team collaborated with the WWF, cetacean expert Dr. Lindsay Porter, and microplastic expert Dr Bonnie Monteleone to ensure their documentary covered all the necessary concerns.
When the documentary made an impact on people’s perceptions towards single-use plastics, the crew and producers decided to take it to the next stage, by creating Plastic Oceans. They organize awareness campaigns, events to increase impact, create short documentaries on plastic pollution, and raise donations to help clean up our oceans. This campaign has gone on to win acclaim for the role it has played in creating positive changes to marine flora and fauna. Over time, they have expanded operations to include the United States, Canada, Chile, Europe, and Mexico.
7. The End of the Line (2009)
Directed by Rupert Murray
“Imagine an ocean without fish. Imagine your meals without seafood. Imagine the global consequences. This is the future if we do not stop, think and act.” With these opening lines, this documentary sets the tone of what is soon to follow. The End of the Line is a standout production that is a must-watch for anyone concerned about Earth’s oceans and the marine life that thrives in them. From famed director Rupert Murray, this was one of the earliest documentaries that brought to light the situation faced by many species of marine life.
Critically examining the problems of overfishing, it covers the extinction of bluefin tuna, the overpopulation of jellyfish, and the reality of inedible fish poisoned by plastic pollution. Spanning 2 years of filming and research, this documentary brings to the fore the seemingly little importance that is given to fish. Filmed with investigative reporter Charles Clover, the film goes on to raise questions against members of society who can make an impact, but choose not to.
The film ends with a warning note- if the situation is not rectified, there will be no fish by the end of 2048. And at the rate of marine species extinction, it leaves the viewer with a sense of foreboding.
8. Sharkwater Extinction (2018)
Directed by Rob Stewart
Filmed and completed by the Rob Stewart Foundation in 2018, Sharkwater Extinction is a film that highlights the dangers sharks face due to overfishing, poaching, and pollution.
Filmed as the sequel to Rob Stewart’s Sharkwater, it focuses on the rampant fishing of sharks to supplement various industries. It looks at the corruption, political motives, and the underworld that has resulted in some species of sharks becoming extinct or endangered.
During filming, director Rob Stewart drowned during a routine underwater expedition. The film was dedicated to his memory and received support from around the world.
Before release, the film garnered attention for the outreach it created, and the positive impact it had. When filmgoers learned of the unfortunate demise of Rob, viewership increased drastically. People came out in support of the family and praised Rob for having made an effort to stop shark extinction.
9. Sushi: The Global Catch (2012)
Directed by Mark S. Hall
Sushi is a global phenomenon with a fan following across Asia and the Americas. What was once restricted to only Japan has now spread across the world. You can get a meal of sushi in most major cities these days.
The demand has increased exponentially, and like any economics model, the supply is also bound to increase to meet market requirements. But what can be done if the very source of supply is beginning to disappear from the Earth? Prices shoot up, consumer demands increase, while there are no fish to supply sushi.
And that is the question that this 75-minute documentary presents to the audience. It provides an in-depth understanding of the sushi fad that has gripped the nation- from the exotic and endangered species of fish that are suitable for making sushi to the years of effort that sushi chefs put into perfecting the art.
The film closes with a visual of how fish such as the bluefin tuna have now become severely endangered, and there seems to be no end in sight. A few marine conservationists have begun an effort to protect these species, but raising awareness is the need of the hour.
10. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (2014)
Directed by James Cameron
Director James Cameron (from Titanic fame), has always been an adventurer and explorer at heart. This is why when the opportunity to be a part of an underwater expedition came up, he joined the crew and ultimately led the deep-sea challenge. Filmed as an attempt to dive down to the deepest known point on Earth- the Mariana Trench, the 90-minute documentary beautifully combines science, courage, and a sense of adventure.
As an attempt to recreate the famed dive to the Trench in 1960, Cameron captures the journey from planning and preparation to the actual descent. Providing his narration, the film has outstanding visuals that capture the beauty of the Pacific Ocean and the wonders that exist below the surface. For viewers interested in underwater explorations and adventure, this is an excellent choice.
11. Turtle: The Incredible Journey (2009)
Narrated by Miranda Richardson and directed by Nick Stringer
Produced by SeaWorld and Tradewind Pictures and tied up with the Australian Film Institute, Turtle brings to you the story of the loggerhead turtles that make an incredible journey every year. Narrated by acclaimed British actress Miranda Richardson, the documentary follows the tale of a single loggerhead that makes the journey of a lifetime across one of the largest oceans in the world.
Loggerheads birth near the beaches of Florida, and then begin swimming the Gulf Stream up to the North Atlantic. Over time, they turn South to Africa and then make their way back to North America. But not every loggerhead survives this journey, with only 1 in ten thousand making it back to the beach they were born on.
The documentary strives to raise awareness of the perils that this incredibly resilient creature faces as it travels across oceans filled with predators and other dangers. With its surreal theme, it is sure to leave you with a renewed awe of marine life and the oceans.
12. The Kodiak Queen (2018)
Narrated by Kate Winslet and directed by Rob Serrenti
Numerous shipwrecks dot the oceans of the world, and each has its history and message. But when you combine the Kodiak Queen with the vision of award-winning filmmaker Rob Serenti, the message takes on a bigger meaning.
Richard Branson, of Virgin Galactic fame, has been a conservationist whose many projects have helped restore the British Virgin Isles. One such project was the Kodiak Queen- a World War 2 warship that survived the horrific Pearl Harbor attack. Over time, Richard Branson and his team were able to turn it into an artificial reef and dive site.
With stunning visuals from the Isles, this documentary brings to you a completely different outlook on the warship and the meaning it carries. As Hurricane Irma ripped through the Caribbean Islands and the South-Eastern coast of North America, the lives of thousands of people were uprooted.
The Kodiak Queen then began to take on significance in the wake of this destruction. With narration from Academy Award winner- Kate Winslet, the documentary takes you through a haunting story that shows the long road ahead for the conservationists looking to return the Isles to their former glory.
13. Planet Ocean (2012)
Directed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Michael Pitiot
The Earth’s oceans cover a significant portion of the surface, and some mysteries are yet to be uncovered. This includes pristine marine habitats, underwater reefs, and unique creatures found in exclusive locations. But the film accurately captures the devastating effects of pollution on the oceans. In association with OMEGA and Tara Expeditions, Planet Ocean has stunning visuals and a compelling tale that makes it endearing to audiences.
The underwater photography is excellent with high-quality shots that capture the poignance of the ocean. Yet, the film seems to lack direction, and the details presented in the film are occasionally hazy. However, the film does capture the effects of pollution on the marine ecosystem and is a great choice to air in educational institutions as a form of environmental awareness.
14. Deep Blue (2003)
Directed by Andy Byatt and Alastair Fothergill
Premiering at the Spanish San Sebastian Film Festival, Deep Blue was directed by acclaimed nature documentary director Alastair Fothergill and wildlife documentary producer Andy Byatt.
Based on the BBC production titled Blue Planet, it covers the splendours of Earth’s oceans in 90 minutes, with stunning visuals. It focuses primarily on depicting the challenges faced by marine life and the ecosystem that they survive in.
The documentary is minimally narrated, with just under 15 lines of script. Many critics have lauded the excellent photography, but come down on the lack of purpose that missing in this film.
Nevertheless, the stand-out visuals have been regularly used by exhibitions around the world to celebrate the beauty of the oceans and the creatures that inhabit them.
15. Ghost Fleet (2018)
Directed by Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron
Closing our list of the top 15 ocean documentaries to watch is Ghost Fleet, a 2018 movie that deals with a topic just as important as the ocean- human trafficking on the high seas.
And not refugees or other victims, but the fishermen themselves. Southeast Asia has a thriving fishing industry, often with the demand for sailors and deckhands exceeding the number of people willing to work. This has given rise to the notorious human trafficking industry that captures and indentures fishermen.
Ghost Fleet follows the story of Patima Tungpuchayakul, a Bangkok-based human rights activist who has been working to save and rescue fishermen. She works closely with people from nations such as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand to return the kidnapped men and women to their hometowns.
In this short documentary, the harrowing plight, squalid conditions, and daily dose of fear are brought to the fore. With the help of filmmakers Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron, Patima hopes to be able to make a positive impact for these trafficked fishermen and raise awareness of their situation.
You might also like:
- Top 10 Submarine Movies – How Many Have You Actually Seen?
- Top 5 Must-Watch Somali Pirates Movies
- 5 Survival At Sea Movies Everyone Must Watch
- Best Movies On the Sea and Shipping
- 8 Ghost At Sea Movies You Must Watch
Disclaimer: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used, in the article have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendation on any course of action to be followed by the reader.
The article or images cannot be reproduced, copied, shared or used in any form without the permission of the author and Marine Insight.