To celebrate Sir David’s 90th birthday, we choose his five landmark series and reveal how you can experience them in real life yourself.
Released in 1979, Life On Earth was a watershed moment in natural history documentary making. David Attenborough travelled the world to trace the story of the evolution of life on the planet, employing new innovative techniques to capture rare animals on film and in doing so setting the benchmark by which all nature documentaries are judged.
In Rwanda, Attenborough and his crew were granted privileged access to film Dian Fossey's research group of mountain gorillas. Originally intending to get close enough to narrate a piece about opposable thumbs, he threw away the script and ad-libbed when he found himself face-to-face with one of the females.
"There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know,” he whispered.
Anyone who has had the privilege of spending time with these creatures will tell you that that sentiment remains as true today.
One perfect hour with Uganda’s mountain gorillas – Mark Carwardine
Gorilla watching in East and Central Africa – Ian Redmond
Sixty years on from his first visit – and using brand-new technology and the latest scientific research – Sir David unlocks the secrets of the earth’s largest living structure. Along the way he reveals the true extent of its diversity, characters and complexity as well as the serious threats it is facing as the world gets warmer.
The series calls upon Sir David’s vast experience – and the very latest in film-making techniques – to capture the breathtaking beauty of the reef. A state-of-the-art Triton submersible takes him to the deepest part of the reef, infra-red cameras capture the hatching of clownfish and time-lapse macro cameras show how tiny coral animals build the reef.
“The Great Barrier Reef is one of the greatest treasures of the natural world,” he says.“ (Making the series) was a huge experience and a great privilege. My eye was simply ravished by the splendour, diversity and richness of the reef.”
Indeed, he confided to Wanderlust’s Lyn Hughes that the Great Barrier Reef is his favourite place on earth.
Shot in breathtaking HD, Frozen Planet takes Sir David to the ends of the earth as he introduces viewers to the spectacular polar regions of our planet. Wanderlust contributing editor, Paul Goldstein, called it “sensational but also harrowing, almost visceral in intensity and indeed on occasion, frightening.”
The camera work, as usual, is extraordinary. You’ll wonder briefly how they captured the drama of the wolf hunt or the extraordinary sequence where killer whales cooperate to wash seals off an ice flow, before you get lost completely in the wonder of what you are watching. Veteran executive producer, Alastair Fothergill, says it was the most challenging series he has worked on. And the one he is proudest of.
The series is also notable for addressing the serious threat of global warming on the polar regions. In the seventh episode, On Thin Ice, Sir David stands at North Pole in -35° and delivers a considered but passionate speech on what needs to be done to save our planet.
Sir David was 84 years old at the time.
Narrated by Sir David, this 2009 documentary looks at how seasonal changes create the conditions for some of the planet’s most spectacular wildlife events. From the great salmon runs in Alaska that grizzly bears congregate around for lunch to the Great Migration of wildebeest in the Serengeti, it is a visual bucket list for every wildlife lover on the planet.
Using filming techniques pioneered on Planet Earth, the series boasts a number of television firsts, including water surface footage of the great sardine run along South Africa’s east coast, the first aerial shot of narwhals and footage that revealed how grizzly bears used their feet underwater to scoop up salmon.
It is the spectacular footage of the sardine run that most viewers remember. Titled The Great Feast, the episode lived up to it’s name with sequences that are at once horrific and beautiful.
The great migration, Tanzania – Michael Woods
15 tips for taking Great Migration photos – Paul Goldstein
Proving that you don’t have to go that far to find wildlife, this series, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, focuses on the creatures that have made their home in the urban sprawl of Singapore, including a family of wild otters who have taken up residence in the Marina Reservoir.
The first episode, Urban Wild, focuses on the wildlife who have made their homes among Singapore’s urban landscape like the otters, macaque monkeys and rare Sunda pangolin. The second, Hidden Wild, reveals Singapore’s hidden wildlife spots like the coastal wetlands and offshore islands, which have become thriving habitats to a variety of creatures.
Who would have thought such a world existed moments away from the bustle of Orchard Road?
‘Human beings are dependent on the natural world‘ – Sir David on what he learned making Life Stories
‘The most sensual bit of film you’ll see on television’ – Sir David talks about the secret life of invertebrates in Life in the Undergrowth
‘One of the challenges is that people don’t immediately think reptiles are attractive' – Sir David reveals the challenges of making Life In Cold Blood
‘The biggest issue at the moment is the speed at which the planet is warming’ – Sir David on the challenges facing the Great Barrier Reef.