Do Natural History Films Really Make A Difference To Natural History Issues?

As the tension builds in the stadium and the roar of the crowd intensifies, the huge whale is catapults it’s trainer out of the water with a few flicks of it’s powerful fluke before they both crash back down with a splash. To some this is the icing on top of a great holiday, seeing a killer whale up so close and interacting with them.  To others it simply shows how low we have sunk in the name of entertainment and after typing ‘SeaWorld’ into the news, it is clear they are not alone with numerous articles asking them to retire it’s orcas into sea pens. But what is it that has sparked this public outcry? A film called Blackfish (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

Mother Gorilla
Conservation films can make a huge difference to the issues they talk about.

When it comes to discussing the effect films have on conservation issues, we must first look at the term ‘conservation’ itself. As a word with so many connotations of nature attached to it, it is only natural to expect it to feature in the majority of nature programming and yet this is not the case. There seems to be a consensus that issues like poaching, captivity and deforestation are just too difficult for the general public to be subjected to and so to include them in many programmes would be risking the viewing figures the broadcasters so desperately crave. Yes, viewing figures are the lifeblood of programmes desperate to survive in the multichannel environment but in saving them are we not effectively killing the wildlife we exploit to create them? Wildlife documentaries owe nature for their success and so it is vital that we give them something in return. It seems that the documentaries that do so are an endangered species in themselves. Perhaps it is fear of failure that forces filmmakers into accepting the broadcaster’s wishes and from the perspective of an aspiring filmmaker, I understand the reasons behind this. Nevertheless, with a vast number of issues directly due to human involvement it is up to us to help nature recover before we lose some species altogether.

With this in mind, however, when natural history documentaries do choose to centre themselves around a certain issue, the resulting effect can be huge. Take for instance Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s recent film Blackfish; a documentary showing the truth behind SeaWorld’s infamous ‘Shamu’ killer whale show. Since it’s screenings and the DVD  release, there has been a public outcry. The combination of actuality footage filmed by members of the public, horror stories of attacks on trainers and interviews with former SeaWorld trainers created a graphic and heartbreaking image of life as a killer whale performer and seemed to tug at the heartstrings of the viewers. Thousands of people have taken to social media sites to voice their opinions and show their support for various captivity campaigns, myself included.  The real question is though, would the film have created such debate and support without the use of the internet and of course social media sites like Facebook and Twitter? Blackfish would most certainly have raised eyebrows and got people talking but without it’s online presence connecting people and wildlife organisations globally, there is a high possibility that the message would not have been received by a so many. Similarly, the graphic imagery of blood stained water littered with the bodies of dolphins shown in The Cove (dir. Louie Psihoyos) prompted it’s shocked viewers to take action with letters to authoritative bodies to help end the annual Taiji dolphin drive and campaigns are still ongoing. Ultimately it seems that when combined, film and the internet contribute hugely to the tackling of conservation issues by not only raising awareness but also providing a way to be involved as well.

On the other hand, sometimes the inclusion of environmental concerns can cause unintentional problems for the ecosystems they are trying to save and the BBC’s blue chip series Frozen

With more children disconnecting themselves from nature, film can play a vital role in reconnecting them.
With more children disconnecting themselves from nature, film can play a vital role in reconnecting them.

Planet is a prime example of this. Throughout the series, there was a distinct undertone of climate change and global warming warnings conveyed via stunning cinematography and sweeping music to encourage viewers to take action and help to save the planet. However, soon after the series was broadcast it was reported that travel agents had seen a surge in the number of people wanting to visit the frozen plains of Antarctica (The Telegraph, 2011). Arguably this led to people disturbing the native wildlife, disrupting their breeding cycles and impacted upon their survival rates and so contributing to their problems as opposed to helping end them.

Finally, it is important to mention that films which don’t have a direct focus upon natural issues can still have a positive effect upon them. With the RSPB revealing that “children have less contact with nature than ever before” (2013), sometimes a good wildlife documentary is all it takes to reconnect them and inspire them to get involved themselves. For me, watching The Blue Planet (BBC) as a child chartered the path of my life and directed me towards wildlife filmmaking and so I strongly believe documentaries can make a significant difference. Of course it is important that these programmes are appropriate; the graphic nature of a film like The Cove would not have the desired effect as would the BBC’s Deadly 60 but by inspiring children we may produce a new generation of conservationists and that’s definitely something to aim for.

To conclude, natural history issues can be aided by natural history issues but perhaps not without some assistance from other media forms. Whilst many documentaries are providing viewers with information on issues they may not necessarily be aware of, like captivity in Blackfish, it is these platforms which allow their voices to be heard and help to really make a difference.  All in all, the film form is a powerful thing and so if it can be used to change opinions, it can be used to change the world.


Starmer-Smith, C. (2011). Frozen Planet: The Lure of the Antarctic The Telegraph. Available: Last accessed 24th Nov 2013.

Johnson, W. (2013). ‘Disconnected children’ mean nature is at risk. Available: Last accessed 26th Nov 2013.

Blackfish (2013) Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite [DVD] United Kingdom: Dogwoof

The Cove (2009) Directed by Louie Psihoyos [DVD] United Kingdom: Diamond Docs

The Blue Planet. BBC (2001) Television

‘Winter’ (2011) Frozen Planet. BBC One, 23 November 2011. Television.

Deadly 60. BBC (2011) Television


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