Packed with creatures and landscapes that quite simply boggle the mind, the Nature Collection showcases New Zealand's impressive menagerie of nature and wildlife films. Many of the titles were made by powerhouse company NHNZ, which began around 1977 as the Natural History Unit, a small, southern outpost of state television. In this backgrounder, Peter Hayden — who had a hand in more than a few of these classic films — guides viewers through just what the Nature Collection has to offer.
By 1976 there were only seven Chatham Islands' black robins left. It was the world's rarest bird. In a bid to save the species, the surviving birds are taken from one island to another more hospitable island in a desperate rescue mission. This is part of an incredible conservation success story led by Don Merton and his NZ Wildlife Service team. With Project Takahē, this documentary captured viewers' imaginations, and was one of the first in the acclaimed Wild South series of 'rare bird' films, which were foundational for TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (later NHNZ).
Nearly mammal free, pre-human New Zealand was a land of birds, many of them found nowhere else. In Birdland, Jeremy Wells (Eating Media Lunch) explores all things avian in Aotearoa. In this opening episode he visits Hauraki Gulf island sanctuary Tiritiri Matangi and Christchurch’s Peacock Springs. Putting the wry into wrybill, Wells muses on manu matters from twitching to tākahe poop. Dominion Post’s Linda Burgess praised Mike Single's "marvellous camera work", and Wells’ celebration of ordinary people "who work to protect and enhance what we still have".
This documentary tells the story of the inimitable kea. The 'Clown of the Alps' is heralded as the world’s smartest bird (its intelligence rivals a monkey’s). Kea are famous on South Island tracks and ski fields for their insatiable (and destructive) inquisitiveness. Curiosity almost killed the kea when it was labelled a sheep killer, and tens of thousands were killed for a bounty. After shots of baby kea being fed, there is extraordinary night footage in clip four of the 'avian wolf' in action. The award-winning film makes a compelling case for the charismatic kea as a national icon.
In this five part series presenter Peter Hayden travels through some of New Zealand's most varied, awe-inspiring and spiritual environments. Though there is superbly filmed flora and fauna, geology and other standard natural history documentary staples, it is the history of people's relationship with these sublime landscapes and a genial New Zealand passion for the environment, that makes a lasting impression. At the 1988 Listener Film and TV Awards Hayden won Best Writer in a Non-Drama Category for the series.
This one-off documentary from NHNZ reveals new information about the origins of the iconic kiwi. Presenter Peter Elliott travels the country investigating how "evolutionary mutants" — like giant meat-eating snails, kiwi, and tuatara — evolved over 20 million years in the face of massive tectonic upheavals and extreme isolation. Elliott answers why Aotearoa has the "weirdest creatures", such as birds that don't fly and mammals that do. Company Weta Workshop used computer graphics to create images of extinct creatures for this TV One programme.
For 150 years, southern right whales (tohorā) were hunted to the brink of extinction. But the discovery of a “lost tribe” in the Southern Ocean sparked hope that their numbers are increasing. This documentary — made by veteran nature filmmaker Max Quinn for The Discovery Channel — follows a research expedition to learn about the pod. Breathtaking and intimate underwater footage, including a fabled white whale and new-born calf, reveals the behavior of these gentle giants. The award-winning film also captures soaring royal albatross, vomiting sea lions, and a flightless duck.
Wildtrack was a highly successful nature series for children, combining a Dunedin studio set with reporting from the field. Produced by TVNZ’s Natural History Unit, it ran from 1981 until the early 1990s. Producer Michael Stedman sought to produce a series where “children can be excited and entertained with genuine information, while not neglecting adults”. Wildtrack won the Feltex Television Award for the best children's programme, three years running (1982 - 1984).
This 1999 documentary goes behind the scenes with veteran Antarctic filmmaker Mike Single, as he films icebergs in the Southern Ocean. To Single they’re "ice creatures" and his mission is to get to their dynamic "essence". He and his crew face time pressure, storms, cabin fever, and challenges shooting underwater. Some of Single's shots of epic ice sculptures, calving glaciers, crabeater seals, gentoo penguins, humpback whales and trademark time-lapse cloudscapes also appeared in his documentaries Crystal Ocean (a 2000 Emmy Award-winner), and Katabatic.
Long isolated, New Zealand contains a world of Alice Through the Looking Glass natural oddities: birds, insects and plants like nowhere else. Scientist Jared Diamond remarked "it is the nearest approach to life on another planet". Palaeontology (from Professor Michael Archer) and Māori myth (told by Hirini Melbourne) reveal these 'Ghosts of Gondwana'. Then cutting edge camera techniques (earning a Merit Award at 2002 International Wildlife Film Festival) delve into a night world of bat-filled tree trunk saunas, “demon grasshopper” wētā, and furry kiwi with chopstick bills.
Introduced to New Zealand in 1851, red deer soon became controversial residents: sport for hunters, but despised by farmers and conservationists for the damage they caused. First targeted by government cullers in the 1930s, by the 60s they were shot by commercial operators for venison export. Directed by Bruce Morrison and Keith Hunter, this award-winning documentary catches up with the hunt in the 70s, when deer for farming – dramatically caught alive, from helicopters – was a multi-million dollar gold rush. Different versions of the film were made for overseas markets.
Why is New Zealand's landscape and flora and fauna so unique? In four-part series Moa's Ark, renowned English naturalist David Bellamy, with his impassioned enthusiasm and trademark beard (of "old man's beard must go" fame) goes on a journey to discover the answer. Directed and produced by Peter Hayden, this 1990 TV series was produced by Television New Zealand's award-winning Natural History Unit (now independent production company NHNZ). Read more about the series here.
Charting the freeze and thaw which transforms Antarctica each year, this NHNZ documentary follows an icebreaker as it manoeuvres towards the permanent polar ice cap — the furthest south any ship has yet ventured in winter. The cold has trapped icebergs in frozen seas, as well as 25,000 male emperor penguins, waiting out the three month polar night. Veteran Antarctic filmmaker Mike Single showcases eerie undersea environments, icebergs in beautiful decay, the towering Ross Ice Shelf, seals and a massive summer explosion of krill. Single won an Emmy award for his footage.
Produced by NHNZ, this NZ Screen Award-nominated 2005 TVNZ series looks at Aotearoa’s diverse weather. This first episode (of three) explores "the main driving force behind all our weather" — the wind — from the science behind where it comes from, to its impact on people (from sport to the economy). Presenter Gus Roxburgh contends with Wellington’s infamous wind, and with Auckland’s tornadoes and cyclones. He looks at when weather is good (wind farms, windsurfing) and when weather goes bad (the Wahine disaster, Cyclone Bola, landing at Wellington Airport).
Flightless and nocturnal, the kākāpō is the world's heaviest parrot. By the 1970s the mysterious, moss-coloured bird was facing extinction, "evicted" to Fiordland mountains and Stewart Island by stoats and cats. Thanks to special night vision equipment, this documentary captured for the first time the bird's idiosyncratic courtship rituals, and the first chick found in a century. Marking the directing debut of NHNZ veteran Rod Morris, the film screened on series two of Wild South. It was a runner-up for Best Film at a major international wildlife festival in the US city of Missoula.
Paul Holmes quizzes legendary naturalist Sir David Attenborough in this April 1991 studio interview. Attenborough is downunder to promote his BBC series Trials of Life. Attenborough talks about the state of natural history TV making and changes in camera technology (musing that the old days were less efficient, but “more fun”), and responds to clips of killer whales surging on to a beach chasing sea lions, and chimpanzees teaming up to hunt. Holmes asks Sir David if he’s ever been “horrified” by nature, if animals are noble, and whether this is his last big series.
This Wild South documentary opens with the haunting call of the kōkako ringing out over the forest canopy at dawn. The film tells the story of Aotearoa’s "avian squirrel" and its struggle for survival — living with introduced cats and rats, while the remnants of its North Island rainforest home face logging. The songbird is framed as an icon of both conservation loss and hope. The script is by poet Brian Turner. The use of composer Hirini Melbourne’s score (with lyrics in te reo) was praised by award judges at British nature film festival Wildscreen.
From Māori myth to climbing and photography, to gliding and paraponting around its peak, Aoraki-Mt Cook is vividly captured in all its moods in this award-winning NHNZ portrait. Filmed for the centenary of the first ascent of a mountain that has claimed over 100 lives, it follows mountaineers as they climb toward the summit, re-enacting Tom Fyfe's pioneering pre-crampon route. Climbers, including Edmund Hillary, reminisce about encounters with NZ's highest and most iconic peak; and Bruce Grant takes the quick way down: a vertiginous ski descent.
When the takahē was rediscovered in the Murchison mountains in 1948, it made world headlines as a back from extinction story. This documentary checks in on the big flightless birds three decades later, with their future under threat (by deer, stoats and breeding failure). Doctor Geoffrey Orbell recalls the 1948 expedition. Project Takahē was the first Wild South documentary made by TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (later NHNZ). The images of takahē – blue, green and red, plodding in the snowy tussock – marked the first time most New Zealanders had seen the bird in the wild.
The first episode of Ice Worlds explores animal life at the poles, both North and South. At the North Pole American scientist Steve Amstrup tracks polar bears, from their hibernation during winter, to seeking food out on the tundra during summer. Down south, Antarctica's emperor penguins are studied by Gerald Kooyman, physiologist Arthur Devries catches Antarctic cod, and biologist Brent Sinclair seeks the continent's largest land animal — a tiny insect called a springtail. Ice Worlds was narrated by former news anchor Dougal Stevenson.
This 1993 documentary surveys the world’s southernmost volcano, Mount Erebus. Cameras travel to never before filmed depths, 400 metres below the sea ice. They also go 3500 metres above sea level into the erupting crater. The film charts what is able to survive in the otherworldly environment, from seals to moss. Solid Water was the third part of an acclaimed Wild South trilogy on Antarctica, which helped establish a relationship between Discovery Channel and TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (later NHNZ). It was awarded for Best Camera at the 1994 New Zealand TV Awards.
This film tells the story of Antarctica’s emperor penguin (the inspiration behind Happy Feet) and how they survive vicious blizzards and -50°C temperatures. It also retraces the epic “worst journey in the world” which explorer Edward Wilson made to discover these remarkable birds. Max Quinn won a best director award at the 1994 NZ Television Awards for the Antarctic Trilogy Emperors was part of. The trilogy helped establish NHNZ’s relationship with Discovery Channel. As this backgrounder explains, the scene of a penguin falling through ice (clip one) became a YouTube hit.
This award-winning film looks at the strange and ethereal world of New Zealand's limestone areas. The rocks and caves reveal ancient whale fossils, moa hunter art — and evolutionary one-offs (like giant carnivorous snails) that live in a limestone world. The film goes into the darkness to find glow-worms, cave wētā, albino crayfish and skeletons of moa who met their death falling down tomos (shafts). In underground cathedrals, exquisite formations formed by the alchemy of water and limestone are captured. There is also footage of Waitomo Caves and Te Waikoropupu Springs.
Fiordland is the jewel in the Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand UNESCO World Heritage Site, a status underpinned by primeval scenery and a reputation as one of the world’s great wilderness areas. This film explores the symmetries of life above and below the fiords, where water cascades from mountain peaks and rain-forest, into the black depths of ice-age carved valleys. Award-winning photography reveals the mirror world: kea, mohua, fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, and an underwater phantasmagoria of starfish, ancient black coral forests and sea pens.
In TVNZ’s Journeys Across Latitude 45 South, writer and presenter Peter Hayden traverses east to west from Otago’s Waitaki Plains to George Sound in Fiordland. Hayden walks, hitches, cycles, paddles a mōkihi (a traditional Māori canoe made of reeds) and white water rafts along the 45 south line. Along the way he builds a social, industrial and natural history of latitude 45 south. From the lonely wilds of Fiordland to the tourist Mecca Queenstown, Hayden encounters the quixotic and gruff, and pioneer species of the past, present in a changing world.
The remote Antipodes Islands lie 860 kilometres southeast of Stewart Island. This 1980 documentary follows a Wildlife Service team surveying the islands’ inhabitants who are making all the strange noises – fur seals, albatrosses, petrels, parakeets and snipe, elephant seals and prolific penguins. It also investigates threats to their survival: mice and overfishing in the southern ocean. Winner of a Silver Medal at New York's International Film and Television Festival, this early Wild South episode helped establish the reputation of TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (later NHNZ).
This Touchdown series profiles the working lives of rangers who work for the Department of Conservation and Ministry of Fisheries, whose office is "the great New Zealand outdoors". This opening episode meets three rangers looking after threatened taonga: Al Hutt is a sea shepherd to Akaroa's Hector's dolphins; lizard hunter Keri Neilson rescues a chevron skink on Great Barrier Island; and Steve Sawyer defends dotterel nests from cats, hedgehogs, stoats and boy racers on the Wherowhero Lagoon beach (near Gisborne). The series screened on TV One in early 2002.
The devastating effects of introduced wasps in New Zealand, particularly on kaka (the forest parrot, here beautifully filmed) remain a serious issue. The horde of yellow and black marauders has left scientists struggling to protect animal and human victims. This film looks at the effect on the ecosystem of wasps, who compete with natives for honeydew and prey upon insects. Bandits of the Beech Forest won the Environment Prize for Best Film Illustrating Protection, Preservation or Conservation of Bird Life at the Festival du Film de l'Oiseau.
Exhuming Adams investigates the mysterious disappearance of a species of New Zealand mistletoe 50 years ago. Set among dusty museum collections, high-tech labs, and remote bush, this documentary is a natural history CSI. A canny forensic investigation, taking in preserved bellbird skins, last witnesses and CGI modelling, reveals the chain of events leading to the unique plant's extinction, and a surprising culprit. Directors Brant Backlund and Thassilo Franke won the BBC Best Newcomer Award at the prestigious WildScreen film festival 2006.
The unknown has long captured the imagination of explorers and visitors to Antarctica. One hundred years after first setting foot on its icy shores, scientists are only beginning to discover its secrets. This award-winning film was the first nature documentary to be filmed under the Antarctic sea ice. Innovative photography reveals the otherworldly beauty of the submarine world, and the surprisingly rich life found in sub-zero temperatures — including dragonfish, weddell seals, and the giant sponge. Under the Ice was an early offshore success for company NHNZ.
Director Peter Coates pays tribute to the intelligence and wit of the world’s only mountain parrot in this Survey documentary; as a Christchurch Star review put it, "they must be the least camera-shy birds in creation". The kea’s antics are aided by Ian McDonald’s playful score, plus interviews with expert Dick Jackson, lecturer Les Cleveland, climber John Pascoe, a ranger, a tramper, and a farmer who describes hunting kea — now threatened and protected, but once the subject of a bounty after the opportunistic birds developed a taste for sheep sashimi.
Naturalist Ramari Stewart never tires of the view from a subantarctic hut. "This is the only place I know where I can see a whale out my window and it’s never let me down." The documentary follows Stewart as she spends a summer and winter monitoring wildlife at remote Northwest Bay in Campbell Island. Southern right whales, Hooker's sea lions and elephant seals all feature. Stewart, who later became a whale expert, displays a jaw-dropping bond with the animals. At the end of the programme, the whales cause a stir when they play perilously close to Stewart's boat.
The world's rarest parrot and immigrant desert "pests" feature in this Meet The Locals Conservation Week special. Presenter Nicola Toki (née Vallance) travels to Invercargill to visit rescued kākāpō chicks, before disinfecting her clothes so she can return the birds to their pest-free home on Codfish Island. Heading north, she takes to the skies to help herd Kaimanawa wild horses, which are wreaking havoc on rare plants, and joins kids on a trip to wildlife sancturary Tiritiri Matangi. The Department of Conservation and TVNZ collaborated to make the series.
This 1973 film sees poet Alistair Te Ariki Campbell explore the history of Kāpiti Island — from being a stronghold for Māori chief Te Rauparaha, to whaling station and its present form as a bird sanctuary. The film chronicles Campbell’s first visit to the legendary motu, where he feeds a kākā parrot a date from his mouth, and witnesses a remarkable scene where a weka kills a Norway rat. With impressionistic sequences set to verse, director Peter Coates’ ‘poetic realisation’ of the island was called “a remarkable contribution to NZ television” by Listener critic David Weatherall.
Award-winner Hidden Places: Ōkārito marked an early milestone for the Natural History Unit (later to become NHNZ) — it was part of the first series made by the unit. The 15 minute episode follows birds, such as white heron, Russian godwits and royal spoonbills, all of them flocking to Ōkārito's "unique world of sea, lagoon, rivers and forests". Logging of kahikatea, the tallest endemic forest tree, also features. Robin Scholes, later to produce movie Once Were Warriors, wrote and directed this episode. It won Best Documentary at the 1979 Feltex Television Awards.
This film tells the story of the world’s rarest wading bird, the black stilt (kakī). With its precise beak and long pink legs the stilt is superbly adapted to the stony braided riverbeads of the McKenzie Country, but it is tragically unable to deal with new threats (rats, ferrets, habitat loss). An early doco for TVNZ’s Natural History Unit, the magnificently filmed drama of the stilt’s struggle for survival makes it “stand out as a classic of its genre” (Russell Campbell). It won the Gold Award at New York’s International Film & TV Festival (1984).
Englishman David Bellamy is a world famous botanist, author, broadcaster and conservationist. He came to prominence in New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s with numerous natural history programmes. His trademark beard, larger than life personality and ability to make science understandable made him a popular addition to family viewing time. In 1990 he came to New Zealand to host Moa’s Ark, a landmark documentary series telling the history of our country’s unique evolutionary past. In recent years, Bellamy has become a more controversial figure with his claims that global warming is just part of the earth’s natural climate cycle.