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.
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.
No Ordinary Sheila unfurls the life story of the adventurous, multi-talented Sheila Natusch: from first opening her eyes to nature while growing up on Stewart Island, as the daughter of a ranger and an artist; through befriending Janet Frame during teacher training, to the many books Natusch went on to write and/or illustrate. Filmmaker Hugh Macdonald (This is New Zealand) directs this portrait of a lover of nature and life, her joy unbowed by age. Natusch died on 10 August 2017, just days after watching the film as part of a packed house at the 2017 Wellington Film Festival.
In this 1992 Wild South documentary, pioneering underwater photographers Wade and Jan Doak investigate how fish have evolved over 400 million years on the Northland coast. They explore ocean dwellers off the Poor Knights Islands, where myriad nimble life forms thrive — from radar-like sensory systems and kaleidoscopic colouring, to the intricacies of jaw and fin shape. The Doaks conduct novel experiments to showcase them on camera in this Natural History New Zealand production. This episode was narrated by nature documentary filmmaker Peter Hayden.
With his impassioned enthusiasm and trademark beard, English naturalist David Bellamy made this well known 1989 community service message for the Department of Conservation. “It’s a nasty, horrible plant and it’s smothering and killing New Zealand’s native bush, and that is a catastrophe ... a trim is not enough — we’ve got to destroy it in every way we can — old man’s beard must go!”. Bellamy is a long-term advocate for the conservation of NZ’s natural heritage, presenting the Moa’s Ark series, as well as famously promoting Woolmark carpet.
The giant, flightless moa, could stretch up to three metres tall and weighed up to 275kg. This documentary tells the story of the "mighty moa". It covers the bird's 19th Century rediscovery by English naturalist Richard Owen who surmised that the moa existed from bone evidence (leading to ‘moa mania' bone-trade); through ignition of hope that moa may still be alive when takahe (thought as dead as the dodo) were discovered in Fiordland in 1948; to digging up bird skeletons and remains of moa hunter culture in South Island swamps.
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.
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.
In this episode of the long-running nature programming slot on TV One, naturalist David Bellamy visits New Zealand’s “dinosaur forest” — Whirinaki. Bellamy brings his famed nature-boy enthusiasm to “a living cathedral that dates back 200 million years”. He explores the North Island forest’s “big five”: 60m+ rimu, mataī, kahikatea, miro and tōtara trees; and the ecosystem that they reign over, from kākā parrots to giant tree ferns. The intro is by Gael Ludlow and features the fondly-remembered Jean Michel Jarre synthpop track that was Our World’s signature.
In November 1948 New Zealand got its own Lost World story, when a population of takahē — a large flightless rail, long thought extinct — was found in a remote part of Fiordland. The rediscovery of ‘notornis’ (a cousin of the pūkeko), by Southland doctor Geoffrey Orbell, generated international interest. This episode of the NFU’s Weekly Review newsreel series treks from Lake Te Anau high into the Murchison Mountains, where the team (including naturalist Robert Falla) find sea shell fossils, evidence of moa-hunter campsites, and the dodo-like takahē itself.