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16 Best Nature Documentary Narrators (And What Makes Them Special)

Apr 10, 2024
Nature documentary narrators

When you think of your favorite nature documentaries, what stands out the most? Perhaps you were struck by the spectacular visuals and rare “how did they film that” events, or maybe you were blown away by the meticulously researched information. It’s very likely, however, that there’s a special place in your heart for the voices that bring these documentaries to life: the narrators who seamlessly fuse information and visuals, guiding viewers through each captivating journey.

The list of people famous for narrating nature documentaries isn’t very long, but many of the best narrators become household names. While famous actors are often cast for their current appeal, very few make a habit of lending their voices to these documentaries. 


documentary camera


1. James Earl Jones

First on our list, we turn to the beloved actor James Earl Jones. In addition to an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, two Emmy Awards, and a Screen Actor’s Guild award, Mr. Jones has also received a Grammy Award for his narration of “Great American Documents.” 

Known for his deep bass and rich timbre, he provided the voices for such memorable characters as Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King. In a hint at what makes his narration so successful, he stated in an interview about mastering his stutter: “you have convictions, feelings that you want to share.” He has shared it masterfully!

Notable documentaries:

  • A World Alive
  • The Great Swamp


2. Tilda Swinson 

Oscar-award winning actress Tilda Swinson has created powerful performances in everything from Michael Clayton to Asteroid City, but did you know she’s an accomplished narrator too? Tilda’s narration of Galapagos: Born of Fire helped win the documentary a Peabody Award. 

While she has an admittedly quirky approach to acting, her calm, silky narration is a far cry from the time she was inspired to create a character based on “how a donkey” would do it. 

Notable documentaries:

  • Galapagos: Born of Fire
  • Some Thoughts on the Common Toad


3. Patricio Guzman

You don’t have to speak Spanish to appreciate Guzman’s body of work (they come with subtitles), but if you do, it’s certainly a treat. Patricio Guzman is both director and narrator of his documentaries, and his warm baritone voice creates a comforting environment to learn all about the natural habitats of his native Chile. 

One of Guzman’s distinguishing attributes is both the musicality of his narration and his view that there is no separating human activity from nature. In The Pearl Button, he focuses on water and its relation to the land and Chile’s indigenous groups. 

Notable documentaries:

  • Nostalgia for the Light
  • The Cordillera of Dreams


4. Brian Cox

With the success of the hit series Succession, it would be easy to think of Scottish-born actor Brian Cox, who is known as much for his Oscar-worthy character acting as he is for his superb stage acting. But no, this is about the English-born particle physicist and documentarian. 

When it comes to narrating science, one of Cox’s greatest qualities is the ability to explain complex topics in easily digestible ways for the masses. It doesn’t hurt that he actually worked at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Switzerland! 

The ability to reach and hold audiences for generations cannot be understated, and Neil DeGrass Tyson once called Brian Cox “more famous in the UK than Carl Sagan ever was in the United States.” Now that’s quite the accomplishment! 

Notable documentaries:

  • Wonders of the Universe
  • Forces of Nature


5. Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Did somebody say Neil DeGrasse Tyson? That’s right, he’s also on the list. In terms of modern-day science educators, very few have reached the level of reach, especially to young audiences, as DeGrass Tyson. He’s so accomplished and world-reaching as a narrator, educator, and published researcher that scientists named a leaping frog after him! 

Among his defining features are his calm, airy bass and authentic enthusiasm for the subjects he speaks about, coupled with a knack for storytelling (see a trend?) and his bright baritone voice.

Notable documentaries:

  • Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
  • 400 Years of the Telescope


6. Sigourney Weaver

We couldn’t go long without finding another Hollywood A-list actor who just happens to be a fantastic narrator, but Sigourney Weaver is at the top. She’s narrated 14 documentaries including, wait for it, the Discovery Channel’s version of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth.

 It’s hard to imagine a producer replacing Attenborough with anyone else, but Sigourney’s smooth, controlled delivery and her recognizably warm timbre provided the desired vibe. Through her narration, filmmakers answer life’s big questions, like Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry.

Notable documentaries: 

  • Secrets of Whales
  • Gorillas Revisited


7. Werner Herzog

Acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog explores the intersection of humanity and nature with a unique and often haunting perspective. His nature documentaries, such as Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, delve into the raw beauty and power of the natural world. 

Herzog's films search deep into the human psyche and our relationship with the environment. Through his distinct cinematic style and striking visuals, punctuated by poetic narration, Herzog aspires to capture the awe-inspiring majesty of the wilderness while probing the meaning of human existence. Part of what makes his narration poetic is his German accent, one of his trademark characteristics, which adds its own enigmatic charm.

Notable documentaries:

  • Cave of Forgotten Dreams
  • Into the Inferno


8. Kenneth Branagh 

Esteemed filmmaker Kenneth Branagh has done it all, showcasing his versatility on stage in such heavyweight roles as Macbeth, on camera as , and behind the camera directing critically acclaimed films Belfast and Much Ado About Nothing.

Branagh's narration of nature documentaries has been equally notable. His work in documentaries like Wild Ireland and Walking with Dinosaurs display a passion for the natural world. Branagh's eloquent delivery and light, tenor voice bring these documentaries to life, helping audiences immerse themselves in the striking visuals of nature at its finest.

Notable documentaries: 

  • Walking With Dinosaurs


9. Jacques Coustaeu

Jacques Cousteau, pioneering French explorer and filmmaker, revolutionized our understanding of the ocean through groundbreaking nature documentaries. With his iconic series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, he transported audiences into the depths of the sea, unveiling its hidden mysteries and mesmerizing beauty. He was ideally positioned to do so, having co-created the world’s first scuba equipment!

Cousteau's innovative underwater cinematography and passionate narration captivated viewers worldwide, inspiring a deep appreciation for marine life and environmental conservation (and Wes Anderson’s comedic film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Cousteau’s legacy as a visionary filmmaker and ocean conservationist endures, leaving a lasting mark on our appreciation of the natural world beneath the waves. 

Notable documentaries: 

  • Under The Sea
  • The Silent World*


Underwater photographer in scuba gear with camera


10. Jeremy Irons

Next on the list is another Academy Award winner, Jeremy Irons, who carved out a special place in history for his rich, steely vocal chords, lending them to such iconic roles as Scar in Disney’s The Lion King and Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune. You’ll easily recognize his voice in numerous documentaries, including the BBC's The Blue Planet and Planet Earth II.

His seamless narration effortlessly guides audiences through captivating landscapes and wildlife encounters, adding depth and poignancy to the storytelling with eloquence and gravitas. Irons's evocative delivery, imbued with authority and empathy, enhances the emotional resonance of these cinematic journeys into the wonders of our planet, and garnered him a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Narrator for his work on Game of Lions.

Notable documentaries: 

  • Life on Fire
  • Jade Eyed Leopard


11. Stockard Channing

There are worse things than forgetting Stockard Channing’s name, but her voice is unmistakable. As a young actress, Channard made her mark in Grease, moved audiences to tears in Six Degrees of Separation, and added depth to the ensemble of hit series The West Wing

All the while, she’s narrated documentaries from Meerkat Manor with co-narrator Bill Nighy to Nova’s The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies and viewers have grown accustomed to her voice. Her brassy alto commands attention, and her versatile emotional range helps keep that attention from start to finish. 

Notable documentaries: 

  • Walking with Prehistoric Beasts
  • Meerkat Manor


12. Benedict Cumberbatch

British actor Benedict Cumberbatch found time between blockbusters to lend his personal flair to several documentaries. Not only does Cumberbatch bring the same charm, warmth of timbre, and mastery of pacing to his narration, but he serves as an example that narration doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective

In an episode of the Graham Norton Show, he admitted that since childhood he’s pronounced the word penguins as “pengwings” — an unshirkable quirk which made it into the final cut of the 2010 documentary South Pacific.

Notable documentaries: 

  • Earth’s Great Rivers
  • Walking with Dinosaurs 3D


13. Carl Sagan

Few presenters have paved the road for contemporary narrators and presenters as did Carl Sagan. A pioneer in the truest sense of the word, he became renowned for an ability to explain complex scientific concepts in an easy-to-follow manner while masterfully building up anticipation through his varied pacing and cadence–setting the standard for both capturing and maintaining viewers’ attention.. 

Sagan also played a pivotal role in popularizing science with his best-selling book Cosmos and the acclaimed TV series of the same name (which Neil DeGrasse Tyson revamped nearly two decades after Sagan’s passing), mesmerizing viewers with his insightful descriptions of the universe. 

Notable documentaries: 

  • Cosmos 
  • Pale Blue Dot


14. Morgan Freeman

Sometimes, you can pinpoint the moment an actor's career as a narrator begins. With Morgan Freeman, it all goes back to The Shawshank Redemption. Audiences may not have been able to remember the name right away, the movie and its narrator gathered a cult following. 

In addition to award-winning performances in Se7en, Driving Miss Daisy, and Million Dollar Baby, Mr. Freeman has become a fan favorite for his nature documentary narration as well, with a dark gravelly bass voice and relaxed, unpretentious manner of speaking that has made him a fan favorite for an entire generation. 

Notable documentaries: 

  • March of the Penguins
  • Life on Our Planet


15. Peter Coyote

Acclaimed voice actor Peter Coyote is arguably the most prolific narrator of all time.  With over 25 National Geographic documentaries and half a dozen Ken Burns documentaries, including a full six-episode series on US National Parks, he brings a rich and evocative voice to all the projects he touches. Considering he’s done over 150 documentaries and audiobooks, even if you’ve never heard Peter’s name, you’ve definitely heard his voice. 

Coyote's ringing tenor timbre adds a layer of depth and emotional connection to the diverse landscapes and wildlife showcased on screen, from the serene beauty of untouched wilderness to the dramatic struggles for survival in the animal kingdom.

Notable documentaries: 

  • The American Buffalo
  • National Geographic: Zoo Tiger Escape


16. Sir David Attenborough

Last, but certainly not least, is Sir David Attenborough. While Academy Voices doesn’t take sides on who is the greatest at anything, Attenborough’s legacy truly shines brighter than the rest: from Zoo Quest to The Secret World of Sound, Attenborough has been regaling audiences with natural spectacles for over 70 years. He started out as a senior manager at the BBC, but it was the documentary series Life on Earth that cemented his place as a pioneer of the genre.

In Life on Earth, Sir Attenborough spearheaded the production of high-quality documentaries. To do so required $1.2 million dollars (which in 1978 was a massive budget), a 30-person team, the help of 500 scientists, and innovative filming techniques. Some techniques were truly novel, such as filming a bat in a wind tunnel, while others were as simple as patience, supreme patience: in one instance, a photographer had to wait hundreds of hours for a Darwin’s frog to do its thing. In doing so, he planted the seeds for multiple generations of documentary filmmakers.

Sir David Attenborough’s bright and soothing voice, genuine interest and compassion, and the gentleness and the ease with which he narrates have enamored audiences for decades. In 2023, at 97 years of age, David returned to the BBC to narrate the third installment of the nature documentary series Planet Earth. 

Notable documentaries:

  • The Blue Planet
  • Planet Earth
  • Trials of Life


White Heron bird on grass.


What makes a great narrator

A great nature documentary narrator possesses a combination of qualities that engage audiences’ curiosities and enhance the viewing experience. Their role goes beyond mere reading: they are consummate storytellers, guiding viewers on a journey of discovery. 

The best nature documentary narrators have a deep understanding of the subject matter and a passion for the natural world which shines through in their delivery. They are able to strike a balance between conveying factual information and evoking emotion, creating a memorable and immersive experience for viewers. While not a requirement, many of the best narrators are those who create the documentaries themselves and whose painstaking dedication shines through in nuanced narrations. 

A great narrator complements the story and doesn’t overpower it, striking a balance between letting the visuals and interviews shine while providing context and insights is crucial for compelling narration. When done right, a narrator becomes an invisible friend, leading viewers on a friendly journey of discovery and making each moment that much more memorable. 

Some of the qualities that make a great nature documentary narrator are authentic connection, clear articulation, varied pacing, emotional range, an understanding of the audience, vocal versatility, and avoiding foreshadowing—after all, it’s just not nearly as fun to see a hungry hippo lurch out of the water if the narrator tells you it’s about to happen! 

All Human, All The Time

It doesn’t require Hollywood A-listers to make a great documentary. While the legendary Sir David Attenborough set the standard for modern documentary narration, there isn’t any single voice actor dominating the field. Some of the best narrators are documentary directors narrating their own work and Peter Coyote is an excellent example of an actor who never made it big in movies but had a long and storied career narrating documentaries.

You won’t find AI voices in popular documentaries. Audiences are drawn to the human voice, and the unpredictability of how an individual narrator will react to what both they and the audience are experiencing on screen. At Academy Voices, all talent is strictly sourced from a diverse pool of talented, live voice actors.

f you are looking for a narrator with “the right stuff” for nature documentaries, you’ve come to the right place. Whether you’re looking for a deep bass, a smooth baritone, a silky mezzo, Academy Voices can help you secure the ideal talent for your next nature documentary.

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