David Parer and Liz Parer-Cook: the husband and wife team that makes wildlife documentaries

David Parer and Liz Parer-Cook have made a life together doing what they love.

The Melbourne-based couple have been exploring some of the wildest places on Earth since the late 1970s, from the Galapagos Islands to Norway and from the Australian outback to Antarctica.

And they have captured these remote places, especially the animals that live there, on film.

David Parer filming killer whales from a boat
David filming his hit killer whale movie, Wolves of the Sea.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

With David behind the camera and Liz recording the sound, they produced a host of award-winning documentaries, including several collaborations with David Attenborough.

Solid research and being in the right place at the right time has helped them find results in nature documentary terms.

As in his 1993 Emmy Award-winning film sea ​​wolveswho first captured the extraordinary hunting techniques of killer whales (killer whales).

“They’re probably our all-time favorite animal,” says Liz.

“We both love wild places”

Liz and David met in Melbourne in 1977 through a shared love of diving and film, both working in ABC’s Natural History Unit.

In the early days, David made several commissioned trips to Papua New Guinea, on one occasion filming for David Attenborough’s hit nature series, Life on Earth. Liz joined him on a few of these takes.

Elizabeth Parer-Cook holding an echidna
Liz in the 1980s with a long-beaked echidna in Papua New Guinea while filming Nature of Australia.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

From day one, they were never sure if they were working or on vacation. Even on their honeymoon they filmed dugongs in Shark Bay.

The two come from very different backgrounds: David has an honorary doctorate of science from Monash University and spent his early days studying cosmic rays in Antarctica. Liz has degrees in sociology and education, and was trained in the use of film as an educational tool.

David Parer and Elizabeth Parer-Cook in Antarctica
Liz and David, pictured here in the 1980s, received awards for their extensive work in Antarctica.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

“I think the essence of a good team…is that we recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” says David.

“Liz is an amazing researcher and very good with people. I bury my head in the team.”

Not that he’s a gadget man, David is quick to clarify, but he keeps track of technological advances, from special lenses to filming techniques to get the best images.

Elizabeth Parer-Cook recording a dugong hunter with a large microphone in a hut in Papua New Guinea
Liz filming a PNG dugong hunter for her and David’s film The Kiwai-Dugong Hunters of Daru, also narrated by David Attenborough.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

“It’s always about making the story better.”

Liz says people are often “a little surprised” by their husband and wife team, but it hasn’t been a problem for her.

A dugong in the ocean
This dugong was filmed by Liz and David on their honeymoon in Shark Bay.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

“We both love wild places, we both love being in the country, and we both like to tell stories. So I think that’s why it works.

“And we don’t fight very often,” he laughs.

David and Liz filming the moonrise over the desert of Exmouth Gulf
Now both 70, David and Liz recently traveled to Western Australia, where they watched the moon rise over Exmouth Gulf.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

Active volcanoes and difficult terrain

while I shoot for Australian nature In the mid-1980s, Liz and David began touring their home continent in earnest.

“We had a wonderful feeling of Central Australia at the time,” says David.

Red flowers with black centers.
One of the treats that also caught Liz and David’s eye in Western Australia recently was a field of Sturt’s desert peas.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

It was the start of a love story that saw many trips back and forth across central Australia and along the west coast.

But his first love is the sea itself., which undoubtedly played a part in the success of Sea Wolves, narrated by Attenborough.

David Parer filming on the dried salt crust of Loch Eyre
David was the first to film the Loch Eyre dragon that lives beneath the iconic lake’s crust of salt.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

The film featured groundbreaking scenes of orcas in Norway striking large schools of herring with their tails to get their dinner.

The other amazing video was of the orcas beaching themselves to catch sea lion pups frolicking off the coast of Patagonia.

David and Liz filmed the documentary in five countries, using specially developed underwater camera techniques.

“We worked as a two-man team with other people coming to the different places,” says Liz.

Killer whales sneak up on a beach to catch sea lion pups
Orcas sneak up on a beach to catch sea lion pups.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

Filming has often involved difficult terrain, such as when David captured macaroni penguins in the sub-Antarctic Crozet Islands.

David Parer filming macaroni penguins on a steep rocky slope
Filming macaroni penguins on the Crozet Islands was dangerous business.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

In the late 1990s, David had to climb inside an active volcano to film a land iguana laying its eggs in the warm soil of a volcano.

“I don’t think OH&S will authorize travel there right now,” he jokes.

David Parer with a land iguana on the warm sands of a volcano
David filming in a voclan for Dragones de Galápagos in 1996.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

This was when Liz and David spent two years in the Galapagos Islands with their 3-year-old daughter. filming three BBC shows hosted by Attenborough, including another award-winning film The Dragons of Galapagos.

Since 2008, after the closure of ABC’s Natural History Unit, the pair have been working as an independent team.

Last year they filmed land animals for an upcoming documentary on Ningaloo, to be hosted by Tim Winton and shown on ABC in 2023.

Elizabeth Parer-Cook with a microphone and a flightless cormorant in the Galapagos Islands
Liz with a flightless cormorant while filming in the Galapagos Islands.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

This year they returned to the wild coast of Ningaloo, a World Heritage-listed area near Exmouth, and enjoyed what is known as “Australia’s best jetty diving” from a 300m marina jetty.

Underwater they encountered a 2m grouper, graynose sharks, beautiful nudibranchs, colorful sponges and a wonderful school of trevally that “kept circling overhead”.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows for seek, up and down arrows for volume.
Liz filming a 2m grouper on a marina dock. (Copyright D. Parer & E. Parer-Cook)

There was also a huge black-faced yellow sea snake “as thick as your arm,” says Liz.

When they went humpback whale watching, they saw what they thought was a log floating in the water.

“We suddenly realized that it was actually a mother whale and that it had a baby in its nose and was just holding it, resting it on the surface,” says Liz.

“So that was pretty magical.”

a woman on a boat
Liz heading out to watch some whales in Exmouth Gulf.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

How things have changed

Liz and David are slowly checking wildlife off their bucket list for filming.

They managed to film hard to catch numbats recently.

“Numbats are endangered and very hard to spot in the wild,” says Liz.

Numbat standing on hind legs against a log
It is estimated that there are now only 1,000 numbats left in the wild.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

“They’re a bit of a sleepy species,” David adds, explaining why they’re hard to spot in the open.

And using a special lens, David and Liz got their first footage of Dawson’s burrowing bees, an insect with a curious habit of boring holes in the middle of clay pots and paths.

David Parer filming a burrowing bee with a long probe lens
David uses a probe lens to film Dawson’s burrowing bees.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

But there is a melancholic side to his decades of filming nature.

Over the years, David and Liz have witnessed firsthand changes to the landscape, from erosion to the loss of species such as reptiles, small birds, mammals and insects, especially on their heavily traveled home continent of Australia. .

The orange head of a burrowing bee emerging from underground
A female Dawson’s burrowing bee emerging from the ground.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

“We’ve noticed as we’ve come through the Nullarbor and into the desert… there’s been a tremendous decline in the number of insects,” says Liz.

“Now hardly a bug hits your windshield.”

For Nature of Australia, in the 1980s, David and Liz filmed kelp forests on the east coast of Tasmania, but these have now been decimated by global warming and other threats.

Both are alarmed by threats to biodiversity from development and climate change in places like Exmouth Gulf, known as the “ningaloo nursery”.

Moonrise over Charles Knife Canyon
Moonrise over Charles Knife Canyon and Exmouth Gulf, where Liz and David have filmed several times.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook )

How things have changed in the last 50 years, when we all thought the wild places and animals would stay the way they were when we first filmed them,” says David.

“How wrong we were. And the decline is accelerating.

“When you’re living through a fast pace of change, you don’t really know it until you look back.”

The couple is now involved in conservation groups and hopes to use social media, including their new Youtube channelto continue showing people the beauty of the natural world that is at risk.

“We believe that unless you’re reaching out to people and sharing what you’re seeing in these more remote places…a lot will be out of sight, out of mind,” says Liz.

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A clip from one of David and Liz’s YouTube channel movies showing a stingray hunting swarms of molting spider crabs. (Copyright D. Parer & E. Parer-Cook)

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