David Parer and Liz Parer-Cook: the husband-and-wife wildlife documentary-making team

Home Arts David Parer and Liz Parer-Cook: the husband-and-wife wildlife documentary-making team
David Parer and Liz Parer-Cook: the husband-and-wife wildlife documentary-making team

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

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

And they’ve captured these remote spots — especially the animals that live there — on film. 

David Parer filming killer whales from a boat
David filming for their hit film on killer whales, Wolves of the Sea.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

With David behind the camera and Liz recording sound, they’ve produced a slew 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 strike paydirt in nature documentary terms.

Like in their Emmy-award winning 1993 film Wolves of the Sea, which captured for the first time the extraordinary hunting techniques of killer whales (orcas).

“They’re probably our favourite animal of all time,” Liz says.

‘We both love wild places’

Liz and David met in Melbourne in 1977 through a shared love of diving and film-making, and both worked at the ABC’s Natural History Unit.

In the early days, David made several trips to Papua New Guinea on assignment, on one occasion filming for David Attenborough’s blockbuster nature series, Life on Earth. Liz joined him on some of these shoots.

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 quite sure if they were working or on holiday. Even on their honeymoon they filmed dugongs at 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 trained in using 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 recognise each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” David says.

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

Not that he’s a gadget man, David hurries to clarify, but he keeps track of technological developments from special lenses to filming techniques to get the best footage.

Elizabeth Parer-Cook recording a dugong hunter with a big microphone in a hut in Papua New Guinea
Liz recording a dugong hunter in PNG 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 enhancing the story.”

Liz says people are often “a bit surprised” about their husband-and-wife team, but for her it’s not been a problem.

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

“We both love wild places, we love being out in the field, and we both like storytelling. So I think that’s why it works.

“And we don’t fight very often,” she chuckles.

David and Liz filming the moonrise over the Exmouth Gulf desert
Now both in their 70s, David and Liz recently travelled to Western Australia where they caught a moonrise over Exmouth Gulf.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

Active volcanoes and tricky terrain

While shooting for Nature of Australia in the mid-1980s, Liz and David started travelling their home continent in earnest.

“We got a wonderful feeling for Central Australia in that time,” says David.

Red flowers with black centres
One of the delights 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 kicked off a love affair that saw many return trips through Australia’s centre and along the west coast.

But their first love is the sea itself, which no doubt played a part in the success of Wolves of the Sea, narrated by Attenborough.

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

The film featured ground-breaking scenes of killer whales in Norway bashing large shoals of herring with their tail to get their dinner.

The other jaw-dropping footage was that of killer whales beaching themselves to catch sea lion pups frolicking on the shores of Patagonia.

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

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

Killer whales sneaking up onto a beach to nab sea lion pups
Killer whales sneak up onto a beach to nab sea lion pups.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

Filming has often involved tricky terrain, like when David captured the 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 that lays its eggs in the warm soil of a volcano.

“I don’t think OH&S would sanction trips there now,” he jokes.

David Parer with a land iguana in the warm sands of a volcano
David filming in a voclano for Dragons of the Galapagos in 1996.(Supplied: D. Parer and E. Parer-Cook)

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

Since 2008, after ABC’s Natural History Unit closed, the pair have been working as a freelance team.

In 2021, they filmed land animals for an upcoming documentary on Ningaloo, to be presented by Tim Winton and shown on the ABC in 2023.

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

Last year they were back on the wild Ningaloo Coast World Heritage, area near Exmouth, and enjoyed what is dubbed “the best jetty dive in Australia” off a 300-metre navy pier.

Under water they encountered a 2m grouper, grey-nosed sharks, beautiful nudibranchs, colourful sponges and a marvellous school of trevally that “just kept circling overhead”.

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Liz filming a 2m grouper at a navy pier. (Copyright D. Parer & E. Parer-Cook)

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

When they went whale spotting to see humpbacks they saw what they thought was a log floating in the water.

“We suddenly realised it was actually a mother whale and she had a baby on her nose and was just holding it up, supporting it on the surface,” Liz says.

“So that was pretty magic.”

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

How things have changed

Liz and David are slowly ticking off wildlife on their bucket list to film. 

They managed to film hard-to-catch numbats recently.

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

Numbat standing on hind legs against a log
It’s 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 out 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 drilling holes in the middle of clay pans and roads.

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’s a melancholy side to their decades of filming nature.

Over the years, David and Liz have witnessed first-hand changes in the landscape, from erosion to the loss of species like reptiles, small birds, mammals and insects — especially in their well-travelled 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 drive across the Nullarbor and into the desert … there’s been a tremendous drop off in numbers of insects,” says Liz.

“Now barely an insect hits your windscreen.”

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

Both are alarmed about the threats to biodiversity from development and climate change in places such as the Exmouth Gulf, which is known as “Ningaloo’s nursery”.

Moonrise over Charles Knife Canyon
A moonrise over Charles Knife Canyon and Exmouth Gulf, where Liz and David have filmed a number of 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 as they were when we first filmed them,” David says.

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

“When you’re living through an accelerating rate of change, you don’t actually recognise it until you look back.”

The pair are now involved in conservation groups, and hope to use social media, including their new YouTube channel, to keep showing people the beauty of the natural world that is at risk.

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

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Play Video. Duration: 1 minute 28 seconds

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

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