David Barrer and Liz Barrer Cook: Husband and Wife Wildlife Documentary Team

David Barr 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’ve captured these remote spots – and especially the animals that live there – on film.

David Barrer films killer whales from a boat
David films their hit movie about killer whales, Sea Wolves.(Supplier: Dr. Barrier and E. Barrier Cook)

With David behind the camera and recording Liz’s voice, they have produced a slew of award-winning documentaries, including several collaborations with David Attenborough.

Powerful research and being in the right place at the right time have helped them make their paycheck in nature documentary terms.

As in their 1993 Emmy Award-winning movie Sea wolveswhich for the first time captured the unusual hunting techniques of killer whales (orcas).

“They are probably our favorite animal of all time,” says Liz.

“We both love wild places.”

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

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

Elizabeth Parr Cook holding an echidna
Liz in the 1980s with a long-billed echidna in Papua New Guinea while filming Australia Nature.(Supplier: Dr. Barrier and E. Barrier Cook)

From day one, they weren’t quite sure if they were working or on vacation. Even on their honeymoon they photographed dugongs in Shark’s Bay.

The two come from very different backgrounds: David received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Monash University, and spent his early days studying cosmic rays in Antarctica. Liz has degrees in sociology and education, and is trained in the use of films as an educational tool.

David Barrer and Elizabeth Barrer Cook in Antarctica
Liz and David, pictured here in the 1980s, have won awards for their extensive work in Antarctica.(Supplier: Dr. Barrer and E. Barrer Cook)

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

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

Not that he’s a tool guy, David is quick to point out, but he does track technological advancements from special lenses to imaging techniques for getting the best shots.

Elizabeth Barrer Cook records a dugong with a large microphone in a hut in Papua New Guinea
Liz records a dugong hunter in PNG for her and David Attenborough’s film, Kiwai-Dugong Hunters of Daru, narrated by David Attenborough.(Supplier: Dr. Barrer and E. Barrer Cook)

“It’s always about furthering the story.”

Liz says people are often “a little surprised” by a husband and wife team, but for her that wasn’t a problem.

Dugongs in the ocean
This dugong was photographed by Liz and David on their honeymoon in Shark Bay.(Supplier: Dr. Barrer and E. Barrer Cook)

“We both love wild places, we love being outside, and we both love telling stories. So I think that’s why it works.”

“And we don’t fight a lot,” she laughs.

David and Lees photograph the moonrise over the desert of Exmouth Bay
David and Liz, now in their 70s, recently traveled to Western Australia where they captured the moon rising over Exmouth Bay.(Supplier: Dr. Barrer and E. Barrer Cook)

Active volcanoes and challenging terrain

while filming for Australia nature In the mid-1980s, Liz and David begin traveling to their home continent in earnest.

“We had a great feeling for Central Australia at that time,” says David.

Red flowers with black centers
One of the things that have caught the eye of Liz and David in Western Australia recently has been a field of desert peas in Sturt.(Supplier: Dr. Barrer and E. Barrer Cook)

She began an affair that saw many return trips through central Australia and along the west coast.

But their first love is the sea itselfAnd which undoubtedly played a part in the success of The Sea Wolves, was narrated by Attenborough.

David Barrer photographed on a dry salt crust in Lake Eyre
David was the first to photograph the Lake Eyre dragon living under the salt crust of the famous lake.(Supplier: Dr. Barrer and E. Barrer Cook)

The film featured groundbreaking scenes of killer whales in Norway tailing large, shallow herrings to get their dinner.

Other jaw-dropping shots were this one of killer whales sailing in to pick up young sea lions as they frolic on the beaches of Patagonia.

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

“We worked as a two-person team with other people coming to different locations,” says Liz.

Killer whales sneak ashore to catch sea lion cubs
Killer whales sneak ashore to catch sea lion cubs.(Supplier: Dr. Barrer and E. Barrer Cook)

Filming often involves challenging terrain, like when David captured spaghetti penguins on the subantarctic Crozet Islands.

David Parer photographing macaroni penguins on a steep rocky cliff
Photographing spaghetti penguins in the Crozet Islands was a risky business.(Supplier: Dr. Barrer and E. Barrer Cook)

In the late 1990s, David had to climb inside an active volcano to film terrestrial iguanas laying their eggs in the warm soil of the volcano.

“I don’t think OH&S is going to sanction flights there now,” he jokes.

David Barer with a land iguana in the warm sand of a volcano
David portrayed in voclano for Dragons of the Galapagos in 1996.(Supplier: Dr. Barrier and E. Barrier Cook)

This was when Liz and David spent two years in the Galapagos Islands with their 3-year-old daughter Filming three BBC programs opposite Attenborough, including another award-winning film Galapagos dragons.

Since 2008, after the closure of ABC’s natural history unit, the pair have been working as a standalone team.

last year They photographed wild animals for an upcoming documentary about Ningaloo, which will be hosted by Tim Winton and shown on ABC in 2023.

Elizabeth Parr Cook with microphone and flightless cormorants in the Galapagos Islands
Liz with a flightless cormorant during filming in the Galapagos Islands.(Supplier: Dr. Barrier and E. Barrier Cook)

This year they returned to the wild Ningaloo Coast World Heritage area near Exmouth, enjoying what is being called ‘Australia’s best jetty dive’ from a 300m offshore pier.

Under the water they found a two-meter grouper, gray-nosed sharks, beautiful nudibranchs, colorful sponges and an impressive school of little animals that “kept circling over their heads”.

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Liz portrays a 2-meter grouper on a pier. (Copyright D. Parer & E. Parer-Cook)

There was also a huge yellow sea serpent with a black face “as thick as your arm”, says Liz.

When they went spotting whales to see the humpbacks they saw what they thought was a piece of wood floating in the water.

“We suddenly realized that it was actually a mother whale and she had a baby on her nose and she was carrying and supporting it on the surface,” says Liz.

“So that was great magic.”

woman in a boat
Liz heads out to spot some whales in Exmouth Bay.(Supplier: Dr. Barrier and E. Barrier Cook)

How things have changed

Liz and David slowly tick off wildlife on their list of things to photograph.

They managed to shoot a movie that was hard to capture Recently numb.

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

Numbat stands on its hind legs against a tree trunk
It is estimated that there are now only 1,000 numbats left in the wild.(Supplier: Dr. Barrier and E. Barrier Cook)

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

Using a special lens, David and Liz got their first shots of Dawson’s burrowing bees, an insect that has a strange habit of digging holes in the middle of mud ponds and roads.

David Parer photographs a bee hiding with a long probe lens
David uses a probe lens to photograph Dawson’s hiding bees.(Supplier: Dr. Barrier and E. Barrier Cook)

But there is a melancholy side to decades of nature photography.

Over the years, David and Liz have witnessed first-hand changes in the landscape, from erosion to loss of species such as reptiles, small birds, mammals and insects – especially on their well-traveled Australian continent.

Orange head of a bee hiding from under the ground
A female Dawson’s burrowing bee emerges from the ground.(Supplier: Dr. Barrier and E. Barrier Cook)

“We noticed as we were driving through Nullarbor and into the desert… there was a massive decrease in the insect population,” says Liz.

“Now a bug can hardly hit your windshield.”

For Nature of Australia, back in the 1980s David and Liz photographed kelp forests on Tasmania’s east coast, but they are now being destroyed by global warming and other threats.

Both are concerned about threats to biodiversity from development and climate change in places like Exmouth Bay, known as the “Ningaloo Arboretum”.

Moonrise over Charles Naif Canyon
Moonrise over Charles Knife Canyon and Exmouth Gulf, where Liz and David have photographed several times.(Supplier: Dr. Barrier and E. Barrier Cook )

How things have changed in the last 50 yearsAnd When we all thought wild places and animals would remain the same as they were when we first filmed them,” says David.

“How wrong we were. The decline is accelerating.

“When you live in an accelerating rate of change, you don’t really recognize it until you look back.”

The couple is now involved in conservation groups, and they hope to use social media, including the new one YouTube channelto continue showing the endangered beauty of the natural world.

“We think unless you reach out to people and share what you’re seeing in these remote places… it’s very much out of sight, out of mind,” Liz says.

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Clip from one of David and Liz’s YouTube channel videos of stingrays catching swarms of falling crabs. (Copyright D. Parer & E. Parer-Cook)

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