'Crocodile Hunter' Stalked Danger

"The day has come where we can't keep looking at wildlife on a long lens on a tripod," said Steve Irwin, who got personal with crocs and other creatures. (Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Steve Irwin, 44, the hyper-enthusiastic, thrill-seeking Australian wildlife conservationist who gained a worldwide following with his television show "The Crocodile Hunter," died yesterday after a stingray attack while filming along the Great Barrier Reef.

Irwin was swimming in shallow water off the northeastern Australian coastline, 60 miles north of Cairns, when the ray's barbed tip punctured his heart. On location for a new documentary series called "Ocean's Deadliest," he had taken the day off because of uncooperative weather and instead was diving for his 8-year-old daughter's new television series.

He was following a fleet of stingrays when one turned on him and fatally struck, an extraordinarily rare action. In the past decade, 17 deaths worldwide were the direct result of stingray barb injuries, according to Surf Life Saving Australia, a beach-safety resource organization. The poisonous spine at the top of the ray's whiplike tail can tense and strike if the sea creature feels threatened, but the jab from the 10-inch barb seldom is fatal. Footage of the incident, which police seized, shows the animal turning and hitting Irwin, who immediately collapses in the water, according to The Australian newspaper.

Irwin was taken by his boat, Croc One, to a rescue helicopter that flew to a nearby island. Despite attempts at resuscitation, he was pronounced dead before reaching a hospital.

Irwin was known for getting melodramatically near the claws and jaws of land and sea creatures. This was the allure of his television franchise, mostly seen by American audiences on the Animal Planet cable channel for the past decade.

"While most shows use long lenses, we get right up close so the audience feels like they're smack in the middle of the bush," Irwin told Entertainment Weekly magazine. "One time, a 10-foot saltwater croc grabbed me on the hand and -- whap! -- pulled me into the water. Luckily, I swung around and landed on his head, which gave him a bit of a shock and gave me just enough time to get away."

In the tradition of Marlin Perkins, Jacques Cousteau and, more recently, Bill Nye, Irwin was credited with popularizing wildlife science. He staked out animals in their habitats while lecturing to viewers in a whisper and keeping ever alert to a sighting. He was typically garbed in khaki shorts and short-sleeve shirts, giving him the appearance of an explorer on safari, and his shaggy blond hair, parted in the middle, gave him a friendly, boyish air.

His signature was an explosion of exclamations in his thick Australian drawl, typically "Crikey!" when in awe, "Gorgeous!" when showing off some reptile's charms or "Danger! Danger! Danger!" when even he knew it was wiser to keep a distance from an aroused animal.

He boasted of hand-feeding the world's most venomous snakes without being bitten. However, a 13-year-old female saltwater crocodile once took a large bite from part of his leg, a snack Irwin could understand from the animal's perspective: "The poor little female was just defending herself."

He carved such a distinctive personality that he launched a mini business empire of toys and games based on his programs. He starred in a feature film in 2002 -- "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course," in which the CIA goes looking for a fallen satellite that has been swallowed by a crocodile -- and was a pitchman for Pentax cameras and FedEx.

Irwin was also much parodied, memorably on the animated "South Park" show, and his catchphrases inspired college drinking games. He lampooned himself on the NBC show "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" by wrestling an inflatable crocodile in a kiddie pool -- one of hundreds of promotional appearances he made all over the world.

He was a national icon in Australia, where Prime Minister John Howard invited Irwin to a prawns-and-Chablis barbecue welcoming President Bush in 2003. To much derision, Irwin had called Howard "the greatest leader Australia has ever had and the greatest leader in the world," but he soon backed down by saying, "Oh, mate, politics. Give me a break. It's far safer in a crocodile farm."

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