Young Man and the Sea

Philippe Cousteau Jr., the grandson of Jacques, did not hesitate to finish the documentary he was working on with Steve Irwin when the TV star/naturalist died in September.
Philippe Cousteau Jr., the grandson of Jacques, did not hesitate to finish the documentary he was working on with Steve Irwin when the TV star/naturalist died in September. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)

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By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 20, 2007

It was a beautiful day aboard Croc One, the water calm along Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the movie crew in good spirits. Philippe Cousteau Jr. and his co-host, "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, had gone there to film their Animal Planet special, "Ocean's Deadliest."

Cousteau, a multimedia conservationist and grandson of legendary oceanographer Jacques, was relaxing, doing research, when Irwin decided to go snorkeling. Not long afterward, a call came over the radio: Irwin had been pierced in the heart by a stingray barb.

"They brought him up to the dinghy and to the back of the boat," Cousteau recalls of the events last September. "It was terrible. We did everything we could to resuscitate him. It took about an hour and a half to get to [shore]. . . . We did CPR that whole time, switching off."

They all feared the worst, but it was not until the paramedics confirmed Irwin's death that the shock truly hit. Cousteau and the rest of the shaken crew went to a hotel and told stories, had a few drinks, tried to find comfort in each other's company.

At 5 the next morning, the phone rang in Cousteau's room. It was John Stainton, Irwin's longtime producer and best friend.

"Would you consider finishing the film?" Stainton asked Cousteau.

There was no question in Cousteau's mind. Absolutely.

The result is a 90-minute documentary, premiering tomorrow night at 8, that explores stonefish and great white sharks, saltwater crocodiles, sea snakes and the greater blue-ringed octopus -- and delivers an overarching message about conservation. Cousteau serves as the lone narrator and host, but the project is laced with Irwin's energy and irrepressible nature.

Immediately after Irwin's death, "we obviously said, 'Let's set this aside and give you guys time to grieve and deal with the family and everything that's going on,' " says Jason Carey, the film's executive producer. "But as that night went on, everybody -- John, Philippe and the crew that had been working with Steve for so many years -- felt it was a mission to complete the final documentary that Steve worked on."

The filming certainly was not easy. Back on the boat several days later, the crew remained shell-shocked. "I was the one who knew him the least of everybody on that boat," Cousteau says, "and I was devastated."

Cousteau had befriended Irwin, whom he admired. But the loss also brought up Cousteau's past: When his mother, Jan, was six months pregnant with him (and his sister, Alexandra, was 3), his father -- famed marine biologist Philippe Cousteau Sr. -- was killed in a plane crash. Like Cousteau Sr., Irwin left behind a wife (Terri), a young daughter (Bindi, now 8) and a son (Bob, 3).

"The whole thing, all the similarities -- that it was on expedition, that it was a freak accident -- were haunting," Cousteau says. "That immediately hit me like a freight train."


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