The Australian government is investigating "crocodile hunter" Steve Irwin's television company over his one-hour special "Ice Breaker."
During production of the special, which has absolutely nothing to do with crocodiles but which Animal Planet nonetheless will telecast tonight as part of "Croc Week," Irwin was filmed in the Antarctic.
"He slides down hillsides with penguins, almost rubs noses with the notoriously dangerous leopard seals, and spends the most inspiring time with two friendly humpback whales," according to Animal Planet's publicity information about the show.
Problem is, Australian law prohibits humans from coming any closer than between five and 30 meters -- that's approximately 16 to 98 feet -- from seals and penguins, depending on breeding and nesting circumstances. Swimming with whales is outright banned, the Australian Associated Press reports. Too-close interaction with Antarctic wildlife can land you a fine of up to $1 million and two years in jail.
According to Australian news reports, it was this promotional material that sparked the concern of the government's Australian Antarctic Division, which is conducting the investigation.
"He never touched an animal," a rep for Discovery networks, which includes Animal Planet, told The TV Column. "The investigation is looking at proximity. . . . If there was anything, it was completely inadvertent," the rep added. "His whole thing is conservation and survival and the well-being of animals; he would never do anything to intentionally harm an animal's natural habitat."
The Discovery spokeswoman said yesterday that Animal Planet would go ahead with the telecast and had no plans to edit the special or to run a disclaimer alerting viewers to the Australian government's concerns about some of Irwin's interactions with the wild animals in the special.
Irwin could not be reached for comment; he had told Australian media that the investigation is a "big storm in a teacup," noting modestly to Australia's Nine network, "I've got big enemies. My enemies are huge. I've got the biggest enemies in the world."
An Australian environmental official confirmed to the Australian media that Irwin's company had been given approval to film whales but it would not have allowed Irwin to jump in the water and touch or swim with them, according to the published reports.
Irwin acknowledged he swam with two humpback whales, but insisted they approached him when he climbed up onto a small iceberg after his "dry suit" ripped while filming the whales, and people on a passing ship mistakenly thought that what they saw was him riding a whale.
Irwin said it is not illegal to swim with whales, "not if the whales approach you, mate," the Australian Associated Press reported this week. "I don't think that's banned at all. . . . I'm well within my legal limits to do that."
Earlier this year, Irwin made headlines when he was shown on Australian television tossing a piece of meat to a 13-foot crocodile at his Australia Zoo while holding his month-old son under one arm.