Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006

Death of a Crocodile Hunter, September 7, 2006

Australian naturalist Steve Irwin was famous for getting up close and personal with his deadly subjects. He leapt fearlessly on to the backs of man-eating crocodiles, wrestled Komodo Dragons and deftly juggled snakes as they sought to plunge their venomous fangs into his arm or face, all the while keeping up a lively commentary for the cameras of his multimillion-dollar documentary operation. Scratched, bitten and bruised, he would display his wounds like trophies, casually using gaffer tape to bind up a severe bite from a large saltwater crocodile that he had been wrestling in a mangrove swamp. "Steve Irwin's all pretty interesting on the telly or in the movie and that, but by crikey, it's great when he gets bitten," he once told Australia's ABC television. "Now and again I do get bitten. But I haven't been killed. And it's that, you know, that sense of morbidity that people do have. There's no use sticking your head in the sand and going, 'Oh, no, they're only here because, you know, I talk well.' Nah, man, they wanna see me come unglued."

This morning, at 11am Australian time, things finally came unglued for the 44-year-old as he was shooting a documentary segment on stingrays. Snorkeling on Batt Reef , a stretch of the Great Barrier Reef about 15km from Port Douglas in North Queensland, Irwin happened to swim over a large ray which, startled, whipped its barbed tail upwards into his chest. He died instantly. Veteran marine wildlife documentary maker Ben Cropp, who has spent hundreds of hours filming on Batt Reef, says Irwin had come too close to a bull ray. Citing a colleague who saw footage of the attack, Cropp says Irwin had accidently boxed the animal in, causing it to attack. "It stopped and twisted and threw up its tail with the spike, and it caught him in the chest," says Cropp. "It's a defensive thing. It's like being stabbed with a dirty dagger." Irwin's longtime friend and producer John Stainton said, "He died doing what he loves best, and left this world in a happy and peaceful state of mind. He would have said, Crocs rule."