"Crocodile Hunter" Death Extremely Rare, Caught on Film

Stephanie Peatling in Sydney, Australia
for National Geographic News
Updated September 6, 2006
An initial postmortem examination has confirmed that Australian
environmentalist, zoo owner, and television personality Steve Irwin, the
"Crocodile Hunter," was killed when a stingray's venomous barb pierced
his heart at about 11 a.m., local time, on Monday.

(Related video: about stingrays and their poisonous potential.)

Police investigating the incident told a packed press conference yesterday that his death was the result of a highly unusual accident.

"We're not going into the detail, but there's definitely no surprises," a police spokesperson said.

"Everyone knows how he died."

Caught on Film

A coroner was to begin an examination yesterday and will consider video footage of the attack, which happened as Irwin swam over Batt Reef, off the Australian state of Queensland (map of Australia).

Irwin's friend, director, and producer, John Stainton, who was on Irwin's boat Croc One when the attack happened, said yesterday at the press conference that it is too early to release the footage of his friend's fatal encounter to the public. Last night on CNN's Larry King Live talk show he went further.

"I mean, it should be destroyed," Stainton told King. "When that is finally released [from police custody], it will never see the light of day. Ever. Ever. I actually saw it, but I don't want to see it again."

The stingray attack was caught on film during the production of a new television special Irwin was making with his eight-year-old daughter, Bindi Sue. The documentary was to have been screened in the United States next year.

The footage shows Irwin pulling the stingray's barb out of his chest before losing consciousness, Stainton says.

"It's a very hard thing to watch, because you're actually witnessing somebody die … and it's terrible," Stainton said at the press conference.

"It shows that Steve came over the top of the ray, and the tail came up and spiked him here [in the chest] and he pulled it out. And the next minute he's gone. That was it. The cameraman had to shut down."

Freak Occurrence

The circumstances of Irwin's demise are very rare. Experts believe his death is only the third ever caused by a stingray in Australian waters.

Stingrays are normally placid. But the barb of a stingray's tail is like a serrated knife and could easily impale a person, Mark Meekan, a research scientist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

"People usually only get stung by stingrays [when the animals are] defending themselves," Meekan said.

"The ray flips its tail over and will try to stab whatever is attacking it. They are very fast, and most people don't see the stingray attack."

The barbs do carry some toxins but, Meekan says, a person who is stung is more likely to suffer from perforation of arteries or blood vessels.

The doctor who treated Irwin described his death as "highly unusual."

Ed O'Loughlin was aboard the Emergency Management Queensland helicopter that flew to the scene of the attack.

"It became clear fairly soon that he had nonsurvivable injuries. He had a penetrating injury to the left front of his chest. He had lost his pulse and wasn't breathing."

(Related news: "Venomous Fish Far Outnumber Snakes, Other Vertebrates, Study Says" [Spetember 1, 2006].)

Tributes, Tirades

News of Irwin's death spread quickly, drawing hundreds of mourners to Irwin's Australia Zoo, which he operated alongside his wife and on-camera partner, Terri, in southern Queensland.

Politicians, businesspeople, and entertainers offered tributes.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said, "He was one of those great quintessential Australian faces that people recognized everywhere. He was a larrikin [a cheeky rebel], yes. But he was a really warmhearted bloke as well, and he cared passionately about Australia and he cared passionately about the Australian environment."

One notable dissenter is Australian academic and writer Germaine Greer, who castigated Irwin today for "manhandling" animals, filming them in distress, and confining them at his zoo.

"The animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin, but probably not before a whole generation of kids in shorts seven sizes too small has learned to shout in the ears of animals with hearing ten times more acute than theirs, determined to become millionaire animal-loving zoo-owners in their turn."

Today Irwin's family declined the offer of a state funeral. Earlier in the day Irwin's father, Bob Irwin, had told reporters, "He's just an ordinary bloke, and he wants to be remembered as an ordinary bloke."

Discovery Communications, a U.S. media company, owns the Animal Planet TV channel, which broadcasts Irwin's programs. That company says it will create the Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunter Fund, to be nicknamed "The Crikey Fund," after Irwin's signature exclamaton.

The president of Discovery Networks, Billy Campbell, said the fund would "honor Steve's passion and exuberance for conservation" by helping Australia Zoo. It will also contribute to an education fund for Bindi Sue and Irwin's three-year-old son, Bob.

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