“Because when they strike it can be that quick that if they're within range, you're dead, you're dead in your tracks.” Steve Irwin was describing crocodiles; animals which have lived on the planet since pre-dinosaur times. Sting Rays have been around a while too, about half the timescale of crocodiles but lack their fearsome reputation. The first fossil record dates the species Dasyatidae from the Upper Cretaceous, about 100 million years ago). But although sting rays have no reputation as killers, most species have at least one long venomous spine or barb on their tails, capable of causing excruciating pain. Rays do not attack aggressively, or even actively defend themselves. When threatened their primary reaction is to swim away. However if a predator attacks, they whip up their tails and mechanically release the barb. It is an evolutionary disappointment. The tactic doesn’t work against their main enemy, their fellow cartilaginous sharks.
Injuries to humans from stingrays usually occur when an unsuspecting person trods on a ray, causing the creature to reflexively strike out with its tail. The stinger apparatus then injects a protein-based toxin into the wound, causing an immediate intense reaction. Resultant wounds produce sharp, shooting, throbbing pain. The toxin can also produce a fall in blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, cardiac failure and muscular paralysis. There is no known antidote; however, death in humans is rare.
It is unlikely that someone as experienced as Irwin would have trod on the ray. If he had, he would have survived (albeit in great agony). Instead he was pierced in the chest and died instantly. Irwin was filming the ray off the Low Islands in the Barrier Reef 15km north-east of Port Douglas. Fellow-Australian wildlife filmmaker David Ireland told Southern Cross Broadcasting radio: "They have one or two barbs in the tails which are not only coated in toxic material but are also like a bayonet, like a bayonet on a rifle. If it hits any vital organs it's as deadly as a bayonet."
Steve Irwin was probably the most famous Australian of his time. He made almost 50 TV documentaries which appeared on the cable channel Animal Planet, attracting a global audience of 200 million. He was born in Melbourne suburb of Essendon in 1962. His father Bob was a successful plumber who caught snakes in his spare time for the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory. But Bob Irwin gave his trade away to follow his passion of reptiles. Steve’s mother Lyn was a nurse who wanted to help native animals hit by cars. So the family moved to the Queensland Sunshine Coast and started the small Beerwah Reptile Park in 1970. Steve eventually took over the premises and turned the tiny zoo into one of Queensland’s major tourist attractions. Through gradual land acquisition he enlarged it 16 times its original size and renamed it Australia Zoo. The zoo now holds a 5,000 seater stadium for crocodile and other animal shows.
His movie Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course opened in the United States up against the might of the summer blockbuster Men in Black II. It took a hefty $10m in its opening weekend. Irwin dedicated the film to his mother who was killed in a car accident during the production. While the production values of the film may not have impressed the critics, there was no denying Irwin’s environmental values. He said “every cent we earn from Crocodile Hunter goes straight back into conservation”. He met his American wife Terri when she arrived at his zoo in 1991. Terri grew up in Oregon where her trucker father regularly brought home injured animals. This instilled an ongoing commitment to saving and rehabilitating wild animals. She worked as a vet and founded a rehabilitation clinic to release mammals back into the wild. She travelled to Australia to visit wildlife rehabilitation facilities and had a whirlwind romance with Steve. They married a year later.
The couple opted to go crocodile trapping for their honeymoon. They invited a camera crew along to film the expedition, which later become the first episode of their hit television show The Crocodile Hunter. His unique style and undoubted passion for crocodiles struck a chord with his viewers. He was described as a “crazed cross between Tarzan and a frat pledge”, but his natural prowess with animals allied to a hyper dinky-di Aussie delivery and trademark khaki suits quickly gained him a cult reputation. But as the Age argued his wild showmanship is one of the smartest fronts in the country. The great wealth that his fame has made him is pumped into conservation. In the times when he was not busy making films, he bought up land to revegetate and to breed endangered species upon. The Irwins have bought 27,200 hectares, most of which is in the Murray-Darling Basin west of Brisbane. He has also bought land in Tasmania and the US. In 2002 he bought 100 hectares of heath land near his zoo complete with its populations of greater gliders, wallabies, snakes and platypuses.
Now there is another generation waiting in the wings. Irwin’s friend and manager John Stainton said today that Steve’s 8-year old daughter Bindi will follow in the footsteps of her famous father "like the true wildlife warrior that she is". The attack occurred while they were filming for her screen debut with her new series to be launched worldwide in early 2007.
Andrew Denton asked Irwin whether Australians found him embarrassing. Irwin’s answer was illuminating: "Yeah, I do. I do. Absolutely. I'm very embarrassing to look at. You know why? Here's why I'm embarrassing. Because there's a little bit of me in everybody. There really is, you know? I'm like the boy that never grew up. Um, I'm very, very passionate about what I do. I mean, I love what I do."