Unlike wildlife and nature filmmaker Sir David Attenborough, Steve Irwin led his viewers on recklessly close encounters with deadly, unusual and endangered animals, with his frenetic energy and engaging boyish enthusiasm.
Although sometimes criticised for disturbing wildlife unnecessarily or for indulging in showmanship, these characteristics gave Irwin the platform he needed ,which led to worldwide fame as the exuberant host of ‘The Crocodile Hunter” television series and related documentaries.
Stephen Robert Irwin was born in February 1962, to parents Bob and Lynne Irwin in Upper Ferntree Gully, Victoria. At eight years of age, with his parents and two sisters in tow, they moved to Beerwah Queensland to open the “Beerwah Reptile and Fauna Park”. It was here that Irwin embraced wildlife, being naturally drawn to reptiles.
He caught his first venomous snake (a common brown) at the age of six, and his keen eye, would often land him in hot water with his teacher, when his priority was to save a wayward lizard on the road, not attend class on time.
By nine years of age, he was already wrestling small crocodiles hanging around boat ramps. By the 80’s, he turned his capture and management technique into a business catching problem crocodiles before they met with a poachers bullet. His devoted dog Sui was never far from the action.
With a name change to the family business, Steve’s home, “The Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park” was achieving global success. He and best mate Wes Mannion worked countless hours caring for the wildlife and maintaining the Park.
In 1991, a chance meeting would change everything for Steve. Bob now semi retired, had already handed over the reins to Steve when a visiting American tourist caught his eye. A year later he had a wife, Terri Rains. The two were married at the Methodist church in Eugene, Oregon and later would welcome two children Bindi and Robert.
While most would embark on their honeymoon, Steve and Terri opted to film a wildlife documentary with the help of John Stainton. With the aide of a video camera attached to a simple tripod, some of the footage was shown to a producer at Australia’s Channel 10 network. After viewing the tapes, 10 hours of it, a shorter version “The Crocodile Hunter” aired in 1992. The documentary was such a hit with viewers, it led to additional documentaries and eventually a regular television series.
In 1996, the program was picked up by the Discovery Channel in the USA.
Now married, Steve’s parents could finally retire, though Bob still offered his expertise and experience often struggling with the thought of completely letting go.
Steve worked tirelessly, to improve and expand his wildlife park. He renamed it one last time, to “Australia Zoo” in 1998 with a vision of turning it into a “world class” conservation and education zoo.
With his trademark khaki shirt and shorts, and his ever loving catch phrase “Crikey” Irwin’s popularity was gaining huge momentum, as did Australia Zoos growth. It expanded to from 16 acres to 80 acres and 550 animals to more than 1,000 by 2007.
In addition to running the zoo, the Irwin’s also founded “Wildlife Warriors Worldwide’ to help promote wildlife conservation, education and research, emphasising the importance of protecting, threatened and endangered animals.
Irwin wasn’t afraid to poke fun at his image as an energetic naturalist and showman. He appeared as himself in the 2001 film Dr. Dolittle 2 with Eddie Murphy, and the following year, Irwin and his wife starred in their own film,The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course.
Irwin often drew criticism for his stunts, some even saying he exploited the animals that appeared in his shows. But the worst attack on Irwin’s character stirring up even greater controversy happened in 2004 when Irwin entered a crocodile enclosure, holding his infant child in his arms. Many were shocked by the images and accused Irwin of child endangerment. Irwin avoided charges, and later when interviewed told the press that his child was never in harms way.
Irwin like his father before him, wanted his children to also embrace the zoo environment. He knew one day he too would have to pass on the torch, and it was important that his children not only love the zoo that they see, but that it run through their blood and into their hearts.
Then in September 2006, came the shock news that made world headlines. Steve Irwin who met with the jaws of crocodiles on a daily basis, was dead, killed by a freak encounter with a stingray.
Most of us would remember where we were when we heard the news. For me I was standing at the deli counter in Safeway. There were two girls serving and three customers. All of a sudden, one of the staff came running over yelling out Steve Irwin has died, he’s dead. In total unison, four of us said “was it a crocodile?”. He told us no, a stingray, to which another passerby added, “I bet there are a few “Peed off Crocks out there, hearing that news”. It was as if we all thought that day would eventually come, but to a stingray, no one ever saw that coming.
The only person with Steve at the time was Justin Lyons, his “right hand man” who had experienced 15 years of travelling and filming together.
The two men had been working on a documentary called “Oceans Deadliest” near the Barrier Reef, filming sharks, sea snakes, boxed jellyfish and blue ringed Octopus, all the animals that would make most people cringe, this was what Steve loved and environment he thrived in.
The men were eight days in, milking sea snakes and filming crocodiles. They then turned their attention to looking for tiger sharks but bad weather prevented them taking the boat out. Well Steve being Steve felt like a caged tiger, and doesn’t like just wasting time, so he suggested to Justin they go and do something else. So both men jumped into the inflatable and set off to find something to do.
The men had only been motoring for a few minutes, and they found a massive bull ray in the water. This was not unusual to the men, they had both swam with stingrays before, and needed footage for another project they were working on, so into the water they both went.
The ray was quite impressive and the men were in chest deep water when they chatted together about what they were going to do. They started shooting. Sting-rays are quite calm and if they are bothered or feel threatened, usually will just swim off, they are quite quick swimmers. The men had been shooting only for a few minutes when they both stood up again and discussed what shots to get. Justin explained that they always tried to get the animal in question between the two of them so the animal was in the foreground. They decided on one more shot where Steve would approach the ray from behind and Justin would film the ray swimming away. Justin was in the water, getting ready to take the shot when all of a sudden the ray propped itself up at the front and started stabbing wildly with its tail up and down. Hundreds of strikes in a few seconds. Justin thinks the ray may have thought Steve’s shadow was a tiger shark which preys on rays regularly. Unbeknown to Justin Steve was hurt, he kept filming the ray as it swam away. It wasn’t until Justin panned the camera back that he saw Steve in a pool of blood.
Justin’s first thought was that both men had to get out of the water immediately as they were attracting sharks. The sting ray barb was a blade about a foot in length and it sits on the middle part of the rays tail. Contrary to what was reported later in the papers, the barb didn’t come out, Steve didn’t pull it out of his chest, rather it was a freak accident where the end of the barb which is like a serrated knife hit Steve in the heart region of his chest causing a deep knife wound. Steve’s immediate thought was that it had punctured his lung and that is what he yelled as he stood up in the water. Within 30 seconds, the inflatable that had been motoring around was next to them and they lifted Steve into the boat and assessed the situation.
Steve had a two inch gash above his heart with blood and fluid coming out of it, so they charged towards the mother ship “Croc One” as fast as they could. Steve was in incredible pain. Rays have venom on the end of their barb, so he would have endured extreme pain, on top of being stabbed in the heart. Justin knew that Steve had an extremely strong threshold for pain, so when he was telling him he was in pain, it had to be excruciating. At the time Steve didn’t know it had gone through his heart, he knew it did enter his lung as he was having difficulty breathing. Looking back Justin says even if they would have got Steve to an emergency ward right at the moment in time, they still wouldn’t have been able to save him, the damage to his heart was massive.
As they are motoring back in the boat, Justin is screaming at another in the boat to place their hand over the wound and they are trying there best to comfort him by telling him things like – to think of his kids, its going to be alright. It was then that Steve very calmly looked up at Justin and said his final words, “I’m dying”. Justin at the time didn’t know it had pierced his heart, he also thought it had just got his lung, so once they arrived at Croc One, they placed him onto the duck board and began CPR. Justin did CPR on Steve for literally an hour before they got back to shore where they were met with a medi-vac helicopter and trained medics. Once the medics looked at Steve they pronounced him dead within 10 seconds of viewing him.
Another cameraman filmed attempts to save him, following Irwin’s strict orders that anything that happened to him during filming should be recorded. Lyons said he did not know what had happened to the footage, and did not think it should ever be shown in any form: “Never. Out of respect for his family, I would say never.”
Love him or hate him, an Aussie icon died that day, but the legacy he has left behind will live on with the continued efforts and work of his two children Bindi and Robert.
A death in the family usually brings loved ones closer, but unfortunately for the Irwin’s, it tore them apart. Just 18 months after the Crocodile Hunters death, his widow Terri Irwin and father in law Bob had a serious falling out over the direction of the zoo.
In Bobs own words – “Steve’s ultimate passion, even from a young boy, was always for the conservation of Australian wildlife and its habitat. When [second wife] Judy and I move to our new property we intend to carry on with wildlife rehabilitation and conservation projects and therefore continue Steve’s and my dream.”
Bob was concerned Australia Zoo was being overly commercialised. This was believed to have sparked Bob’s departure.
Bob who lost Lynne his wife in a tragic car accident in 2000 had reportedly not spoken to Terri, Bindi or Robert since his departure. Since then, Bindi, along with her mother and brother, Robert have chosen to shun their elderly relative and exclude him from their lives.
He didn’t even make the guest list at Bindi’s wedding and now that Bindi is a mum, he’s having to contend with the fact that she’s a grown up , married woman and in control of her own life.
Bob knows in his bones he will never be allowed to meet his grandchild. Only over Terri’s dead body would that happen.
So for now, the best Bob can do is, watch proudly from afar at both Bindi and Robert’s achievements in the hope that one day, they will all be reunited.