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November 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 37, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Death of Steve Irwin, Redux

from the November, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It has been more than five years since the famed "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin died while snorkeling at Batt Reef in Queensland, Australia, during a shoot for a series called Ocean's Deadliest. He swam too close to a stingray that thrust its barb into his chest, piercing his heart and killing him shortly after. (We wrote about the incident, and the backlash, in our October 2006 issue, which you can read at )

The South Pacific Underwater Medical Society (SPUMS) collects diving fatalities in Australian waters every year in its Diving and Environmental Medicine journal, although it typically publishes them a few years later, as researchers need to compile the reports from witnesses, police and coroners to create their case studies and analyze the results and factors leading to the deaths. Below is what SPUMS wrote - -and concluded - - about Irwin's death.

Although the coronial papers about this incident are unavailable (at the request of the victim's family), some of the media reports combined with other enquiries provided useful details.

This victim was a 44-year-old male who was apparently fit and healthy, and an experienced snorkeler. His death occurred while he was making a documentary film about marine life. He was snorkeling and, at the time of the incident, was reportedly standing on, or floating above the reef in water of a depth of about five feet of seawater. He was very near a large stingray (bull ray), reportedly with a wingspan of approximately three feet across. He was positioned to enable a nearby cameraman to film both the stingray and himself in the same frame. The cameraman was in front of the stingray, and the victim was behind and above the ray when the ray turned around, rose and flicked its barbed tail, hitting the victim forcefully to the left of his sternum. He was seen to pull the barb out but then collapsed. Resuscitation was attempted on the boat and continued on shore, but was unsuccessful.

Autopsy: There is no autopsy report available but other sources report that death was found to have resulted from cardiac tamponade.

Comment: A tragic death resulting from the victim positioning himself too closely over and above a stingray, and likely causing it to feel threatened and trapped. The shallow depth placed the victim within range of the stingray's barbed tail. Removal of an embedded stingray spine is generally discouraged in the first-aid setting, as it is likely to further increase the trauma caused by the rear-facing serrations, and 'unplug' the wound. However, it is unknown whether this act made any difference to the outcome of this incident.

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