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October 2006 Vol. 32, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Crikey! Irwin's Death Stirs Backlash

should anyone confront wildlife?

from the October, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The tragic encounter between flamboyant Australian naturalist Steve (“Crikey!”) Irwin and a stingray last month has generated a storm of media criticism regarding his confrontational approach to wildlife.

Irwin, 44, was snorkeling at Batt Reef, off northeastern Queensland state, while shooting a series called Ocean’s Deadliest, when he swam too close to a 6-foot-wide stingray that thrust its 8-inch barb into his chest, piercing his heart. The TV star’s last act was to yank the dagger-sharp barb from his chest. According to eyewitness reports, Irwin was barely conscious as his production team rushed him to his vessel, Croc One. He was pronounced dead shortly afterward by Queensland Rescue Service officers.

Companions who had been filming Irwin told the Australian media that the self-proclaimed “Crocodile Hunter” did not provoke the stingray and was simply swimming above it when he was attacked. They suggested that the ray “probably felt threatened because Steve was alongside and there was the cameraman ahead, and it felt there was danger and it balked.”

Typically, rays are more likely to flee than fight. Before this incident, only 17 fatal stingray attacks had been recorded throughout the world, according to the Daily Telegraph. A more typical incident occurred in September, when a New Zealand crayfish diver was stung at Okiwi Bay. Joe McKnight suddenly felt a stab on his leg and a one-meter-wide stingray attached to him for five seconds. His leg went numb. Friends on his dive boat bandaged it and took him to shore, where he was taken to a hospital, treated and discharged.

A ray’s barb is a fragile defense mechanism, and although rays can regenerate lost barbs, until they do, they’re more vulnerable than usual. The ray that defended himself against Irwin must have felt particularly threatened to react with his barb. Irwin’s crew has turned their footage over to Queensland police, but they and his family are opposed to releasing it to the public.

As word of the bizarre tragedy flashed around the world, Queensland state Premier Peter Beattie, describing Irwin as possibly the best-known Australian in the world, offered a state funeral. But others were not so kind.

In the Guardian, expatriate Australian academic Germaine Greer wrote, “The animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin.” Quoting marine biologist Dr. Meredith Peach as saying, “It’s really quite unusual for divers to be stung unless they are grappling with the animal,” Greer pointed out, “What Irwin never seemed to understand was that animals need space… There was no habitat, no matter how fragile or finely balanced, that Irwin hesitated to barge into, trumpeting his wonder and amazement to the skies. There was not an animal he was not prepared to manhandle.” Greer also said she hoped Irwin’s death would signal the end of what she described as the exploitative nature of such documentaries.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders added, “When human beings mistake wildlife for Walt Disney characters, they fail to appreciate wild animals for what they truly are —- wild. Read: Not susceptible to boyish charm…“

Even comic Bill Maher weighed in: “It shouldn’t be surprising when a stingray stings someone,” he suggested. “They’re not called HUG rays!”

Many guides and some divers often display their own versions of Irwin’s hubris, including the handling of nurse sharks, moray eels, scorpionfish, lionfish and sea snakes. In the June 2002 Undercurrent, we reported about Dr. Erich Ritter, a leader against the Florida shark feeding ban, who claimed that he could keep sharks away by modifying his heart rate. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Ritter was in waist-deep water at Walker’s Cay in the Bahamas when a big lemon shark bit a large hunk out of his left calf. “That was an accident waiting to happen,” said Samuel Gruber, a University of Miami professor. “Erich takes certain chances based on what he thinks he knows about shark behavior, but there is no evidence to support his theories,” he said.

The most bizarre twist to the Irwin tragedy came in a London Times online report that fans’ mourning has taken a new focus: stingray rage. Within days of his death, at least ten stingrays were found dead and mutilated on Australia’s eastern coast “in what conservationists believe could be revenge attacks for the death of Steve Irwin,” according to the Times.

Mindless vengeance aside, the clear lesson here is that wild animals are best observed in their natural habitat, doing their own thing. When they choose to peaceably interact with humans, that’s a special moment – made even more magical through its rarity. Forcing the issue by teasing or feeding them is bad for wildlife, and can be disastrous for divers who try it. Hopefully, there’s a lesson in the Irwin tragedy for the dive industry and all divers.

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