SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Steve Irwin, the enthusiastic "Crocodile Hunter" who enthralled audiences around the
world with his wildlife adventures, died Monday morning after being stung by a stingray while shooting a TV program off Australia's
Media reports say Irwin was snorkeling at Batt Reef, a part of the Great Barrier Reef about 9 miles (about 15 kilometers)
from the town of Port Douglas, when the incident happened.
Irwin, 44, was killed by a stingray barb that pierced his chest, according to Cairns police sources.
Irwin was in the area to film pieces for a show called "The Ocean's Deadliest" with Philippe Cousteau, grandson of Jacques,
according to Irwin's manager and friend John Stainton. But weather had prevented the crew from doing work for that program,
Stainton said, so Irwin decided to do some softer features for a new children's TV show he was doing with his daughter, Bindi.
"He came over the top of a stingray that was buried in the sand, and the barb came up and hit him in the chest," Stainton
Wildlife documentary maker Ben Cropp, citing a colleague who saw footage of the attack, told Time.com that Irwin had accidentally
boxed the animal in. "It stopped and twisted and threw up its tail with the spike, and it caught him in the chest," said Cropp.
"It's a defensive thing. It's like being stabbed with a dirty dagger." (Read the TIME.com obituary.)
Ambulance officers confirmed they attended a reef fatality Monday morning off Port Douglas, according to Australian media.
(Gallery: The life of the "Crocodile Hunter")
Queensland Police Services also confirmed Irwin's death and said his family had been notified.
Irwin was director of the Australia Zoo in Queensland. He is survived by his American-born wife, Terri, and their two children,
Bindi Sue, born 1998, and Robert (Bob), born December 2003.
"The world has lost a great wildlife icon, a passionate conservationist and one of the proudest dads on the planet," Stainton
told reporters in Cairns, according to The Associated Press. "He died doing what he loved best and left this world in a happy
and peaceful state of mind. He would have said, 'Crocs Rule!' " (Watch a remembrance of Steve Irwin -- 1:58)
"Steve was a larger-than-life force. He brought joy and learning about the natural world to millions and millions of people
across the globe," said Discovery Communications founder and chairman John Hendricks in a statement. "We extend our thoughts
and prayers to Terri, Bindi and Bob Irwin as well as to the incredible staff and many friends Steve leaves behind."
Irwin's "Crocodile Hunter" show aired on the company's Animal Planet network.
Cousteau's office issued a statement that he is "still in Australia with the family of his friend, Steve Irwin. It was
a tragic ordeal for everyone on the boat that morning. All of our thoughts are now with Steve's family."
Discovery Communications said it will rename the garden space in front of Discovery's world headquarters in Silver Spring,
Maryland, the "Steve Irwin Memorial Sensory Garden."
The company also is looking at the creation of a Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunter Fund. The fund will support wildlife protection,
education and conservation, as well as aid Irwin's Australia Zoo and provide educational support for Bindi and Bob Irwin,
the company said.
Australia Prime Minister John Howard said he was "shocked and distressed at Steve Irwin's sudden, untimely and freakish
death," according to AP. "It's a huge loss to Australia."
Irwin became a popular figure on Australian and international television through Irwin's close handling of wildlife, most
notably the capture and relocation of crocodiles.
Irwin's enthusiastic approach to nature conservation and the environment won him a global following. He was known for his
exuberance and use of the catch phrase "Crikey!" (E-mail us: How will you remember Steve Irwin?)
"His message is really about conservation: He really wants to leave the world a better place for everybody," Animal Planet's
Maureen Smith told CNN.com in April.
"It's unbelievable, really," Jack Hanna, the host of "Jack Hanna's Animal Adventure" and director emeritus of the Columbus
(Ohio) Zoo, told CNN. "You think about Steve Irwin and you think of people who are invincible."
Hanna, a friend of Irwin's, noted that Irwin's persona of the Crocodile Hunter was no act. Irwin grew up around crocodiles,
snakes and other animals at his parents' Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park and had been handling such creatures since he was
"Steve really knew what he was doing. He was one of the finest reptile people in the world. He knew more about reptiles
than anybody did. He was raised that way," said Hanna.
Though stingrays can be threatening, their sting -- usually prompted by self-defense -- is not often fatal. The bull ray
that apparently stung Irwin was "a one-in-a-million thing," Cropp told Time.com. "I have swum with many rays, and I have only
had one do that to me." (Watch a marine biologist talk about the dangers of stingrays -- 3:48)
"A wild animal is like a loaded gun -- it can go off at any time," Hanna said. "You have to be careful of that." But, he
added, it's not the animals who are inherently dangerous, but the way they may react around humans. "People use the word 'dangerous,'
and that sometimes is a word that's not fair to that animal, because that animal is only using the defenses that God gave
it," said Hanna.
Rise to popularity
Irwin became popular with his show "Crocodile Hunter," which first aired on Australian TV in 1992. Eventually, the program
was picked up by Discovery in the United States, establishing Irwin worldwide.
His popularity led to a film, "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course" (2002).
Irwin was caught in a minor flap in January 2004 when he held his then 1-month-old son while feeding a crocodile at his
Australian zoo. (Full story)
In 2003, Irwin spoke to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s "Australian Story" television program about how he was perceived
in his home country.
"When I see what's happened all over the world, they're looking at me as this very popular, wildlife warrior Australian
bloke," he told the ABC.
"And yet back here in my own country, some people find me a little bit embarrassing. You know, there's this ... they kind
of cringe, you know, 'cause I'm coming out with 'Crikey' and 'Look at this beauty.' "
At Australia Zoo at Beerwah, south Queensland, floral tributes were dropped at the entrance, where a huge fake crocodile
gapes, the AP reported. Drivers honked their horns as they passed.
"Steve, from all God's creatures, thank you. Rest in peace," was written on a card with a bouquet of native flowers.
"We're all very shocked. I don't know what the zoo will do without him. He's done so much for us, the environment and it's
a big loss," said Paula Kelly, a local resident and volunteer at the zoo, after dropping off a wreath at the gate, according
to the AP.
"He has left a legacy: That people do love some of the unloved animals like crocodiles and reptiles that people wanted
to kill," Stainton told CNN. "He's actually put a position in their hearts for them. I want that to continue. ... I want people
to really go out there and remember Steve Irwin for what he really was, which was a great conservationist, saving wildlife
and actually promoting wildlife that people didn't love."
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or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.