When the news came that Steve Irwin, the 44-year-old host of Animal Planet’s The Crocodile Hunter, was fatally attacked by a stingray at the Great Barrier Reef, a few of us needed a minute or two to summon the proper respect for the deceased. This had something to do with the freakishly exotic nature of the accident—death by stingray sounds like something contrived by Dr. No—and you must allow for the unavoidable gallows humor attendant to the fact that Irwin was filming a documentary titled The Ocean’s Deadliest. But it mostly had to do with the cartoonish shape and shading of his public face.
Hadn’t he made a living by laughing hard in the face of danger? How could he be gone when he’d never seemed quite real to begin with? Never mind the fact that he was a self-taught biologist actually raised on a wildlife park and therefore the real deal; he quite often looked like a parody of an intrepid naturalist. You would flip on the Tonight Show to find him subduing strange creatures in an outrageously matter-of-fact manner. You would turn on the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet and see him again in that costume that read like some kind of butch, down-under drag—omnipresent safari shirt, unembarrassed shorts, unwaveringly ugly bowl cut. All muscle; all courage; no worries, mate. His exclamatory catchphrase was “Crikey,” for Christ’s sake. Here is a man who seemed genuinely confused by the fuss when being criticized for feeding a crocodile with one hand while cradling his baby in the other.
This is all by way of asking Irwin to forgive us that moment of failed mourning. While that son has lost a father and conservationists have lost an ally, the home viewer will be missing a man who brought wildlife TV into the future by turning it into something of an extreme sport. Jacques Cousteau was impossibly enchanting, and Marlin Perkins was as paternal as a wizard, but Steve Irwin was a magical ham.