STEVE IRWIN'S DEMISE
DEATH BY MISADVENTURE
I have every respect and sympathy for Steve's family and friends and the loss they have suffered however the fact remains that it was a totally unnecessary death, the waste of a great Australian icon and a significant blow for the snorkelling and diving community all around the Indo-Pacific region.
The question remains, why did Steve die?
If I am to understand the media reports given by Steve's manager on "A Current Affair" they were making a series of documentaries including work on the "Ocean's Deadliest".
To obtain this image I was swimming beside this 3 metre Merten's Stingray at 25 metres. Using a Nikonos 111 camera and 15 mm lens meant that I was only 1.5 metres from the stingray, yet there is no hint from the animal sees my presence as a threat. The tail is lowered and the huge barb is plainly visible.
In production, Steve was in the starring role and did all the on-camera work as he has done on a many other feature film documentaries about mostly land-orientated dangerous and venomous animals which he obviously knew a lot about, because he had only had a few minor injuries from these.
In many cases, especially with crocodile captures, he had a crew with him to help manage the animals.
Even from a fair distance away this Meyen's Stingray Taeniura meyeni has its tail half up, signalling that it feels threatened and warning the approaching divers not to come closer.
Batt Reef on the Great Barrier Reef has a large population of giant stingrays and according to film crewmember Peter West's statement; Steve noticed a large group of stingrays and decided to interrupt his planned scheduled shoot to film a segment on the stingrays to make the most of the opportunity.
Once the underwater cameramen were in position it appears that Steve (who was on snorkel) swam down directly over the top of a ray from behind with the intention of snorkelling along with the ray as it swam past the camera.
Because the stingray's attention is focussed on the approaching diver ( who has maintained a low profile approach) it has allowed me to obtain a very close image of the behaviour from a very safe position behind the stingray's tail ( which is still raised in warning)
However, I am very conscious that should the diver make any attempt to touch the stingray, it could immediately panic, reverse direction and I would have been in a very dangerous situation. I took the risk to get the images I wanted for my book, to show that most creatures in the World of Water give a warning. Its up to us to learn the language.
Immediately the stingray's defence mechanism went into fright reaction and the tail shot up and over towards its head.
The huge skin-enclosed venom-laden needle-sharp, serrated spine stabbed directly up into Steves upper thorax and straight up into his heart. He never stood a chance. He probably didnt know what hit him and his last reaction was to pull out the spine and in that very second his life ended. Death by misadventure.
The venomous spine on the tail of Merten's Stingray ( similar to most large, spine armed Stingrays) is well – developed and a very awesome weapon. It is primarily used to defend the ray against predators such as large sharks, some of which are very partial to eating stingrays.
The ray stabs up, over and downwards towards its head. In many cases the spine breaks off in the body of the victim. However, the venom does not appear to deter some sharks, as some Giant hammerheads may have several spines embedded in the head, or around the jaws.
( photo: John Natoli)
COULD A LITTLE RESEARCH HAVE MADE THE DIFFERENCE?
This terrible tragedy had nothing to do with me, yet I feel an immense loss because common knowledge could have saved Steve.
I tried to get my book out into the public arena, but unfortunately a book that actually saved lives was not viewed as saleable.
Most dive shops wouldn't sell my Dangerous, Venomous and Poisonous Survival Guides because they said it gave a negative outlook to scuba diving.
How can explaining that "PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE" and saving lives and injuries to divers, snorkellers and reef walkers be negative?
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I knew all the risks of swimming with Sting Rays and how it could be done without getting hurt. I had spent many years doing just that. Because of my own programmed fears I set out in 1963 to discover the truth about sea creatures and the reasons as to why divers and people were injured and killed.
Although the Blue – spotted Stingray Dasyatis kuhlii only grows to 70 cm, its habit of buring beneath the sand makes it very real hazard to divers and snorkellers, esrecially on night dives. Its two long venomous barbs in the tail, make any accident, a serious one.
I did this by taking an expedition around Australia ( the Australian Coastal Marine Expedition) to face my own fears and discover the truth about most of the dangerous and venomous creatures in the waters around the coastline of Australia and since then, across the Asia/Indo – Pacific region.
Over the many years my books have been in publication they have assisted thousands of divers and saved 'more than a few lives'.
Often caught up in the nets of trawlers the Black Stingray Dasyatis thetidis grows to over 400 cm and has accidently been the cause of at least one trawlerman's death.
However, I and many other underwater photographers have been swimming beside these giants for 40 years with no cause for concern.
Surely, the diving industry must begin to realise that the unpreceeded negative publicity towards the adventure activety of scuba diving brought about by Steve Erwin's death caused immeasurable damage to the industry as a whole for years to come.
We must avoid this kind of media frenzy at all costs and by allowing everybody the benifit of underwater education in the real world where people can sort out the facts from fiction and make choices based on truth.
Although it seems little solace now, my book Dangerous Sea Creatures Aquatic Survival Guide – Prevention is Better than Cure WAS one of a kind, written to teach divers and snorkellers how to manage themselves with dangerous and venomous underwater creatures and not get hurt.
Within Australia there are five recorded deaths by venomous stingray barbs. Of course, many hundreds, even thousands of fishermen, waders, divers and reef walkers have been spined and suffered non-life threatening wounds from small stingrays, myself included.
Stingrays actually sleep under the sand and also use it as a getaway escape plan, or to hide from predators such as sharks. However, they always have a telltale outline of their body and divers should recognise where they are and not swim over them.
In one fatality a trawler man in South Australia attempted to gaff a large stingray dropped from the net into the sorting tray. Once the gaff went in, the stingray's tail shot up and the spine entered his chest cavity and stabbed him in the heart.
Snorkellers and divers need to be aware that stingrays hide under the sand. They should always be careful when snorkelling over shallow sandy areas and look for telltale burying marks in the sand before they make contact with the bottom.
When frightened, or disturbed. they take off at speed and it could happen right beneath a diver, or snorkeller and the presence of mind when "muck diving", or snorkelling over sandy areas is to keep an eye out for the 'tell tale' outline of a buried stingray.
Another fatality was a well – known Australian snorkeller/spearfishing on holidays in Fiji who was slashed by a stingray as he swam over the top while it was lying buried in the sand.
The blade-like sides of the venomous spine cut the femoral artery in his groin and he died from loss of blood while being transferred to hospital in a helicopter. He might have been saved, but they only sent the helicopter with a pilot, no first aid person.
Nobody thought to include a first aid attendent to manage the bleeding.
One of the pioneers in the dive travel industry, Tony also published the Dive Magazine Scuba Diver so we all knew him and was saddened by the incident.
Now another prominent Australian has passed away and our hearts can only go out to his family and friends.
Death by Misadventure
Once again I was saddened and blown away by this tragedy and after several days of watching the programs of Steve's ventures and his enthusiasm and all the glowing attributes, the reality sank in.
It now appears that Steve could not have been aware about the business end of a stingray before he made the decision? Yet how could this be?
Typical stingray and stingaree spine. It is the closest thing to bone in the stingrays body, a defensive weapon designed to kill, wound and maim its enemies. The point is needle-sharp with razor sharp serrations down each side. The venom is solidified and arranged in grooves just in from the serrations. The spine is designed to break off at its base and the attacker swims away with a lethal dose of venom while the stingray lives another day.
Surely it would seem to be only common sense to research all the dangerous and venomous animals and take advantage of the knowledge that was freely available to find out about how the creatures might behave towards him, before taking them on in AN ENVIRONMENT HE WAS NOT FAMILIAR WITH?
If I am to understand correctly what was shown on television regarding his other adventures, all of Steve's previous animal encounters were with animals whose dangerous – venomous business ends were at the front of their bodies?
So, he was used to dealing with the head ends.
This one was different; its defence mechanism was in the tail, not as obvious, hardly threatening, and as such, even more deadly.
Unfortunately the media released the wrong impressions. Headlines such as "Steve Irwin killed in a stingray attack at Batt Reef"or "Wildlife warrior dies from freak accident" only increases peoples fears about the world of water and does not give a balanced view of sea creature defensive behaviour.
Nothing freaky about it at all, just nature protecting itself.
Stingrays, never attack, they just protect themselves.
The premature demise of Australias greatest tourism ambassador and a hero of conservation have saddened millions of people all over the world.
Dr David Bellamy once told the BBC that Irwin did take enormous risks, but he knew what he was doing and he captivated audiences because he was audacious.
Who can say how many close calls Steve made and got away with in his adventurous career?
(As adventurers and explorers we all make life and death decisions every day (generally based on our experience) and we all take risks)
This time Steve made a 'heat of the moment decision' to change his plan, a momentary enthusiastic response to an unknown factor in his risky business of quest for the "Oceans Deadliest".
One mistake, and in seconds he was gone.
The centre of a multi – million dollar tourism industry in the Cayman Islands the American Stingray Dasyatis americana ( every bit as deadly as any Australian stingray) has managed many hundreds of thousands of close encounters with divers and tourists, the majority of whom have no previous experience with stingrays…….yet the number of injuries due to stings have been negligible.
(photo: Jorina van der Westhuizen)
It is just unfortunate that it was one of the oceans deadliest dociles that penetrated the armour of the wildlife warrior.
Over 45 years I have done my best to educate people towards understanding the behaviours of dangerous and venomous sea creatures so that the underwater world could be viewed without fear and be seen as just another natural wonder of our living planet.
(Yet Steve's death brings with it an added sense of responsibility)
Perhaps in the future I will need to do more to (hopefully) prevent similar tragedies ever happening again.
Quote from: Dangerous Sea Creatures Aquatic Survival Guide Prevention is Better than Cure Neville Coleman (1993) page 29, Venomous Sea Creatures
Never approach a stingray from above, or hem it in.
In general, stingrays strike towards their front (see page 25 for photo) when harassed, shot, line-caught, trawled or frightened.
Most so-called attacks have only been due to a fright reaction (getting away) or defence reaction (being speared or gaffed) or panic (when cornered).
It is possible to swim with them (Giant stingrays 3 metres, large barbed tail spine, highly venomous) as long as it is not too close, and from the side at their horizontal plane NOT above them.
My DANGEROUS SEA CREATURES book has already saved the lives of several people that I know of and helped many others with its precautionary messages and first-aid advice.
Instances such as this only increase my intent to bring education to the World of Water. However, I am mindful that there is still a long way to go.