Nineteen hours before his death, Steve Irwin was wrangling poisonous sea snakes.
Why? To milk them for life-saving venom, as part of what would turn out to be the last documentary he filmed, called "Ocean's Deadliest," which airs Sunday night on Discovery's "Animal Planet" channel.
The video of Irwin's tug-of-war with the sea snakes provides the last surviving images of Irwin, because the video from the next day -- of the famed "The Crocodile Hunter" being killed by a sting ray -- has been destroyed, at the request of his wife.
"Terri felt that it has no educational value for anybody," says John Stainton, Irwin's longtime filmmaking partner and 'best mate,' as they say in Australia. When asked if he had seen the video, Stainton replied, "I had to watch it. It was incredibly sad and incredibly horrible." what does he miss the most about Irwin? "Just talking to him every day. You know, we probably started talking on the phone every day at 5:30 in the morning."
"Ocean's Deadliest" takes a look at the world's most dangerous sea creatures. When Stainton and Irwin started filming it, sting rays were not even on the list. And they do not play a prominent role in the final cut airing Sunday. "Not even now, I don't find them dangerous. It's like any animal. It's doesn't matter…a dog could kill a child. It was a freak accident. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Jellyfish were on the filming schedule last Sept. 4th, the day Irwin was killed. But out on the Great Barrier Reef, there were no jellyfish to be found. To pass the time, Irwin decided to go for a quick dive with his crew and do a bit of filming for his daughter's TV show. Stainton stayed on board "Croc One," as did Irwin's co-host for this documentary, famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau's grandson Philippe Cousteau.
"We got the call and it all changed in an instant," Cousteau recalls. "He was just a few hundred yards away from the boat, and we didn't know what was going on." There was nothing anyone could do. By sheer bad fortune, the startled sting ray had pierced Irwin's heart. He stopped breathing almost immediately.
It fell to Stainton to tell Irwin's family and the world, and it soon became clear that the 44 year old Irwin had been more than a man with a TV show. He had viewers in 136 different countries. There was an outpouring of grief, especially among children.
Steve Irwin didn't set out to be in show business. He ran a reptile park in Queensland Australia with his American-born wife Terri. From time to time, a young producer named John Stainton borrowed his animals for use in commercials.
Irwin's first performance? Holding a beer can out for a crocodile to snatch in 1990. Stainton took note of Irwin's showmanship and his one-of-a-kind way with animals. "Steve was amazing the way he used to bring everything to life because he was just so animated. The way he always demonstrates with his hands....I knew Steve was going to be as big as he is now."
Irwin's family went along for the ride, through all the documentaries, and 169 episodes of "The Crocodile Hunter," seen in America on the cable chanell Animal Planet. In Australia, he was a household name. Last fall, his wife Terri told Barbara Walters she felt blessed. "I had the best 14 years. I had a wonderful 14 years, two beautiful children. And just a romance like I didn't think existed anymore. A wonderful, wonderful romance."