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."
Irwin's final hours
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.
The Making of a Crocodile Hunter
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."
His young son Bob is three now. Bindi -- an eight year old with charisma and a resume to rival her father's -- dove right back into performing after his death. This week, she was in the U.S., promoting Australian tourism with the kind of precocious poise found only in children who have grown up in the public eye.
"It is very sad but in my lifetime a lot of wildlife could disappear. We could lose tigers and gorillas and even my favorite Koalas could become extinct. We need to help my Daddy's work and make this world a safer place for animals." Bindi told the National Press Club today.
As for critics who argued that her performing schedule was too taxing for a girl whose father had just been killed, Stainton counters, "it was never the general public, the audience that never came across. The criticism comes from 'experts,' or 'psychologists,' whoever they are."
After Irwin's death, Stainton and Cousteau faced a difficult decision about what to do with all the footage they had shot for "Ocean's Deadliest." Should the show go on?
"Steve and I were co-hosting it," explains Cousteau, "and to keep the continuity of the film, I had to continue it or it wouldn't have gone on. We still had some major segments to do. It was a tough call going back out there."
In the end, he says it was the film's message -- about conservation -- that convinced him to keep filming. The documentary concludes that the ocean's deadliest creature isn't sharks or sea snakes -- but man.
Cousteau added, "The crew, many of who had been working with Steve for a decade and were like family, decided to do it for Steve. It was difficult. We'd be on camera and we had to put on a happy face and stay enthusiastic and the cameras shut off and there would be a big sigh."
In the documentary, Irwin's characteristic daredevilry is on full display. In one scene shot a week before his death, he dangles his bare foot within centimeters of a stonefish's poisonous quills.
Some wildlife experts argue his hands-on, seemingly risky brand of showmanship was bound to end badly. Back in the era of Jacques Cousteau, the accepted approach to wild animals was strictly hands-off. Cousteau's seafaring son Jean-Michel, uncle to Philippe, was cutting after Irwin's death. He told one publication, "you don't touch nature, you just look at it. And that's why I'm still alive. I've been diving over 61 years…and I don't mess with nature."
Philippe Cousteau sees it differently. "I respected my uncle's opinion....Steve was more hands-on than many, and I have a different style, I'm not that hands-on. But the bottom line is he brought the amazing wonders of wildlife, and many of the creatures people wouldn't think are cute and cuddly to millions of people. And that's his legacy."
Irwin used his fame to raise millions of dollars for wildlife preservation. Behind the alligator antics there was a deep concern for the animal kingdom. "I think he had just gotten himself into a position of people accepting him around the world as a conservationist and a naturalist and a wildlife expert," says Stainton. "I think he was just moving into an area of influential position. And I think he would have been able to, in the next few years, been able to change legislation. I think he would have had an active role in whaling and stopping whaling." he adds wistfully, "people like President Bush and our Prime Minister were actually talking to him. So he would have had a bigger role. A much more influential role".
On Sunday, right after "Ocean's Deadliest," Discovery and Animal Planet will air a half-hour tribute to Irwin. Producing it was heartbreaking work for his best mate. "The editor and I cried every time we got into the edit room. Everyone, we've all cried. There are millions of buckets of tears to make that one," recalls Stainton.
One day, sifting through stacks and stacks of tapes Stainton stumbled across a piece of footage he hadn't seen in seven years. An interview with Steve Irwin that seemed to perfectly capture the "Crocodile Hunter's" utterly unique air of exuberance. On the tape, Irwin asserts: "I guess the greatest miscalculation about me that people have- which is minor, but I'll hear it sometimes, that is the question is, 'is he really like that?' What you see is what you get. I'm really like that."