'Crocodile Hunter' Irwin killed by stingray while diving

CAIRNS, Australia -- Steve Irwin, the hugely popular
Australian television personality and conservationist known as the
"Crocodile Hunter," was killed Monday by a stingray while filming
off the Great Barrier Reef. He was 44.

Irwin was at Batt Reef, off the remote coast of northeastern
Queensland state, shooting a segment for a series called "Ocean's
Deadliest" when he swam too close to one of the animals, which
have a poisonous barb on their tails, his friend and colleague John
Stainton said.

"He came on top of the stingray and the stingray's barb went up
and into his chest and put a hole into his heart," said Stainton,
who was on board Irwin's boat at the time.

Crew members aboard the boat, Croc One, called emergency
services in the nearest city, Cairns, and administered CPR as they
rushed the boat to nearby Low Isle to meet a rescue helicopter.
Medical staff pronounced Irwin dead when they arrived a short time
later, Stainton said.

Irwin was famous for his enthusiasm for wildlife and his
catchword "Crikey!" in his television program "Crocodile
Hunter." First broadcast in Australia in 1992, the program was
picked up by the Discovery network, catapulting Irwin to
international celebrity.

He rode his image into a feature film, 2002's "The Crocodile
Hunters: Collision Course" and developed the wildlife park that
his parents opened, Australia Zoo, into a major tourist attraction. His life's work also took him to Bristol, Conn., where he appeared in one of ESPN's "This is SportsCenter" commercial spots in 2006 wrangling the Florida Gators mascot.

"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. "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!"'

Prime Minister John Howard, who hand-picked Irwin to attend a
gala barbecue to honor President Bush when he visited in 2003, said
he was "shocked and distressed at Steve Irwin's sudden, untimely
and freakish death."

"It's a huge loss to Australia," Howard told reporters. "He
was a wonderful character. He was a passionate environmentalist. He
brought joy and entertainment and excitement to millions of

Irwin, who made a trademark of hovering dangerously close to
untethered crocodiles and leaping on their backs, spoke in
rapid-fire bursts with a thick Australian accent and was almost
never seen without his uniform of khaki shorts and shirt and heavy

Wild animal expert Jack Hanna, who frequently appears on TV with
his subjects, offered praise for Irwin.

"Steve was one of these guys, we thought of him as
invincible," Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo
and Aquarium, told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Monday.

"The guy was incredible. His knowledge was incredible," Hanna
said. "Some people that are doing this stuff are actors and that
type of thing, but Steve was truly a zoologist, so to speak, a
person who knew what he was doing. Yes, he did things a lot of
people wouldn't do. I think he knew what he was doing."

His ebullience was infectious and Australian officials sought
him out for photo opportunities and to promote Australia

Irwin's public image was dented, however, in 2004 when he caused
an uproar by holding his infant son in one arm while feeding large
crocodiles inside a zoo pen. Irwin claimed at the time there was no
danger to the child, and authorities declined to charge Irwin with
violating safety regulations.

Later that year, he was accused of getting too close to
penguins, a seal and humpback whales in Antarctica while making a
documentary. Irwin denied any wrongdoing, and an Australian
Environment Department investigation recommended no action be taken
against him.

Stingrays have a serrated, toxin-loaded barb, or spine, on the
top of their tail. The barb, which can be up to 10 inches long,
flexes if a ray is frightened. Stings usually occur to people when
they step on or swim too close to a ray and can be excruciatingly
painful but are rarely fatal, said University of Queensland marine
neuroscientist Shaun Collin.

Collin said he suspected Irwin died because the barb pierced
under his ribcage and directly into his heart.

"It was extraordinarily bad luck. It's not easy to get spined
by a stingray and to be killed by one is very rare," Collin said.

News of Irwin's death spread quickly, and tributes flowed from
all quarters of society.

At Australia Zoo at Beerwah, south Queensland, floral tributes
were dropped at the entrance, where a huge fake crocodile gapes.
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.

Stainton said Irwin's American-born wife Terri, from Eugene,
Ore., had been informed of his death, and had told their daughter
Bindi Sue, 8, and son Bob, who will turn 3 in December.

The couple met when she went on vacation in Australia in 1991
and visited Irwin's Australia Zoo; they were married six months
later. Sometimes referred to as the "Crocodile Huntress," she
costarred on her husband's television show and in his 2002 movie.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.