Yesterday evening, I was enjoying the homely accents and semi-obscure, always well-chosen tunes of Australia’s youth radio station—triple j—when I learned of the death of Steve Irwin, the most recognizable Aussie icon of my generation.
When I first arrived in the United States, I became closely familiar with a handful of questions relating to my home country. Each of these offered their own unique insights into the American mind: it’s self-orbiting and nation-centric ignorance, tendency to caricaturize foreign cultures into bite-size, catch-phrase soundbites, and its endearing and overly commodified innocence. Of these questions, some of the most humorous involved animals, and better yet: my presupposed experience with them.
“I heard you can ride kangaroos…Do you ride them to school?,” asked one fresh-faced boy during a physical education period during my two years of American high school.
“Only on Thursdays, when I had to let the crocs have a day off.”
“Wait…you said ‘Crocs?’ As in crocodiles? Whoa man, are you, like, an Asian crocodile Dundee?…Wait, are you, like, a crocodile hunter?”
Steve Irwin is arguably the most well known Australian in modern history. Pop culture being what it is, the others are all mostly actors, musicians, or sport stars. Steve’s story, though, is a little bit different. Growing up the son of a reptile enthusiast, he became a genuinely knowledgeable zoologist whose honeymoon video of he and his American wife, Terri, on a crocodile-catching trip, would become the first of hundreds more upon which a global audience with Animal Planet subscriptions would later accompany him.
With his mud-thick Queensland colloquial accent and continually amplified levels of excitement, Irwin could come off on-screen as rather over-the-top and perhaps disingenuous. This couldn’t be further from the truth. According to many close friends, Irwin the croc hunter was no more larger-than-life and enthusiastic than Irwin the person. And even though I’ve never been a particularly avid viewer of his programs or his oft-parodied shtick, I came to appreciate Irwin for what he was: a true-blue, dinky-di Aussie bloke who wore his heart on his sleeve, shared a genuine love for wildlife and conservation, and in the middle of all his theatrics, gave the world as wholesomely positive and honest an ambassador for his country that Australia has ever seen. I’ll take a crocodile wrestling larrikin in khakis over our current political figures, that’s for absolute sure.
As tragic as it is, I agree with those who noted the fitting nature of Steve’s death. For all the close calls he has had, a stingray barb through the heart is truly freakish. As one might predict, Irwin was in the midst of doing what he loved best. In this case: filming a documentary on dangerous sea creatures. As unusual as such an accident is—some sources say that this is only the second stingray fatality in Australian history—the odds surely go up when one interacts with deadly creatures on a consistent basis, even as experienced and trained as Irwin might have been.
And so we have lost a husband, a father, a children’s hero, a one-of-a-kind entertainer and a committed conservationist, among other things. Australia has lost her most prominent ambassador, and without question one of the most genuinely Australian, be it those familiar calls of “Crikey!” or that thick shock of blonde hair.
The last time I saw Steve was on television in a little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in Borneo Island, East Malaysia, whilst visiting relatives earlier this year. We were relaxing and laughing together, watching Steve animatedly chasing a wild boar, whilst on a break en route towards Mount Kinabalu, a site known for its own endangered fauna. Unable to speak their native tongue, our communication was severely limited. But the physical appeal of Steve’s work crosses linguistic boundaries, and speakers of many tongues will remember him fondly.
You’ll be missed mate. Wherever you are, I’m sure you’ll be surrounded by plenty of friends, amphibious or otherwise.