CAIRNS, Australia (AP) – Steve Irwin died doing what he loved best, getting too close to one of the dangerous animals he dedicated his life to protecting with an irrepressible, effervescent personality that propelled him to global fame as television’s “Crocodile Hunter.”

Jonathan Duggan
A young boy looks at a display of flowers for international media personality and environmentalist Steve Irwin, who died on the Great Barrier Reef yesterday. <br>(AP PHOTO)</br>

The 44-year-old Irwin’s heart was pierced by the serrated, poisonous spine of a stingray as he swam with the creature yesterday while shooting a new TV show on the Great Barrier Reef, his manager and producer John Stainton said.

News of Irwin’s death reverberated around the world, where he won popularity with millions as the man who regularly leaped on the back of huge crocodiles and grabbed deadly snakes by the tail.

“Crikey!” was his catch phrase, repeated whenever there was a close call – or just about any other event – during his TV programs, delivered with a broad Australian twang, mile-a-minute delivery and big arm gestures.

“I am shocked and distressed at Steve Irwin’s sudden, untimely and freakish death,” Australian Prime Minister John Howard said. “It’s a huge loss to Australia.”

Conservationists said all the world would feel the loss of Irwin, who turned a childhood love of snakes and lizards and knowledge learned at his parents’ side into a message of wildlife preservation that reached a television audience that reportedly exceeded 200 million.

“He was probably one of the most knowledgeable reptile people in the entire world,” Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

In high-energy programs from Africa, the Americas and Asia, but especially his beloved Australia, Irwin – dressed always in khaki shorts, shirt and heavy boots – crept up on lions, chased and was chased by komodo dragons, and went eye-to-eye with poisonous snakes.

Often, his trademark big finish was to hunt down one of the huge saltwater crocodiles that inhabit the rivers and beaches of the Outback in Australia’s tropical north, leap onto its back, grabbing its jaws with his bare hands, then tying the animal’s mouth with rope.

He was a committed conservationist, running a wildlife park for crocodiles and other Australian fauna, including kangaroos, koalas and possums, and using some of his TV wealth to buy tracts of land for use as natural habitat.

Irwin was in the water at Batt Reef, off the Australian resort town of Port Douglas about 60 miles north of Cairns, shooting a series called “Ocean’s Deadliest” when he swam too close the stingray, Stainton told reporters.

“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, Croc One, at the time.

Crew members administered CPR and rushed to rendezvous with a rescue helicopter that flew to nearby Low Isle, but Irwin was pronounced dead when the paramedics arrived, Stainton said.

“The world has lost a great wildlife icon, a passionate conservationist and one of the proudest dads on the planet,” Stainton said. “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!'”

Marine experts called the death a freak accident. They said rays reflexively deploy a sharp spine in their tails when frightened, but the venom coating the barb usually just causes a very painful sting for humans.

“It was extraordinarily bad luck,” said Shaun Collin, a University of Queensland marine neuroscientist. “It’s not easy to get spined by a stingray, and to be killed by one is very rare.”

Irwin was born Feb. 22, 1962, in the southern city of Melbourne to a plumber father and a nurse mother, who decided a few years later to chase a shared dream of becoming involved in animal preservation.

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