Steve Irwin died today in the process of filming a new documentary on marine life. He was stung by a sting ray in the chest, right next to his heart. Doctors have said that such an injury is nearly impossible to survive, even though people survive stings from them all the time in other parts of their bodies. Most of the reporting on this describes it as a freak accident, because the chances of a sting ray doing something like this are very low. My suspicion is that the chances of dying any time you get in your car might even be higher.
Irwin was widely known as the Crocodile Hunter, whose animal documentaries are unfortunately best known for what they are not. He's been viewed as a danger-seeker who liked to show off by treating very dangerous animals cavalierly. The reality is that he really did know what he was doing. Bloggers are already criticizing him for engaging in the sort of life that would bring on this kind of death, but that sort of attitude is at odds with the great care Irwin took to do what he did safely. Contrary to public opinion, he was not motivated by trying to appear foolhardy. He was emphasizing the danger so that others would not try what he was doing without the kind of training he had.
His primary motivation came through in almost all his productions, and that was not entertainment (though he was very talented at doing documentaries in an entertaining way) but education and awareness of environmental and conservation issues. One of the earliest episodes I saw showed his deep concern for whales that had ended up on a shore and were probably going to die. His love for wildlife and preserving ecosystems always struck me as the real reason he did what he did, starting at the very beginning when he filmed himself catching crocodiles to move them to places where they would not be threatened by poachers. I consider Steve Irwin to have contributed a great deal to the world in terms of education about the environment and awakening those who might not care as much to the importance of conservational concerns. His method of promoting environmental issues is not only far more consistent with careful scientific understanding but also much more effective than the traditional means, and for that I really have appreciated his work. He will be missed.