On the last day of his life, Steve Irwin rose early on a boat moored off the Great Barrier Reef, had a breakfast of bacon and eggs and coffee, and then grabbed a spear gun and snorkel and splashed into the sparkling blue water.
His object? To catch fresh fish as bait to lure tiger sharks for a documentary.
“It was good fun,” recalls Irwin’s long-time cameraman, Justin Lyons, who was by his side on the fish hunt. “Trying to see who could get the most.”
That honour went to the Crocodile Hunter, who caught 12 of the 20-odd haul of bait fish, which the men then secured around the boat.
When they lured no predators, “Steve said he’d had enough,” recalls Lyons. “He said, ‘I’m going for a burl.’ So I said, ‘Wait for me.’ I threw the camera in and off we went in a little inflatable.”
It would be the last journey Steve Irwin would take.
On Sept. 4, 2006, off Batt Reef, some 30km from the coast of Queensland’s Port Douglas, the zookeeper and Animal Planet TV star was attacked by a stingray.
Stabbed in the heart by the animal’s barb, he died as Lyons and other members of Irwin's crew tried to save him.
The 44-year-old left behind his wife, Terri, daughter Bindi, then 8, son Bob, then 2½—and a legacy of animal awareness and conservation.
A decade on from the tragedy that sent shock waves around the world, his friend and colleague honours his memory: Lyons, 44, now a producer at Brisbane production company PlayTV and a married father of three girls, shares with WHO the last happy hours he spent with Irwin before his death.
“Steve was in a great mood,” he says.
When Irwin and Lyons took off in the inflatable, “it wasn’t very long before we came across this bull ray [a large species of stingray]. Steve, wearing his usual khaki shorts and shirt, said: ‘Quick, quick, let’s get in the water.’ Simple as that.”
Irwin then swam near the stingray, trying to get the animal close to Lyons’s camera.
“And then I started filming,” Lyons says, quietly. “We got a lot of great shots. I was in a perfect position, only 6 foot [1.8m] in front, Steve in shot, and the stingray, it just started stabbing upwards with its tail. Steve, above it, was thrashing about with his hands. It was a flurry of bubbles. Fifteen seconds of mad struggle.
“Steve stood up out of the water and started screaming at Brian to come over. He was screaming, “Get over here, it’s punctured me lung.”
In fact, the stingray had pierced Irwin’s heart. While Lyons performed CPR, Irwin was rushed to the closest island, but died before paramedics arrived.
“That was the world falling apart,” says Lyons. “I called my wife, Susie, and said, “Steve has just died ... and the world is going to go into meltdown.”