The stingray of death

The tragic end of the life of ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin


Update: 15 September 2006

Since this article was published, we have posted a follow-up item concerning rumours of Steve Irwin’s alleged conversion.

Steve Irwin. Image: Wikipedia.

The sudden death of internationally-renowned ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin—killed by a stingray while Steve was filming an undersea nature documentary—has shocked many.1 He was by all accounts a genuine and passionate man, who devoted much of his time and money to the animal causes he believed in. There has been a moving worldwide outpouring of grief and support for the family in the face of this unexpected tragedy.

News media generally reported just enough to make clear what had happened, without labouring on the details, e.g. “He [Irwin] was snorkelling over a stingray on Batt Reef [off the North Queensland coast] when it lashed out with its deadly tail, inflicting a fatal wound directly into his heart.”2 Those familiar with the Croc Hunter’s seemingly death-defying antics with a host of dangerous creatures would not have been surprised that he had died from an attack by an animal—but a stingray??

Once the news broke, it quickly became the ‘hot topic’ of conversations everywhere, it seems (reflected too in the worldwide media coverage given to his death).3 As people expressed their disbelief at the news, some of their comments and questions seemed to reveal aspects of their own worldview, e.g.:

  1. ‘He was just 44 years old—that’s too young to die!’
  2. ‘He must have provoked the stingray.’
  3. ‘How could the stingray’s barb—isn’t it only made of cartilage—have penetrated Steve Irwin’s chest?’

Before I became a Christian ‘young-earth creationist’ Bible-believer, I might have made such comments. But not any more.

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1. ‘Too young to die?’

This is a very common response when our loved ones die of any cause other than ‘old age’. But we have many times explained that this ignores the key event of the Fall in real space-time history – see Why would a loving God allow death and suffering? and The Fall: a cosmic catastrophe for an overview. Being armed with a biblical understanding of the cursed world of death and suffering in which we live makes a colossal difference to our ability to cope when confronted by personal loss and tragedy. We often receive feedback testifying to that. For example, one reader of the book Walking through Shadows wrote:

Specifically, thank you for your ‘abstract thought experiment’ on pages 59–61. In a few pages you so vividly made it clear how a loving God can ‘allow’ death and suffering and why Christ’s sacrifice was needed … I have always had trouble coming up with answers to questions like “Why didn’t God intervene to stop these innocent deaths?” Yes, I know that no-one is innocent, because we’re all sinners, but your ‘abstract thought experiment’ explains so well why God giving his Son was the most loving and all-encompassing intervention that we could ask for.
(Email from Angela B., received 31 July 2004.)

The following extract from Walking through Shadows summarizes the ‘abstract thought experiment’ to which Angela refers:

When a collapsing slagheap suffocated many children in a Welsh mining town, there was not just an outpouring of grief, but a railing against God’s “unfairness” because of their young ages. …
If you say that it’s “fair” for God to prevent the deaths of those children, then, to be really “fair” He should prevent the deaths of all children, anywhere, anytime. …
But if God chose to define childhood as ending at 18, why would it now be “fair” to allow a 19 year old to die?

(And so on—the obvious conclusion being that the only way for God to be totally fair would be to prevent all death, of everyone, forever—which is what the new heavens and earth (Rev. 21:4), with the removal of the Genesis curse (Rev. 22:3), is all about. See also Theistic evolution: future shock? and The future—some issues for ‘long-age’ Christians.)

Stingray image from Wikipedia.

2. ‘He must have provoked the stingray’

Since Steve Irwin’s death, there has been much discussion on this. Many have said privately that he must have provoked the stingray in some manner, despite Irwin’s companions saying the fatal attack was entirely unprovoked.4,5 Queensland’s The Courier-Mail quoted one marine medical expert as saying:

“It’s unbelievable that this has happened. Stingrays are very, very gentle creatures. They’re non-aggressive. They’re called the pussycats of the sea.”6
But those who hold the view that he must have ‘provoked’ the stingray are obviously unaware of documented instances of stingrays attacking people. Steve Grenard, in an article about stingray injuries available online, writes:

“Unprovoked attacks, probably based on some territorial imperative, have also been recorded.”7

Grenard goes on to warn:

“Contrary to popular ‘nature documentaries’, it is extremely hazardous to swim directly over, or in close proximity to, a stingray. A flick of the tail is apt to pierce a person’s body, and a serious, even potentially fatal, situation is in the offing.”7

Interestingly, in a box in one of our articles on the fearsome piranha fish, we stated this little-known fact:

“A [South American] freshwater stingray causes many injuries with its venomous barbed tail, and is regarded by local people as being far more dangerous than the piranha.”

All that would have been very useful for me to have known in my younger days when I did a lot of snorkelling and spearfishing, often swimming over the top of stingrays! Back then I blithely heeded the advice of experienced divers that stingrays would not attack as long as I didn’t touch them. But now, being armed with a biblical understanding that this is no longer the ‘very good’ world that God made, I can better understand the ‘big picture’. In contrast, for those who think that it’s still a ‘very good’ world, or that Mother Nature is some benign entity that will treat you right if you treat Her right, it’s pretty hard to make sense of a stingray’s ‘unprovoked’ attack.

3. The stingray’s venomous spine

I could well understand why one youngster asked me: “How could the stingray’s barb—isn’t it only made of cartilage—have penetrated Steve Irwin’s chest?” For anyone taught in evolution classes that sharks and rays ‘only’ have cartilage, being so ‘primitive’ that they had not yet evolved hard things like bone, such a question is logical. But in fact, sharks and rays were created—they did not originate by evolution—and so from a biblical perspective we’d expect to see that they’ve been well-designed, and therefore well-equipped for life (see Sharks and rays).

As, indeed, they are. Grenard7 actually refers to the stingray’s ‘sting’ as being ‘well-crafted’. It is made of dentin, a hard substance, just like the teeth of sharks. As he says, the ‘sting’ properly refers to the ‘spine plus the ‘sheath’ which envelops it, and associated venom glands. When the spine is lying flat against the surface of the ray’s tail, it is ‘bathed in a melange of venom and mucus’. Along the spine are backwards-facing serrations, or barbs. Since the spine can be up to 20 cm (8 in) long, and part of a creature that can weigh 100 kg (220 lb), it is a very nasty defensive apparatus indeed.

So how could such a highly functional apparatus have evolved? The answer is that it could not and did not, but was created. But would a loving God have designed such a weapon—a weapon obviously designed to inflict maximum trauma on its victim? As we have already explained elsewhere, defence-attack structures such as this one would have been unneeded and unused in a pre-Fall world. But God in His foreknowledge of the Fall endowed creatures at Creation with the equipment they would need for life in a post-Fall world. One can well imagine that without its venomous spine, stingrays would have been ‘easy meat’ in a post-Fall world. The stingray feeds on small creatures on the ocean floor. Sharks and other predators attacking it from above would be deterred by this lethal weapon able to ‘zap’ them from below. See also some articles about specific defence-attack structures, carnivores, pathogens etc.

Steve Irwin—‘a modern-day Noah’?

The most frequent tributes being paid to Steve Irwin are from environmental groups acknowledging his huge influence and contributions in the area of wildlife preservation.8 One public figure even called him ‘a modern-day Noah’.1 Of course there are some substantial differences between the ‘Croc Hunter’ and the Noah of the Bible. Notwithstanding the many animals that Steve Irwin and his ‘Australia Zoo’ have indeed rescued since 1991, Irwin himself would not have been so bold as to claim to have come anywhere near Noah’s role in preventing the extinction of every kind of land animal and bird on this planet!

Also, Noah’s actions were prompted by direct instruction from God, in line with the biblical stewardship mandate given to man at Creation. In contrast, Steve Irwin openly espoused evolution over millions of years.9 His position in relation to God was obliquely referred to in a major newspaper in his home state of Queensland as Irwin’s ‘non-religious stance’.10 In reviewing Steve (& Terri) Irwin’s 2002 film, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, ChristianAnswers.Net wrote:

“Families should discuss the secular worldviews presented in the film. Steve continually points out that animals are really better than people. Parents can correct this by pointing out that God breathed life into man and gave us dominion over the animal kingdom. The views [in this film] are ones which are constantly preached to our nation’s children and are in direct contradiction to Scriptures.”11

For discussion of the Dominion Mandate of Gen. 1:28, see Earth Day: Is Christianity to blame for environment problems?

Thirdly, Noah was a ‘preacher of righteousness’ (2 Peter 2:5). Though many of us in this ministry loved watching this iconic Australian, that label has never been applied to him. The Crocodile Hunter’s wife may well have wished otherwise—she is by some reports a churchgoing Christian. Perhaps much of the problem in Steve’s mind was his exposure to evolution in the circles he frequented.12 Whatever the case, we offer our sincere condolences to the family and friends of a man who gripped the world’s imagination in a remarkable way.


  1. Irwin’s death shocks fans, colleagues, discovery.com, accessed September 2006. [Return to text.]
  2. Calls grow for state funeral to honour Steve Irwin, abc.net.au, accessed September 2006. [Return to text.]
  3. Landers, K., US fans mourn loss of ‘Crocodile Hunter’, abc.net.au, accessed September 2006. [Return to text.]
  4. Irwin died ‘doing what he loved best’, abc.net.au, accessed September 2006. [Return to text.]
  5. Sadly, the well-known feminist Germaine Greer even seemed to take comfort from Steve Irwin’s death, saying: “The animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin”. Herald Sun—Andrew Bolt blog, Greer crows: ‘Animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin’, heraldsun.com.au, accessed September 2006. [Return to text.]
  6. Miles, J., Unlikely creature proved deadliest, The Courier-Mail, Crocodile Hunter 8-page Special Tribute, 5 September 2006, p. 3. [Return to text.]
  7. Grenard, S., Stingray injuries, envenomation, and medical management, potamotrygon.de, accessed September 2006. [Return to text.]
  8. Lion, P., McLean, S., Williams, B., Larrikin who was dearly loved by all walks of life, The Courier-Mail, Crocodile Hunter 8-page Special Tribute, 5 September 2006, p. 7. [Return to text.]
  9. See, e.g., Irwin, S., Steve’s Millenium 2000 Resolution—A New Age for the Apex Predator, January 2000, crocodilehunter.com, accessed September 2006. [Return to text.]
  10. Howard, P., Corkill, M., World logs on to say farewell, The Courier-Mail, Crocodile Hunter 8-page Special Tribute, 5 September 2006, p. 8. This is despite Irwin having said, in an interview with Larry King in 2001, that he looked forward to seeing his late mother again after he died. [Return to text.]
  11. Walker, L. M., The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, christiananswers.net, accessed September 2006. [Return to text.]
  12. See Robertson, A., and Batten, D., ‘It’s just evolution’ … not!, June 2006; creation.com/not. [Return to text.]
Published: 6 September 2006