Why Steve Irwin is An Exception to Stingray Injuries

Steve Irwin Statue

Steve Irwin Statue in Mooloolaba, Australia



Steve Irwin and the Stingray Attack


The world mourned when we lost Steve Irwin, the famed "Crocodile Hunter," to a tragic encounter with a stingray in 2006. He was a champion of wildlife conservation, a talented television presenter, and an incredible wildlife expert who brought joy and knowledge to millions. His untimely death was a stark reminder of the unpredictability of nature, underscoring the importance of caution, even for experts.


Many were shocked by the cause of Irwin's death, not merely because it was tragic, but because it was so improbable, at least compared to his other exploits with exotic creatures. Stingrays are among the more peaceful and docile creatures of the ocean. So how did this happen?? In short, it has to do with the specific stingray that Irwin was filming and an unlikely puncture of his heart.


The Diversity of Stingrays


First, it’s essential to understand that 'stingray' is a blanket term for a group of rays, which includes over 200 species worldwide. These species vary widely in terms of size, habitat, and behavior. While they all have the characteristic flattened bodies and long tails, the dangers associated with each species can vary.


Short-tail stingray

Short-tail stingray which can be as large as 14 feet


For example, the stingray that led to Irwin’s passing is a Short-Tail Stingray in Australia's Great barrier reef which has been documented to be as large as 14 feet. In Irwin’s case, the stingray was about 6 feet and 7 inches in span. Contrast that to other areas like Southern California where the most common injuries come from the Round Stingray - which have an average disc size of  3-10 inches with the largest ever being measured at 22.8 inches. In general, stingrays are bottom dwellers and, in the case of Round Stingrays, they often bury themselves in the sand to hide from predators and prey alike. This behavior, combined with their propensity to hunker down and hide when they feel potential predators approaching, is one of the key factors causing such a high frequency of injuries to humans when swimmers or surfers accidentally step on them. Even in such cases, these injuries from Round Stingrays are almost never fatal. Although they can be extremely painful and sometimes cause complications like infection.


Round stingray

Round stingray with an average disc size of 3-10 inches


The Rare Fatal Danger of Stingrays


Stingrays have a barb or spine on their tail, which they use defensively. When threatened, they can whip their tail, causing puncture wounds with this spine. It's a reflexive action, not an aggressive one, mostly deployed against potential predators. In Steve Irwin's case, reports suggest that he was filming the ray in shallow water when it felt cornered and struck out. The barb went through his chest and pierced his heart, which led to immediate cardiac arrest and subsequent death.


However, it's essential to stress how rare this kind of event is. Fatal encounters with stingrays are incredibly uncommon with only 20 recorded incidents worldwide since 1945. Irwin's demise was a tragic alignment of circumstances rather than representative of the typical stingray encounter.


The Legacy of Respect for Wildlife


It's easy to jump to conclusions and demonize wildlife for their rare aggressive interactions with humans. However, it's crucial to approach these instances with understanding and respect. Often, the creature in question simply feels threatened by the presence of a human and is trying to defend itself. Steve Irwin himself was an advocate for this. He believed in the beauty and importance of every creature, no matter how dangerous or misunderstood.


While the stingray incident was a heartbreaking anomaly, it shouldn't be used to represent stingrays  in general. Overall, there is an incredible diversity of stingrays around the world, all of which only strike in self defense, and rarely result in a fatal sting.


In remembering Steve Irwin, we should not fear nature but instead approach it with the same enthusiasm, respect, and passion he showcased throughout his life. He would likely be the first to emphasize the importance of understanding and coexisting with all creatures.


Appreciating stingrays while reducing the harm from their stings is ultimately why we created DragonSkin. We know that while humans are injured by stingray barbs, stingrays too are frequently injured–and even killed–by being stepped on. Unfortunately, to a certain extent, the situation is inevitable but it is diminishable. We hope to mitigate this problem by raising awareness on why stingrays need protection from humans and, for humans, with our stingray-resistant booties and resources like how to avoid getting stung.