Steve Irwin documentary, tribute air Sunday

The late Steve Irwin holds a stonefish, one of the most venomous fish in the ocean, during the taping of Ocean s Deadliest.Most of the program had been completed when TV s  Crocodile Hunter  was killed in a freak accident.
The late Steve Irwin holds a stonefish, one of the most venomous fish in the ocean, during the taping of Ocean s Deadliest.Most of the program had been completed when TV s Crocodile Hunter was killed in a freak accident.

It was tragic, of course, but not altogether surprising that Steve Irwin, TV's well-known "Crocodile Hunter," met his end last fall while filming a documentary on some of the world's most dangerous marine animals.

After all, the daring - some might say foolhardy - Australian wildlife expert had made his reputation by tempting fate in a series of encounters with all manner of deadly animals - most notably, of course, crocodiles.

Now the documentary that took Irwin's life, called Ocean's Deadliest, will be shown Sunday night at 8 on both the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. It will be followed on both cable channels by a 30-minute tribute to Irwin.

In Ocean's Deadliest, Irwin teams up with adventurer Philippe Cousteau, Jr., grandson of the famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, to explore the waters off Australia's Great Barrier Reef looking for venomous fish, sea snakes, and other lethal creatures.

Most of the taping for the program had been completed when Irwin was killed in early September in a freak accident. His heart was pierced by a stingray's poisonous barb; ironically, stingrays weren't even meant to be part of the documentary.


After some debate, Irwin's colleagues decided to finish the project, with Cousteau taking over as the solo on-air host and narrator. But there are still several scenes featuring the irrepressible Irwin, and they are among the program's most lively and interesting.

During the documentary, the two men's on-camera demeanor couldn't be more different. Cousteau is articulate, and he certainly knows his stuff, but he brings an almost clinical detachment to the job. Irwin, as anyone who has ever seen him on TV knows, is full of childlike delight and excitement, not unlike a mischievous 10-year-old boy who brings a big, ugly toad home to impress his buddies and scare his little sister.

At one point, as the two men are preparing to dive for stonefish, one of the most venomous fish in the ocean, Cousteau mentions it almost matter-of-factly. Not Irwin.

"Crikey!" he exclaims in what's become his trademark expression. "I love stonefish! They're so funny!" He then launches into an animated description of the odd-looking creatures, and when he comes across one in the water, he holds it in his hand and tears off his snorkeling mask to get a better look at it, moving the poisonous thing just inches from his nose.

As Irwin, Cousteau, and a team of naturalists cruise the shallows of eastern Australia in "Croc One," Irwin's 75-foot dive boat and research vessel, they come upon all sorts of scary creatures. Among them: a venomous mollusk called a coneshell, whose toxins are useful to researchers studying advanced painkillers for humans; a box jellyfish, whose 15-foot tentacles carry a sting that can kill a human within 90 seconds, and a blue-ringed octopus, whose venom is 10,000 times more powerful than cyanide.

During a stop on shore, Irwin and his team of Aussie croc wranglers capture a monstrous saltwater crocodile so they can place a satellite transmitter on it to track its migration patterns. Seeing Irwin and his experienced crew work so smoothly together in a risky but familiar task they've repeated countless times is like watching an open-air ballet.

While viewing the documentary, it's hard to watch footage of Irwin holding a deadly 6-foot sea snake - "the biggest I've ever seen in me life!" - or riding the back of a 15-foot croc without thinking of the fate that will soon take his life in those very waters.

No mention is made during the show of Irwin's death, and though the encounter with the stingray was captured on tape, it's nowhere to be seen in the documentary. The footage was turned over to police for their investigation, and later to Irwin's widow, who had it destroyed.

By the end of the program, Cousteau's predictable conclusion is that the deadliest species of all is mankind. Whether overfishing several species to the point of extinction or treating the sea like a garbage dump, man is doing more to kill the ocean and destroy its delicate ecosystem than any sharp-toothed or venomous creature that lurks beneath its surface.

To be honest, Ocean's Deadliest is a fairly routine wildlife documentary, all but indistinguishable from many others that are aired regularly by the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. Its only real significance is that it's the last documentary made by Irwin, and the one that killed him at the age of 44. It's a good reminder of the infectious excitement that he brought to the task of entertaining and educating an audience.

The documentary will be followed at 9:30 p.m. by a 30-minute tribute to Irwin featuring interviews with friends and family, plus some never-before-aired footage of the Crocodile Hunter in action.

And the tribute has a perfect title: Crikey! What an Adventure!