Steve Irwin, the quirky Australian naturalist who won worldwide acclaim as TV's khaki-clad "Crocodile Hunter", was killed by a stingray barb through the chest on Monday while diving off the country's northeast coast.
Witnesses and emergency officials said the freak accident happened while Irwin, 44, was filming an underwater documentary off Port Douglas in northern Queensland.
"Steve was hit by a stingray on the chest," said local diving operator Steve Edmondson, whose Poseidon boats were out on the Great Barrier Reef when the accident occurred.
A helicopter rushed paramedics to nearby Low Isles where Irwin was taken for treatment, but he was dead before they arrived, police said.
"He probably died from a cardiac arrest from the injury," Edmondson said.
Fellow-Australian wildlife filmmaker David Ireland said he was shocked and saddened by Irwin's death, adding that a stingray's barb could be as deadly as a rifle bayonet.
"They have one or two barbs in the tails which are not only coated in toxic material but are also like a bayonet, like a bayonet on a rifle," he told Southern Cross Broadcasting radio.
"If it hits any vital organs it's as deadly as a bayonet," Ireland said.
Known around the world for his catchphrase "Crikey" during close encounters with wild animals, Irwin made almost 50 documentaries which appeared on the cable TV channel Animal Planet. He became a virtual global industry generating books, interactive games and even toy action figures.
GREW UP WITH REPTILES
Born on Feb. 22, 1962, in the southern Australian city of Melbourne, Irwin moved to tropical Queensland where his parents ran a small reptile and fauna park.
He grew up near crocodiles, trapping and removing them from populated areas and releasing them in his parent's park. He took over the park in 1991 and renamed it the "Australia Zoo".
Irwin became famous for his seemingly death-defying skill with wild animals, including crocodiles and snakes.
Irwin met his U.S.-born wife Terri at the zoo and the footage of their honeymoon -- which they spent trapping crocodiles -- formed the basis of his first "Crocodile Hunter" documentary.
Later shows had a worldwide audience of 200 million, or 10 times the population of Australia.
Terri became Irwin's business partner and frequent on-screen collaborator. They had two children, Bindi Sue and Bob Clarence.
News of Irwin's death shocked ordinary Australians, while government and opposition lawmakers rushed to issue statements of condolence within two hours of the first reports of his death.
Queensland Tourism Minister Margaret Keech told Sky Television. "It's a dreadful loss for the tourism industry and for nature conservation.
"Everybody who met Steve was impressed with his energy and his enthusiasm, he was a real Aussie larrikin," she said.
Irwin won a global following for his dare-devil antics but also triggered outrage in 2004 by holding his then one-month-old son while feeding a snapping crocodile at his Australian zoo.
The Crocodile Hunter series ended after he was criticised for the incident with his young son and also for allegedly disturbing whales, seals and penguins while filming in Antarctica.
Irwin boasted that he had never been bitten by a venomous snake or seriously bitten by a crocodile, although admitted his worst injuries had been inflicted by parrots.
"I don't know what it is with parrots but they always bite me," Irwin once said. "A cockatoo once tried to rip the end of my nose off. I don't know what they've got against me."