STEVE IRWIN TRIBUTE ARTICLE
from MENS JOURNAL MAGAZINE Dec 2006 issue
which they published in the next mag Jan 2007 issue
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(1) The article:
December 2006 issue
Steve Irwin's Greatest Adventure
In August, just before his death, the Crocodile Hunter led a scientific expedition -- no fans, no film crews, no autograph seekers -- to study the world's largest and most dangerous crocodile.
At the beginning of August, Steve Irwin, 44 years old, faced an almost endless series of television projects. In the months ahead he was contracted to play the gregarious, fearless Aussie in several big specials for Animal Planet and in a Travel Channel series. His daughter, eight-year-old Bindi, was about to star in her own series, with Irwin as a guest host. Once they finished filming he'd have to fly to Los Angeles and StateNew York to promote his shows. It was a rewarding but demanding schedule, and sometimes his hard-earned notoriety took a toll. On past press trips he'd hide for whole days in his hotel room to avoid the mobs of idiots who liked to bellow "Crikey!" in his face.
And so, before plunging in, he went on vacation. For four blissful weeks Irwin unwound from hunting crocs as a television personality by hunting crocs as a scientist. With his family and a crew of 30 men, he embarked on an expedition up Australia's Kennedy River in Lakefield National Park in Northern Queensland. He trapped and released 49 estuarine crocodiles in a month, outfitting the beasts with sophisticated devices to track them via satellite telemetry. No film crew buzzed around the famed Crocodile Hunter, no cameraman told him to kiss the snake again, no sound tech complained that he had broken yet another radio microphone. "This has been the best month of my life," Irwin told Professor Craig Franklin, his friend and partner on the trip. "I've been surrounded by all the things that I love."
"He was truly in his element," remembers Franklin, a professor of life sciences at the University of Queensland. "He was in the Australian bush. He was surrounded by his wife and two children. And he was helping make world-first discoveries about the animal that he loved the most."
It was little known, even to his ardent fans, that Irwin spent his free time collecting data on the estuarine crocodile. Also called a saltwater crocodile (Irwin used the term "super croc" on one episode he filmed about it), it's not only the largest class of croc in the world but the most likely to have what the Australian park service delicately calls a "negative interaction with a human" -- such as biting one in half. Knowing how these creatures moved would not only be groundbreaking science, it had the potential to save lives of both man and beast. As Franklin and others see it, the research Irwin did on these monstrous reptiles will be his most lasting legacy.
Franklin caught a bumpy flight into Cairns, then rattled over dirt roads for seven hours until, late at night, he reached Lakefield National Park, where Irwin had prepared their campsite. When the professor rose at five the next morning, Irwin, already awake, greeted him with a handshake and a bear hug.
They were resuming a friendship they'd begun four years earlier in the same park. At the time Franklin, there to perform research, knew the Crocodile Hunter from television -- or he thought he did. The Steve Irwin he met proved just as enthusiastic and passionate as he was on camera, but Franklin was caught off guard by the depth of Irwin's scientific knowledge.
"He really took me by surprise," Franklin remembers. "We were sitting there chatting, and suddenly he began asking me about my research. He had obviously read all my studies beforehand, and asked a series of sophisticated questions about the habits and movements of crocodiles, many that I couldn't answer and some that I hadn't even considered."
How far did estuarine crocs migrate? Irwin had wanted to know. How long could they hold their breath? How deep did they dive? How far away would you have to transport a "problem croc" to keep it from finding its way back home? In Franklin's view, Irwin, who had never gone to college, had all the qualities of a great scientist. He was a creative thinker, a quick study, and intellectually curious. Irwin's lack of formal training actually worked to his advantage, because he wasn't afraid, as some scientists are, to ask a dumb question or propose an outlandish idea. And Franklin's admiration, in turn, meant a great deal to Irwin. Other scientists usually made the TV star uncomfortable. The friendship between the professor and the Croc Hunter was immediate.
From their earliest conversations, Franklin and Irwin had started talking about the technology, funds, and manpower it would take to begin to answer Irwin's questions. With Irwin's enthusiasm and partial funding, a project soon came together. They enlisted Mark Read, an expert from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, and were soon trapping their first crocodiles between Irwin's television appearances. After just two years of work the team received a grant from the Australian Research Council, that country's equivalent of the National Science Foundation. In total, Franklin and Irwin went on three major expeditions to place satellite transmitters on crocs. This one, which concluded just days before a stingray fatally attacked Irwin, was by far the most successful.
In the week before Franklin arrived for the croc hunt, Irwin had been on the river, laying and baiting traps. The camp was just back from the Kennedy River in a tree-shaded meadow, and the scene was Australia in all its remarkable ecological diversity; there were snakes, monitor lizards, and mosquitoes by the pound. At dusk the frogs began a loud chorus and the sky darkened with hundreds of thousands of fruit bats commuting to their feeding ground. With wingspans of up to five feet, they flew so low and tightly packed that they created a breeze as they passed.
Irwin woke each morning before 4 am and sat alone by the campfire, writing in his journal until the rest of the camp rose. As a rule, he slept little, and his early morning routine was a form of rest. At five, with the sky beginning to lighten, Franklin joined him at the fire. These encounters became a ritual; a chance to plan their day and talk science. Franklin used a stick and the ground as his chalkboard, at one point giving Irwin an anatomy lesson about the cloaca, the anal and reproductive orifice, by drawing the back end of a crocodile in the sandy earth.
After their morning palaver Irwin set off in an aluminum dinghy to check crocodile traps along a 20-mile length of the river. It's hard to imagine the irrepressible TV personality in a boat alone, silently checking traps with no audience, but he clearly loved this part of the day. In his 20s he had spent five years living like a feral animal, catching and relocating crocodiles for the Queensland government with only his dog for company. These early morning trips were his chance to get back to his roots. After he located a caged croc, he assembled the team, which included his father, still a strapping reptile-wrestler even in his 60s, for that day's first battle with the prehistoric beasts.
To tag a croc the team had to drill four small holes into the bony plates on the animal's back and attach a transmitter using high-test steel wire. Because a sedated crocodile is at risk of being attacked once it has been released, the team had to perform the procedure on the predators when they were fully alert and angry. The largest estuarine crocodiles reach more than 20 feet and weigh as much as a car. Aside from his innate scientific aptitude, Irwin's unique contribution to these research trips was his superhuman ability to subdue the animals for the necessary length of time and without doing them injury.
Franklin never tired of watching Irwin lead the charge. While the beast was still caged, Irwin attached ropes to its top jaw and then directed his team from the boat as they strained to pull it onto the riverbank. He'd then join the others on the bank, and prod the animal into performing a "death roll," a series of violent twirls that crocs use to kill or disable their prey. It's a terrifying sight, but where most men would run, Irwin stood and fed rope as the crocodile inadvertently bound its own jaws shut.
He would then pounce on the crocodile. Barrel-chested at 5 feet, 10 inches, Irwin carried most of his weight low in his hips and thighs, giving him a middle linebacker's combination of speed, power, and balance. His patented leap onto the croc was more of an embrace than a tackle. He would crouch close to the beast, and then, in one fluid movement, straddle the head, wrapping his thick arms around the croc. This, in the end, is what made Irwin famous. Not the "Crikey!," not the gregariousness, not the khakis. It was his ability to jump a real-life dragon that made him so remarkable, and such a star.
An instant after Irwin grabbed the head, six to eight men would pile onto the animal as it struggled to get free. Once on the heaving croc the team couldn't allow another death roll lest one of them get seriously injured or killed, so they fought desperately to keep its belly on the ground. The maneuver resembles a rugby scrum: a mass of interlocked arms and sheer manly strength trying to pin a dinosaur to the ground.
One of Franklin's proudest moments came late in the trip when, after catching a medium-size crocodile of 10 feet, Irwin encouraged him to take over the lead role and be the first on the head. After that went well Irwin asked if he'd like to try again with a bigger animal. Franklin, still breathing hard and high on adrenaline, said he might be willing to try an 11- or 12-footer.
A few days later they caught a 14-footer, and before Franklin knew what was happening Irwin called out to the rest of the team, "Craig will take the head." Franklin looked at Irwin with his heart pounding, but he stepped forward without objection. In that situation he wasn't going to second-guess the Crocodile Hunter.
The skin of a crocodile is mostly cool and smooth, Franklin says, like the shiny boots they're sometimes made into. Down the back of the animal, however, run rows of pointy, rock-hard scutes. To keep the animal from moving, Franklin had to use every bit of his strength, pressing his body down on the croc's armor plating and ignoring the pain.
"To be so close to such a magnificent animal, to feel its breath and its strength, was an incredible privilege," Franklin recalls.
After the transmitter was attached and the crocodile released, the jubilant scientist leaped up and punched Irwin hard on the arm. Irwin was beaming. "I knew you could handle a larger one," he said. "Well done, mate!"
"Like all great leaders, he seemed to know your abilities better than you did yourself," says Franklin. And the morning after the takedown the professor discovered a track of one-inch-diameter bruises running across his chest. Knowing he would be wearing his injury with pride, Irwin gave his protégé a gentle dig in the ribs, right where he knew the professor would be tender.
Their shared enthusiasm was paying off. The data gathered from the transmitters attached in previous years was already exploding many myths about the animals. Large males didn't, as was previously thought, rule sections of river but often shared territory. They learned that crocodiles migrate great distances, as far as 560 miles up and down the coast, and sometimes swim 18 miles offshore to rest in coral caves on the Great Barrier Reef. They also discovered that the animals have a remarkable homing instinct. After relocating three crocs as far as 100 miles away, all found their way back to the point of capture.
The devices placed on the animals during this year's expedition were upgraded to more exactly register small movements as well. Franklin and other scientists are currently harvesting a wealth of data about how long crocodiles spend underwater and how fast and deep they dive. Franklin's scientific papers using these results will be published for years to come, and they'll all carry Steve Irwin's name as a co-author.
The conversations around the campfires during the last month of Irwin's life weren't all about crocodiles. Franklin remembers one morning when Irwin tried to talk Franklin into becoming a father. Franklin, who has stepchildren but no kids of his own, demurred. "Oh, you've got to have kids," Irwin insisted. "They're the best thing in the world!"
"You're a lucky man," Franklin told him. "You have two gorgeous children."
"Yes, I know," Irwin replied. From that point on in the trip, as Irwin would go off to play with his son and daughter each afternoon, he would turn to Franklin and wink.
During all those hours by the campfire, Franklin kept a secret from his friend. He had successfully put through the paperwork to award Irwin an adjunct professorship at the University of NameQueensland. It's an honor bestowed on only those who make significant contributions to a field of study. The paperwork was actually sitting on Irwin's desk back at the offices of the Australia Zoo, but the Croc Hunter hadn't got wind of it yet. Franklin figured he'd wait to surprise Irwin with the news when they made new announcements about their research. He wondered what his friend would think of getting to call himself Professor Steve Irwin. It's a secret he regrets keeping.
By: Ethan Watters
Photograph by: Steve Irwin Collection
Copyright ©2006 by Men's Journal LLC
WENNER MEDIA: RollingStone.com | Us Online
(2) My letter to the Editor which they published! in the next issue (Jan 2007):
My letter (only) ~
The page it was on / its positioning ~
Yeah, I'm proud. Proud to have been able to "represent" on his behalf!
UNITED WE STAND.
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