Steve Irwin, the TV presenter known as the "Crocodile Hunter," has died after being stung by a stingray in a marine accident off Australia's north coast.
Media reports say Irwin was snorkeling at Batt Reef, a part of the Great Barrier Reef about 9 miles (about 15 kilometers) from the town of Port Douglas, when the incident happened on Monday morning.
Irwin, 44, was killed by a stingray barb that pierced his chest, according to Cairns police sources.
Irwin was in the area to film pieces for a show called "Ocean's Deadliest" with Phillippe Cousteau, grandson of Jacques, Irwin's producer and friend John Stainton told CNN's "American Morning." But weather had prevented the crew from doing work for that program, said Stainton, so Irwin decided to do some softer features for a new children's TV show he was doing with his daughter, Bindi.
"He came over the top of a stingray that was buried in the sand, and the barb came up and hit him in the chest," said Stainton.
Ambulance officers confirmed they attended a reef fatality Monday morning off Port Douglas, according to Australian media.
Queensland Police Services also confirmed Irwin's death and said his family had been notified. Irwin was director of the Australia Zoo in Queensland.
He is survived by his American-born wife Terri and their two children, Bindi Sue, born 1998, and Robert (Bob), born December 2003.
"The world has lost a great wildlife icon, a passionate conservationist and one of the proudest dads on the planet," Stainton told reporters in Cairns, according to The Associated Press. "He died doing what he loved best and left this world in a happy and peaceful state of mind. He would have said, 'Crocs Rule!' "
Australia Prime Minister John Howard said he was "shocked and distressed at Steve Irwin's sudden, untimely and freakish death," according to AP. "It's a huge loss to Australia."
Irwin became a popular figure on Australian and international television through Irwin's close handling of wildlife, most notably the capture and relocation of crocodiles.
Irwin's enthusiastic approach to nature conservation and the environment won him a global following. He was known for his exuberance and use of the catch phrase "Crikey!"
"It's unbelievable, really," Jack Hanna, the host of "Jack Hanna's Animal Adventure" and director emeritus of the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo, told CNN. "You think of Steve Irwin and you think 'indestructible.' "
Hanna, a friend of Irwin's, noted that Irwin's persona of the Crocodile Hunter was no act. Irwin grew up around crocodiles, snakes and other animals at his parents' Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park and had been handling such creatures since he was a child.
"The guy lived his life this way," said Hanna. "It was how he was raised. You knew that this guy, from the time he was 8 or 9 years old, was working with crocodiles and snakes."
Though stingrays can be threatening, their sting -- usually prompted by self-defense -- is not often fatal. The bull ray that apparently stung Irwin was "a one-in-a-million thing," wildlife documentary maker Ben Cropp told TIME. "I have swum with many rays, and I have only had one do that to me."
"A wild animal is like a loaded gun -- it can go off at any time," Hanna told CNN. "You have to be careful of that." But, he added, it's not the animals who are inherently dangerous, but the way they may react around humans. "It's not fair to the animal. It's only using the defenses that God gave it," said Hanna.
Rise to popularity
Irwin first became popular with his show "Crocodile Hunter," which first aired on Australian TV in 1992. Eventually, the program was picked up by the Discovery Network in the United States, establishing Irwin worldwide.
His popularity led to a film, "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course" (2002).
Irwin's image suffered a setback in January 2004 when he held his then 1-month-old baby Bob while feeding a crocodile at his Australian zoo.
In a statement released to Australian media, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer expressed his sorrow and said that he was fond of Irwin and was very appreciative of all the work he had done in promoting Australia overseas.
In 2003, Irwin spoke to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s "Australian Story" television program about how he was perceived in his home country.
"When I see what's happened all over the world, they're looking at me as this very popular, wildlife warrior Australian bloke," he said, the ABC reported.
"And yet back here in my own country, some people find me a little bit embarrassing. "You know, there's this ... they kind of cringe, you know, 'cause I'm coming out with 'Crikey' and 'Look at this beauty.' "