From his hotel bed in Cairns, Australia, John Stainton stared at the ceiling and waited for sleep to take him. 1 a.m. ... 2 a.m. ... 3 a.m. ... But it never came. His best friend and filmmaking partner of 15 years, Steve Irwin, had been dead for less than a day, the victim of a shocking stingray attack, and Stainton couldn't cry anymore, and he couldn't sleep. So at 5 a.m., he picked up the phone and began calling friends. Not to reminisce, but to ask them to come back to work. The Sept. 4, 2006, accident on the Great Barrier Reef occurred during a break in the production of "Ocean's Deadliest," an Animal Planet documentary that Irwin was to host alongside Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the fabled oceanographer. (Never one to waste a day, Irwin, who was 44, was killed while pitching in on his 8-year-old daughter Bindi's nature show.) Suddenly, "Ocean's Deadliest" had become the Crocodile Hunter's last film, and it wasn't quite finished. Lying in bed, Stainton says, "I realized that we didn't have a film. And if we didn't finish it, then our last few weeks with Steve would've been in vain." Already, however, the media were descending on Australia. Irwin's death was worldwide news. If Stainton's crew waited even a week to get back on the water, they'd surely be followed and their work disrupted. It had to happen now.
During the 90-minute "Ocean's Deadliest," which will premiere Sunday, Jan. 21, on Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel, the only direct reference to Irwin's passing comes at the film's end: a still photo of him smiling and giving two thumbs up. "This film isn't about his death," says Stainton, who produced it. "It's about the animals we set out to film." Still, Irwin's accident is in the subtext of every frame. Out of necessity, Cousteau hosts and narrates, instead of sharing duties with Irwin as they had planned. Irwin ends up as a kind of supporting player--an irrepressible scene stealer who comes and goes without explanation, though of course we all know what the explanation is. Two key sequences, featuring great white sharks and the box jellyfish, were filmed after he died. When Irwin does appear on camera, his legendary daredevilry is more unsettling than ever. Watching him dive into the ocean to pluck out a venomous sea snake, or pretend to step on a reef stonefish to demonstrate its needlepoint defenses, it's hard to avoid the sensation that we're watching the chronicle of a death foretold.
Yet the film, in tone, is also a marked change of pace for the Australian naturalist. "Ocean's Deadliest" is a science-first adventure, a plea for ocean conservation--and a poignant rebuke to those who had dismissed Irwin as a clownish circus act. "There was a purpose to each of the expeditions in the film," says Cousteau. "It wasn't just, 'Hey, let's go look at these animals.' You're seeing brand-new research. And Steve was in absolute heaven about that." With his death, years of planned programming for Animal Planet vanished, as well as a long-gestating IMAX movie. "Unfortunately, without Steve, they just don't make any sense," says Maureen Smith, Animal Planet's general manager.
Finishing "Ocean's Deadliest," then, became essential. And almost unbearable. Cousteau was on Irwin's boat, Croc One, when the accident occurred, and was one of the last people to see him alive. (The stingray's barb pierced Irwin's heart, killing him in seconds.) Now Stainton was asking him to get back on the same boat, and go back to the same reef where Irwin died, just hours after it happened. "A million things went through my mind, but in a split second my answer was yes," says Cousteau. "Like John said, I was the only person who could finish [the film] in a cohesive fashion. I had a responsibility." For the rest of Irwin's crew, the trip was even harder. His death left them not only devastated but astonished; they'd worked with him for years and had come to think of him as invincible. When the cameras rolled, they pasted on smiles. During every pause, someone was in tears.
Stainton was the only crew member who didn't get back on Croc One, because he had a more wrenching task: escorting Irwin's body back to his home on the Sunshine Coast, north of Brisbane, where Irwin's widow, Terri, and his two children, Bindi and 2-year-old Bob, were waiting. He also had to watch the footage that his crew shot of Irwin's deadly stingray encounter in order to ensure that the local coroner received the material he needed. Last week authorities announced that all copies of the footage had been destroyed and that they'd given the original to Terri. "The footage has been the subject of widespread media interest and it was wholly appropriate that we took all possible steps to ensure something of such a personal and tragic nature did not fall into the wrong hands," said Queensland state coroner Michael Barnes in a statement. Another sad postscript: in the weeks after Irwin's death, stingrays began washing up on Aussie beaches with their barbs hacked off--a cruel act of pseudo revenge by Croc Hunter fans who clearly missed the point. "It's the last thing Steve would have wanted," Cousteau says. "It just reinforces my belief that we still have work to do." And it'll be that much harder without the animal kingdom's memorable friend.