The last person to see Steve Irwin alive has revealed new details about the ‘flawed’ Australian icon and how his near-death experience with a deadly snake in Africa was kept a secret – until now.
Justin Lyons was Irwin’s trusted right-hand man for over a decade. He shot the Crocodile Hunter’s first documentary in 1996 and witnessed his tragic death 10 years later from a stingray attack.
The pair filmed encounters with the deadliest creatures around the world, but the cameraman said Irwin’s biggest threats were his personal demons and the weight of expectation.
“Steve always had a sixth sense for so many things and I think he had a premonition about his death,” Lyons told the Daily Mail Australia.
‘I looked back on that last doco, and there were signs that were confrontational and disturbing.’
Justin Lyons (left), Steve Irwin’s trusted cameraman for more than a decade, has revealed new details about the conservationist’s legacy since he was killed by a stingray
The pair met while shooting a commercial for Power’s Beer in 1991 – Lyons’ first job under director John Stainton.
The ad saw Brisbane Broncos players drinking beer by a river before a crocodile jumped out of the water and attempted to steal a can.
One man’s arm warded off the reptile before opening the stump and drinking the beer. The stunt actor was a young Steve Irwin.
“He and Stainton got to talking, Steve told him stories about catching crocodiles. He had all these home video footage he shot himself,” Lyons said.
“He bought himself a VHS camera, stuck it in the fork of a tree and talked to it. Whenever he went into town, he passed them on to his family.’
After viewing the footage, they immediately went to a network producer, who said they should re-shoot Irwin’s footage with professional equipment. The first documentary they made together was during Irwin’s honeymoon.
It didn’t take long for fame to follow. In 1996, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet took over the Crocodile Hunter program, sending Irwin’s stardom into the stratosphere.
The environmentalist was not only the most popular man in Australia, but also had the fastest growing show in the United States.
Students played drinking games while watching this show, drinking a beer every time he shouted his classic catchphrase “Crikey.”
The pair shot down the deadliest creatures on every continent in the world, but Lyons said it was the weight of expectation and personal demons that posed the greatest threat to the environmentalist
Irwin became one of the world’s most beloved and recognizable conservationists thanks to his larger-than-life personality
“In the United States, he would be harassed. They’d recognize him at LAX, it was like Beatlemania,” Lyons said.
‘You could hear murmurs going through the airport, almost rioting. He had been in a room with Antonio Banderas and Will Smith and they were more excited to meet him. He didn’t even know who they were.’
But the fame would wear to Irwin, according to Lyons, who said the constant travel from Australia and the US coupled with the intense floodlights “changed” the wildlife warrior.
“He struggled with fame. In his last years he became famous,” Lyons told the Daily Mail Australia.
“I don’t think he knew how to deal with it. He was always in pain, he whipped himself. His knees, ankles. That combined with the pressure from Discovery Channel raising the bar to make things bigger and better every time.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but if you put the whole thing in context in the last few years, you can see that he was a changed man. He wasn’t the Steve from the start.’
Lyons said Irwin never spent time with his real friends because he was always working, which impacted all of his relationships.
He himself bears the brunt of the fame. He had friends, but only a handful of people he trusted. He never saw his best friends when he became famous, so he was a bit of a loner,” Lyons said.
“Steve was an alpha male in every aspect of his life. He would go and not sleep, go, go, go, like there was no tomorrow, he would crash.’
The 50-year-old revealed his special relationship with Irwin’s children, especially Bindi, whom he often cared for during long shoots.
“Bindi and I spent a lot of time together. We went to far north Queensland and while they were at it Bindi and I left,’ he said.
“She said to me, ‘I don’t like insects much,’ but she was expected to do all those crazy things. I don’t think she really wanted it.
‘But for his children it came naturally. They came on doco shoots, I filmed their births. They had cameras with them from birth. They didn’t know any better.’
Lyons said Irwin loved his family but struggled to show his emotions – instead putting his energy into his work
Lyons said he believes Irwin, who he repeatedly described as a “sixth sense,” had a “hunch about his death” and has become more convinced since watching over the old band from his final weeks.
“There were signs that were confrontational and disturbing,” the filmmaker revealed.
“He gave a speech after he released a crocodile and went to everyone, all 12, and thanked everyone individually for their contribution. He was completely in tears and moved on to the next person.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Justin, you can get fucked!’ We all laughed but thought we’d never see that again.’
Lyons said the last time Irwin saw his wife and children, he expressed an impersonal display of emotion—another sign he may have felt the end was near.
“A few days before he died, we helped load the family into a seaplane. Steve stood on the roof of his car and waved at them until the plane disappeared. I’ve never seen him do that,” Lyons said.
“Then we filmed the day before he died with this huge sea serpent. When he released it, he pushed it on top of me. I had to dive underwater to get rid of it. It would have killed me.
“I’ve never seen him do anything so reckless. I yelled at him, he laughed. He wasn’t quite right. Something else was going on. We knew fame had worn him out, his shows weren’t that popular anymore. He was not in a good space, it all led to this point. Was he swimming more recklessly over this stingray?’
The crew had been through a lot together – plane and helicopter crashes, robbed with a knife in third world countries – but probably no bigger than when Irwin was bitten by a black mamba – a highly venomous snake in Africa – which has never been publicly reported until now.
Lyons said the TV icon was extremely lucky to survive the attack, given the lack of appropriate care in the remote area.
Everyone on site was immediately bound to secrecy. That secret has lasted until today.
Irwin was aware of the mythology that had formed around him and was desperate to make sure it lasted – he’d told his team he never wanted to die from a snake or crocodile because everyone would roll their eyes like they knew it would always end that way.
‘We weren’t allowed to talk about’ [the snake bite in Africa]. He intended to keep his reputation intact,” Lyons revealed.
“He couldn’t let anyone know that he had been bitten and nearly died. He never wanted to die like that.
“That pressure on him, he wouldn’t have talked to anyone about it. All he didn’t want was to be killed by a crocodile or snake because people would say “of course.”
Irwin was aware of the mythology that had formed around him and was desperate to make sure it lasted – he’d told his team he never wanted to die from a snake or crocodile because everyone would die with their eyes. roll, resigned to the fact that it would end like this
Lyons believe Irwin would be “furious” at how things turned out with his family, crew and the zoo if he were still alive.
His father, Bob Irwin, saw his relationship with Terri and the Australia Zoo staff break down – and is no longer allowed to visit his son’s memorial within its walls.
Stainton and Lyons are also estranged and have no contact with the Irwins. Neither did anyone from his original team.
“He would be furious. His old man is a special character, it was a love-hate relationship. He was very hard on him physically and emotionally. But he would be devastated that the relationship is broken.
Stainton and Terri’s relationship has changed. Terri wanted all the images. Her relationship with Stainton became untenable.
She thought, ‘I’m a widow, I want total control over the future of my life and that of my children.’ I don’t think she had much to say before, it was all Steve. She took charge.
“Stainton and I have fallen apart, we’ve done things we didn’t agree with. Terri, I’ve been in touch a few times, but generally I haven’t had anything to do with the Irwins since Steve’s death.’
Lyons believes the Aussie icon would be ‘furious’ at how things turned out with his family, crew and the zoo if he were still alive