Enjoy wildlife with the proper respect

Published September 10, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Every night before going to sleep last week, my 5-year-old said a prayer for the Crocodile Hunter.

Everyone has probably heard about Steve Irwin's untimely death. The popular Australian television personality and conservationist who built his reputation handling saltwater crocodiles and poisonous snakes was killed Monday by a stingray. He was 44.

"Are stingrays dangerous?" my son asked.

"Yes," I answered. "But so are ladders, power tools and propane grills."

Like his hero, my son has grown up in the outdoors. He has been around alligators, snakes and sharks since he was old enough to crawl. I have tried to teach him to respect these creatures but never fear them.

As the outdoors editor for the St. Petersburg Times, teachers often ask me to speak to their classes about my job. That usually takes about five minutes, then I ask for a show of hands.

"What do you want to talk about?" I ask. "Sharks or crocodiles?"

Most of what I know about both was acquired during a year I spent backpacking through New Zealand and Australia in the late 1980s. New Zealand doesn't have any "salties," as the big saltwater crocs are called, but that quaint little country had its inherent dangers.

During my six-month stay, I heard of at least a dozen fellow travelers who died crossing rain-swollen streams, falling off mountains or succumbing to hypothermia.

In Australia, I sat out a typhoon in a tent, then crossed a flooded river in a bus with water flowing through the luggage compartment. The country has numerous venomous snakes, large flightless birds that can disembowel a grown man with their toenails and a deadly species of jellyfish that can send any human unfortunate enough to brush up against one into cardiac arrest.

"She's a beauty, ain't she mate," I remember mykayaking guide saying as he showed off a patchwork of scars that ran down his arm.

The blond, sun-tanned Aussie had run afoul of a box jellyfish, and it burned the skin off his arm.

"I was dead," he said. "My mates had to bring me back to life."

But less than an hour later, this man played what I thought at the time was a very cruel practical joke. I was snorkeling on a reef, painfully aware of a steep drop-off where sharks surely lurked, when I saw a British tourist swimming my way with what looked like a pot roast in one hand.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"He says it will attract fish," the Brit responded, pointing to our "friend" who was doubled-over in laughter.

So much for Aussie humor.

Being a foreigner in a strange land, I was extra cautious when it came to Australia's deadly bronze whaler (the Down Under version of our bull shark), the dreaded King Brown (a relative of the cobra) and of course the saltwater crocodile.

But when scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef, I never gave any thought to stingrays. In Florida, water enthusiasts learn to coexist peacefully with a smaller cousin, the Southern stingray.

As many as 50 people may be stung on a typical day at one of our busier waterfront areas such as Clearwater Beach. But in all the years I worked as an ocean lifeguard there, I never saw one of my colleagues get tagged.

The victims were usually tourists or city folks who didn't know enough to shuffle their feet, despite the warnings signs posted on every lifeguard tower.

So next time my son asks about stingrays, I will tell him to give them the respect they deserve as he shuffles his way through the shore break, with his surfboard under his arm.

It is one of those life skills, like lighting a gas grill, everyone should master.