There were real tears, not crocodile tears, when celebrated Australian conservationist Steve Irwin, star of the popular television program Crocodile Hunter, died Monday after sustaining a stingray barb to his heart. Irwin, 44, was filming near the Great Barrier Reef when he swam too close to the stingray, which has poisonous barbs on its tail designed to protect it from predators. An outpouring of tributes to the ever-smiling Irwin, who had fostered an awareness and love of nature among millions of people worldwide, began pouring into media outlets, especially in Australia and the US. Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who knew Irwin personally, told The Associated Press he was "shocked and distressed," saying Irwin's death "was a huge loss to Australia." Howard described Irwin as a wonderful character and passionate environmentalist who brought joy, entertainment and excitement to millions of people. In Israel, Australian Ambassador James Larsen termed Irwin's death "a tremendous tragedy." Although he never met Irwin, the man had loomed larger than life on the Australian horizon, he said. Crocodile Hunter, first broadcast in 1992, catapulted Irwin to global fame after it was picked up by the Discovery Channel and led to a full-length film, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course. The intrepid Irwin, who frequently leapt onto the backs of crocodiles, swam with whales and played with venomous snakes, took amazing risks to produce wildlife films. Conventional wisdom had it that when he would be called to meet his Maker, it would be somewhere in the wild. With his authentic Australian personality and hallmark expression, "Crikey" - which, depending on the tone of voice, can convey enthusiasm, bewilderment, awe, anger or disgust - Irwin endeared himself at home and abroad. "Today, everyone is so busy with e-mails, SMSs, Internet, catching up on the latest DVDs, we often forget to look outside and admire what nature has to offer," said Paul Israel, the executive director of the Israel Australia Chamber of Commerce. "Steve Irwin was gifted in that he brought us all back to basics and allowed each of us to fall in love with nature in our own personal and special way."