Story of timid boy to Wildlife Man is a lesson to all

LONG before he first hitched a ride on a shark's fin or had his spine broken by a whale, David Ireland was just a lonely boy.

The fascinating account of his evolution from high school weakling to world-renowned wildlife documentary maker is laid out in his new autobiography, The Wildlife Man.

What a journey it has been. From filming inside the jaws of a saltwater crocodile to having his ribs shattered by a wild boar, Ireland has carved out the kind of existence most of us could only dream about.

And none of it would have been possible if not for a muscle-bound circus performer who believed in a boy who lacked even a shred of self-esteem.

Ireland's formative years were traumatic, to say the least.

Already a bad asthmatic, he suffered from a paralysed soft palate through a tonsillectomy gone wrong, and it affected his ability to talk.

Being unable to play sports or properly pronounce his words made him the brunt of jokes and merciless schoolyard bullying. When he returned to school a few days after his father's funeral, something happened that ended any desire 13-year-old Ireland might have held for a conventional education.

A bully had etched his name into the school chapel, and it was time for someone to be punished.

As he arrived back on school grounds, the headmaster called an assembly and stood Ireland in front of his entire cohort.

"I thought they were going to say a prayer for my old man," he said.

"He announced to the school that I carved my name in the school chapel.

"He caned me in front of everybody so severely that I bled through my shorts.

"Then he told the whole school that David Ireland would never achieve anything in his life."

That ordeal marked the end of Ireland's schooling.

With nowhere left to turn, he wrote a letter to an Australian strongman who sold correspondence exercise courses through newspaper advertisements.

The circus performer took Ireland under his wing and sent him regular training regimes that transformed him into the barrel-chested athlete who later spearheaded so many films.

"I became very strong. I became very clever at boxing and free diving and spear fishing," Ireland said.

"But most of all, he got inside my head and taught me that I could be whoever I wanted to be in life.

"That there was no ceiling - I could achieve what I wanted to be."

Finally gaining confidence, Ireland became a professional spear fisher who could hold his breath for four minutes and free dive more than 140 feet.

He opened a dive school and he made a name for himself as an underwater daredevil who would ride 11-foot grey nurse sharks like dolphins.

"I was doing something I always wanted to do, and that was teaching people how to face their fear," he said.

Word soon got around about Ireland's stunts, and a Channel Nine crew contacted him about shooting some film.

They arrived with a Bolex camera in watertight plastic casing - a professional set-up, but being up close with shark jaws snapping in bloodied water proved too much for the cameraman.

"This guy just panicked and took off, and he left the camera on the bottom," Ireland said.

"I picked it up, pushing the sharks away and punching them.

"When the big one came in, I was basically getting awesome mouth shots with the camera in one hand and the fish in the other.

"That started my career.

"I ended up filming everything from lions to crocs, to whales and wild boar."

His film, Crocodile Man, was the first of its kind, and set the mould for so many wildlife documentaries that followed.

"I arguably filmed one of the biggest crocodiles ever filmed in the wild, using cages that I floated in the water," Ireland said.

"He came very close to killing me."

As one might imagine, danger has played a big part in Ireland's life.

"I had a shark grab me around the chest. I've had a crocodile bite me and goannas bite me," he explained.

"I've had my back broken by a whale; my ribs have been smashed by a boar.

"And I nearly got drowned by a dugong, of all things.

"I'm not boasting, but when you work with wild animals as long as I have, you get pretty good at it.

"I really tap into a sixth sense ... I often know when things are not going to go well.

"That's got me out of trouble many, many times.

"It's a sense that we probably all have, but because I do what I do, I've really refined it."

His life story is now in the public domain, and there are talks about converting the Wildlife Man for the big screen.

Ireland said he was in talks with potential investors about creating a feature film.

"I'm hoping that I could play (myself) in the last chapters," he said.

"But I would certainly have to direct and often be maybe the stuntman for a lot of the action.

"Because there will be a lot of action.

"And there's not that many people around who can do this stuff.

"And we will do it. It will happen."

The 69-year-old is still shooting documentaries and has outworked or outlived his peers like Malcolm Douglas, Steve Irwin and the Bush Tucker Man, Les Hiddins.

He tries to pass on the same self belief and dedication he learnt from the strongman who set him on a new path.

The unlikely duo never met in person, but Ireland recently tracked down his mentor's resting place.

"I went there last year and I found the broken-down old concrete grave," he said.

"I don't know why, but I sat down on it and cried.

"I'm not really sure why - I think just all those really early days flooded back.

"And I think I was paying him back, in a way.

"Now I really enjoy passing on his teachings, letting kids know that if someone like me can achieve what I've done, anyone can."

The Extraordinary Life of the Wildlife Man by David Ireland, RRP $34.99, published by Penguin Books. For more, visit

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