Robert Irwin turns 18: His life growing up in the spotlight

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  • Terri Irwin
    Terri Irwin
    American-Australian zoologist, conservationist and television host

Robert Clarence Irwin's whole life has been in the public eye. As the son of Steve and Terri Irwin, there were photo press calls when he was born. It's fair to say, in terms of watching Robert grow up, he and sister Bindi are Australia's unofficial royalty.

Robert with his parents Steve and Terri Irwin and sister Bindi.
Robert with his parents Steve and Terri Irwin and sister Bindi. Photo: Instagram/@robertirwinphotography

Even his first controversial moment was early in life when his dad Steve carried one-month-old Robert in his arms as he fed a chicken carcass to a huge 3.8-metre crocodile at Australia Zoo. There was an outcry at how close baby Robert was to the giant croc and whether his dad was inadvertently putting him in danger.

"I was in complete control of the crocodile. Robert was tucked right in my arm," Steve told the Herald Sun at the time and Terri agreed that Robert was never in any real danger.

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Growing up as an Irwin meant a life of adventure, risk and thrills all while developing knowledge and a passion for the conservation of wildlife.

With Robert turning 18 on December 1st, it's not hard to see the similarities between him and his late father, both physically and in spirit.

Steve Irwin feeding a crocodile and Robert Irwin feeding a crocodile
The likeness between Steve and his son Robert is easy to see. Photo: Instagram/@robertirwinphotography

And despite losing his dad at just two years old when Steve died after a stingray barb pierced his heart in a freak underwater accident, Robert still credits his father with giving him his passion for wildlife.

"I remember when I was tiny, it was actually the last crocodile research trip we ever went on with Dad. And he said, ‘Robert, you’re old enough to help catch these crocs’. And I felt like I had a really big responsibility. He held it down and said, 'alright, you can come in' and it was my mom, my sister and me. I remember him showing me the croc’s little tail, and its beautiful little head and getting to see it and experience it, and then watch it being released back into the wild," Robert told Esquire Magazine.

Robert Irwin with ‘Rhino’ the Rhinoceros iguana as a child and now.
Robert Irwin with ‘Rhino’ the Rhinoceros iguana as a child and now. Rhino is in the Guinness World Records as the oldest rhinoceros iguana in the world at 41! Photo: Instagram/@robertirwinphotography

"It was an incredibly poignant moment for me. It’s still a vague memory and not something that I can remember in its entirety. But it’s enough that I go, 'That was it. That was the spark'."

While many children who lose a parent young have vague memories and shoeboxes filled with fading photos and maybe some jerky home videos, Robert knows he is lucky to have hours of high-quality documentary footage of his father doing what he loved. 

Steve Irwin and his son, Robert Irwin
Steve Irwin clearly loved being a dad to Bindi and Robert. Photo: Instagram/@robertirwinphotography

That’s something I cherish more than anything," he revealed to Esquire. "I feel very lucky to have so much captured on camera because whenever a moment starts to fade, whenever I start to forget, I can look back at all this old footage and it completely sparks these memories."

And it seems his life was destined to also be on camera just like the rest of his family.

While he appeared with his parents in their wildlife documentaries with older sister Bindi, his first official TV role was in Bindi's own show Bindi the Jungle Girl when he was just three. 

After a couple of guest roles on other shows, including regular appearances on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon from the age of 13, Terri, Bindi and Robert banded together to present Crikey! It's the Irwins in 2018 following their work at Australia Zoo.

Steve Irwin on a bike with son Robert and Robert Irwin on a motorbike
With dad Steve on his motorbike and on the same bike now. Photo: Instagram/@robertirwinphotography

Becoming an adult isn't the only thing new for Robert this year. He also became an uncle to Bindi, 23, and husband Chandler Powell's daughter, Grace Warrior – or as Robert would like to be known, 'funcle', short for fun uncle.

"She is a hoot, she is the most incredible little baby, she’s just a ray of sunshine every single day, we just love her so, so much," Robert told The Morning Show on Seven.

Robert lrwin with Grace Warrior.
Robert loves being a Funcle – fun uncle – to niece Grace Warrior. Photo: Instagram/@robertirwinphotography

"It's very exciting for me, I’m very thankful that Bindi and Chandler are getting her in there and letting me take her on so many fun adventures.

"She’s not wrangling crocs or doing anything too crazy just yet, but she is rocking the khakis," he added.

And while he is often asked about the impact his larger than life dad made on his life, mum Terri has been a steadying and supportive force for both Robert and Bindi growing up in the limelight.

"She is the most incredible fearless leader who took us through this incredibly difficult time," Robert said about his mother Terri and how she guided their family and Australia Zoo through Covid. 

Chandler, Grace, Bindi, Terri and Robert at Australia Zoo
Chandler, Grace, Bindi, Terri and Robert at Australia Zoo. Photo: Instagram/@robertirwinphotography

"The only reason that I think that we're still here and all of our conservation work can continue is because of mum... I think she's pretty amazing, she's a superwoman for sure," he added.

With school behind him, Robert is now looking to take a more hands-on approach to the business side of Australia Zoo as he enters his official working life.

"Turning 18 soon, I'm kind of coming into this role where I'm starting to learn more and travel more and do a bit more independently," he told Nine's Today Show.

Robert Irwin after passing his driving test
After passing his driving test, Robert first trip was in his dad’s old Ute to see his newborn niece Grace in the hospital. Photo: Instagram/@robertirwinphotography

"I’m looking forward to, as I become an adult, starting to be more involved with the running of Australia Zoo and really become involved in every facet that we do here, not only the wildlife side of it but the business side of it," he added.

But the spirit of Steve still looms large for Robert and influences his choices and life.

Robert Irwin and a crocodile at Australia Zoo
Robert feeding the monster crocs at Australia Zoo. Photo: Instagram/@robertirwinphotography

"I hope in every aspect of my life that I can make him proud, and make sure that his message never dies," Robert told Esquire

"Because he always said, 'I don’t care if people remember me, I care if people remember my message'. And I want to make sure that continues forever."

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