for National Geographic News
Vietnam War veteran Stan Meeks spent 12 years in the U.S. military.
These days he's better known as the manatee warrior.
"I found a place where I can use the skills I learned in the military to protect weak and defenseless animals," said the 55-year-old Meeks, scouring the swamps of Florida's lower Suwannee River for any signs of manatees.
"They're peaceful, and they have no natural enemies except us humans."
Indeed human activities have put these plant-eating sea creatures in great peril. Once hunted for their meat, scores of manatees are injured or killed by boats every year or become victims of habitat loss brought on by rapid human development.
Their survival depends on finding food and warm waters around Florida's increasingly busy coastline.
Some manatees seek shelter here in the Suwannee River, which runs through northern Florida into the Gulf of Mexico.
(See an interactive map of the Suwannee River.)
It is the only undisturbed river system in the southeastern United States. The river's thick mats of sea grasses and temperate springs, which stay at 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius) year round, provide refuge for hundreds of manatees.
"Peaceful habitat can be hard to find for these animals," said Bob Bonde, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Gainesville, Florida.
"In the future, manatees are probably going to be more dependent on sanctuaries [in places like] the Suwannee River."
Gentle and Trusting
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