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Chip Robelen: Natural history whiz

Story by Gary Greenberg
Photo by Diane Bradford


May 2002--Chip Robelen stands knee-deep in the Peace River in south central Florida as streams of pint-sized fossil hunters ebb and flow around him.

     “Good, Robert,” he says to a six-year-old boy who’s holding up a dark brown finger of stone. “That’s a very nice dugong rib. And Gretchen’s got…a lemon shark tooth! Beautiful! And what’s that you have Lance? Oh my. That’s just a rock…but it’s one of the best rocks I’ve ever seen!”

     Lance tosses the rock upstream and runs off laughing, joining other kids, and their parents, as they splash around the river’s coffee-colored water, shoveling scoops of sand into screen sieves and watching wide-eyed as ancient fossils seem to magically materialize out of river silt.
     Chip, the special projects coordinator of the South Florida Museum of Natural History and leader of this expedition to the far reaches of south-central Florida, stands khaki-clad in the center of the activity looking like a cross between Mr. Rogers and Indiana Jones.

    “Look!” he shouts excitedly, pointing skyward at a soaring bird. “There’s a swallow-tailed kite. Very rare. Bird-watchers could come here every weekend for a year and never see one.”

    He keeps up a running dialogue throughout the day, purveying an endless stream of information about all things natural and telling tales about things like giant glytodonts -- armadillos the size of VWs -- that used to roam these parts. And come evening, he leads the campfire stories and songfest before showing the kids how to find the North Star.

    To go along with his encyclopedic knowledge, Chip has a contagious enthusiasm for learning which manifests itself whether he’s leading a Peace River fossil-hunting expedition or one of his other innovative programs, which now include three sleepovers in the South Florida-based museum: the Dinosnore Adventure, Mummy Mania and the latest, The Natives Are Hungry.

    “We make a Paleolithic knife and talk about hunting techniques, then go outside and throw spears at targets,” he says of the latter event. “We try to make it realistic, so if you don’t hit the target, you don’t get dinner.”

    Sometimes, it’s hard to tell when he’s kidding. But he’s definitely serious about learning.

    “What I love about this job is when I start talking about dinosaurs or fossils or mummies to the kids and their eyes sparkle because they get it,” Chip says. “And I love learning. I love it when my eyes sparkle because I get it.”

     Remarkably, this natural history know-it-all is a self-taught expert who has no college degrees, no initials attached to his name. A former charter boat captain and registered nurse, he was a professional photographer shooting weddings and commercial work about a decade ago when one of the museum founders, Gypsy Graves, hired him to help out with some audio-visual projects.

    “When I interviewed a professor or some other expert for a video, I hated asking stupid questions,” Chip recalls. “So I always did my homework. And one test was to explain things to my son and daughter. That made me work harder on the education side.”

    The job turned into a full-time position, and in the following years, Chip has developed a fun set of activities which he keeps fiddling with to improve. For example, the Dinosnore Adventure, which takes place on select Friday nights, used to consist of a scavenger hunt through the eerily-darkened museum followed by a screening of Jurassic Park.

    “Now we go outside and dig up buffalo bones, then treat them the way paleontologists would treat dinosaur bones,” he explains. “We also cast a spinosaurus tooth and have a bunch of crafts and hands-on activities, so there’s no time for Jurassic Park.”

    Another popular program is Mummy Mania, which includes making a scarab and doing “mommy wraps” with toilet paper. At the last Mummy Mania event, Chip enlisted the help of his nine-year-old son, Spencer, and 12-year old daughter, Ariel.

    “We dressed Spencer in a loin cloth and had him lie in a tomb as King Tut,” Chip says. “And Ariel played Indian Queen Osceola. The kids really love the adventure.

    “Me too. To quote Ian Fleming, ‘Never say no to adventure.’ I love being the guide and have so much fun teaching the kids what I know. I’m living my dream.”

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