Sometimes Chris Nelson looks as if he is auditioning for the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” show when he volunteers at the Marine Discovery Center.
If you see Nelson at work, chances are good he’s covered in mud from shoreline restoration, soaking wet from sweat in the summer humidity, dirty from oyster bagging or sporting a collection of sand spurs and beggar’s lice on his pants or scratches on his body from Brazilian pepper eradication.
Nelson seemingly gets the most out of his volunteer time, traveling from his home in Flagler Beach. He also brings a sense of service every time he pitches in to help, demonstrating the character and willingness to serve others that he polished in the Boy Scouts as an Eagle Scout, as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, and later, as a police officer in Trenton, N.J.
In addition, Nelson has taken the things he has learned about conservation at MDC and helped implement similar programs in Flagler Beach, where he also volunteers. His undeterred work ethic and passion for the environment have helped spark enthusiasm for new programs in neighboring Flagler County – spreading civic action up Florida’s coastline.
Read about him in our January Volunteer Spotlight with MDC staff writer Lisa Mickey:
Q: Where did you grow up? A: I grew up outside Trenton in the suburbs.
Q: You are retired now, but talk about where your career took you. A: I was in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1975-1979, and after I got out, I worked as a lab tech in synfuel research from 1979-1982. We worked on synthetics for research on Canadian shale products. I would conduct spectrographs and other tests on sand materials for a company called Hydrocarbon Research. I had worked as a student aide in a microbiology lab while I majored in biology at Mercer County College in New Jersey.
Q: Were you drafted into military service? A: No, I went in voluntarily for four years and worked on the F-4 aircraft. I got out as a sergeant. They wanted me to stay, but I had just gotten married. They wanted to make me a staff sergeant and send me to the drill field for two years as a drill instructor at Parris Island (S.C.). That’s not the place to be for a newly married individual.
Q: So after you left the Marine Corps, you became a police officer? A: Yes, I was a police officer in Trenton, N.J., from 1982-2006. The grant money was running out for my job as a lab technician. I tried to go back to college, but I had a disagreement with one of my professors. I was 25 or 26 and had worked on multi-million-dollar aircraft with weapons systems and I was late for class one day, having driven from Trenton to New Brunswick (N.J.). My professor called me out in front of 200 people in the class. I guess I kind of wigged out on him and it went downhill from there. I took the entry exam to become a police officer and finished with the top score, so I went on with that. I think it suited me pretty well.
Q: That’s a big transition going from a research lab to the police department. A: The military prepared me for it from a mental and physical standpoint, as well as through teamwork and handling difficult situations. Most of the time I was a street cop on a foot post. I walked the beat, but I also worked on radio and in the canine unit. Toward the end, when the job started to change, they wanted social workers and not police officers, so I moved inside to work for my last three years.
Q: Did the police work become more dangerous? A: Yes. When I first went to work there, there were basic rules on the street and everybody knew them. I worked in West Trenton, which was rougher, but even with the dirt bags, there was an understanding on the street and there were certain rules to play by. And then the weapon technology on the street advanced rather rapidly and was much better than ours. We had to step up our game.
Q: Were you counting down the days to retirement? A: I enjoyed my work for a lot of years, but it’s a young person’s job – especially on the street. I ended my career handling all the court records and documentation. I wrote grants and got the department $2 million worth of equipment.
Q: You married Kate in your second marriage. When did you two move to Florida?
A: We moved to Flagler Beach in 2006. I purchased property there in the late 1980s- early 1990s during my first marriage. It’s waterfront on the canal, four blocks from the beach. It was an estate sale and the food was still on the shelves. I bought everything for $84,000. We fixed it up and rented out the house for years.
Q: How was it to pack up and move away from your home state? A: Wonderful! I enjoyed the Jersey shore and boating there was fun, but every time I go back, I see less that I miss, plus the New Jersey tax structure is crazy. I don’t see how anybody can afford to live there.
Q: How did you learn about the Marine Discovery Center? A: I was at lunch at the Ale House in St. Augustine a few years ago and was talking to a bartender. Somehow, we ended up talking about scouting. I always enjoyed hiking, camping and nature and I got interested in biology as an Eagle Scout. The bartender told me he had taken a Florida Master Naturalist Coastal class down in New Smyrna Beach and he thought I would really enjoy it. So I took the class and really got really into it. I ended up taking all of the courses to become an advanced Florida Master Naturalist.
Q: How did the Florida Master Naturalist Program whet your appetite to learn more? A: I collected water samples for Dr. Maia McGuire up in Flagler the first year she had her NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) grant to study microplastics and the seagrass surveys we do at MDC is legitimate research. Even working with the oyster bags — sure, it’s dirty, but when you get to see the entire process through, you have a better understanding of what’s being achieved. We get to work with some great scientists who are willing to share their knowledge.
Q: What areas have you volunteered for at MDC? A: I am primarily involved in the shoreline restoration program. I enjoy working with the universities and with the crew at MDC. I’ve helped with the salt marsh and seagrass surveys, and I did horseshoe crab surveys in the past. It’s a real team working with the other volunteers and staff. We have a good time together and achieve our objectives, while doing something beneficial for the planet.
Q: You could be sitting on your boat and enjoying retired life. Why are you out here getting filthy volunteering? A: I enjoy it and I’ve always tried to give back to my community in some way. I guess that’s my nature to do it. Obviously, there’s something intrinsic about serving.
Q: But you always pick the dirtiest jobs! What’s up with that? A: Nobody else wants to do them. Plus, it’s good physical exercise.
Q: Where else do you volunteer? A: I’ve worked with the Turtle Patrol in Flagler County for longer than I’ve been at MDC. I do the morning surveys on the beach and programs in the evenings for the public.
Q: What are your hobbies? A: I used to sing. I was the business manager for a choral group for 10 years and I was a stage manager for an opera company for three years – all as a volunteer. I used to take voice lessons and sing in oratorio events. I’ve sung the bass part in Handel’s Messiah, but I really like the behind-the-stage stuff more. I never really got over stage fright and I always thought I might throw up on the first 13 rows of people.
Q: Where did you get a love for opera? A: I have friends who were involved with the opera club – big [Giacomo] Puccini people – so I became interested through them. I just love music and go to live performances whenever I can. Last year, Kate and I spent two weeks at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. We also try to support local theater.
Q: You and Kate also enjoy cruising on your boat. What type of boat is it? A: It’s a 50-foot trawler. I bought it down here in Florida. We’ll spend three months in the Florida Keys this winter on our boat. I’m finishing up my term as fleet captain at the Flagler Beach Yacht Club.
Q: Did you spend a lot of time on boats as a kid in New Jersey? A: Not really. My dad used to get me up around 3 in the morning to go crabbing down on Barnegat Bay. He would scrape up some money for us to go out on a boat. He always wanted his own boat. Before he died, I bought a boat, so I was able to take him out on my boat.
Q: Did you see all of the nesting horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay when you were a boy? A: No, but we had them on the Jersey shore, along with the Red Knots [birds]. The numbers of horseshoe crabs there have really declined over the years. The same is true with the blue crabs and some of the fish.
Q: How similar are the coastal concerns of New Jersey with those here in Florida? A: Erosion and sea-level rise is a huge thing in both places – maybe not as fast as here in Florida. The over-population there is a factor. Other than the Pine Barrens in the south and some spots up north, there’s not a great deal of open land left.
Q: What has been the highlight for you at MDC? A: Just being involved in some legitimate science and being able to contribute to that. That’s one of the nice things here. People listen to your ideas and if they’re workable, they will support you on it. Many places won’t even listen to you.
Q: How have you played a part in MDC’s conservation mission? A: We’ve done a lot of things, including [eradication of] Brazilian pepper and I’ve gotten some of the things we do here extended into Flagler County. The City of Flagler Beach is now working on the Brazilian pepper on the public lands up there. Their city employees are now cutting down the stuff and spraying for it. This was our first year of doing that. I reported to our City Council and they were overjoyed with our work. They’re going to fund it again next year. Now, I want to move on to the county and try to get something started with the parks system.
Q: It’s pretty cool that you have expanded what you have learned into Flagler County where you live.
A: Yeah, I’m involved at Gamble Rogers [Memorial State Recreation Area] in Flagler Beach. MDC’s Shuck & Share oyster recycling program is also now in Flagler, so it’s been great for the things we’re doing to spread. I helped the Flagler Shuck & Share program get more than 80 percent of its oysters because my neighbor runs a place and they go through 40 cases of oysters each week.
I also want to get more involved with interpretive efforts. In the fall , I helped with STEMFEST Volusia in Daytona Beach, as well as at MDC with some education programs.
Q: You’ve been here long enough to see MDC grow. What stands out to you? A: Just the overall growth of the center. I’d like to see MDC continue growing. MDC has done a wonderful job operating under the constraints they are under as a nonprofit. I admire what has been achieved and the vision and goals for the center moving forward. I’m really glad I have had the opportunity to be a part of it for the last five years.