Meet a Real-Life Lara Croft: Linden Wolbert, Professional Mermaid
RCL adventure correspondent Kinga Philipps chats with the scuba diver, model and performer.
It brings great joy to my heart to imagine somewhere in the world a little girl sitting down with her guidance counselor saying, “When I grow up I want to be a mermaid.” The counselor laughs indulgently yet delicately, leans in for the ultimate career redirect and says sweetly, “Honey that’s not a real profession.” At which point the little girl pulls up a picture of Mermaid Linden on her phone, drops the proverbial mic and swims off into the sunset … or maybe in this case the lagoon.
I love that scenario, because, darn it kid, you can be whatever you want to be … and there is one woman in California wearing a $25,000, 50-pound handmaid fishtail and diving to depths of 115 feet to serve as evidence of that.
Linden Wolbert is a professional mermaid. One of the most successful in the world. Quite appropriately she’s the daughter of competitive swimmers who was inspired by Jacques Cousteau documentaries, The Little Mermaid and her own passion for the ocean to make a bold career choice that sounds more fairytale than reality.
Yet, looking around her website, you definitely think, sure she’s got everything. At least twenty thingamabobs and gizmos a-plenty. This gal has a bonafide thriving career as a mythical creature.
Linden started as a scuba diver, made her way to being a scuba model and then filled a niche that clearly needed to be filled. With the help of her friend and Hollywood special effects technician, Alan Holt, they spent seven months designing the elaborate tail she wears to perform for A-list celebs all over the world. She now has seven variations of tails.
An accomplished free diver, a rather necessary skill for mermaiding, Linden can hold her breath for five minutes in a static breath hold meaning a nonmoving test of breath. Clearly, this mermaid isn’t just looks and scales. She’s got the bad-ass skills of a navy seal under all that fairy dust. Well, technically that dust is sand with bits of silica, usually in the form of quartz, and white sand is really parrot fish poop … but I digress from the magical to the scientific.
In her shimmering 12-year career Mermaid Linden has frolicked peacefully with sharks, whales and millions of jellyfish; surprised a sick little girl in Scotland by swimming out of a Loch to bring her a necklace and performed for the likes of Jessica Alba and Justin Timberlake. She offers her services to Make a Wish Foundation and sits on the Board of Directors of Reef Check Worldwide working to conserve the environment that is both her office and playground. She’s also challenged Michael Phelps to a 50-meter race for charity through a mutual connection. For unknown reasons he declined, but the suspicion is that Linden’s swim speed might just be too close for comfort. Michael, if you’re reading this, give it a go, eh? It would be excellent redemption for the Shark Week great white race stunt.
But it’s the kids that are the real reason behind Linden’s passion for her work. With a background in film, the lung capacity of an athlete and a seashell bikini for a business suit Linden produces segments called A Mermaid Minute … giving kids a glimpse into her undersea world and its creatures. Some of her videos have over 20 million views making her a bonafide celebrity in the YouTube world. She also has her own line of mono fin tails and dive products for future mer-people in training co-produced with Body Glove. When not traveling to exotic destinations like Palau and the Bahamas, appearing on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week or brushing her long blonde hair with a dinglehopper Linden teaches children swim safety, sustainability and love for the big blue. She calls them “little sea sponges” because they absorb the lessons and beam with excitement … like one would expect from anyone receiving lessons on ocean conservation from a mermaid. I kind of suspect a similar response from most other age groups, prison inmates and even politicians. Magic is magic people.
In one of my most beloved film scenes from Boyhood, Mason asks his dad if there is any real magic in the world “like elves and stuff.” Ethan Hawke gives a beautiful answer about whales being infinitely more magical than elves. Fact. Yet, if he only knew, he could have thrown a mermaid into the mix too.
Passion is a powerful driving force for people. How did yours develop and mold who you are and what you do?
Linden Wolbert: I’m extremely lucky because I grew up with the rare pairing of the following two things: 1) A wild imagination and hunger for wildlife, music, art and whimsy 2) Parents who supported every little thing I was interested in, no matter how trivial or seemingly ridiculous. Certainly, this laid the internal groundwork for me to follow my passions with great fervor. Thus, upon rear-view reflection, I am eternally grateful that the moments when I said things to my parents like, “So … I want to be an underwater cinematographer when I grow up” and “I’m going to become a professional mermaid and make myself a tail” were met not with rolling eyes and sighs of disapproval, but with genuine enthusiasm and conversation of how to make these dreams possible. I recall my mother standing in the kitchen when I broke her the news that I was going to pursue mermaiding. Her response was, “You ARE magic!” To say I won the parental unit lottery is a dramatic understatement. I have always been a very energetic “ideas” person. Nothing is out of the question, no idea too “out there.” I love to create, to learn and to share what I love. I believe in “contagious enthusiasm” as a tool for conservation. This is at the heart of what I do, and drives my passion like a crazy person to make it happen!
What was the life path that led a girl from Pennsylvania to become a professional mermaid? Your parents were competitive swimmers, you are a Master SCUBA diver and an accomplished freediver … even judging competitions. You were even a PADI dive model! But how on earth does one make the leap to career mermaiding?
LW: I grew up on a horse farm in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia, and then we moved to Amish country when I was 8. We didn’t have cable TV until we moved, so we had only three channels … one of which was PBS. I loved wildlife documentaries and would record them on BetaMax tapes (it was the ’80s baby. .. woop wooop!), watching them until the sound stopped working. Jacques Yves Cousteau and Sir David Attenborough narrated my outdoor adventures as a child (in my imagination) while I observed ladybugs eating aphids in the yard, or was lulled to sleep by the songs of great horned owls at night. Nature has always enthralled me. I fledged a myriad of creatures to observe their behaviors as a youngster, from butterflies and moths to toads and lizards. My bedroom was a menagerie of critters and science experiments. But there was a mysterious and magical place I only knew of through the television and pages of my field books … the sea.
Sure, I’d been to the Jersey shore in the summer, but was restricted to the shoreline and whatever treasures washed up onto it, to my true delight. I loved to swim, a family trait. I loved taking photos, and capturing little things I’d see in nature. These passions evolved into the realization that I wanted to become a wildlife cinematographer…to share these things I loved so much – just as Cousteau and Attenborough had done for me. I also thought, “What better place to work than in nature and outdoors?!” And so it was.
I was accepted to Emerson College in Boston and majored in Film and Environmental Science. I repaired old 16mm film cameras called Bolexes for the school to help pay for my tuition, and made my first underwater film shot on a Bolex inside a fish aquarium at the local YMCA. I was beside myself with excitement when the film was processed and there was an image! In 2003, I left Boston for Los Angeles and enrolled in the Emerson College Los Angeles Internship Program. I haven’t left since. I was hired as the Residence Director immediately upon graduation – which, unbeknownst to me, would be the last “real job” I would have to date. Before I left Emerson, I got my PADI Open Water certification in 2004 and was practically inseparable from the water. I could hardly bear to be in an office once I experienced the kelp forests first hand, and then traveled to Grand Cayman to help film a documentary about the sport of freediving. Again, my love of the water grew.
While in Cayman, I tried a monofin on for the first time, and the rest is history! At that moment, a huge light bulb went off. What if, instead of creating documentaries like everyone else, I taught kids about the ocean as a MERMAID?! And just like that, I made my first big leap … I left my very comfortable position at Emerson to start my business. Suddenly, in my early 20s, I found myself living in a room above the garage at my parents’ house. No promise of work … no idea how this would all work out. It was liberating and horrifying all at once. As I would learn, when I take a leap, a net magically appears. The saying is true! Never, of course, in a way I could have predicted. PADI, the dive agency, hired me as an underwater SCUBA model, and I traveled the world and got paid to dive with them. A dream! Around that time, I traveled to Tokyo and became certified as an International AIDA Judge for the sport of freediving. I was obsessed with the sport, yet had no interest in competing, so this was perfect. I got to observe world-class athletes setting unimaginable records, travel to exotic locations, and master my freediving techniques from the best possible coaches. Life news flash: Toto, I don’t think we’re in Amish country anymore.
What are the ins and outs of running a professional mermaid business?
LW: Oh man. I can’t really answer that in a short fashion. Let’s just say that as an owner of a business for which there was no existing business model, it was a huge learning curve. Here are some of the skillsets and areas I have had to do my best to learn and manage over the past decade to keep my business flourishing: Performer, Filmmaker, Special Effects Artist, Product Designer, Model, Quality Controller, Makeup Artist, Negotiator, Accountant, Seamstress, Educator, Musical Composer, Editor, Aquatic Athlete, Web Designer, Childhood Behavioral Expert, Set Designer, Social Media Expert, Storyteller, Wish Granter, Marine Biologist, Citizen Scientist, Writer, Conservationist, PR Specialist, Brand Ambassador, Producer, Underwater Stunt Double, Director, Professional Mermaid. I’m certain I’m missing some, but you get the picture! I have quite the hat collection. This job has taught me more than any office position ever could, and has provided infinite rewards! Is it horrifying at times both creatively and financially? Absolutely! Do I have days where I question myself and wonder, “Am I completely mad for doing all this?” Bloody right I do! But then I realize what happened somewhere along the line, I accidentally became an Entrepremermaid. Yes, it’s a thing. Entrepremermaiding. And it rocks.
You have a $15,000, 35-pound tail that took almost a year to make! That’s more expensive and takes more time to build that some cars! How did this go from dream to reality?
LW: The first tail, or as it is now called, “Tail 1.0,” weighed 25 pounds by the time it was completed. Its replica, known as “tail 2.0” and my current work (sea) horse, weighs in at 50 pounds, but is neutrally buoyant, meaning it neither sinks nor floats. Craziness, I know. The sea stars aligned when I decided I must make my first tail. Magically, a man by the name of Allan Holt was delivered into my sphere of existence thanks to our mutual friend Adam. Allan wanted to make an underwater music video, and Adam suggested he speak with me about the logistics. I had no idea until Allan and I sat down to discuss his music video at our first meeting over dinner that he was a Hollywood Special Effects Artist. He also happens to be one of the kindest people I know. He immediately expressed interest in helping me with my crazy dream: to create a realistic, swimmable, one-of-a-kind mermaid tail. Within a few months, we began the process. Over seven months and thousands of “sand dollars” later, we co-created my first born … my baby … Tail 1.0! Born from hundreds or perhaps thousands of hours of clay sculpting, fiberglass-laying, bondo slathering labor and love, that tail lasted me for almost a decade and swam in oceans, rivers, lochs and pools around the world. It is amazing where that tail got to swim … and luckily for me, I got to experience those things because of it!
Describe the feeling of freediving using the five senses.
LW: They say when you lose one of your senses – the others are heightened. Realize that while suspended in the aquatic world as a freediver, we are temporarily relieved of at least two senses: taste and smell. I mean, theoretically you could stick out your tongue underwater and taste the saltiness of the sea, I suppose. But who does that? Therefore, the senses of touch, sight and hearing are all heightened – depending on the equipment you’re wearing in the water, of course.
TOUCH: The feeling of the water enveloping the body is one I love. What is the sensation of the water temperature? Is the water warm? Is it cold? Does it make you shiver? Is it almost imperceptible because it is so close to your body’s temperature? I love the sense of weightlessness the water provides. It is so freeing. To achieve neutral buoyancy and to truly relax underwater is a sensation unlike any other. It is something everyone should experience. Water sloooooows us dooooown. It makes our bodies move differently. WE think differently. It is as thought the water demand us to be elegant and deliberate. The more streamlined and hydrodynamic one is in the water column, the more easily and effectively they can move. Likewise, the feeling of speeding through the water with a tail or monofin is so powerful! I love the sense of touch I feel while in the water, unless it’s really cold. There is little I loathe more than being cold, and it is an unfortunately common side effect of mermaiding! Brrrrrrrr!
SIGHT: When one wears a mask for freediving, what you see is never the same twice. The same dive site can look entirely different from one day, hour or minute to the next. The light may change as clouds or the sun continue to move. Schools of fish come and go, the landscape can change just like seasons on land. It is a luxury to see clearly underwater. How do I know this? Well, one of the other downsides of true mermaiding is that mermaids don’t wear eye apparatus! Masks and goggles are not exactly “in style” in the mermaid world … so vision is compromised. This does make things interesting when one is diving with, for example, sharks. Big, gray blurs are gliding by … it’s hard to say how closely. Depth perception is all but lost, and this includes estimating distance to and from the surface of the water while holding ones’ breath and diving several tens of feet down and back up again. Cue internal mermaid dialogue: “How long till I reach the coral reef below? Okay, I’ve equalized my ears four times already … I think that’s the camera man over there. Yes! I think that’s his bubbles. Getting closer, OOH! I’m here! The reef is suddenly kind of in focus. Okay, that blur over there looks like a big fish…or is that a small shark? I’ll just glide over here next to this colorful blur that must be a sea fan or coral head. I’m sure it’ll look pretty on camera. Keep smiling, okay … Oooh! I think that’s a school of fish around here! FUN! Hi guys! Okay, do a graceful turn, head back toward the brightly colored thingy … okay … getting ready to head back up now, diaphragm is starting to contract … keep smiling … now turn for the surface. Kicking slowly up … slowly … When can I take another breath? Hmmm … hard to say … now? Nope … not yet … now? The surface seems to be getting closer … Still no. Keep kicking … keep smiling, don’t rush … ignore your diaphragm and that urge to breathe. Elegant kicks, not too much knee bend … begin to exhale before your surface so you can take a precious breath … still kicking … still not there … releasing bubbles … BOOM! Surface … BREATHE. Ahhh, I can see clearly again! And repeat.
HEARING: There are two things you hear while you’re freediving…your heartbeat, and the sounds of the sea. Sometimes you hear what sounds like super loud Rice Crispies cereal in the ocean … that’s the sound of all the little animals on the reef, eating things, catching things, digging, grabbing, pinching … and in some animated movies … singing and dancing. Then there are the times you hear whales calling. What a divine sound … or dolphins with their super-sonic squeaks and clicks. Then there are the sounds of the powerful waves crashing above, depending on where you are. Certain senses are very heightened underwater, when they are permitted to work there!
What makes the Bahamas and Palau your favorite places to dive?
LW: I really have three favorite places to dive … the first is right off the coast of California in the giant kelp. There is nothing else like it in the world! A cathedral of light beams, constant motion, and a nursery for so many species. A hiding place and a haven. A giant, living salad for animals to eat and thrive in.
The Bahamas are special to me for different reasons. The Bahamas are dear to my heart since that is where I have done many of my deep dives and have explored private beaches and seemingly untouched coves. Endless blue on the horizon gives way to sand spits that look like a slice of paradise from a screen saver. But … they’re real! Dean’s Blue Hole on Long Island, Bahamas, is the site of years of William Trubridge’s Vertical Blue freediving competition. The hole plunges from a gorgeous sandy crescent into a cobalt ink of 663 feet straight down. There is no place else like it on earth.
Palau is the most colorful and bio-diverse place … each coral head is a micro chasm of life with frenetic activity. A group of Christmas tree worms, some blennies and a resident eel may all be hanging out right next to a swaying anemone full of clownfish, while a Napolean Wrasse looks on lazily. Need I say more? I hardly knew where to point my camera while I was diving, because I didn’t want to miss anything! Schooling sharks stream by and groups of silvery fish shapeshift around them, glinting in the sun unpredictably. Jellyfish Lake was a sight to behold … one I will never forget! Colorful Mandarinfish do a quiet courtship dance tucked away beneath an oversized brain coral. Palau definitely caught my heart!
How do you prep for a deep free dive?
LW: First, I am always surrounded by a safety team. Whether that is a buddy I trust with my life (and theirs with me) or a team if I am mermaiding with large animals, like whale sharks or mantas for example. I relax. I stretch. I breathe. The constant battle for me is fighting the inherent excitement of being in the water, and keeping my heart rate slow so I can maximize my time on each dive. I also meditate, which brings me into a much better state to enter the blue.
What kind of sea creatures have you been in the water with and how do they respond to a mermaid in their midst?
LW: All sorts! Many varieties of sharks, whales, mantas, sea turtles, stingrays, jellyfish, cuttlefish, sea lions, you name it! I LOVE diving with sea lions! They are like puppy dogs! Diving in La Paz with them at Los Islotes is like a dream! Sharks are typically afraid of me, since I am larger than some varieties of them and am not blowing bubbles. They aren’t sure what to make of me, and they go by a hierarchy of size, so it can be tricky getting them close to me. Many animals seem to like interacting with me. I have always felt such a kinship with creatures…but this is much more challenging when I’m not wearing a mask … since I can’t really tell the animals’ behavior. I seem to have incredible luck when seeking out creatures to interact with in the ocean.
Do you feel like you have a special physical and spiritual connection to the ocean?
LW: I do. Absolutely. The ocean is always where I want to go when I am very happy, very sad, feeling indifferent … in other words, I always want to be near the ocean! Clearly it is a soul “food group” for me. More importantly, I feel a spiritual connection to the animals there. I am often approached by animals in a way it seems most people are not. I like to think that, on an energetic level, they can sense they are safe with me and that I am their advocate. I love the idea of being half ocean creature and half human, so I can speak on behalf of the creatures of the ocean to the human race.
Tell me about being an ocean advocate and supporter of Reef Check.
LW: I have been on the board of Reef Check for five years now, and have been a supporter of the organization since 2004. I love that they encourage Citizen Science and openly provide all of their collected data to the world, for free. The way this organization works and their core mission, to protect our world’s coral and rocky reef systems through a variety of means, is most admirable to me. Everyone involved operates from a place of heart. It’s an amazing NGO that I am honored to be a part of.
You have a background in film and you’ve used that to create a series, Mermaid Minute, to educate kids about the ocean. What excites you about sharing your ocean passions with kids?
LW: Mermaid Minute is the thing I am most proud of creating in my life. It is such a fusion of all of my passions and talents, and making this series was a dream come true for me! I have millions of views on seasons 1 and 2 combined, and love hearing from teachers, kids, parents and homeschoolers all over the world who use it in their curriculum…or just watch it for fun! It was intended for kids, but seems to appeal to the bigger kids, too!
What do you feel like are your biggest professional and personal accomplishments to date?
LW: My Mermaid Minute series is definitely my favorite accomplishment. I also love designing products for kids, as with my Mermaid Linden by Body Glove line of children’s swim products (Adult monofins are launching next year!). I can’t believe there are little kids out there all over the globe swimming with my monofins, shaped like my own tail! But the most important and heartfelt work I do, by FAR, is helping grant wishes for children and their families with life-threatening illnesses. I have been doing this for many years now, and it became very personal when my own little niece was diagnosed with B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in 2016, at age 7. I realize on an even deeper level how important it is for these kids and their families to have something to not only look forward to, but to look back on after the wish has happened. This is why I make videos, whenever I am permitted, for those kids. It is the most heartbreaking, fulfilling and meaningful thing I have ever done in my life.
What career projects are you working on now and in the future?
LW: Right now, I am focusing on designing and perfecting my new adult-sized unisex monofins for the Mermaid Linden by Body Glove line. We have been asked for years to create a consumer-level monofin that fits adults, since ours quickly became the top rated kid’s monofin on the market. This year our products have landed in some of the largest retailers and sporting goods stores in the country, including Big 5, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart and Sam’s Club to name a few. We are thrilled to see the continued growth of the line, and to help little “sea fans” all over the globe safely swim like mermaids and mermen! There will be some other fun projects which will off-shoot from this line which I can’t talk about just yet … so stay tuned and follow my social media pages for updates!
What other hobbies do you have that people might not expect?
LW: Hmm … let’s see … I love playing piano and keyboard. I have played by ear since I was 5, and still enjoy it more than I can express! If I weren’t in mermaiding, I’d be in music. I also thrive with travel. I have a long list of things I wish to see and do (many underwater, but some on land too!) that I am slowly ticking off my list. This can include seeing animals or bugs (which I LOVE!) I’ve never seen in the wild, a new natural phenomena, or tasting new foods and experiencing new cultures around the world. I love to read, and am big into meditation. I also LOVE interior décor. My home is my nest…I am very affected by my environment and always strive to create a magical, inviting space where guests feel as welcome and at home as I do.
What future life goals do you have for the next 5 years? Any big bucket list items, travels, career goals, etc.
LW: My biggest (thus far) unrealized dream is to have a 30-minute format kid’s ocean educational show on a network … this could be online, as this is where TV is going. The Mermaid Minute brings me so much joy, that I’d love to broaden the outlets and access so more kids (and adults) can enjoy the magic and be inspired to conserve our oceans through their everyday activities.
Everyone has a message they put out into the world through their words, actions and lifestyle. What is yours?
LW: Always listen to your heart … it knows all the answers. Everything you need to achieve your dreams, change the world for the better, and to be happy is right inside of you. If you do the things you love with enthusiasm, the world will greet you with the resources and opportunities to bring your passions to fruition. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise … including YOU!
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