Beach people – A Mermaid’s Tail
Pioneering professional mermaid Linden Wolbert looks to the future, with Body Glove in tow
by Robb Fulcher
The waters of Loch Lomond dipped to a hypothermic 47 degrees as the world’s foremost professional mermaid glided into view, sporting an elegant, 50-pound silicone tail, and little else. Waiting on the shore in happy anticipation was a seriously ill, 9-year-old Scottish girl, who had drawn the golden-haired mermaid from the congenial waters of her Southern California home.
The visit, arranged to fulfill a dear wish of the Scottish girl, marked one of many interactions between “Mermaid Linden” Wolbert and the two central loves that propel her, the ocean and children.
Wolbert pioneered professional-quality mermaid performances in the early part of the millennium, parlaying her deep-diving athleticism, a fish-realistic tail with a monofin inside, and copious personal charm into a wildly successful business.
For more than a decade her schedule has overflowed with performances at fancy rooftop parties, baby showers, weddings, corporate events and trade shows as she cavorts in aquariums, the ocean, various bodies of freshwater, cramped, rented water tanks, and of course people’s swimming pools, where she frequently tows children in her wake.
This Saturday, Wolbert will swim and pose for photos with kids in the pool at Dive N’ Surf.
Throughout, her course remains set upon educating kids, in fun, bite size bits, about the ocean’s wonders. She blends this education into her appearances, and spreads it further with “Mermaid Minute” Youtube videos that collectively, have been viewed more than 40 million times.
“My focus is ocean education for children,” Wolbert said. “I’m not in the entertainment business, I’m in the edu-tainment business.”
“Kids who are 7 or under believe in fairy tales, they believe in magic,” Wolbert said. “Interacting with kids, especially in the water, is just amazing.”
Her work with organizations such as Make-A-Wish Foundation and Rays of Sunshine Children’s Charity brought her to Lauren in Scotland, where it was originally planned that she would swim in a tank.
“I looked out the window at Loch Lomond and I thought, wouldn’t a mermaid come straight out of the loch? Wouldn’t that be more magical? And the tank would have been cold anyway, so I just thought, cold is cold,” Wolbert said.
“I came around from behind the dock, and it felt like a million knives had stabbed my abdomen,” she said. After about 20 minutes in the glacially-fed loch, “Lauren looked down at me and she said, in her cute Scottish accent, ‘Are you alright Mermaid Linden? You have goose bumps all over and you’re chattering.’
“That broke the spell and I could feel again. I just said ‘Well, it’s warmer in California where I’m from.’ My internal thermostat was thrown off for long time after that,” Wolbert said.
Wolbert also has played in the ocean, tail attached, with Caribbean reef sharks that had to be attracted with bait to get them close enough to be photographed near her. Otherwise, the sharks were afraid of this large, unidentifiable half-human, half-fish.
“They’re really sweet as far as sharks go,” she said. “In fact they are scared of me. With my tail, I’m about eight feet long. These sharks go on a hierarchy of size.”
Along the way, Wolbert teamed with South Bay wetsuit maker Body Glove to create a mermaid-themed line of children’s swim products, including a monofin (one swim fin that both feet fit into), and a lightweight mermaid tail that pairs with the monofins.
Mermaid-ing is not without its hardships. In the water, she smiles, chats and interacts while making her tail-work look effortless, with the help of her iron abs. She braves infections of the sinuses and ears, and bears the sting of salts and chlorine on her ever-open eyes. If her feet cramp, she cannot reach them, and she must soldier on smiling.
“Many things about mermaid-ing are extremely uncomfortable. Number one is the eyes,” she said with a laugh. “Sometimes it’s the variety of water. I’ve gone from a pool, to the ocean, to a freshwater cave in the same day.”
Wolbert has a gift for taking her work seriously, without taking herself seriously. She peppers her speech with a “mer-nacular” of mermaid themed words like mer-chandise and mer-media. She counts her money in sand dollars.
Her watery way
Wolbert grew up in landlocked Pennsylvania, swimming in pools and pretending to be Disney’s “Little Mermaid.” She read books about the oceans, and watched TV specials featuring famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. She competed on her high school swim team.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in film and environmental science from Emerson College in Boston, and climbed into scuba gear to film underwater in the oceans that she was drawn to like, well, a mermaid.
She began her transformation into a fully formed mermaid in 2005, while at Grand Cayman filming competitive freediving.
Wolbert’s personal bests included a 115-foot deep dive on one breath, and a five-minute stretch of holding her breath underwater.
“It’s an extreme sport, but it’s a Zen extreme sport,” she said. “It involves relaxing and understanding one’s body.”
“This shoot in the Caymans marked the first time I had seen freediving in the ocean. I was fascinated at seeing people use monofins and moving so gracefully in the water, and so ‘e-fish-ently.’ I was in SCUBA gear, and here were these beautiful freedivers with monofins.”
Wolbert couldn’t resist asking world champion Mandy-Rae Cruickshank for a loan of her gear.
“I said, when you’re done setting your world record can I try out your monofin?” Wolbert recalled. “Fortunately, she said yes. I went off the back of the boat and it was so fast, it felt so good. When I came up I looked and – wow, the boat is way back there. I felt like a mermaid.”
“I loved it, and I knew there was something in this, that I could parlay this into a way to educate children about the ocean. Coming back from that trip, I knew I had to make a [mermaid’s] tail around a monofin.”
There was no clear path to this goal.
“There weren’t any tutorial videos about how to make a mermaid tail,” Wolbert said. She considered using hand-sewn fabric or specially painted wetsuit material, but those options didn’t hold water.
“I wanted it to look real,” she said. “When I want to do something, I don’t just dip my fins in, I dive in all the way.”
It was then that serendipity struck.
A friend introduced Wolbert to a man who wanted to make an underwater music video. The man turned out to be Hollywood special effects artist Allan Holt, who wound up helping her put together the elusive tail.
“I’m charmed,” she said. “When I have ideas, the sea stars seem to align for me.”
“Over about seven months, we built my first prosthetic silicone mermaid tail. It’s still with me, although it’s mostly retired.” Holt made a fiberglass mold that Wolbert still uses to make new silicon tails when an old one gets worn. She strives for verisimilitude in her tails, employing careful biomimicry, from color to fluke design.
“I had been saving up my sand dollars, and I quit my job [as a residence director for the Emerson College intern program]. That was full time, with health benefits and housing, but I quit and moved back home to start a mermaid business.”
“As soon as we got my tail done I started doing live performances, and the word got out through Hollywood, LA, San Diego.”
The mer-media loved her right away.
“I’ve been on 20/20, the Today Show, Good Morning America, People magazine. I’ve never sought any of it out, it always found me,” Wolbert said. “I listen to my heart, I’m enthusiastic, and I tend to be in the right place at the right time.”
A fit like a Glove
Wolbert teamed up with Body Glove after meeting company president Russ Lesser, a fellow board member with the ocean-protecting Reef Check Foundation.
“I had watched her career, and saw how passionate she is about educating kids about our environment and the ocean,” Lesser said. “We were talking one day, and I said, you’re really becoming popular – she had huge hits on Youtube and on her website – and we ought to think about developing some products around you.”
The children’s monofin, with a special mermaid-tail look, was designed and made. The product took off.
“Now there are hundreds of thousands of pairs sold each year. They’re not just toys, they’re trainers. Have you seen [Wolbert’s] abs?” Lesser said.
“A couple of years ago we were at the Manhattan Country Club, filming something. There was this 25-year-old macho swim instructor, and I said hey, do you think you can beat the Mermaid in a race? He laughed, he seemed to think it was a waste of his time, and then she beat him by a third of the pool. He’s a little more humble now.”
Body Glove followed the monofin with the full, lightweight Lycra mermaid tail for kids.
Kids wearing the monofin “still looked like they had legs,” Lesser said. “Linden and I designed a Lycra tail. It took about a year to make it durable. We worked with the L.A. factory so that’s great, they’re made domestically.”
“I sent some to a friend who has daughters. He said they’ve basically ceased to use their legs in the way we’re used to them,” Lesser laughed.
Throughout Wolbert’s mermaid career, the industry has mushroomed around her.
“When I started, there were some mermaid shows, with choreographed routines, but nobody was doing education for kids with their shows,” she said. “Now there are tons of amateur mermaids and mermen. There are performance companies. The trend has exploded. There are tail manufacturers. The underwater landscape has changed a great deal.”
Meanwhile, Wolbert’s 37-year-old eyes gaze to the horizon.
“There’s a shelf life on mermaid-ing. You can’t swim around forever in a 50-pound tail. I’ve been doing this for over a decade,” she said.
Wolbert has begun work to expand her ocean videos into a 30-minute children’s education show that she hopes to make available soon on an online platform, showing “the magical creatures of our ocean, the beauty below the waves that most people never get to see, firsthand.”
And she continues to work on the mer-chandise with Body Glove.
“We have monofins and tails for adults coming out next year, which makes it more inclusive. I get emails from women and men asking for this. We’re perfecting the designs, making them mer-fect for aspiring mermaids and mermen.”
Lesser said adults should be flipping their fins and flicking their tails by April.
Linden Wolbert’s website is mermaidsinmotion.com; her Youtube channel is mermaidsinmotion.
by Robb Fulcher