Double Amputee Becomes Mermaid

Mermaid Nadya Vessey

When a 4-year-old boy approached her at the beach to ask why she had no legs, Nadya Vessey, a double-leg amputee, thought up a novel answer to satisfy the boy's curiosity.

She asked, "Have you heard of The Little Mermaid?" When the boy said yes, she replied: "I am a mermaid."

The little boy ran off to tell his father, who likely chuckled at his son's wild imagination.

But three years later, partly because of that young boy, Vessey is indeed something of a mermaid, fully-functional iridescent tail and all.

Mermaid Nadya Vessey

A few days after her encounter with the boy at the beach, mostly on a whim, the Auckland, New Zealand, woman searched the Internet for the Weta Workshop, an award-winning special effects company in nearby Wellington that has worked on the "Lord of the Rings," "King Kong," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and other blockbuster films.

"Just on an impulse, I sent off the e-mail," Vessey, a lifelong teacher with a 30-year-old daughter, told

"They replied immediately and said, 'Yes.' And I was actually quite surprised. ... The whole thing kind of snowballed after that. It just took off in such a magical way. I decided to get out of the way and let it unfold."

Having a congenital disorder, Vessey lost both of her legs below the knee in childhood. Because other sports were so difficult, Vessey became an avid swimmer, visiting a local pool or the beach several times a week.

When she approached Weta with her proposition, she made it clear that the function of the tail was just as important as its beauty.

Nadya Vessey had both of her legs amputated below the knee in childhood because of a congenital condition, but is an active swimmer.

Mermaid Tail: Function as Important as Beauty

"I said it has to work [and] it has to be beautiful," Vessey said. "They did a beautiful job."

Under the direction of special effects master Richard Taylor, Weta spent about 2½ years designing and engineering Vessey's tail.

Vessey's tail took a team of engineers and artists 2½ years to make.

"We have, over the years, done a number of things like this for people who have disabilities," Richard Taylor, co-founder of Weta Workshop, told New Zealand media, adding that the workshop has created prosthetics for others with disabilities and provided makeup to cover bad injuries. "We felt we could assist in some way."

Designers Create Art That Imitates Life

A local trust provided about $1,020 to help fund the tail but Weta covered the remainder of the expenses that totaled several thousand dollars.

Weta had designed mermaid tails before, for a 2003 adaptation of "Peter Pan," for example. But those projects were far simpler, requiring only a tail that could impress an audience in a theater, not actually propel a swimmer underwater.

While the tail was in the works, Vessey made several trips to Wellington for fittings, to make sure the tail would fit her body like a glove.

Eight staff members dedicated to the project used 3-D modeling, milling technology to shape the tail and vacuum forming to make a mold. The engineers used polycarbonate, which is easy to mold and form, to make the spine and tail fin.

The skin of the tail is made of wet suit fabric and the Lycra socklike outer layer is digitally printed with a scale pattern designed by a Weta concept artist.

"The first one they made didn't work," Vessey said. "They were coming at it from the point of view of how it would look. ... It had them perplexed there for a while."

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