Double Amputee Becomes Mermaid

Special effects company designs working mermaid tail for double-amputee.

March 12, 2009, 11:50 AM

March 12, 2009— -- 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.

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.

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.

"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."

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."

The man who finally stumbled upon the winning design, she said, was a wildlife photographer who had spent significant time watching birds and fish swim.

Learning a New Way to Swim

The tail is actually designed to take on water as Vessey wriggles into it and releases water as she takes it off.

To coax the nearly 10-pound suit on, Vessey sits on the edge of the water in her swimsuit and puts her limbs into the socket. But because it zips up the sides and clips over the shoulders, she can't do it alone.

And it has forced Vessey to learn a new way to swim.

"You've got to do a dolphin kind of movement," she said. "It takes a strong lower body. ... I have to learn to swim a different way. Once you've learned one way, it's difficult to unlearn that."

But since the tail's completion in December, she has taken it for a dip in the ocean about seven times, capturing the imagination of locals at the beach and people all around the world.

A good friend of hers has even written a children's book, titled "The Mermaid Who Lost Her Tail" in Vessey's honor. Vessey herself started to write a story about her tail adventure, but then passed it on to a friend who recast it as a tale about a mermaid who was washed ashore, adopted by a family and lost her tail as she grew up.

As she came to live on land, she needed "dollies' legs" (which is what Vessey sometimes calls her prosthetics) but then sought out help from a crew of "Wonderful Wetas" for a tail to return to sea.

Growing up, Vessey never fantasized about being a mermaid but said she had been surprised by the number of women and girls who have stopped her to exclaim wonderment about her newest prosthetic. She also said she hopes it encourages other people with disabilities to consider creative alternatives as she did.

"I've been really quite touched by people's reactions," she said. "The response has been such that it gives people hope, just thinking a little outside of the square."

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