Things to Do

The Coral Reef Encounter Lets You Snorkel Without Going to the Ocean

It's not a tropical getaway, but you get to snorkel with mermaids.

Coral Reef Encounter 2019. Photo courtesy of Roslyn Zinner.

It’s the dead of summer and the perfect time to not be in DC right now, but like most people, you either have real adult responsibilities or can’t drop loads on a plane ticket to a faraway tropical island. Fear not, there’s an immersive art installation that can temporarily solve your wanderlust.

The Coral Reef Encounter will return to Macgill’s Common Pool (10025 Shaker Drive, Columbia, Maryland) on Saturday, July 23, and Sunday, July 24, to take swimmers on an underwater snorkeling adventure through a vibrant coral reef habitat sans the ocean or the risk of disrupting a marine ecosystem. Kids and grown-ups can spend the afternoons snorkeling through a six-lane outdoor pool filled with 300 hand-crafted fish and coral, swimming with mermaids, and learning about coral reefs.

Rosyln Zinner, a 70-year-old clinical social worker, came up with the idea for the experience after getting bored while swimming laps around her local indoor pool. She reminisced about her past trips to the Caribbean, where she and her husband snorkeled among vibrant coral reefs and thought it would be fun (and way cheaper) to bring the ocean to her community. “I knew we couldn’t have real fish and coral in the pool,” she said. “But if we made coral and fish out of something else, then we could fill the pool, and other people could experience the beauty of a reef.”

That’s exactly what she did. Zinner grabbed some fabric remnants she had lying around her house, found some instructions online for making stuffed fish plushies, and let her imagination run wild. She made all kinds of fish, from angelfish and parrotfish to ones with orange polka dots and pandas on them. “I used pictures of real fish to get the ideas,” she said. “But they could be fun and didn’t need to look like real fish.”

Zinner has been an artist for most of her adult life, dabbling a bit in pottery and mosaics, so designing the installation was a breeze. She figured anyone could make a fish out of fabric and began throwing “fish parties” at her friends’ houses and the local senior center where a bunch of people from the neighborhood would come to make their own fish. “People were excited to create their own little fish,” Zinner said. “They also made them want to come to the Coral Reef Encounter to see their fish.”

It was at one of the fish parties where Zinner met Tauna Caffey, a retired orthodontic assistant who ended up designing and creating most of the coral for the installation. Caffey heard about the gatherings through a friend and got hooked (pun intended). Being a crafty person herself, she turned old pool noodles and plastic soda bottles into a bunch of coral, sea anemones, and underwater flowers.

With the support of Caffey, the Maryland State Arts Council, and the Columbia Association, Zinner held the first installation in 2019. There were food trucks, live music, and appearances from the Mermaid Montara performance group. It was a big success, with more than 900 adults and children dropping in over the two days. While they only had a handful of volunteers to help manage the flow of visitors and put together the installation, Zinner and Caffey say they are glad so many people came to see their art and learned about coral reef habitats. 

This year, attendees can expect to see a slew of new installations and features including a giant archway donning two octopuses, concrete starfish, and educational and art booths from the Columbia Art Center and the Community Ecology Institute. If you don’t know how to snorkel, volunteers will be available to give lessons along with the use of snorkeling gear and flotation devices.

Entry to this tropical adventure is free, but registration is required. You can either pre-register online or when you arrive at the event.

The Coral Reef Encounter will take place at Macgill’s Common Pool (10025 Shaker Drive, Columbia, Maryland) from Saturday, July 23, through Sunday, July 24.

Damare Baker
Research Editor

Before becoming Research Editor, Damare Baker was an Editorial Fellow and Assistant Editor for Washingtonian. She has previously written for Voice of America and The Hill. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, where she studied international relations, Korean, and journalism.