Did you know that the King of Coral is a Bristol resident?

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 4/19/24

From Bulgaria to Bristol, Vassil Zlatarski has studied fossil and modern corals and reefs for seven decades — and counting.

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Did you know that the King of Coral is a Bristol resident?


Corals are the constructors of the largest organismic structures on earth: the coral reefs. And the reefs are one of the oldest and most biodiverse marine ecosystems on Earth. Today, they are also one of the most endangered.

Once thought to be plants, then later thought to be animals, they are now understood to be holobiont — an assemblage of a host and the many other species living in or around it, which together form a discrete ecological unit through symbiosis. Holobionts include the host, virome, microbiome, and any other organisms which contribute in some way to the functioning of the whole. Reef-building corals are holoboints — as are humans.

Bristol resident Vassil Zlatarski has spent decades studying the science behind these structures, with a strong emphasis on the coral reefs of Cuba, which, thanks to the lack of considerable anthropogenic disturbance, are among the healthiest in the Atlantic Ocean.

Zlatarski was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1936. He holds a Ph.D. in Geology from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences of Sofia and a D.Sc. in Biology from Russian Academy of Sciences of Moscow. His research on both fossil and modern corals and reefs have brought him from Bulgaria, to France, Cuba, Mozambique, Mexico, Panama, and the United States. He has worked as a university professor in Mexico, the United States and Cuba, as well as on the staff of the Smithsonian Institution.

His bibliography is extensive, comprising several pages of titles of scientific publications, films, abstracts, and popular articles. Of them, his most notable achievement is probably "The Scleractinians of Cuba" which was cowritten with Nereida Martinez Estalella; it was published in Russian in 1980, French in 1982, and Spanish in 2018. James Porter, fellow coral expert and star of the 2017 Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral” called The Scleractinians of Cuba the “Coral Reef Rosetta Stone” in his 2023 work “Sunken Treasure: The Art and Science of Coral Reefs.”

According to his bio, Zlatarski is now retired and a self-employed scientist — a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. Asked what he is doing with his time, now that he is “retired” was met with laughter on a recent morning in the sun-filled Fales Road home he shares with his wife, Olga, a retired teacher, artist and accomplished polymath who has served as his translator on several of his projects. He remains very active in his field as his 88th birthday approaches, having recently edited an English Language volume “Coral Reefs of Cuba”.

According to the publisher’s description, this comprehensive volume gathers foremost experts on the coral reefs of Cuba who represent a spectrum of disciplines, including biology, conservation ecology, economics and geology. In addition to serving as the editor, Zlatarski wrote three chapters. “Coral Reefs of Cuba” is the first English language overview of Cuban coral ecosystems; there were a total of 104 contributors to the book, 90 of whom are Cuban. Zlatarski also continues to consult and speak internationally on coral reefs, and will be traveling to Cuba in the fall for a professional conference.

An exciting career and life would eventually lead to Bristol
Zlatarski’s career has enabled him to cross paths with several notable figures, including Jacques Cousteau and the Cuban photographer Alberto Korda, Fidel Castro’s personal photographer. Though better known for his iconic photograph of Che Guevara, Korda’s skill as an underwater photographer was instrumental to the success of The Scleractinians of Cuba. Though Zlatarski never met Castro in person, he was called in to consult on an underwater restaurant the Cuban leader wanted to construct off the coast (it never came to fruition.)

Originally trained as a paleontologist, Zlatarski started to study corals because at that time, in the 1950s, the search for oil was of paramount importance and around the world, oil was being found underground in the cavernous spaces created by fossilized reefs. But he soon found that he needed to go see living corals in order to properly understand them.

Over the course of his career Zlatarski amassed impressive collections, both of literature about corals and samples of Caribbean Corals themselves. He recently donated some 3,000 books and other works to the Porter collection at the University of Georgia.

“I have the best collection of Caribbean corals, (housed) in the Havana aquarium,” Zlatarski said. “But I brought from Cuba the best precious diamond,” referring to Olga. The St. Petersburg native was working in Cuba at the same time that Zlatarski was beginning his research there with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. They married and settled in Sofia, where their daughter was born. Eventually Zlatarski and his family came west, first to Mexico, then, in 1985, to the United States.

They were able to get their green cards through an immigration policy that admitted scientists, and the Smithsonian had a spot for Zlatarski. The family would settle in Northern Virginia for several years, with Olga teaching at a local university and a secondary school. In 2020, they left their respective employers and the couple began to look for a community to enjoy retirement.

They knew they were interested in staying on the east coast — and they were looking for reminders of home.

“We were looking for four seasons because we grew up in the four seasons,” said Zlatarski. “And Newport, they say it is the Versailles of the United States,” said Olga. “It did remind me of home and I thought maybe we should be close by, but it was too touristic.”

They were interested in Bristol, but consulted with a real estate agent who advised them that properties in Bristol would be hard to find and overpriced, and he steered them toward a property adjacent to the airport in Warwick. So they took matters into their own hands. They drove into Bristol, had a bagel, checked out downtown, and drove around looking for houses. While the realtor was not wrong about the scarcity of properties, they did find the one that was just right. Today, a species of Geranium, native to Bulgaria, grows under a tree in their yard. Exceptionally fragrant at the height of summer, it makes Bristol smell a bit more like home.

There is much about Bristol a the surrounding area that Vassil and Olga Zlatarski love, from the sign at the entrance to Colt Park that reads “private property, public welcome” to their annual Second Beach pass, the pastries at the French Confection in Middletown and the apple orchard on Wapping Road in Portsmouth. They have been here for 24 years now — the longest time they have ever lived in any one community. But the thing they appreciate the most are the people, beginning with their wonderful neighbors, counted the late Dr. Manuel DaSilva and Ilidio Contente among their friends.

“We have been lucky to meet incredible people in this world,” said Zlatarski.

2024 by East Bay Media Group

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.