A Spanish galleon ship, one of history’s most enduring maritime mysteries, has been found off the coast of Colombia.
Laden with gold and treasures, the San Jose sank to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, just off the Colombian coast, over 300 years ago.
With the help of an underwater autonomous vehicle, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was able to locate and observe the shipwreck for the first time in 2015. The project has been kept secret, says Rob Munier, WHOI’s vice president for marine facilities and operations: “We’ve been holding this under wraps out of respect for the Colombian government.”
New details about the discovery have recently been released with permission from the agencies involved in the search, including the Colombian government.
Origins of the San Jose mystery
During a trip from South America to Spain, the galleon sunk on June 8th, 1708 during a battle with British ships in the War of Spanish Succession. 600 people were on board the San Jose, as well as a great collection of gold, silver and emeralds from Potosi in Peru. By modern day standards, the contents of the ship are worth about $17 billion.
Deep water exploration
Due to its reputation in the field of deep water exploration, Massachusetts-based WHOI was invited to join the search. It brought with it an autonomous underwater vehicle, known as the REMUS 6000. The vehicle had played a pivotal role in finding the wreckage of Air France 447 in 2011, which crashed hundreds of miles off the Brazilian coast in 2009.
In November 2015, REMUS 6000 took side sonar images, showing the San Jose in more than 600 metres of water. Positioned just 9 metres above the wreck, the vehicle was able to take several photos. Some showed the distinctive dolphin engravings on the San Jose’s cannons.
“The wreck was partially sediment-covered, but with the camera images from the lower altitude missions, we were able to see new details in the wreckage and the resolution was good enough to make out the decorative carving on the cannons,” says expedition leader Mike Purcell.
Munier describes the phone call from Purcell as a ‘great moment’: “It was a pretty strong feeling of gratification to finally find it.”
What about the San Jose treasure?
As the San Jose holds such a significant haul of gold, silver and rare jewels, it has been the subject of legal battles between several nations. Private companies, too, have weighed in on the legal conversation.
This isn’t the first time that researchers have thought they have found the ship. In 1981, US-based Sea Search Armada announced that it had located the San Jose, which sparked off a long, fraught legal battle over the treasure. In 2011, it was decided that Sea Search Armada and Colombia could split the cargo equally, after the Columbian government had recovered its cultural patrimony. However, the 2015 discovery is based on a wealth of information from many more sources and in recent weeks, UNESCO has called on Colombia not to make commercial gains from the wreck.
Decisions regarding the future of this momentous discovery are set to unfold over the coming years.