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“Holy Grail” of Spanish Treasure Galleons Found Off Colombia

The San José went down in 1708 filled with gold, silver and gems now worth billions of dollars

The San Jose's decorated cannons (REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
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Ask a modern-day treasure hunter what ship they’d most want to find and many would say they’d give their right arm to discover the wreck of the San José, a Spanish treasure ship that went to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea in 1708.

Well, as it turns out, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the Colombian Navy, Maritime Archaeology Consultants and Switzerland AG did find the “Holy Grail” of shipwrecks in 2015, and only recently received permission to tell the world about the find. The treasure trove of gold, silver and gems it holds is worth an estimated $1 to $17 billion, reports Lauren Landrum at CNN.

According to a press release an expedition to find the legendary treasure galleon was launched in 2015 with researchers combing the seas using the Colombian Navy’s research ship ARC Malpelo. WHOI provided an autonomous underwater vehicle called REMUS 6000, which surveyed the Barú Peninsula during a first expedition in June of that year. The team returned to the location for a second go-around, locating the San José on November 27. “During that November expedition, we got the first indications of the find from side scan sonar images of the wreck,” WHOI expedition leader Mike Purcell says. “From those images, we could see strong sonar signal returns, so we sent REMUS back down for a closer look to collect camera images.”

REMUS got within 30 feet of the wreck, close enough to image the ship's unique canons. In later dives, researchers captured images of dolphins engraved on the canons, positively IDing the wreck as the fabled ship.

WHOI research engineer Jeff Kaeli was alone in his bunk when images of the cannons first appeared. “I just sat there for about 10 minutes and smiled,” he tells CBS News. “I'm not a marine archaeologist, but...I know what a cannon looks like. So in that moment, I guess I was the only person in the world who knew we'd found the shipwreck."

Now, of course, the whole world knows, but the researchers aren’t giving out many details. One reason is that the ownership of the treasure is already being disputed by Spain, which owned the ship; Colombia, in whose waters it sits; and marine archaeologists, who found the ship. However it pans out, Colombia is preparing for the contents of the ship to be salvaged and has already committed to building a state-of-the-art conservation lab and museum to process the wreck, pointing out that there’s much more than treasure at stake.

“The San José discovery carries considerable cultural and historical significance for the Colombian government and people because of the ship’s treasure of cultural and historical artifacts and the clues they may provide about Europe’s economic, social, and political climate in the early 18th century,” WHOI states in the press release.

Per the Associated Press, the United Nations cultural agency Unesco has stepped into the ownership dispute, and it recently called on Colombia “not to commercially exploit the 300-year-old wreck.”

You might be surprised to learn that it was a stupid mistake that led to the sinking of the San José in the first place. Laura Geggel at LiveScience reports that every year, the treasure galleon laden with precious metals and gems from mines in the Potosi region of Peru would depart South America, bound for Spain and flanked by a fleet of warships.

In 1708, however, the escort squadron was delayed. Nevertheless, fleet commander admiral José Fernandez de Santillan decided to sail the San José for Europe, despite the ongoing War of the Spanish Succession.

Sure enough, the treasure ship met four English warships off the coast of Colombia. Its 62 highly decorated cannons weren’t enough to fend off the royal navy, and during a firefight the San José's powder magazine was hit. The ship, which had approximately 600 people aboard, went down—too quickly for the British to salvage the treasure.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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