Details on billion-dollar shipwreck finally revealed

Photo: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Photo: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – Remus descended to just 30 feet above the wreck where it was able to capture photos of a key distinguishing feature of the San José – its cannons

Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC) and the Colombian government have released details from the successful search for the three-century old San José – a 62-gun, three-masted Spanish galleon ship that sank with a cargo believed to be worth billions of dollars.

The ship, which is often called the “holy grail of shipwrecks,” went down with a treasure of gold, silver, and emeralds in 1708 during a battle with British ships in the War of Spanish Succession.

The legendary wreck was discovered off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, on November 27, 2015, by a team of international scientists and engineers during an expedition aboard the Colombian Navy research ship ARC Malpelo led by MAC’s Chief Project Archaeologist Roger Dooley.

It was found more than 600 metres below the surface during a search initiated by MAC and approved by The Colombian Ministry of Culture. The search was supervised by Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia (ICANH) and Dirección General Marítima (DIMAR).

The wreck was partially sediment-covered, but with the camera images from the lower altitude Remus missions, the crew was able to see new details, such as ceramics and other artefacts. Photo: WHOI

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 artefacts and the clues they may provide about Europe’s economic, social, and political climate in the early 18th century.

The Colombian Government plans to build a museum and world-class conservation laboratory to preserve and publicly display the wreck’s contents, including cannons, ceramics, and other artefacts.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s autonomous underwater vehicle Remus 6000 was used to survey an area off Colombia’s Barú Peninsula.

Remus was initially deployed off the Malpelo to survey an approved area in June 2015. The overall search area was divided into search blocks, and in the initial blocks surveyed, the shipwreck was not found. Unfortunately, the entire area of search blocks could not be completed in this first expedition due to time constraints. In November, the WHOI team along with MAC and under the supervision of ICANH and DIMAR, returned to the search area determined by previous historical research to finalise the survey in the blocks that had not been completed.

Remus 6000 being deployed off the Colombian Navy research ship ARC Malpelo. Photo: WHOI

“During that November expedition, we got the first indications of the find from side scan sonar images of the wreck,” said WHOI engineer and expedition leader Mike Purcell. “From those images, we could see strong sonar signal returns, so we sent Remus back down for a closer look to collect camera images.”

To confirm the wreck’s identity, Remus descended to just 30 feet above the wreck where it was able to capture photos of a key distinguishing feature of the San José – its cannons. Subsequent missions at lower altitudes showed engraved dolphins on the unique bronze cannons.

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