Shipwreck laden with billions in treasure discovered off Colombia

An estimated $17 billion was lost when the San José sank in 1708.

The sinking of the San José as depicted in a 1772 landscape by British painter Samuel Scott. (Photo: Samuel Scott)

The decorative carvings on these cannons allowed researchers to confirm the wreck as the remains of the San José. (Photo: REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Do these centuries-old tea cups sit upon treasure worth more than $17 billion? (Photo: REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The wreck of the San José, a long-lost treasure galleon of the Spanish Navy, has finally been located off the coast of Colombia.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), with permission from the Colombian government, made the announcement of the discovery earlier this week, adding that the wreck’s final resting spot has been a closely guarded secret for almost three years.

“We’ve been holding this under wraps out of respect for the Colombian government,” Rob Munier, WHOI’s vice president for marine facilities and operations, told the AP.

Part of the Spanish treasure fleet, the San José was a 64-gun, three-masted galleon built in 1698 and tasked with shipping vast quantities of gold, silver, emeralds and jewelry from the South American colonies to Spain. On June 8, 1708, the vessel was sailing with the treasure fleet when it was ambushed by a British squadron off Colombia. During the battle that ensued, the San José’s powder magazines detonated, destroying the ship and taking an estimated $17 billion in previous metals and gems to the bottom of the sea.

Of the 600 people aboard, only 11 survived the sinking.

According to the WHOI, the final resting spot of the San José was finally discovered more than 300 years later at an undisclosed site off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, on Nov. 27, 2015. An international team of scientists and engineers located the wreck at a depth of some 2,000 feet using side sonar and an autonomous underwater vehicle called REMUS 6000. The vehicle, which also mapped the wreck of the Titanic in 2010, was able to provide positive identification of the San José by locating and photographing the legendary vessel’s distinctive 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,” WHOI engineer and expedition leader Mike Purcell said in a statement. “MAC’s (Maritime Archaeology Consultants) lead marine archaeologist, Roger Dooley, interpreted the images and confirmed that the San José had finally been found.”

While the WHOI or any of the other participating agencies did not reveal whether any of the gold, silver, or emeralds the San José was carrying was detected, the images captured by REMUS do show several cannons, tea cups, and ceramic jugs littering the wreck site.

Should Colombia successfully excavate the site, the WHOI says the government is planning on building a “a museum and world-class conservation laboratory” to preserve and publicly display the wreck’s contents.

“We are pleased to have played a part in settling one of the great shipwreck mysteries for the benefit of the Colombian people and maritime history buffs worldwide,” WHOI Vice President for Marine Facilities and Operations Rob Munier said in the same statement. “We look forward to our continued involvement to answer the basic oceanographic research questions associated with the find.”

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