Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Explorer: Underwater pirates looted what he says is likely Santa Maria

By Ashley Fantz, Jethro Mullen and Haimy Assefa, CNN
May 15, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Explorer says ship he believes is Santa Maria has been partially looted
  • Barry Clifford says he doesn't seek money, wants Haiti to protect what he's found
  • Haiti prime minister: If wreck is Santa Maria, discovery would be of 'great importance' to nation

(CNN) -- An underwater explorer who says he's confident he's discovered the Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus' flagship, said Wednesday that there's evidence that the ship has been looted.

During a news conference, 68-year-old Barry Clifford said that the remains of the possible ship off the coast of Haiti probably hold "a great deal of cultural material" but that he and his team of divers can tell that thieves have disrupted the wreck and taken things.

When asked when the ship might have been looted, Clifford said he didn't know. "Something might have been done several months ago, maybe a couple years ago, I'm not sure," he said.

Clifford says he wants the Haitian government to act as soon as possible to help preserve the what he says is the ship's remains.

He also wants the Haitian government to give him permission to continue to study the wreckage. "I'm not looking for money," Clifford said. "I'm looking for the government (of Haiti) to protect this."

Could sunken wreck be Columbus' ship?
Sunken ship may be Columbus'
2013: 1913 shipwreck found in lake
The location of the Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus' flagship for his journey to the new world, has remained a mystery since it ran aground in late 1492. Underwater explorer Barry Clifford believes these are the remains of Columbus' Santa Maria off the coast of Haiti. The location of the Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus' flagship for his journey to the new world, has remained a mystery since it ran aground in late 1492. Underwater explorer Barry Clifford believes these are the remains of Columbus' Santa Maria off the coast of Haiti.
History's biggest mysteries
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
Photos: History\'s biggest mysteries Photos: History's biggest mysteries

He said that whatever his team does next must be coordinated through the Haitian government.

A CNN team was in Haiti on Wednesday and asked the senior adviser to the country's prime minister about Clifford's claims.

Adviser Damian Merlo said in an e-mail that officials did not know whether the wreck was indeed the Santa Maria.

Merlo said Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said that if Clifford's claims are correct, "it would be of great importance, not only for Haiti, but for world history."

"We need to ensure the site is handled properly to protect any archeological findings," Lamothe said, according to Merlo.

Clue from another wreck

Clifford is an experienced explorer, according to the History Channel website, which described him as "one of the world's premiere underwater archaeologists."

His assertion that he's probably found the Santa Maria is tied to a shipwreck he and his team investigated in 2003. A cannon was found as part of the first wreck. But, Clifford told CNN, archaeologists at the time "misdiagnosed" the cannon.

Two years ago, after having researched the type of cannon used in Columbus' time, "I woke up in the middle of the night and said, 'Oh, my God,' " Clifford said. He realized the 2003 find might have been the one.

A couple of weeks ago, he returned to the wreck with a group of experts. The team measured and photographed the ship. But some items, including the cannon, had been looted from the ship in the intervening years, Clifford said.

The ship "still has attributes that warrant an excavation to determine the site's identity," archaeologist Charles Beeker of Indiana University said Tuesday. "Barry may have finally discovered the 1492 Santa Maria."

The evidence, Beeker said, is "very compelling."

The ship was found in the exact area where Columbus said the Santa Maria ran aground more than 500 years ago, Clifford said. The wreck is stuck on a reef off Haiti's northern coast, 10 to 15 feet beneath the water's surface.

Did Phoenicians beat Columbus by 2,000 years?

After 125 years, ship rediscovered at bottom of San Francisco Bay

Wrecked in 1492

The Santa Maria was the flagship of Columbus' small fleet that set sail from Spain in August 1492 under the sponsorship of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I.

The voyage aimed to find a westward route to China, India and the gold and spice islands of the East. But the land the sailors set eyes on in October 1492 was an island in the Caribbean.

Among the islands on which Columbus set foot was Hispaniola, which is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Columbus established a fort in Haiti.

That December, the Santa Maria accidentally ran aground off the island's coast. Some planks and provisions from the wrecked ship, which was about 117 feet (36 meters) long, were used by the garrison at the fort, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Columbus set off back to Spain with the two remaining ships, the Nina and the Pinta, in January 1493.

The Nina and Pinta were put back into service after their voyages and were not preserved, said historian Laurence Bergreen, author of "Columbus: The Four Voyages."

There have been reproductions of those ships, but they are based on vague assumptions. "We don't have very accurate records of what they looked like," he said.

What caused this Civil War submarine to sink?

Piece of ironclad brought to surface

Shipwreck found on Gulf floor while thousands watched

CNN's Danielle Dellorto, Ronni Berke and Miguel Marquez contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1720 GMT (0120 HKT)
The beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley by ISIS militants brings into focus the risks faced by reporters in conflict zones.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1224 GMT (2024 HKT)
About $35,000 was taken from the bank accounts of four passengers on board Flight 370.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
Five survivors of acid attacks capture India's attention with a "ground breaking" photo shoot.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1732 GMT (0132 HKT)
The execution of a journalist by a British-accented jihadist is a direct challenge to the international community. It's time for the U.S. to move, writes Frida Ghitis.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1219 GMT (2019 HKT)
In an exclusive CNN interview, Lance Armstrong admits to having a "f**k you" attitude.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
Summer isn't over yet. These new hotels are keeping it alive and fresh.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
You've seen her turn on the catwalk, but her income might make your head spin.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 0036 GMT (0836 HKT)
The pain that Michael Brown's parents are going through is something Sybrina Fulton can relate to. She, too, lost a son in a controversial shooting.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0904 GMT (1704 HKT)
19-year-old Udi Segal explains why he won't join the country's military.
Drinkers guzzled an incredible 10.3 billion liters of this brand in 2013, making it the world's No.1 beer. And you may have never heard of it.
CNN joins the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on its horrors and highlighting success stories.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT