For decades, researchers and governments have searched for a Spanish ship that sank more than 300 years ago, carrying gold and silver worth $17 billion today.
Trying to find the San Jose’ has often been called the “holy grail of shipwrecks.” It was finally discovered off the coast of Cartegena, Colombia, in 2015. But details of the find were kept under wraps until now – when researchers with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) got the blessing of various governments to disclose them.
The history of the ship
The San José was a 62-gun, three-masted ship – the flagship and largest galleon of a Spanish fleet carrying gold, silver and emerald from the mines of Potosi, Peru. It was traveling from Panama to Colombia when it went down on June 8, 1708, during a battle with British ships in the War of the Spanish Succession. Six hundred people were on board.
The British couldn’t take the treasure before it sank. And the loss of the San José and its cargo caused financial hardships to merchants throughout Europe and the New World, according to an online account posted by Sea Search Armada (SSA), a group of US investors engaged in marine salvaging.
How the shipwreck was discovered
To hunt for the San José, researchers used an unmanned underwater vehicle called REMUS 6000. It’s the same vehicle that helped find the wreckage of Air France 447 in 2011, and helped map and photograph the Titanic wreck site in 2010.
To confirm the identity of the ship, REMUS descended near the wreck, capturing photos of a key distinguishing feature of the San José: bronze cannons engraved with dolphins.
What happens now
The sinking of the ship was dramatic, and so is the dispute over its treasure. The hunt for the San José has already been a long legal saga over how the booty should be split between various governments and private companies.
Aside from the money, the San José discovery is significant for Colombia 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. According to Woods Hole, the Colombian government plans to build a museum and a conservation laboratory to preserve and publicly display the wreck’s contents, including cannons, ceramics, and other artifacts.
UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, called on Colombia not to exploit the wreck. The exact location of the wreckage remains a state secret.
For now, the treasure itself remains where it has been for the last 300 years – resting on the sea bed.
CNN’s Alba Prifti contributed to this report.