The idea of sunken treasure has been a staple of pop culture for generations, with many people (this article's author included) daydreaming about one day stumbling upon a pile of gold. Most of the time it's just daydreams and worth about as much as that can get you.
But sometimes, the sunken treasure is real and then governments, marine archaeologists, and treasure hunters have to figure out who gets what. That's why details about a $17 billion sunken treasure discovered off the coast of Colombia in 2015 are only now being revealed to the public.
Researchers with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) say they've finally been authorized to talk about their discovery of the three-century old San José - a 62-gun, three masted Spanish galleon that sank during a battle with the British in 1708 while loaded down with billions of dollars of gold, silver, and emeralds mined in Peru.
In November 2015, the MAC survey team and WHOI researchers returned to Colombian waters for a second search effort. Side scan sonar images gave the crew the first indications of the find from of the wreck. 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. (REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Over the years, the ship and its story faded into legend, with many referring to the lost San José as the "holy grail of shipwrecks." But now more than three-hundred years later, the legend has returned after researchers found the legendary wreck off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia on Nov. 27th, 2015.
Researchers say that in order to find the San José, they used an unmanned underwater vehicle known as REMUS 6000. The underwater drone, operated by WHOI, is no stranger to long-duration missions. The vessel was also used during the search for Air France 447 in 2011 and map and photograph the site of the Titanic wreck in 2010.
A newly released gridded mosaic of images taken by the REMUS 6000 shows the complete wreck site. (Mosaic by Jeff Kaeli, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Researchers were pretty sure they had discovered the San José, but they still needed to confirm its identity. The vessel descended around 2,000 feet underwater where it took photos of the San José's bronze cannons engraved with dolphins. WHOI engineer and expedition leader Mike Purcell says, the REMUS 6000 was the ideal tool for the job because it's made for long-duration missions over wide areas.
“During that November expedition, we got the first indications of the find from side scan sonar images of the wreck,” said 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.”
The REMUS 6000 was used by researchers to take photos of the complete wreck site.
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 artifacts. (REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
“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,” said Purcell. “MAC’s lead marine archaeologist, Roger Dooley, interpreted the images and confirmed that the San José had finally been found.”
The discovery of the San José's treasure has considerable cultural and historical significance and the Colombian government says they plan on building a museum and conservation laboratory to help preserve and display the contents from the "holy grail of shipwrecks."
“Once again, WHOI’s expertise in AUV technology and operations has resulted in an important discovery,” said WHOI Vice President for Marine Facilities and Operations Rob Munier. “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. We look forward to our continued involvement to answer the basic oceanographic research questions associated with the find.”
Tea cups at the wreck site. (REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)