The images were taken during four observation missions by the Colombian Navy, using a remotely operated vehicle sent to a depth of around 3,100ft off the country’s Caribbean coast. The eerie blue and green images show untouched gold coins, pottery and porcelain cups strewn across the seabed. They provide insight into the ship’s treasure, believed to be worth billions in today’s dollars.
The vehicle also found the wreckage of a colonial ship and a schooner dating back approximately 200 years, to the period shortly after Colombia’s war of independence from Spain.
“Each shipwreck is like a little Pompeii – it’s a snapshot of society at a specific time,” said Leonardo Moreno-Álvarez, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburg who studies early modern maritime economies.
The San José, a 64-gun galleon with 600 people on board, belonged to King Philip V of Spain. She sank near Cartagena in 1708 while fighting the British Navy during the War of the Spanish Succession.
The ruined ship is believed to contain one of the most valuable treasures ever lost at sea – a cargo of gold, silver, emeralds and other expensive items from Spain’s colonial empire. it could be worth more than $17 billion in today’s value.
The legendary galleon has been the subject of popular imagination for years, and even features in the novel “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez.
Treasure hunters had long tried to locate her remains, with an American company joining the search courtesy of Colombia in the 1980s and claiming to have discovered the wreckage site.
“The fear has always been that any silver or gold coins or anything in the ship ‘could be taken by treasure hunters, so that ‘the wreck would be completely destroyed, so that all archaeological information is lost,” said Moreno-Álvarez. But some of those same fears apply to how the government might act, he said.
President Iván Duque shared news of the new footage and additional wreckage during a television announcement on Monday.
“The equipment that our army has acquired and the level of precision have kept this treasure intact, but at the same time we will be able to protect it for further extraction,” he said.
The remote exploration vehicle is the result of years of work, said Gabriel Alfonso Pérez, Commander of the Colombian Navy.
“In previous years, we have carried out four expeditions, which have allowed us to verify from the surface that the area where the San José galleon is located has not been affected by human intervention,” Pérez said.
The ship has been at the center of long legal battles, with Colombia, Spain, an American company and a Bolivian indigenous group all vying for the right to its treasure.
Spain, citing a UNESCO convention, claims rights to the wrecked ship because it belonged to the Spanish Navy three centuries ago and the remains of hundreds of Spanish sailors lie in the wreckage.
The Qhara Qhara indigenous group of present-day Bolivia say they should get the treasure because Spanish colonizers forced their ancestors to mine some of the precious metals they say are on board.
“All these debates about archeology are also debates about colonialism,” Moreno-Álvarez said.
Meanwhile, US-based Sea Search Armada, which took over a stake from a company that claimed to have found the San José in the 1980s, sued the Colombian government to stop excavations of the vessel, claiming that part of the treasure was due to him. . In 2007, Colombia’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling that Sea Search Armada was entitled to 50% of any treasure at the site that was not considered “national heritage”.
But Colombia said the location identified by the previous company was incorrect and that the San Jose’s actual resting place was found with the help of the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 2015.
Colombia passed a law in 2013 that sunken ships discovered in its waters would be considered national heritage. Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez announced this year that artifacts found amidst the wreckage of the San José would be placed in a museum to be “a pride for Colombia, the Caribbean and the world”.
A presidential decree issued in February stipulates that companies or individuals wishing to participate in the discovery of the ship’s treasure will be required to sign a contract with the government and submit an inventory of their finds, CBS News reported. But a court order suspended the dig until the legal issues are resolved.
Duque said on Monday that the government intended to develop sustainable funding mechanisms for the excavation of the wrecks. Colombian authorities aim to locate a dozen more historic wrecks with the same technology, he added.