Most valuable shipwreck recovery

Last updated: May 23, 2018 at 18:40 pm

In December 2015, the president of Colombia announced the discovery of the San José, a 62-gun, three-masted Spanish galleon ship that sank with a cargo believed to be worth billions of dollars. The galleon, which was sunk by a British warship off Cartagena in 1708, was carrying a cargo believed to be worth 17 billion USD in 2018. The ship, which is often called the “holy grail of shipwrecks,” went down with a treasure of gold, silver, and emeralds in 1708 during a battle with British ships in the War of Spanish Succession. Only 11 people survived out of a complement of 600 crew and passengers after the powder magazines of the San José exploded and destroyed the ship.

The San José was discovered off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, on Nov. 27, 2015, by a team of international scientists and engineers during an expedition aboard the Colombian Navy research ship ARC Malpelo led by MAC’s Chief Project Archaeologist Roger Dooley. It was found more than 600 m (2,000 ft) below the surface during a search initiated by MAC and approved by The Colombian Ministry of Culture. The search was supervised by Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia (ICANH) and Dirección General Marítima (DIMAR).

“In order to ensure a successful search, we retained the services of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which has an extensive and recognized expertise in deep water exploration. This partnership was key to the discovery of the San José. — Roger Dooley

WHOI played a crucial role in both the search and discovery of the final resting place of the San José, which had remained a great mystery to marine archeologists, historians, governments, and treasure hunters for decades. Specifically, the institution provided and operated an autonomous underwater vehicle called REMUS 6000 to survey an area off Colombia’s Barú Peninsula. REMUS also played an instrumental role in finding the wreckage of Air France 447 in 2011 and was also used to map and photograph the Titanic wreck site during a 2010 expedition.

The San José discovery carries considerable cultural and historical significance for the Colombian government and people 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. The Colombian Government plans to build a museum and world-class conservation laboratory to preserve and publicly display the wreck’s contents, including cannons, ceramics, and other artifacts.

In November 2015, “we got the first indications of the find from side scan sonar images of the wreck,” said WHOI engineer and expedition leader Mike 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.” 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.  Subsequent missions at lower altitudes showed engraved dolphins on the unique bronze 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,” said Purcell. “MAC’s lead marine archaeologist, Roger Dooley, interpreted the images and confirmed that the San José had finally been found.”

The REMUS 6000 is owned by the Dalio Foundation and operated by WHOI under an operations and maintenance agreement.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Most of the of the contents of the San José have yet to be extracted from the wreck site that the Government of Colombia has classified as a state secret.


• In 2007, Odyssey Marine Exploration excavates a Colonial period shipwreck site codenamed “Black Swan” at an undisclosed location in the Atlantic Ocean. The artifacts recovered from the site include nearly 600,000 silver coins weighing more than 17 tons, hundreds of gold coins, worked gold and other artifacts. It is believed that this recovery constitutes the largest collection of coins ever excavated from a historical shipwreck site.

• HMS Sussex sank in a storm off the Straits of Gibraltar in 1694. When the 80-gun warship went down it took all but two of the 500-man crew and the equivalent of nine tons of gold coins, worth $4.54 billion USD (£2.6BN) in 2006. The wreck lies at a depth of almost half a mile in waters hotly contested by the UK and Spain. Salvage operations by Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration are currently underway.

Nuestra Señora de Atocha – Key West, Florida. The Atocha was discovered by Mel Fisher (USA) in 1985 at a depth of 55 ft (17 m). Atocha was carrying 35 tons of silver (901 ingots and 255,000 coins) and 161 pieces of gold and 70 lb (32 kg) of emeralds, when it sank in a hurricane in 1622. A single jewel was valued at $2,000,000. Only five of the 265 people aboard the Atocha survived the sinking. The discovery of the shipwreck took 16 years of planning, costing 10 million dollars and the lives of three people. Fisher also had to go through 10 years of litigation with the United States Government and the State of Florida over ownership of the wreck and its contents. Many artifacts from Atocha are on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. May 21, 2018. New Details on Discovery of San Jose Shipwreck.
Odyssey Marine Exploration
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

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