Robots Confirm the Discovery of the “Holy Grail of Shipwrecks”
Three years after discovering what many believed was the San Jose, known as the “holy grail of shipwrecks,” the ship’s identity has been confirmed.
After nearly three years of investigating the remains of a shipwreck more than 300 years old, researchers can finally confirm that the remains are what many have called “the holy grail of shipwrecks.” And now the ship’s identity has been confirmed, the race for billions of dollars in lost treasure is on.
In 2015, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) discovered a wreck at the bottom of the Carribean Sea several miles off the coast of Cartagena, Columbia. The initial hope was that the wreck was the San Jose, a 62-gun, three-masted Spanish galleon that was sunk by the British in 1708. But given the number of shipwrecks in the area, the wreck needed to be carefully examined to confirm its identity.
The Carribean Sea is littered with the wrecks of ships that have sunk over the centuries, but the San Jose was different, mainly because of its cargo. When it was destroyed, it was heading back to Spain carrying the wealth of the “New World” in gold and jewels. Today, that treasure could be worth as much as $17 billion dollars.
While finding the wreck itself wasn’t easy, confirming its identity proved to be almost as difficult due to the ship’s resting place – not to mention the intense need for secrecy that has surrounded this discovery. Even now, only a handful of people know the exact location of the wreck other than the vague description that it is somewhere off the cost of Columbia, several miles from shore.
The difficulty in identifying the ship was the depth at which it rests. The San Jose lies nearly 2,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, requiring specialized equipment to accurately explore the wreck. The pressure and the years have also made the remains of the ship extremely fragile and disturbing it will lead to further degradation, which in turn would have made it harder to identify.
To confirm the findings, the WHOI, working under the authorization of Maritime Archeology Consultants (MAC), Switzerland AG, and the Columbian government, sent a submersible robot known as Remus 6000. To start its survey, the robot used long-range sonar to map the area, then went in for a closer look, taking pictures of the wreck and tagging anything out of the ordinary. The Remus has been used to great effect before, including in the discovery of Air France Flight 447, which crashed off the coast of Brazil in 2009 and sank to a depth of 13,000 feet.
Remus captured dozens of images of artifacts, but the canons – featuring unique engravings of dolphins on them – were what confirmed the ship’s identity. Now, the race for the treasure is on.
The defeat of the San Jose by British naval forces barely merits a mention in most world history books, but its sinking had huge ramifications. The galleon was taking its loot back to Spain during the height of the War of Spanish Succession, which lasted from 1701 to 1714. The war began after the death of Spain’s Charles II when the crown fell to his heir, Louis XIV’s grandson Philip. That divided Europe into two factions, those that that supported Philp’s claim, and those that felt there needed to be separation between the French and Spanish monarchies in order to keep a balance of power throughout Europe.
Philip’s contingent, known as Bourbon Spain, fought alongside France (among others), while the “Hapsburg Spanish” joined Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire. After years of fighting around the world a peace treaty eventually ended the war and left Philip on the throne of Spain (after renouncing the throne of France), but the Spanish Empire was never the same, and never fully recovered. It’s one of the great historical “what ifs” to wonder what would have happened if the Spanish under Philip had suddenly received the equivalent of $17 billion during the war. Europe may have come out of the war looking very different.
Now that the San Jose has been positively identified, the fate of the treasure is in the hands of lawyers. Both the Spanish and Columbian governments have laid claim to the wreck, setting up a lengthy legal battle with potentially billions on the line. The WHOI has stated clearly that it exists to explore and not to recover treasure, so the disputes over ownership don’t concern them.
Whoever wins, they will need to have the right equipment and patience to sort through the wreckage – and this is assuming that the treasure didn’t float away during its decent . The rewards, however, might be very much worth it.