Columbus discovered America. Is this his ship?
A shipwreck off northern Haiti may be the remains of Christopher Columbus' flagship vessel, the Santa Maria. But experts expressed caution about a discovery that was far from confirmed.
Explorer Barry Clifford thinks the wreck he found is the Santa Maria. It struck ground and foundered on Christmas Day in 1492. The evidence includes ballast stones that appear to have come from Spain or Portugal. He also found what looks like a 15th century cannon. It was at the site during an initial inspection but has since disappeared.
He said another factor is the location of the wreckage. The wreck was found in 15 feet of water near where the crew of the Santa Maria is thought to have built a coastal settlement. The settlement was for crew members of the ship who were left behind after the sinking.
"The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming," Clifford said. "The cannon is the smoking gun, so to speak."
He said that he and his son, Brandon, first explored the site and took photos in 2003. They decided to publicize their findings after a follow-up dive. An examination of the photos led them to conclude they may have found the Santa Maria. The cannon that they saw in 2003 had vanished by the time they returned last week.
If the ship is the Santa Maria, it would be the oldest known European shipwreck in the so-called New World. It would be a find of major archaeological significance. But scientists say it's far too early to make any such declaration especially since there is likely to be very little left of the vessel.
"The evidence, as you can imagine, after more than 500 years is not going to be very much because of time and the environment that the site is in," said Roger C. Smith, the State Underwater Archaeologist for Florida. "It's going to require some careful archaeology."
Kevin Crisman is the director of the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M University. He said many Spanish ships sank off Haiti and the Dominican Republic. So it will be difficult to confirm that this is the Santa Maria.
"Anything is possible in this world, but I would like to see all the evidence, and so far this is not too promising," Crisman said.
The ship sank slowly in 1492 and the crew had time to strip it and remove valuable items that would help document the identity of the vessel.
Much, if not all, of the ship's timbers would have broken down or been consumed by a species of wood-consuming mollusk found in the tropical waters. This assumes that the timbers hadn't been carted away by crew members who were left behind and never heard from again.
"If whoever finds the Santa Maria can confirm that it's the Santa Maria, that's kind of like the Holy Grail," Crisman said.
Critical thinking challenge: What acts of man and nature will make it difficult to confirm the discovery?