Colombia finds what may be the world's largest sunken treasure
President Juan Manual Santos of Colombia has hailed the discovery of a Spanish galleon that went down off the South American nation's coast more than 300 years ago. It may contain the world's largest sunken treasure.
Speaking in the colonial port city of Cartagena, Santos said the exact location of the galleon San Jose, and how it was discovered with the help of an international team of experts, was a state secret. He would not reveal its location. The ship sank somewhere in the wide area off Colombia's Baru peninsula. That is south of Cartagena.
While no humans have yet to reach the wreckage site, underwater vehicles have gone there and brought back photos of dolphin-stamped bronze cannons. They are in a well-preserved state that leaves no doubt to the ship's identity, the government said.
The discovery is the latest chapter in a saga that began three centuries ago, on June 8, 1708. That is when the galleon ship with 600 people aboard sank. It was trying to outrun a fleet of British warships. It is believed to have been carrying 11 million gold coins and jewels from then Spanish-controlled colonies that could be worth billions of dollars if ever recovered.
The ship is considered by maritime experts to be the holy grail of Spanish colonial shipwrecks. It has been the subject of a legal battle in the U.S., Colombia and Spain over who owns the rights to the sunken treasure.
In 1982, Sea Search Armada, a salvage company owned by U.S. investors, announced it had found the San Jose's resting place 700 feet below the water's surface.
Two years later, Colombia's government overturned well-established maritime law that gives 50 percent to whoever locates a shipwreck. The government slashed Sea Search's take to a 5 percent "finder's fee."
A lawsuit by the American investors in a federal court in Washington was dismissed in 2011. The ruling was affirmed on appeal two years later. Colombia's Supreme Court has ordered the ship to be recovered before the international dispute over the fortune can be settled.
Santos didn't mention any salvage company's claim during his presentation. But the government said the ship had been found Nov. 27 in a never-before referenced location through the use of new meteorological and underwater mapping studies.
Danilo Devis has represented Sea Search in Colombia for decades. He expressed optimism that the sunken treasure, whose haul could easily be worth more than $10 billion, would finally be recovered.
But he bristled at the suggestion that experts located the underwater grave anywhere different from the area adjacent to the coordinates Sea Search gave authorities. That was three decades ago.
"The government may have been the one to find it. But this really just reconfirms what we told them in 1982," he told The Associated Press from his home in Barranquilla, Colombia.
The president said any recovery effort would take years.
During his presentation, Santos showed an underwater video. It appears to show jewels and the cannons. In the footage, English-speaking crew members aboard a Colombian naval ship can be seen launching the underwater vehicle into the ocean.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why has the location of the galleon been kept secret?
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