The <em>San Jose</em> – Wreck of the Century


The ship's fate is captured in an 18th-century oil painting. (Wikimedia Commons)

The 62 gun, three-masted Spanish galleon San José was carrying a treasure of silver, gold, and emeralds worth billions in today’s dollars when, in June 1708, she was sunk off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, with 600 people on board during a battle with British ships in the War of Spanish Succession.

The intrigue began in 2015 when the Colombian government first announced the San José had been found, perhaps the most valuable shipwreck ever. Willie Drye reporting for the National Geographic was soon to write Battle Begins Over World’s Richest Shipwreck.

No further details were made public until May this year.

The discovery of the San José has all the elements of great drama: international political intrigue, a treasure of gold and emeralds worth up to $US17 billion, and accusations of lies and treachery.

A US-based salvage company, Sea Search Armada immediately had staked a claim, saying they had found the ship in 1982. They said they had spent $US10 million the search, and had registered its location then. The Colombian government indicated that if the company could verify the San José was where the company said it was 33 years ago, it would share the fortune with it. But there was no GPS back then and the registered coordinates could easily be many metres astray. The legal tussle dragged on.

In 2015 the Massachusetts-based the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was invited to join the search because of its expertise in deep water exploration, and they brought in their Remus 6000, an autonomous deep sea robot, for the search.

The REMUS 6000 had helped the institute find the wreckage of Air France 447 in 2011, which crashed in 2009 several hundred miles off the coast of Brazil. REMUS was also used to map and photograph the Titanic wreck site during a 2010 expedition.

In November 2015 the REMUS 6000 took some side sonar images; the San José was discovered in 600 metres of water.

To confirm the wreck’s identity, REMUS descended to nine metres above the wreck where it captured 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 REMUS 6000 robot

On May 21st this year the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) announced it had obtained authorization by Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC), Switzerland AG, and the Colombian government to release new details of the successful search for the three-century old San José.

They said the legendary wreck had been discovered on November 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. The search had been initiated by MAC and approved by the Colombian Ministry of Culture and supervised by Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia (ICANH) and Dirección General Marítima (DIMAR).

The San José discovery carries considerable cultural and historical significance because of the ship’s treasure of cultural and historical artefacts and the evidence they may provide about Europe’s economic, social, and political climate in the early 18th century.

The Colombian Government is reportedly planning to build a museum and world-class conservation laboratory to preserve and publicly display the wreck’s contents, including cannons, ceramics, and other artefacts.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit US organization dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education.

scroll to top