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‘Holy Grail of shipwrecks’ with US$17 billion treasure aboard is found

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Spanish treasure fleets that traversed the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and back were a 16th century invention as important as free two-day shipping, reported South China Morning Post (Hong Kong).

Organised 70 years after Columbus’ first voyage, the fleet was made up of several specialised ships with one primary goal: exploiting the riches of the New World as efficiently as possible.

The San José, the largest galleon and the flagship of one group of Spanish ships that started sailing in the 16th century, was big and – thanks to 62 bronze cannons engraved with dolphins – deadly enough to deter or destroy ships, whether pirates or rival nations.

In theory, at least. On June 8, 1708, during the War of the Spanish Succession, the San José’s gunpowder ignited during a battle with British ships, sending 600 doomed sailors to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean – along with gold, silver and emeralds from mines in Peru, a total haul valued at some US$17 billion in today’s dollars.

It stands as one of the most expensive maritime losses in history. And “the Holy Grail of shipwrecks” stayed underwater, undiscovered for more than 300 years.

Enter a tiny submersible robot named Remus 6000 – packed with sensors and cameras and capable of diving 4 miles underwater – that has discovered the centuries-old final resting place of the sunken ship.

The unstaffed underwater vehicle, operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), uses far-reaching sonar to identify objects on the sea floor – then circles back to take pictures of anything worthy of a closer look.

Remus 6000 has used the same tactic to find the remains of Air France 447, two years after it crashed off the coast of Brazil in 2009.

The wreckage of the San José was discovered two years ago, but the location off the Colombian port town of Cartagena and other details have been closely-held secrets.

New details were released from the agencies involved in the search, including the Colombian military that ferried Remus 6000 to the search location.
Researchers realised what they had found from a key distinguishing feature.

The small craft descended to just 10 metres above the wreck and snapped photos of those unique cannons.

Jeff Kaeli, one of the engineers who operates the Remus 6000, said he was in his bunk when the first pictures came in.

“I’m not a marine archaeologist, but … I know what a cannon looks like,” he told CBS News. “So in that moment, I guess I was the only person in the world who knew we’d found the shipwreck,” he said.

Those who know the coordinates of the find have not expanded much beyond the robot and the engineer in part because the remains of the San José are the subject of another international dispute:

Do the precious metals and emeralds at the bottom of the Atlantic belong to the people of Colombia or to the people of Spain?

“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 artefacts and the clues they may provide about Europe’s economic, social, and political climate in the early 18th century,” WHOI said in a news release about the find.

“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 artefacts.”

The researchers at Woods Hole say they have no financial stake in the haul.

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Ever since Colombia announced six months ago that it discovered one of the world’s richest and most fabled shipwrecks just a few miles off its coast, a U.S. company has been trying to make a contentious point: it found the San José galleon first, reported Miami Herald (US).

Now, as both sides have dug into their positions, Sea Search Armada, a Bellevue, Washington-based salvage company, is upping the stakes.

The company plans to launch an expedition to the site later this year and begin hauling up some of the treasure — with or without Colombia’s consent.

SSA managing director Jack Harbeston said the company found the wreck in the 1980s and has a 2007 ruling from Colombia’s Supreme Court to back up its claim on portions of the treasure, despite what the current administration might think.

He said researchers plan to return to the site late this year on a U.S.-flagged vessel carrying remotely operated underwater vehicles and other rescue equipment.

“We would be recovering artifacts — that would certainly be one of the top items on our list,” he said. The company believes it has the legal right to begin operations whether or not Colombia grants permission.

“If the [Colombian] navy is ordered to intercept us ... there is not much we can do against that many guns and that big of guns,” Harbeston admitted. “[But] I can’t imagine any government directly opposing the highest levels of the judicial branch.”

If a high-seas, high-stakes showdown really does materialize, it will be a confrontation decades in the making.

1980s Claim
Back in the 1980s, SSA’s predecessor, Glocca Morra, allegedly spent almost $11 million searching for and finding the famed shipwreck. In 1982, the company provided a report to the government along with specific coordinates.

The ensuing decades were spent in legal wrangling in the United States and Colombia. But in 2007, Colombia’s Supreme Court finally reaffirmed that the company — now in the hands of SSA — had rights to half the riches on the ship not considered cultural heritage. It also ordered that any treasure brought to the surface should be held by the Central Bank to make sure it is equitably distributed.

The ruling, however, didn’t trigger salvage efforts, as successive administrations refused to move ahead.

Finally, in December of last year, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that a new team had independently found the San José and that it was at a site never before surveyed. Overnight, SSA was cut out of the picture.

At the time, Santos said the 300-year-old shipwreck had been identified by world-class scientists, Colombia’s navy, and an unnamed bearded researcher who he said “looks like Hemingway.”

Among the organizations rumored to be involved in the 2015 discovery is the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The Massachusetts-based organization denied an interview request, saying it was under a nondisclosure agreement.

SSA, however, believes that it was its coordinates — not mysterious hirsute men — that led to the find. Since last year’s announcement, SSA has repeatedly asked the government for a joint visit to the area.

“We’re ready to go whenever the government’s ready, and we’ve made the offer in writing five times,” SSA’s lawyer, Danilo Devis, said. “But they keep ignoring us because they know that their ‘discovery’ is a farce.”

Critical coordinates
The government hasn’t provided many details about the find since its initial announcement. But according to correspondence provided by Devis, one of the key issues is the administration’s interpretation of SSA’s coordinates.

In its 1982 report, the company provided latitude and longitude readings pointing to a spot 21.5 miles west of the Barú Peninsula. In that report, written in a time before GPS technology, it stated that the wreck was “in the immediate vicinity” of the coordinates.

Now, according to Devis, the government insists the exact coordinates are what matter.

“The coordinates were never meant to pinpoint the wreck,” Devis wrote in an email. “It’s a starting point, or a point of reference to locate it — in the immediate vicinity.”

What those two critical words mean isn’t clear. In a map the SSA provided the Miami Herald and the government, the company has identified five debris fields within a few nautical miles of the original 1982 San José coordinates.

Despite the high profile announcement in December, the government has provided few details about the location of the find or its plans for salvaging the wreck. Officials at the Ministry of Culture said they did not have permission to comment on the case, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for information.

Treasure laden
What is clear, however, is that much is at stake. When the San José was sunk by the British navy in 1708, it was thought to be carrying six years worth of accumulated New World gold, silver, emeralds and other riches destined for Spain.

During a U.S. court case in the 1990s, SSA estimated the cargo was worth between $4 billion and $17 billion, making the San José, perhaps, the most-valuable shipwreck in the western hemisphere.

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