Two shipwrecks thought to be centuries old have been discovered near the ruins of the famous San José galleon that sunk off the Colombian city of Cartagena more than 300 years ago, according to naval officials.
Colombian authorities have also released new footage of the San José wreckage, which was discovered in 2015 and is often described as the “holy grail” of shipwrecks.
The footage was taken during four observation missions by the Colombian navy, using a remotely operated vehicle sent to a depth of about 945m off the country’s Caribbean coast. The eerie blue-and-green images show gold coins, pottery and intact porcelain cups scattered on the sea floor.
They provide a glimpse of the ship’s treasure, thought to be worth billions today.
The vehicle also found the wrecks of a colonial boat and a schooner thought to date to around 200 years ago, to the period shortly after Colombia’s war of independence from Spain.
The San José, a 64-gun galleon with 600 people on board, belonged to King Philip V of Spain. It sank near Cartagena in 1708 while battling the British navy during the War of Spanish Succession. The ship is thought to contain one of the most valuable treasure troves ever lost at sea – gold, silver, emeralds and other expensive objects taken from Spain’s colonial empire.
It is estimated to be worth more than $17bn (€15.9bn).
The galleon has been the subject of popular imagination for years, and featured in Nobel-winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera.
Treasure hunters had long tried to locate its remains, with a US company joining the search with Colombia’s permission in the 1980s. It claimed to have discovered the site of the wreck.
Colombia disagrees, and says the actual resting place was discovered with the help of the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 2015.
Colombia’s president Iván Duque shared the news of the fresh images and additional wrecks during a televised announcement on Monday.
“The equipment that our army has acquired and the level of precision have kept this treasure intact. We will be able to protect it for later extraction,” he said.
The remote exploration vehicle was the product of years of work, said Gabriel Alfonso Pérez of the Colombian navy.
“During the previous years we made four expeditions, which allowed us from the surface to verify that the area where the galleon is located had not been touched by human intervention,” he said.
The ship has been at the centre of protracted legal battles, with Colombia, Spain, a US company and a Bolivian indigenous group, all vying for the right to its treasure.
Spain claims rights to the destroyed ship since it belonged to the Spanish navy three centuries ago and the remains of hundreds of Spanish sailors lie in the wreckage.
Indigenous groups in present-day Bolivia says they should get the treasure, since Spanish colonisers enslaved their ancestors to mine the precious metals aboard.
Colombia passed a law in 2013 that said sunken ships in its waters would be considered national heritage. They announced earlier this year that artefacts found amid the wreckage of the San José would be put in a museum to be “a pride for Colombia, the Caribbean and the world”.
But a court order has put excavation on hold until all the legal questions have been resolved.
The Colombian government intends to develop sustainable financing mechanisms for excavating shipwrecks. They intend locating about a dozen more historical wrecks with the same technology.
© Washington Post