The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) recently obtained authorization by Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC), Switzerland AG, and the Colombian government to release new details from the successful search for the three-century old San José—a 62-gun, three-masted Spanish galleon that sank with a cargo believed to be worth billions of dollars. The ship, which is often called the “holy grail of shipwrecks,” went down with a treasure of gold, silver, and emeralds in 1708 during a battle with British ships in the War of Spanish Succession.
The legendary wreck was discovered off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, on 27 November 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. It was found more than 600 meters below the surface during a search initiated by MAC and approved by The Colombian Ministry of Culture.
“In order to ensure a successful search, we retained the services of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which has an extensive and recognized expertise in deep water exploration. This partnership was key to the discovery of the San Jose,” said Dooley.
WHOI engineer and expedition leader Mike Purcell, added, “The REMUS 6000 [autonomous underwater vehicle] was the ideal tool for the job, since it’s capable of conducting long-duration missions over wide areas.”
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 artifacts and the clues they may provide about Europe’s economic, social, and political climate in the early 18th century. 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 artifacts.
REMUS was initially deployed off the Malpelo to survey an approved area in June 2015. Unfortunately, the entire area of search could not be completed in this first expedition due to time constraints. In November, the WHOI team along with MAC and under the supervision of ICANH and DIMAR, returned to the search area.
“During that November expedition, we got the first indications of the find from side scan sonar images of the wreck,” said Purcell. “From those images, we could see strong sonar signal returns, so we sent REMUS back down for a closer look to collect camera images.”
To confirm the wreck’s identity, REMUS descended to just 30 feet above the wreck where it was able to capture 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 wreck was partially sediment-covered, but with the camera images from the lower altitude missions, we were able to see new details in the wreckage and the resolution was good enough to make out the decorative carving on the cannons,” said Purcell.
He added, “Dooley, interpreted the images and confirmed that the San José had finally been found.”