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U.S. Scientists To Help In Exploration Of 'Santa Maria' Wreck

In this May 2003 photo, a diver measures a lombard cannon adjacent to a ballast pile, off the North coast of Haiti, at a site explorer Barry Clifford says could be the wreckage of Cristpher Colombus' flagship vessel the Santa Maria. Clifford said evidence that the wreck is the Santa Maria, which struck a reef and foundered on Christmas Day in 1492, includes ballast stones that appear to have come from Spain or Portugal and what looks like a 15th century cannon that was at the site during an initial inspection but has since disappeared. (AP Photo/Brandon Clifford)

In this May 2003 photo, a diver measures a lombard cannon adjacent to a ballast pile, off the North coast of Haiti, at a site explorer Barry Clifford says could be the wreckage of Cristpher Colombus' flagship vessel the Santa Maria. Clifford said evidence that the wreck is the Santa Maria, which struck a reef and foundered on Christmas Day in 1492, includes ballast stones that appear to have come from Spain or Portugal and what looks like a 15th century cannon that was at the site during an initial inspection but has since disappeared. (AP Photo/Brandon Clifford)

An Indiana University scientist who's based in the Caribbean says the school's underwater researchers will help investigate a shipwreck that could be the remains of the famed Santa Maria.

Charles Beeker is director of IU's Office of Underwater Science and Academic Diving. He's currently in the Dominican Republic overseeing research that's part of his more than two decades of work in the region.

Beeker says explorer Barry Clifford's discovery of a shipwreck off adjacent Haiti's northern coast that could be the Santa Maria looks "very compelling." He says IU underwater researchers will conduct a full investigation of the site as early as this summer.

Clifford said evidence that the wreck is the Santa Maria, which struck ground and foundered on Christmas Day in 1492, includes ballast stones that appear to have come from Spain or Portugal and what looks like a 15th century cannon that was at the site during an initial inspection but has since disappeared.

Clifford, known for discovering a pirate ship off Cape Cod in 1984, said another factor is the location of the wreckage, in about 15 feet of water near where the crew of the Santa Maria is thought to have built a coastal settlement for crew members of the ship who were left behind after the sinking.

"The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming," Clifford said in a phone interview from his home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. "The cannon is the smoking gun, so to speak."

He said that he and his son, Brandon, first explored the site and took photos in 2003. They decided to publicize their findings after a follow-up dive and examination of the photos led them to conclude they may have found the Santa Maria. The cannon that they saw in 2003 had vanished by the time they returned last week.

Clifford, whose exploration of the site is being backed by the History Channel, says he has asked the Haitian government to preserve the area around the wreck. "The next step is a careful, thorough and timely excavation," he said.

Salim Succar, a special adviser to Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, said the government will do "all that is needed" to protect the site "while deciding on the best options to feature this discovery."

If the ship is the Santa Maria, it would be the oldest known European shipwreck in the so-called New World and a find of major archaeological significance. But scientists say it's far too early to make any such declaration especially since there is likely to be very little left of the vessel.

"The evidence, as you can imagine, after more than 500 years is not going to be very much because of time and the environment that the site is in," said Roger C. Smith, the State Underwater Archaeologist for Florida. "It's going to require some careful archaeology."

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