CARTAGENA, Colombia (AP) – Colombian President Juan Manual Santos hailed Saturday the discovery of a Spanish galleon that went down off the South American nation's coast more than 300 years ago with what may be the world's largest sunken treasure.
At a press conference in the colonial port city of Cartagena, Santos said the exact location of the San José galleon, and how it was discovered with the help of an international team of experts, was a state secret that he'd personally safeguard. The San José originally sank somewhere in the wide area off Colombia's Baru peninsula, south of Cartagena.
The discovery is the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that began three centuries ago, on June 8, 1708, when the Spanish ship with 600 people aboard sank to the bottom of the sea as it was trying to outrun a fleet of British warships. It is believed to have been carrying 11 million gold coins and jewels from then Spanish-controlled colonies that could be worth billions of dollars if ever recovered.
The ship, which maritime experts consider the holy grail of Spanish colonial shipwrecks, has remained submerged ever since off the coast of Cartagena even as a legal battle has raged in U.S., Colombia and Spain over who owns the rights to the sunken treasure.
In 1982, Sea Search Armada, a salvage company owned by U.S. investors including the late actor Michael Landon and convicted Nixon White House adviser John Ehrlichman announced it had found the San José's resting place 700 feet below the water's surface.
Two years later, Colombia's government overturned well-established maritime law that gives 50 percent to whoever locates a shipwreck, slashing Sea Search's take down to a 5 percent "finder's fee".
A lawsuit by the American investors in a federal court in Washington was dismissed in 2011 and the ruling was affirmed on appeal two years later. Colombia's Supreme Court has ordered the ship to be recovered before the international dispute over the fortune can be settled.
Santos said the ship was found at a different location than that of the discovery claimed by Sea Search thanks to the use of new meteorological and underwater mapping studies.
While no humans have yet to reach the wreckage site, the government said autonomous underwater vehicles have gone there and brought back photos of dolphin-stamped bronze cannons in a well-preserved state that leave no doubt to the ship's identity. During his presentation, Santos revealed an underwater video that appears to show jewels and the cannons.
The president said any recovery of what he said was Colombia's national patrimony would take years.
Santos would only say that the ship was found Nov. 27 near the Rosario Islands archipelago, which is close to Baru. In a video accompanying the announcement, English-speaking crew members aboard a Colombian naval ship can be seen launching the underwater vehicle into the ocean.