For as long as people have told stories, they’ve spun tales of lost treasure. The golden city of El Dorado, the treasure of Plum Island, buried pirate treasure and lost Nazi gold trains have all found their way into our collective imagination, begging us to ask ourselves… are there any treasures left to be discovered? In the modern world, where finances tend to exist on spreadsheets rather than in wooden trunks, there’s a certain romance to the idea of hidden wealth lying in wait beneath our feet — or often, deep beneath the ocean’s surface.
For more than three hundred years, a three-masted Spanish galleon named the San Jose has been among those legends of lost treasure. The flagship of the Spanish fleet, this massive vessel carried 62 cannons and vast quantities of gold, silver and emeralds from the mines in Peru back to the Spanish monarch. Eventually the ship and it’s 600 man crew disappeared below the depths of the Caribbean — on June 8, 1708, the San Jose was lost in battle during the War of Spanish Succession. The British ships that sunk it tried to close with the vessel fast enough to scramble on board and secure its bounty, but to no avail.
As the ship, and its treasure, slipped beneath the waves, a legend was born. Known to many as “the Holy Grail of shipwrecks,” the San Jose carried so much treasure that merchants all throughout Europe and the new North American colonies felt the reverberating effects for years to come. Adjusted for inflation, it’s believed the treasure aboard the San Jose alone was worth over $17 billion. That’s more than enough to spur a legend or two.
However, the San Jose is far more than a legend, as confirmed by a team of researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), who discovered the wreck off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, in 2015, and who have only now gone public with their discovery.
WHOI were only recently permitted by the Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC), Switzerland AG, and the Colombian government to announce their discovery, though members of the team were confident that they had found something of importance before anyone had even set eyes on it. Sonar returns indicated strongly that they had found the remains of a ship, so the team sent down a submersible drone to identify their discovery.
“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 WHOI engineer and expedition leader Mike Purcell.
Dolphins carved into the ship’s bronze cannons meant it was no ordinary discovery… they had found the legendary San Jose.
“I just sat there for about 10 minutes and smiled,” said Jeff Kaeli, a research engineer with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
The exact location of the shipwreck remains a secret, which comes as little surprise as a treasure rumored to be worth better than $17 billion remains on the sea floor, waiting to be recovered. For now, that’s part of the debate — both Spain and Columbia claim it belongs to them.
For their part, WHOI has emphasized that they’re explorers rather than treasure hunters, and they’re trying to remain clear of the ownership dispute.
“Everyone is focused on the treasure aspect… the whole thing is a cultural treasure. It’s a piece of history that’s sitting on the sea floor that tells a story,” Kaeli said.
Feature image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.