A replica of Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria is shown in this circa 1892 photo. An explorer says a shipwreck he found off the north coast of Haiti could be the 500-year-old remains of the ship. (Library of Congress via Reuters)

A shipwreck off northern Haiti may be the remains of Christopher Columbus’s flagship vessel, the Santa Maria, an explorer said Tuesday, though experts expressed caution about a discovery that was far from confirmed.

Explorer Barry Clifford said he has evidence that the wreck is the Santa Maria, which struck ground and slowly sank on Christmas Day in 1492. That evidence 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 Massachusetts in 1984, said the wreckage was found in about 15 feet of water near where the crew of the Santa Maria is thought to have built a coastal settlement for those who survived the sinking.

“The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming,” Clifford said.

Clifford 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.

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 too early to make a firm declaration that the wreck was the Santa Maria.

“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.”

The ship sank slowly in 1492, and the crew had time to strip it and remove valuable items that would help document its identity. Much, if not all, of the ship’s timbers would have broken down or been consumed by mollusk found in the tropical waters.

— Reuters