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Colombia discovers two shipwrecks, releases new images of sunken treasure

Colombian naval officials conducting underwater monitoring of the 300 year-old wreck of the San Jose galleon discovered two other historical shipwrecks nearby. (Video: Reuters)
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Two shipwrecks thought to be centuries old have been discovered near the ruins of the famous San José galleon, sunk off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, more than 300 years ago, according to that country’s naval officials.

Colombian authorities also released new footage of the San José wreckage, which the government says was discovered in 2015 and which is often described as the “holy grail” of shipwrecks.

The footage was taken during four observation missions by the Colombian navy, using a remotely operated vehicle sent to a depth of some 3,100 feet off the country’s Caribbean coast. The eerie blue-and-green images show gold coins, pottery and intact porcelain cups scattered on the seafloor. They provide a glimpse of the ship’s treasure, thought to be worth billions in today’s dollars.

The vehicle also found the wrecks of a colonial boat and a schooner thought to date to about 200 years ago, to the period shortly after Colombia’s war of independence from Spain.

“Every wreck is like a little Pompeii — it’s a snapshot of society at one specific time,” said Leonardo Moreno-Álvarez, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburg studying early modern maritime economies.

The San José, a 64-gun galleon with 600 people aboard, belonged to King Philip V of Spain. It sank near Cartagena in 1708 while battling the British navy during the War of Spanish Succession.

The ruined ship has been thought to contain one of the most valuable treasure troves ever lost at sea — a cargo of gold, silver, emeralds and other expensive objects taken from Spain’s colonial empire that could be worth more than $17 billion in current value.

The storied galleon has been the subject of popular imagination for years, even featuring in the novel “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez.

Treasure hunters had long tried to locate its remains, with an American company joining the search with Colombia’s permission in the 1980s and claiming to have discovered the site of the wreck.

“The fear has always been that whatever pieces of silver or gold or whatever is in the ship” could be taken by treasure hunters, in such a way that “the wreck is completely destroyed so all the archaeological information is lost,” said Moreno-Álvarez. But some of those same fears apply to how the government could act, he said.

President Iván Duque shared the news of the fresh images and additional wrecks during a televised announcement Monday.

“The equipment that our army has acquired and the level of precision have kept this treasure intact, but at the same time, we will be able to protect it for later extraction,” he said.

The remote exploration vehicle was the product of years of work, said Gabriel Alfonso Pérez, commander of the Colombian navy.

“During the previous years, we made four expeditions, which allowed us from the surface to verify that the area where the galleon San José is located had not been touched by human intervention,” Pérez said.

The ship has been at the center of protracted legal battles, with Colombia, Spain, an American company and a Bolivian Indigenous group all vying for the right to its treasure.

Spain, citing a UNESCO convention, claims rights to the destroyed ship because it belonged to the Spanish navy three centuries ago and the remains of hundreds of Spanish sailors lie in the wreckage.

The Qhara Qhara Indigenous group in present-day Bolivia says it should get the treasure because Spanish colonizers forced its ancestors to mine some of the precious metals it says were aboard.

“All those debates about archaeology are also debates about colonialism,” Moreno-Álvarez said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. firm Sea Search Armada, which took over the stake of a company that claimed to have found the San José in the 1980s, has sued the Colombian government to stop the ship’s excavation, claiming that it is owed a share of the treasure. In 2007, Colombia’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling that Sea Search Armada was entitled to 50 percent of any treasure at the site that wasn’t considered “national patrimony.”

But Colombia said that the location pinpointed by the previous company was incorrect and that the actual resting place of the San José was found with the help of the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 2015.

Colombia passed a law in 2013 that said sunken ships discovered in its waters would be considered national heritage. Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez announced this year that artifacts found amid the wreckage of the San José would be put in a museum to be “a pride for Colombia, the Caribbean and the world.”

A presidential decree released in February stipulates that companies or individuals who wish to be involved in unearthing the ship’s treasure will have to sign a contract with the government and submit an inventory of their discoveries, CBS News reported. But a court order has put excavation on hold until the legal questions are resolved.

Duque said Monday that the government intends to develop sustainable financing mechanisms for excavating shipwrecks. Colombian authorities have their sights set on locating about a dozen more historic wrecks with the same technology, he added.