Colombia finds what may be world's largest sunken treasure by PEDRO MENDOZA
and JOSHUA GOODMAN | December 5, 2015 8:28 PM
CARTAGENA, Colombia (AP) — President Juan
Manual Santos on Saturday hailed 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
At a news conference in this colonial port
city, Santos said the exact location of the galleon San
Jose, and how it was discovered with the help of an international
team of experts, was a state secret that he'd personally
safeguard. The ship sank somewhere in the wide area off
Colombia's Baru peninsula, south of Cartagena.
While no humans have yet to reach the wreckage site, autonomous
underwater vehicles had 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, the government
The discovery is the latest chapter in a saga that began
three centuries ago, on June 8, 1708, when the galleon ship
with 600 people aboard sank 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
The ship, which maritime experts consider the holy grail
of Spanish colonial shipwrecks, has also been the subject
of a legal battle in the 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 Jose'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 to a 5 percent "finder's
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 didn't mention any salvage company's claim during
his presentation, but the government said the ship had been
found Nov. 27 in a never-before referenced location through
the use of new meteorological and underwater mapping studies.
Danilo Devis, who has represented Sea Search in Colombia
for decades, expressed optimism that the sunken treasure,
whose haul could easily be worth more than $10 billion,
would finally be recovered.
But he bristled at the suggestion that experts located
the underwater grave anywhere different from the area adjacent
to the coordinates Sea Search gave authorities three decades
"The government may have been the one to find it but
this really just reconfirms what we told them in 1982,"
he told The Associated Press from his home in Barranquilla,
The president said any recovery effort would take years
but would be guided by a desire to protect the national
During his presentation, Santos showed an underwater video
that appears to show jewels and the cannons. In the footage,
English-speaking crew members aboard a Colombian naval ship
can be seen launching the underwater vehicle into the ocean.