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Colombia finds galleon with 'world's largest sunken treasure'

Published 06/12/2015

Ernesto Montenegro, director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History of Colombia, shows a picture of remains of the Galleon San Jose (AP)
Ernesto Montenegro, director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History of Colombia, shows a picture of remains of the Galleon San Jose (AP)
President Juan Manuel Santos announces the discovery of the Galleon San Jose, a Spanish boat that sank in the Caribbean Sea in 1708, loaded with gold. (AP)

Colombia's president has hailed the discovery of a Spanish galleon that went down off the nation's coast with what may be the world's largest sunken treasure while trying to escape from British warships more than 300 years ago.

Juan Manual 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 would personally safeguard.

The ship sank somewhere in the wide area off Colombia's Baru peninsula, south of the colonial port city 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 said.

The discovery is the latest chapter in a saga that began three centuries ago on June 8 1708, when the galleon 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 if ever recovered.

The ship, which maritime experts consider the holy grail of Spanish colonial shipwrecks, has also been the subject of a legal battle in the US, Colombia and Spain over who owns the rights to the sunken treasure.

In 1982, Sea Search Armada, a salvage company owned by US 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% to whoever locates a shipwreck, slashing Sea Search's take to a 5% "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.

Mr Santos did not mention any salvage company's claim during his presentation, but the government said the ship had been found on November 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 £6.6 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 co-ordinates Sea Search gave authorities three decades ago.

"The government may have been the one to find it but this really just reconfirms what we told them in 1982," he said from his home in Barranquilla, Colombia.

The president said any recovery effort would take years but would be guided by a desire to protect the national patrimony.

During his presentation, Mr 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.

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