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 more than 300 years ago, according to Colombian naval officials.
Colombian authorities also released new footage of the San José wreckage, which was discovered in 2015 and 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 cup scattered on the sea floor. 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 some 200 years ago, to the period shortly after Colombia’s war of independence from Spain.
The San José, a 64-gun galleon with 600 people on board, 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 Nobel-winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “Love in the Time of Cholera.”
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.
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 since 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 they should get the treasure, since Spanish colonizers forced their ancestors to mine some of the precious metals they say were aboard.
Meanwhile, the U.S. firm Sea Search Armada has sued the Colombian government to stop the ship’s excavation, claiming the company was owed a share of the treasure. The Colombian Supreme Court upheld a ruling in 2007 that SSA was entitled to 50 percent.
But Colombia said the location pinpointed by the company was incorrect, and that the actual resting place of the San José was discovered 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 earlier 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 the government intends to develop sustainable financing mechanisms for excavating shipwrecks. The Colombian authorities has its sights on locating about a dozen more historical wrecks with the same technology, he added.