'Holy grail of shipwrecks' worth $22 billion found

A Spanish galleon laden with gold that sank to the bottom of the Caribbean off the coast of Colombia more than 300 years ago has been found with the help of an underwater autonomous vehicle. 

New details about the discovery of the San Jose, which was made three years ago, were released for the first time this week with permission from the agencies involved in the search, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Colombian government.

“We’ve been holding this under wraps out of respect for the Colombian government,” Rob Munier, WHOI’s vice president for marine facilities and operations, said. 

The exact location of the wreck of the San Jose, often called the “holy grail of shipwrecks,” was long considered one of history’s enduring maritime mysteries.

Some of the items on board the San Jose sitting on the ocean floor. Source: AAP

The 62-gun, three-masted galleon, went down on June 8, 1708, with 600 people on board as well as a treasure of gold, silver and emeralds during a battle with British ships in the War of Spanish Succession.

The treasure is worth as much as US$17 billion (A$22b) by modern standards. 

The US-based WHOI was invited to join the search because of its recognised expertise in deep water exploration.

The institute’s autonomous underwater vehicle, REMUS 6000, helped find the wreckage of Air France 447 in 2011, which crashed in 2009 several hundred miles off the coast of Brazil.

It was REMUS 6000 that in November 2015 took some side sonar images that found the San Jose in more than 600 metres of water. 

The vehicle descended to nine metres above the wreck to take several photographs, including some of the distinctive dolphin engravings on the San Jose’s cannons, a key piece of visual evidence.

“The wreck was partially sediment-covered, but with the camera images from the lower altitude missions, we were able to see new details in the wreckage and the resolution was good enough to make out the decorative carving on the cannons,” WHOI engineer and expedition leader Mike Purcell said.

“It was a pretty strong feeling of gratification to finally find it,” Mr Munier said.

“It was a great moment.”

The treasure has been the subject of legal battles between several nations as well as private companies. Several weeks ago, UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, called on Colombia not to commercially exploit the wreck, whose exact location remains a state secret.

As for the treasure, that remains on the sea bed — for now.

The treasure is worth tens of billions of dollars. Source: AAP