Researchers had been searching for a sunken Spanish ship for years when they found it off the coast of Cartegena, Colombia, in 2015.
The San José, which sank over 300 years ago, reportedly had gold and silver worth $17 billion aboard. The details of the discovery of what is considered the "holy grail of shipwrecks" had been kept secret, but now officials at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have been given the go-ahead by various governments to reveal the information.
The ship, a 62-gun, three-masted vessel, which at the time was the largest galleon of the Spanish fleet, was transporting gold, silver and emerald, as well as six hundred people, from Potosi, Peru. It disappeared somewhere between Panama and Colombia on June 8, 1708, while battling British ships in the War of the Spanish Succession.
Though the British attempted to seize the cargo, the ship sank before they were able to do so, which resulted in serious financial difficulties for European and American merchants, according to Sea Search Armada (SSA), a group of American investors specialized in marine salvaging.
The search for the San José was carried out by REMUS 6000, an underwater rescue vehicle, which also helped locate the wreckage of Air France 447 in 2011, and aided in mapping and photographing the Titanic wreck site in 2010.
"I just sat there for about 10 minutes and smiled," Jeff Kaeli, a Woods Hole engineer, told CBS News. "So in that moment I guess I was the only person in the world who knew we'd found the shipwreck. It's a piece of history that's sitting on the seafloor that tells a story."
In order to verify the San José’s identity, REMUS photographed key ship features, such as the bronze cannons engraved with dolphins. Despite the effort it took to find the ship, the hard part comes now, as several governments and private companies dispute the ownership of the ship’s contents.
The discovery of the San José discovery is an important archaeological find for Columbia, since the ship contains numerous cultural and historical artifacts. The ship may also expand researchers’ knowledge of the economic, social and political realities of 18th century Europe. While the courts decide the San José’s fate, Columbia is already planning to erect a museum and a conservation laboratory to display the ship's contents, which include ceramics, cannons, and other artifacts.
UNESCO has asked Colombia not to exploit the discovery, as the site of the wreck is still a secret and will remain so until the treasure is lifted from the ocean floor.