On June 8, 1708, the galleon ship San Jose was trying to outrun a fleet of British warships. It is believed to have been carrying 600 people and 11 million gold coins and jewels from then Spanish-controlled colonies when it sank sank off Colombia’s Baru peninsula, south of Cartagena in about 700 feet of water. The trove could be worth billions of today’s dollars if recovered.

In 1982, Sea Search Armada, a salvage company owned by U.S. investors including the late actor Michael Landon and President Nixon’s White House adviser John Ehrlichman, announced it had found the San Jose’s resting place 700 feet below the water’s surface. Since being discovered, the ship (which maritime experts consider the holy grail of Spanish colonial shipwrecks) has been the subject of a legal battle in the U.S., Colombia and Spain over who owns the rights to the sunken treasure.


Another development also felt a blow to Sea Search Armada. Two years after being discovered, Colombia’s government overturned well-established maritime law that gives 50 percent to whoever locates a shipwreck, effectively reducing Sea Search’s take to a 5 percent “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.

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.

A photo of the wreckage, 700 feet deep.

A photo of the wreckage, 700 feet deep.

While no humans have yet to reach the wreckage site, autonomous underwater vehicles have visited it and brought back photos of bronze cannons in a well-preserved state whose markings leave no doubt to the ship’s identity, the government said.

On Saturday, Columbian President Juan Manual Santos hailed the discovery at a news conference, and showed an underwater video that appears to show jewels and the cannons. The president said any recovery effort would take years but would be guided by a desire to protect the national patrimony.

Santos didn’t mention any salvage company’s claim during his presentation, but said the ship had been found Nov. 27 in a never-before referenced location through the use of new meteorological and underwater mapping studies.