The Story Behind $17 Billion Booty Found In 300-Year-Old “Holy Grail Of Shipwrecks”

Details have finally emerged surround a 2015 discovery of a 300-year-old Spanish galleon which went down after a battle with British ships off the coast of Cartagena, Columbia – considered the “holy grail of shipwrecks.” 

Using an unmanned underwater vehicle called the REMUS 6000 – funded by the Dalio Foundation and operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), researchers discovered the 62-gun, three-masted San José containing chests of gold, silver and emeralds minted in Peru – estimated to be worth up to $17 billion

“The REMUS 6000 was the ideal tool for the job, since it’s capable of conducting long-duration missions over wide areas,” said WHOI engineer and expedition leader Mike Purcell.

To confirm the identity of the San José, REMUS, celebrated for its ability to conduct long-duration missions over wide areas, descended near the suspected wreck, found about 2,000 feet underwater, capturing photos of a key distinguishing feature of the San José: bronze cannons engraved with dolphins, the WHOI said in its release. WHOI said it obtained authorization by Maritime Archaeology Consultants Switzerland AG and the government in Bogotá to release new details. –Marketwatch

Discovered on Nov. 27, 2015, a raging debate ensued over the legal ownership of the Caribbean bounty. Because of this, details of the discovery was shrouded in secrecy until this week. Spain defended their ownership in the vessel, arguing that it is a warship with a State flag that carries sovereign immunity under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Sea – to which Columbia is not a party. 

Spain also argues that the shipwreck is a maritime tomb to 570 Spanish nationals.


Columbia, however, says that the San José belongs to them because it’s on their seabed. They plan to build a museum and conservation laboratory to preserve and publicly display the wreck’s contents, including cannons, ceramics, and other artifacts.

The Colombian government has a long-standing disagreement with US-based salvage company Sea Search Armada (SSA) over who has the rightful claim over the treasure. A group now owned by SSA claims it located the wreck back in 1981. 

According to the BBC, the SSA has been claiming billions for breach of contract from Colombia, but four years ago a US court decided that the galleon was the property of the Colombian state. Further, the wreck is reported to fall within the UN’s definition of an underwater cultural heritage site. Nonetheless, a CNN report suggests that the SSA may demand half of the value of the ship’s sunken treasure. –Gizmodo

Upon its discovery, Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted “Great news! We have found the San Jose Galleon!” followerd by a press conference in which he said that the find “constitutes one of the greatest—if not the biggest, as some say—discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind.”

The rescue operation to raise the booty, announced in March, will cost around $71 million USD. 

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