Colombia finds what may be world's largest sunken treasure

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CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA >> Colombian President Juan Manual Santos hailed Saturday the discovery of a Spanish galleon that went down off the South American nation's coast more than 300 years ago with what may be the world's largest sunken treasure.

At a press conference in the colonial port city of Cartagena, Santos said the exact location of the San Jose galleon, and how it was discovered with the help of an international team of experts, was a state secret that he'd personally safeguard. The San Jose originally sank somewhere in the wide area off Colombia's Baru peninsula, south of Cartagena.

While no humans have yet to reach the wreckage site, the government said autonomous underwater vehicles have gone there and brought back photos of dolphin-stamped bronze cannons in a well-preserved state that leave no doubt to the ship's identity.

The discovery is the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that began three centuries ago, on June 8, 1708, when the Spanish ship with 600 people aboard sank to the bottom of the sea as it was trying to outrun a fleet of British warships. It is believed to have been carrying 11 million gold coins and jewels from then Spanish-controlled colonies that could be worth billions of dollars if ever recovered.

The ship, which maritime experts consider the holy grail of Spanish colonial shipwrecks, has remained submerged ever since off the coast of Cartagena even as a legal battle has raged in U.S., Colombia and Spain over who owns the rights to the sunken treasure.

In 1982, Sea Search Armada, a salvage company owned by U.S. investors including the late actor Michael Landon and convicted Nixon White House adviser John Ehrlichman, announced it had found the San Jose's resting place 700 feet below the water's surface.

Two years later, Colombia's government overturned well-established maritime law that gives 50 percent to whoever locates a shipwreck, slashing Sea Search's take down 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.

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

Danilo Devis, who has represented Sea Search in Colombia for decades, expressed optimism that the sunken treasure, whose haul could easily be worth more than $10 billion, would finally be recovered.

But he bristled at the suggestion that experts located the underwater grave anywhere different from the area adjacent to the coordinates Sea Search gave authorities three decades ago.

"The government may have been the one to find it but this really just reconfirms what we told them in 1982," he told The Associated Press from his home in Barranquilla, Colombia.

The president said any recovery effort would take years but would be guided by a desire to protect the national patrimony.

During his presentation, Santos showed an underwater video that appears to show jewels and the cannons. In the footage English-speaking crew members aboard a Colombian naval ship can be seen launching the underwater vehicle into the ocean.

Goodman contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.


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