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Colombia launches expedition to 300-year-old shipwreck full of treasures

Colombia has launched the initial phase of an underwater expedition to explore a Spanish warship that sank in the Caribbean more than 300 years ago and which is believed to contain artifacts worth billions of dollars – the rights to which are under heated dispute.

Discovered in 2015 in the waters off the coast of the port city of Cartagena by the Colombian government, the San José is often called the “Holy Grail of shipwrecks.”

The 62-gun, three-masted ship – the most important and largest vessel in the Spanish fleet – is believed to be transporting gold, silver, emeralds and other valuable goods from the mines of Potosí, Peru. The ship was traveling from Panama to Colombia when it sank with 600 people on board on June 8, 1708, during a battle with British ships in the War of the Spanish Succession.

The first stage of the expedition will focus on capturing images of the ship using “non-intrusive” remote sensors, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH) said, adding that the results of the initial expedition could pave the way for subsequent explorations, which include the recovery of archaeological materials from the wreck.

The images will then be used to build an inventory of archaeological discoveries under the sea.

ICANH also declared the discovery site a national “archaeological protected area” to “preserve its scientific and archaeological value.”

The researchers say they also plan to use an underwater vessel with acoustic positioning technologies, as well as a remotely operated vehicle with various sensors and tools that can descend to the depth of the site.

“This government is doing something unprecedented… exploring the shipwreck as a possibility to understand history and culture,” said Culture Minister Juan David Correa at a press conference in Cartagena on Wednesday (22), where the expedition was also released.

Billion-dollar legal battle over rights

The discovery of the San José was significant for Colombia because of the ship's treasure trove of cultural and historical artifacts – and the clues it may provide about the economic, social and political climate of Europe during the early 18th century.

But it also triggered a multibillion-dollar legal battle.

Colombia says it first discovered San José in 2015 with the help of international scientists.

But their claims have been challenged by a US-based marine salvage company called Sea Search-Armada (SSA), formerly known as Glocca Morra, who argue that they were the ones who discovered the wreck in the early 1980s.

The SSA has launched a legal battle against the Colombian government in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, claiming it is entitled to approximately US$10 billion — half the estimated value of the shipwreck's treasure.

The Colombian government disputes the SSA's claims.

The loss of the San José and its cargo would have caused financial hardship for traders across Europe and the New World, according to reports released by the SSA.

Source: CNN Brasil

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