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Colombia moves to protect "holy grail" of shipwrecks that sank over 3 centuries ago with billions of dollars in treasure

Colombia says it has located the Spanish galleon San Jose, considered to be the holy grail of shipwrecks among treasure hunters
Who can claim sunken treasure from Spanish galleon San Jose? 04:44

Colombia on Wednesday declared a "protected archeological area" around the spot where the legendary San Jose galleon sank off its Caribbean coast more than three centuries ago laden with gold, silver and emeralds believed to be worth billions of dollars.

The designation, said the culture ministry, "guarantees the protection of heritage" through the ship's "long-term preservation and the development of research, conservation and valuation activities."

Dubbed the "holy grail" of shipwrecks, the San Jose was owned by the Spanish crown when it was sunk by the British navy near Cartagena in 1708. Only a handful of its 600-strong crew survived.

The galleon had been heading back from the New World to the court of King Philip V of Spain, bearing chests of emeralds and some 200 tons of gold coins.

The Spanish San Jose Galleon sunk in the Caribbean in 1708 after a battle with the British. New data suggests such shipwrecks could reveal the history of hurricanes in the region. Samuel Scott

Before Colombia announced the discovery in 2015, the ship had long been sought by adventurers.

The value of its bounty has been estimated to run into the billions of dollars.

Culture Minister Juan David Correa insisted Wednesday: "This is not a treasure, we do not treat it as such."

He announced the area's new designation at an event launching the first "non-intrusive" phase of a scientific exploration of the wreck.

In February,  Correa told AFP that an underwater robot would be sent to recover some of its bounty.

Spain had laid claim to the ship and its contents under a UN convention Colombia is not party to, while Indigenous Qhara Qhara Bolivians claim the riches were stolen from them.

But the government of President Gustavo Petro has insisted on raising the wreck for purposes of science and culture.

Spanish and Qhara Qhara delegations were present at Wednesday's event.

The wreck is also claimed by U.S.-based salvage company Sea Search Armada -- which insists it found it first more than 40 years ago and has taken Colombia to the U.N.'s Permanent Court of Arbitration, seeking $10 billion.

The exact location of the shipwreck is being kept secret to protect what is considered one of the greatest archaeological finds in history from malicious treasure hunters.

In June 2022, Colombia said that a remotely operated vehicle reached 900 meters below the surface of the ocean, showing new images of the wreckage.

Gold coins found in centuries-old shipwrecks off Colombia 00:53

The video showed the best-yet view of the treasure that was aboard the San Jose — including gold ingots and coins, cannons made in Seville in 1655 and an intact Chinese dinner service.

At the time, Reuters reported the remotely operated vehicle also discovered two other shipwrecks in the area, including a schooner thought to be from about two centuries ago.

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