San José shipwreck recovery (1) infographic
Graphic shows details of the San José and the expedition to recover its bounty.


Colombia to recover legendary shipwreck

By Jordi Bou

March 4, 2024 - Colombia is embarking on a deep-water expedition to recover the Spanish galleon San José, known as the “holy grail of shipwrecks”, which sank in 1708, carrying treasure believed to be worth up to $20 billion.

Between April and May, an underwater robot would be sent to recover some of its bounty.

The operation will cost more than $4.5 million, and a robot manufactured by the Swedish marine services company Saab will work at a depth of 600m to remove some items.

The San José was the flagship of an armada carrying treasure from Spain’s colonies in South America to the court of King Philip V to fund the War of Spanish Succession.

On June 8, 1708, it was ambushed off the coast of Cartagena by a British squadron led by Admiral Charles Wager. Before the San José could be boarded, it exploded and sank with the loss of all but 11 of its 600 crew and passengers.

Ever since, finding the ship has been the fantasy of treasure hunters, adventurers and novelists. In Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, the unrequited lover, Florentino Ariza, dreams of recovering the sunken hoard for his love Fermina Daza.

Colombia had been involved in a lengthy legal battle with the Seattle-based commercial salvage company Sea Search Armada over breach of contract and ownership of the bounty. In 1980, the company claims to have located the shipwreck.

Spain argues that the San José is a military vessel and therefore it is still Spanish property under the UNESCO convention.

Indigenous groups and local descendants of Afro-Caribbean communities also argue that they are entitled to reparations, because their ancestors mined the treasure.

PUBLISHED: 05/03/2024; STORY: Graphic News; PICTURES: Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Saab