San José shipwreck expedition begins off Colombian coast

A picture shows the Colombian Navy ship ARC Caribe docked in the port of Cartagena, Colombia, on February 23, 2024 after the Colombian government announced the beginning of the extraction with a robot of ceramics, pieces of wood, and shells of "incal

An expedition to the famed San José shipwreck has begun off the coast of Colombia. 

The mythical galleon San José sank in the 18th century in the country’s northern Caribbean and is  believed to contain cargo valued at billions of dollars.

The first phase of an expedition project kicked off this week and includes site imaging to determine which pieces are suitable and possible to extract.

Colombian officials have maintained this is a scientific mission with precautions being taken to protect the cultural heritage that was lost at sea, and that no archaeological excavations are planned.

The mission comes as the ship is the subject of a legal battle in the United States, Colombia and Spain over who owns the rights to the sunken treasure.

The San José shipwreck 

The San José was trying to outrun a fleet of British warships off Colombia on June 8, 1708, when the ship was sunk.

It sank somewhere in the wide area off Colombia’s Baru peninsula, south of Cartagena, in the Caribbean Sea.

The three-decked San José was reportedly 150 feet long, with a beam of 45 feet and armed with 64 guns. Six hundred people were reportedly onboard at the time. 

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San José shipwreck discovery

Colombia located the galleon, which is a type of Spanish sailing ship, in 2015 but its discovery has since been mired in legal and diplomatic disputes. 

The shipwreck’s exact location has remained a state secret.

In 2018, the Colombia government abandoned plans to excavate the wreck, amid disputes with a private firm that claims some salvage rights based on a 1980s agreement with the Colombian government.

In 2018, the United Nations cultural agency called on Colombia not to commercially exploit the wreck.

A UNESCO experts’ body protecting underwater cultural heritage sent a letter to Colombia expressing concern that recovering the treasure for sale rather than for its historical value "would cause the irretrievable loss of significant heritage."

Colombia has not signed the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would subject it to international standards and require it to inform UNESCO of its plans for the wreck.

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The San José galleon treasure

The 300-year-old wreck, often called the "holy grail of shipwrecks," has been controversial, because it is both an archaeological and economic treasure.

The exact worth of the treasure is unknown, with decades of lawsuits estimating its value at anywhere from $4 billion to $20 billion. The question of who owns the sunken treasure is also in contention.

The ship is believed to hold 11 million gold and silver coins, emeralds and other precious cargo that was owned by private Peruvian and European merchants. 

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How deep is the San José shipwreck

The wreckage is almost 2,000 feet deep in the sea.

This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press and FOX News contributed.