Monday, July 23, 2007

The hunt is on again

Colombia's highest court ruled on July 5 2007, she must be found first before a final settlement can be made. While this is far from the ruling that Sea Search Armada, a Seattle based treasure hunting company, had hoped for, it does allow them to continue the work they had begun in 1979.

Sea Search Armada, along with 100 U S investors, signed a deal with the Colombian government that gave them the exclusive rights for the wreck of the San Jose and fifty percent of whatever they found. In 1982, Sea Search announced that they had found what they believed to be the shipwreck. In 1984, then Colombian President Belisario Betancur overturned the well-established maritime law of 50% to the finder and slashed Sea Search's possible take down to a 5% "finders fee". Sea Search, which claims to have invested $12 million since beginning the hunt, took the government there to court.

The Spanish galleon San Jose was sunk approximately 10 nautical miles from the port of Cartagena, Colombia, after a mysterious explosion on June 8 1708. She was overloaded with treasure taken from Peru at the port of Portobelo, in what is now Panama and at the time of her sinking, she was trying to outrun an ambushing fleet of British warships. Known as the jewel of the Spanish crown, she is believed to have sunk with an estimated $2 to $10 billion in gold, emeralds and silver and over 600 crew members.

"Without a doubt the San Jose is the Holy Grail of treasure shipwrecks," stated Robert Cembrola, director of the Naval War College Museum in Newport RI.

An underwater video taken in 1982 and used as proof of their find, placed the wreck of the San Jose in 700 feet of water. That video shows what looks to be a coral reef-covered woodpile. Over the years, Colombia's successive governments have argued that it's maritime agency never had the authority to award exploritory contracts to Sea Search because the wreck is part of the country's cultural patrimony. The San Jose has become a national obsession among Colombians even though three lower courts ruled that Sea Search is entitled to half of what it finds.

In 1994, Colombia hired treasure hunter Tommy Thompson to verify the coordinates of the find. He claimed to have found nothing there, which seems to be what investors from a previous deep-sea find have left after he disappeared. Wherever the wreck lies, advances in diving, sonar and metal-detection make it possible to find almost any wreck today.

The final ruling that was handed down this month states that pieces that are declared "treasure" will be split evenly between the Colombian government and Sea Search Armada. items that are classified as part of Colombian cultural patrimony will be awarded soley to the government. The decision came after Bogota's recent rejection of a UNESCO convention on undersea cultural heritage which had backed Spain's claims to its sunken galleons around the world. It does open up the search for more than 1,100 Spanish galleons that sunk in the 17th and 18th centuries in what are now Colombian territorial waters. There are more than 72 resting on the bottom of the bays surrounding Cartegena alone and all treasure hunters have patiently waited over 15 years for this case to be settled before investing time and money in exploring the waters there.

Whether Sea Search has actually found the wreck of the San Jose will left to be seen in the coming years.... the ruling does finally allow other treasures from the deep, both rare metals and precious artifacts to be discovered now.

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