Colombia seeks to reclaim vast fortunes from the renowned ‘holy grail of maritime wrecks’.

However, critics argue that the potential retrieval of the San José, which sank in a battle with British ships in 1708, has the potential to harm the cultural heritage of the country.

The Colombian government has made an announcement stating their intention to attempt the recovery of objects from the shipwreck of the galleon San José, which is believed to hold a cargo with an estimated value of billions of dollars.

The shipwreck, often referred to as the “holy grail of shipwrecks”, is a subject of controversy due to its archaeological and economic significance.

Colombia’s Culture Minister, Juan David Correa, stated that initial recovery operations would take place between April and May, depending on the oceanic conditions in the Caribbean. Correa emphasized that the expedition would be conducted from a scientific perspective.

Correa, following a meeting with President Gustavo Petro, clarified, “This is an archaeological site, not a treasure. It presents an opportunity for us to establish ourselves as a leading nation in underwater archaeological research”

The ship is believed to contain 11 million gold and silver coins, emeralds, and other precious items from Spanish-controlled colonies, potentially worth billions of dollars if successfully retrieved.

Correa explained that the extracted materials from the wreck, which would likely be accomplished using robotic or submersible technology, would be transported to a navy vessel for further analysis. Based on the findings, a potential second recovery effort might be scheduled.

More than 300 years ago, the San José galleon sank in a battle with British ships. Its location was identified in 2015 but has since been embroiled in legal and diplomatic disputes.

In 2018, the Colombian government abandoned its plans for excavation due to conflicts with a private company asserting salvage rights under a 1980s agreement with the Colombian government.

The United Nations cultural agency, in 2018, urged Colombia to refrain from commercial exploitation of the wreck.

A letter from a Unesco expert body responsible for safeguarding underwater cultural heritage expressed concerns about the potential loss of significant heritage if the recovery focused on commercial gain instead of historical value.

“Allowing the commercial exploitation of Colombia’s cultural heritage contradicts the highest scientific standards and international ethical principles established particularly in the UNESCO Underwater Cultural Heritage Convention,” the letter stated.

Colombia has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would hold it accountable to international standards and require it to inform Unesco about the plans for the wreck.

Discovered three years ago with the assistance of an international team of experts and autonomous underwater vehicles, the exact location of the wreck remains undisclosed. It is known to have sunk somewhere in the expansive area off Colombia’s Baru peninsula, south of Cartagena, in the Caribbean Sea.

The ship has been the subject of legal battles in the US, Colombia, and Spain over ownership rights to the sunken treasure.

The San José, a three-decked vessel reportedly measuring 150ft (45 meters) in length, with a beam of 45ft (14 meters) and armed with 64 cannons, has yielded well-preserved bronze cannons, ceramic and porcelain vases, as well as personal weapons, according to researchers.

These researchers assert that the specifications of the cannons leave no room for doubt that the wreck is indeed that of the San José.

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