Local Researchers Find Holy Grail of Ship Wrecks

May 29, 2018

WHOI's autonomous underwater vehicle REMUS was the first to find a shipwreck off the coast of Columbia.

In late 2015, the Colombian government announced they had found what could be the world’s most valuable shipwreck. The Spanish galleon ship San Jose sank off the Colombian coast in 1708 during a battle with British ships, and it is believed to hold billions of dollars worth of gold, silver, and emeralds. An underwater vehicle built and operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution played a key role in the search, and now they’ve released new details of the search.


“The Colombian government wanted to get their house in order,” said Rob Munier, vice president for Marine Facilities and Operations at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “We’ve reached that moment where the Colombian government feels comfortable enough that the whole story can come out.”

At one point, there was a competing claim from a salvage company who said they found the wreck first. And the Colombian government needed to reach agreement with the Spanish government about the fate of the wreck, since it was originally a Spanish ship.

But Munier says that is all just peripheral for him. From where he sits, the story is pretty straightforward: the Institution used an autonomous underwater vehicle, known as REMUS, to first find the wreck and then take photos that were used to confirm its identity. Dozens of cannons and a dolphin design on the cabin were the key features that archaeologists and historians were looking for.

The same vehicle was used to find an Air France flight that went down off the coast of South America, and in the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight. Munier says they are happy to contribute to these important search operations, and the scientists and engineers who built REMUS benefit from the opportunities to develop and test new technologies.