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Hunt to start for shipwreck thought to be carrying billions of pounds worth of treasure

Hunt to start for shipwreck thought to be carrying billions of pounds worth of treasure

There's an important reason why, and it's not actually about the money

The search for a 300-year-old 'holy grail' shipwreck with a multi-billion pound haul onboard could begin as early as next month.

The San Jose sunk off the coast of Colombia in 1708 at the hands of a British squadron, and was thought to be carrying 11 million gold coins among other treasures.

The exact location of the wreckage was uncovered in 2015 by Colombian authorities, but it has been kept from the public to prevent looting.

But ever since its discovery, there have been numerous legal disputes with different groups and governments over who found it first and who it belongs to.

US salvage consortium Sea Search Armada claimed that it found the wreck in 1981, sharing the coordinates with the Colombian government so they could split the findings, though a US court ruled in 2011 that the ship belonged to Colombia.

Spain butted in, claiming it belonged to 'the state', as it was also the resting place for many Spanish citizens.

Qhara Qhara, an indigenous Bolivian nation, also claim it's theirs, as their ancestors mined much of the treasure that was found among the wreckage.

Sitting deep in the waters of the Caribbean for centuries, it turns out that its remnants and contents could give us information on the Spanish empire when it was at the peak of its powers.

But now, it looks like politics will be put to one side as Colombia plans to retrieve the wreckage for the sake of history.

There is thought to be a lot of treasure among the wreckage.

The South American country's navy has been hard at work to find a way to lift the 130ft (40m) wreck along with its valuable cargo without destroying anything.

Labelled by the government as the 'holy grail of shipwrecks', they could start lifting artefacts as early as April this year.

Alhena Caicedo, director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, explained: “There has been this persistent view of the galleon as a treasure trove. We want to turn the page on that, we aren’t thinking about treasure.

"We’re thinking about how to access the historical and archeological information at the site.”

The end goal for Caicedo and her team is for the wreck to be brought to the surface and displayed in a unique museum, showcasing the findings of the ship so visitors can look at 'all the secrets of the bottom of the ocean'.

However, the difficulty of retrieving the wreckage can't be overlooked, as a shipwreck has never been recovered from warm tropical waters before.

Caicedo said they were' pioneers' for attempting this 'huge challenge'.

The hope is for underwater robots to be developed that can photograph and video the wreck, mapping the whole thing out before retrieving it.

$7.3m has been put into the first stage of exploration by the Colombian government, with no intent to sell any of its artefacts.

“The contents are really varied and we have no idea how the remains will react when they come into contact with oxygen.

"We don’t even know if it is possible to raise something out of the water,” Caicedo admitted.

Authorities want to uncover the wreck in the name of history.

Ann Coats, associate professor in maritime heritage at the University of Portsmouth, called the San Jose a 'very, very special ship', saying it was used during 'the peak of Spanish technology and shipbuilding'.

As well as treasure, there are other artefacts such as porcelain, leather and articles of glass that could help better understand the Spanish empire at its peak.

She also said a number of factors will affect if the ship can be retrieved at all, saying: “It was also set on fire.

“Lifting the ship and creating a museum will be really difficult, really expensive and incredibly challenging … and then everyone wants a bit of it. It’s just a nightmare.”

The shipwreck that is the closest comparison to the San Jose would probably be the Mary Rose, the flagship of the ruthless Henry VIII's fleet, which was sunk by the French fleet off the coast of Portsmouth.

Though, that wreckage was explored and lifted in 1981, with the remains of the ship's hull now on display in a museum worth £35 million.

Featured Image Credit: EPA

Topics: History, World News