Underwater archaeologist thinks he's discovered Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria

Underwater archaeologist thinks he's discovered Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria

More than 500 years after Christopher Columbus abandoned his Santa Maria on a Caribbean reef, an underwater archaeologist believes he may have discovered the ship's remains off Haiti's north coast.

“All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is Columbus’s famous flagship, the Santa Maria,” Barry Clifford, who led a recent expedition to the site, told London's Independent.

The possible discovery of the Santa Maria comes more than a decade after an expedition led by Clifford in 2003 located the wreckage and photographed it, but did not know what it was. Since then, the team has investigated more than 400 "seabed anomalies" off the north coast of Haiti, narrowing the search area.

“The Haitian government has been extremely helpful," Clifford said. "And we now need to continue working with them to carry out a detailed archaeological excavation of the wreck."

In 1492, Columbus set sail from Spain, captaining the Santa Maria in search of a new western route to Asia. The expedition reached the Bahamas, but Columbus was forced to abandon the ship after it accidentally ran aground. In January 1493, Columbus returned to Spain with the two remaining ships, the Nina and the Pinta, to inform King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of the wreck and his discovery.

Clifford and his dive team used marine magnetometers, side-scan sonar equipment, and information in Columbus's diary to help locate what they think is the lost vessel, sitting 10 to 15 feet below the surface.

Several factors indicate that it may be the lost ship. The wreck is near a Fort Columbus, described in his diary. The site matches what is known about the wreck in relation to underwater topography and ocean currents. And "the footprint of the wreck, represented by the pile of ship’s ballast, is also exactly what one would expect from a vessel the size of the Santa Maria," the Independent said.

So far, Clifford's expedition, funded by the History Channel, has made noninvasive reconnaissance dives to the wreck. The next step is to excavate.

“I am confident that a full excavation of the wreck will yield the first-ever detailed marine archaeological evidence of Columbus’s discovery of America," Clifford said. "Ideally, if excavations go well, and depending on the state of preservation of any buried timber, it may ultimately be possible to lift any surviving remains of the vessel, fully conserve them, and then put them on permanent public exhibition in a museum in Haiti."

And Clifford, 68, has the pedigree to pull it off. In 1984, he discovered and successfully excavated the world’s first fully verified pirate shipwreck, the Whydah, off Cape Cod. And he recently discovered Captain Kidd’s flagship off the coast of Madagascar.

But this discovery is different.

"It is the Mount Everest of shipwrecks for me," Clifford told CNN.

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