A research team just off the coast of Colombia is awaiting confirmation of a monumental discovery. And as the images finally come back from a camera nearly 2,000 feet below the surface of the Caribbean Sea, the group finally know that they’ve found something special. Yes, the “Holy Grail” of sunken treasure ships lies beneath them – one that hasn’t been seen for 300 years. Welcome to the final resting place of the San José.
A few months earlier, however, the same team – consisting of experts from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Maritime Archaeology Consultants – had examined the area and come up empty-handed. Searching for centuries-old shipwrecks isn’t easy, after all. And despite all of the scientists’ hi-tech equipment, on that occasion the ocean had refused to give up its secrets.
Undeterred, the team then scheduled a second survey for November, and fortunately this expedition turned out to be rather more successful. But the researchers weren’t the first treasure hunters to go looking for this particular wreck. In fact, more than three decades previously, another group believed that it had found the location of the San José – a Spanish galleon that had sunk in the 18th century. And with her had gone a cargo that was worth a fortune.
Believing that the wreck of the San José had come to rest off Colombia’s coast, Sea Search Armada had contacted the country’s government. Its 1981 request to salvage the site had been met with a somewhat unenthusiastic response from the South American nation’s authorities, however. And years of legal wrangling had followed, too, thus calling a halt to any further exploration of the area.
In fact, it would be decades before anyone went near the wreck – presumably owing in part to the secret nature of her location. Then the Colombian government finally approved a state-sponsored survey of the area. And this meant that the galleon ‒ as well as her cargo of riches ‒ would be seen for the first time in more than 300 years.
The San José had originally sailed at a time known today as the Age of Discovery. From the start of the 15th century to the mid-1800s, European countries explored the world by ship. Spurred on by the desire for fresh trading partners, nations such as Portugal, Britain and France opened up the globe via its oceans.
However, it was Spain that arguably had the greatest success to begin with. After all, Christopher Columbus made his famous journeys to the Americas on behalf of the country. And as historians know, the legendary explorer made landfall in what is now the Bahamas in October 1492 – several months after he’d left Andalusia. He also later ventured to Cuba and the coast of Central America.
Yet Columbus discovered South and Central America entirely by accident. The navigator was originally destined for India, you see, but he came across an island called San Salvador in the Caribbean instead. And this mistake ultimately opened up the New World to European explorers, with Spain soon becoming the area’s dominant power.
In fact, over the next 100 years, Spain took over an enormous chunk of the Americas. After invading Peru and Mexico among other places, the European country extended its rule from Argentina and Chile to the southwest of today’s U.S. And, of course, building this empire led to the plundering of native resources and the near-extinction of many indigenous populations.
In addition to creating an empire, the Spanish also funded and successfully completed the first round-the-world sailing expedition. In 1519, under the command of Ferdinand Magellan, five vessels left Seville to undertake this quest. But more than three years later, only one of these ships returned to Spain. The other four, along with most of the crew – including Magellan – never made it back.
In addition, any plunder – often gold, exotic foods or precious stones – unearthed during Spain’s conquest of the oceans and the Americas would subsequently be taken to Europe. And, as it happens, the San José was one of the ships on which this valuable cargo would be transported. Built in 1698, she sailed at the head of a fleet of 17 treasure vessels.
And at the turn of the 18th century, these ships became all-important. Spanish king Charles II died without an heir, you see, and so he had willed the monarchy to a Frenchman: Philip, Duke of Anjou, who was Louis XIV’s grandson. Yet other European empires were uncomfortable with a joint French and Spanish power, and this prospect prompted a battle that would encompass much of the known world.
The conflict in question became known as the War of the Spanish Succession. Britain joined the skirmish, too, fighting against Spain in its American territories. And it was against this backdrop that the San José fulfilled her purpose, ferrying taxes and treasures from the New World. Attacks on the fleet weren’t unusual at the time, though, and on one occasion, at least, they were very effective.
That moment came in June 1708, when the treasure fleet was journeying from Portobelo in Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. Laden with cargo including gold, silver and emeralds, the San José was leading the way. But just 30 miles from the vessels’ destination, a British contingent intervened. And the ensuing battle had tragic consequences for both the Spanish and the San José.
The conflict – later named Wager’s Action – lasted more than 12 hours, even continuing through the night. But while much of the Spanish fleet ultimately survived the clash, the San José did not. Nevertheless, the ship didn’t actually go down as a result of direct action from the British. Instead, the treasure vessel apparently exploded unexpectedly before the enemy was able to board her.
Then, after the San José had blown up, she sank, with her entire load – tons and tons of precious stones and metals – headed for the ocean floor. All but 11 of her 600-strong crew were also sent to watery graves. And there they stayed, undisturbed for 300 years.
But although the San José’s crew and cargo lay resting on the seabed for centuries, they were never forgotten. Efforts to find the wreck – popularly described among treasure hunters as “the Holy Grail” of archaeology – and the treasure that she holds have continued for decades, in fact. And in 1981 a group of salvagers believed that they’d discovered the San José’s precise location.
Even so, the salvage company, Sea Search Armada, never got the chance to go down and look for the sunken treasure. Since the wreck lay in Colombia’s territorial waters, you see, the organization needed permission to retrieve her. But the request was denied. And after that, the Columbian government created a law that essentially banned access to the San José and her precious cargo.
This decision kicked off years of legal wrangling over rights to the wreck. In fact, Sea Search Armada sued the Colombian government on three separate occasions between 1989 and 2015. But in the end, the site was designated state property. And all the while, the San José’s alleged location was kept a strict secret.
However, in 2015 a team of scientists went looking for the San José and her treasure – and this time, they had the blessing of the Columbians. In that year, a research vessel called A.R.C. Malpelo carried archaeologists out to the Caribbean Sea just off Cartegena with a marine submersible in tow.
This hi-tech submersible is called Remus 6000 and is capable of seeing things that humans can’t. And the machine –which is operated by a team from Massachusetts’ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute – has an amazing history, too. In 2011, for example, its services were called upon to find wreckage of a very different kind as part of a very high-profile case.
On June 1, 2009, the deadliest accident in Air France’s history occurred off Brazil’s northeastern coast. Flight 447, which had been heading to Paris from Rio de Janeiro, had had 228 passengers and crew on board. However, after a series of mechanical and human errors, the Airbus A330 fell out of the sky. And the craft was destroyed when it hit the Atlantic, with everyone on the plane tragically perishing as a result.
Yet although initial salvage efforts turned up some parts of the craft, its black boxes remained elusive. These pieces of equipment ‒ the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder ‒ are vital to understanding the last moments of a journey by air. And owing to the extremely rough underwater terrain at the plane’s presumed crash site, two years were spent in vain trying to locate the technology.
In 2011, though, the Woods Hole team took Remus 6000 out to the Atlantic to aid in the hunt for the black boxes. And in less than a week, the submersible’s sonar technology located a significant amount of debris from Flight 447. This discovery then led French authorities directly to the boxes.
So, the submersible has some form when it comes to locating wreckage in hard-to-reach areas. And with that in mind, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Colombian government invited the Woods Hole team to help hunt for the San José. In fact, as Woods Hole’s team leader Mike Purcell said in a press release, “Remus 6000 is the ideal tool for the job, since it’s capable of conducting long-duration missions over wide areas.”
That said, Woods Hole’s initial sweep of the area in June 2015 turned into a disappointment. Not only were the team unable to find anything in relation to the San José, but they also ran out of time during their mission. And as a consequence, parts of the search location weren’t surveyed at all. Regardless, though, this setback didn’t put the experts off.
Indeed, the research team actually went back to those Colombian waters five months later. And their determination started to pay dividends. In a 2018 press release, Purcell explained, “During that expedition, we got the first indications of the find from side-scan sonar images of the wreck.”
What’s more, these sonar results showed a debris field that convinced the Woods Hole team into believing that they’d found the San José herself – or at the very least, another incredible discovery. Purcell revealed, “From those images, we could see strong sonar signal returns. So we sent Remus back down for a closer look [and] to collect camera images.”
To get that better view, the researchers sent Remus 6000 down to almost 2,000 feet below the surface, with the submersible ultimately coming to rest close to the debris field. And the images that the craft sent back were simply astonishing. Pots, weapons and even hundreds of teacups littered the ocean floor. Yet it was a collection of cannons that really caught the experts’ eyes.
“I just sat there and smiled,” Woods Hole engineer Jeff Kaeli told CBS News of the images. He had been alone when the pictures came in. “I’m not a marine archaeologist, but I know what a cannon looks like,” he went on. “So, in that moment, I was the only person in the world who knew we’d found the shipwreck.”
At this point, then, the Woods Hole researchers were convinced that they’d found the San José. Nonetheless, even closer images of the wreck were needed before they could make a final confirmation. You see, the team knew that the ship’s cannons feature intricately engraved details. And sure enough, when Remus 6000 got nearer to the wreck, it took snaps that showed dolphins had been carved into the weapons.
Proof of these features were all the team needed, then, to corroborate that they had discovered the site of the long-lost San José. Purcell explained, “With the [new] images, we were able to see new details in the wreckage. And the resolution was good enough to make out the decorative carving on the cannons.”
From there, the Woods Hole team’s lead archaeologist, Roger Dooley, confirmed the incredible find. Yes, three centuries after the ship had sunk, human eyes had once again glimpsed the San José. But while the breakthrough was heralded at the time, details about the wreck’s artifacts and exactly how they’d been found weren’t made public until three years later. So why all the secrecy?
Well, the scarcity of details about the wreck – even now – has its roots in a couple of issues. The first is the legal wrangling that started up again after the announcement of the discovery. Upon the find, Sea Search Armada repeated its claim to any loot, since it had, it claimed, originally found the wreck. In addition, Spain, which had once owned the galleon, and those countries whose wealth she contained may also have a right to claim the valuable artifacts.
But the second and perhaps most important cause of the information vacuum is the treasure itself. And if the cargo indeed comprises untold riches, as the logbook of the San José’s sister ship indicates, whoever owns the wreck would instantly become obscenely wealthy. You see, estimates of the value of the sunken silver, gold and emeralds top out at a whopping $17 billion. Yes, you read that correctly: $17 billion.
The location of such a precious haul is a secret well worth keeping, then. Indeed, as one lawyer told National Geographic in 2018, “sober people just lose their minds” when it comes to treasure. But while the ownership wranglings continue, the wreck of the San José is unfortunately off-limits to anyone wishing to get their hands on the loot.
Still, as the legal arguments can’t go on forever, what could happen once all’s said and done? Well, for one, the Colombian government has pledged to build a new research facility and accompanying museum for the preservation and display of any recovered artifacts. That said, some believe that raising the San José and her contents could lead to significant loss.
In 2018, for instance, UNESCO publicly asked the Colombian government to leave the San José and her cargo exactly where they are. This is partly due to the agency’s insistence that any commercial gain from the wreck will threaten the cultural significance of the site.
And there’s yet another reason to keep the location pristine: as so many of the San Jose’s crew members died during a battle, the wreck is considered a war grave. In 2015 Stanford University archaeologist Juston Leidwanger told CBS News, “It makes [salvage] very touchy because one is not supposed to intervene in war graves. Can you pluck treasure from the sea without disturbing a war grave? I doubt you can.”
So, while the arguments over the San José and her bounty continue, the wreck herself remains at the bottom of the ocean. But, one day, we just may see the riches to which 18th-century Spanish royalty once laid claim. And then, finally, we’ll know what $17 billion worth of treasure really looks like.
But the San José isn’t the only shipwreck with a controversial story. There’s a sunken WWII boat sitting at the bottom of the Baltic Sea that’s causing controversy for an entirely different – and rather more terrifying – reason: the wreckage could cause an environmental disaster of catastrophic proportions.
We’re in the Baltic Sea – an area that’s basically a northern outpost of the Atlantic Ocean. And down in its cold waters, off the coast of Poland, there’s a ticking time bomb concealed beneath the waves – a horrible legacy of the Second World War. In fact, if the cargo of this sunken ship ends up leaking into the sea, environmental catastrophe will surely follow.
The vessel that may eventually do irrevocable harm to our planet is the Franken – an old German merchant ship that had been constructed at the Germaniawerft shipyard in the Baltic Sea port city of Kiel. But although the yard played its part in building merchant vessels such as the Franken, it was perhaps best known during WWII for the creation of U-boats. There, shipbuilders completed 84 such German submarines during the conflict.
However, when WWII erupted across Europe in 1939, workers at Germaniawerft had not yet put the final touches to the Franken. And thanks to the wartime demand for fighting vessels such as U-boats, the ship thus languished unfinished in the yard until 1942. That year, though, the Germans moved the Franken to the Burmeister & Wain shipbuilders in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, as the Nazis had previously invaded Denmark in 1940.
Burmeister & Wain eventually finished the Franken, too, and she received her commission in March of 1943. The Franken then went into service on the Baltic Sea as a tanker and supply ship, supporting vessels such as the German Navy’s heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen during the later stages of the war. She also carried fuel and other supplies to various minesweepers, torpedo boats and patrol craft.
More specifically, the Franken belonged to the class of Dithmarschen tankers and supply ships – of which the Germans built five in total. And these vessels were all intended to transport essential supplies – such as ammunition, fuel and spares – to warships and other craft on active service. They also had the capacity to tow disabled naval ships to safety.
The Franken itself, meanwhile, sailed from two ports that were both located in the Bay of Gdańsk. One was Hel in Poland, which the Germans called Hela after they invaded the country on September 1, 1939. Yet the Hel Peninsula – which was defended by some 3,000 soldiers – was one of the last hold-outs against the Nazi assault. And just before the Poles surrendered, they detonated a bunch of torpedoes, with the ensuing blast turning the peninsula into an island.
Conversely, Hel was one of the last pieces of Polish territory to be liberated at the end of the war. During their occupation of the port, the Germans had used the location to coach U-boat crew members, and troops fought on for six more days after their country’s surrender before finally giving up. But the Franken also sailed from another nearby port, Gdyni, which the Germans called Gotenhafen.
In fact, the Baltic Sea had become an increasingly important WWII theater as the Soviets pushed back the Nazis from Russia and the Baltic countries. And in 1945 things hotted up even more as the Red Army began to enter German-held territory. The German Navy had no choice, then, but to evacuate both soldiers and civilians across the sea from Estonia. Russian submarines and aircraft also went on to attack Nazi craft in the area.
So, on April 8, 1945, an airborne Russian assault brought about the demise of the Franken near the port of Hel. And the damage sustained in the bombing ultimately sent the ship to the bottom of the Baltic Sea. This was a catastrophe – not just for the vessel, but also for the 48 sailors aboard who lost their lives when she sank.
And those unfortunate crew members were desperately unlucky to perish on April 8. After all, mere weeks later on May 7 the Nazis finally capitulated, meaning the war in Europe was over. During the conflict, however, a large number of ships had sunk in the Baltic, including more than 30 U-boats, three German destroyers and one Russian destroyer. With that in mind, then, you may assume that the loss of a humble merchant ship would pale into insignificance in comparison.
But the Franken has been brought back into the public eye today thanks to her cargo – and we’ll see why shortly. The ship now lies between around 160 feet and 240 feet beneath the surface of the Baltic Sea. The hull has split into two as well, with the bow separated from the rest of the vessel by around 2,600 feet. And the structure of the wreck is far from stable, either.
Germany’s Baltic Sea Conservation Foundation agreed to fund an exploration of the Franken, however, and in April 2018 Polish dive vessels the LITERAL and the IMOR sailed to the waters above the site of the sunken wreck. The ships’ divers then spent some 13 hours familiarizing themselves with and assessing the remains of the vessel.
And what the divers found was enough to cause grave concerns about the future status of the shipwreck. Olga Sarna, president of the marine conservation organization known as the MARE Foundation, certainly suggested as much when she spoke to The Sun in 2018. When asked about the risks of the Franken’s hull collapsing and the wreck breaking up, she said that this looked increasingly likely, too.
“We know that the steel on the wreck is in worse shape every day. And obviously the ship is deteriorating, [meaning] the only question is when [she] will break,” Sarna explained. “The way [the wreck is] positioned on the bottom of the sea is between two dunes, and the current goes precisely between them and constantly washes over the ship.”
“So, the moment that the steel cannot take the ship’s weight anymore,” Sarna continued, “it will break into this space between the dunes.” And there’s a compelling explanation as to why the Franken’s hull will almost certainly disintegrate.
You see, the salt water in which the Franken lies is slowly but surely corroding the steel outer hull as well as the storage tanks inside the ship. As a result, then, the thickness of the metal of the tanks is degrading at a rate of around 0.39 inches every ten years. And while that doesn’t sound like very much at all, you should remember that this ship has been sitting on the Baltic seabed since 1945.
After nearly 75 years on the ocean floor, then, the steel in the Franken’s tanks is now more than a quarter of an inch thinner than the day it was first put to sea. Bear in mind, too, that the total thickness of the metal when the vessel was brand new was a little less than half an inch. And in view of those facts, it’s easy to appreciate the inevitable conclusion of this gradual erosion.
But why are scientists and environmentalists so concerned by the thought of the Franken’s hull and storage tanks collapsing? Well, the answer lies in the fuel oil that the ship was carrying when the Soviets bombed it to the bottom of the Baltic. And this is no trivial amount of oil, either; the ship’s tanks may still contain well in excess of 800,000 gallons of the black stuff.
So, how was this incredibly dangerous cargo allowed to molder underwater? The answer, sadly, is money. After the Second World War drew to its conclusion, ownership of the Franken automatically went to the Polish government. And draining the ship of her cargo simply wasn’t a profitable enterprise.
Speaking to broadcaster Deutsche Welle in April 2019, Benedykt Hac of Gdańsk’s Maritime Institute described the complacent attitude of officialdom in years gone by. “[The Franken] just sat there and wasn’t in anyone’s way,” he said by way of explanation as to why the ship wasn’t raised. And, indeed, clearing the wreck of dangerous materials still wouldn’t come cheap today. But as we’ll see, the question is: can the authorities actually afford not to undertake a clean-up operation?
Well, Hac estimates that the cost of removing the oil – and perhaps dangerous ordnance – from the wreck would today be somewhere between $9 million and $23 million. Given those sums, then, would relieving the Franken of its toxic load be good value for money? If you listen to ecologists, it probably would be.
So, what would happen if the Franken’s hazardous cargo were to end up in the ocean? Sarna, for one, is in no doubt about the dire consequences awaiting the area should that ever occur. Speaking to The Sun, she said, “We are talking about potentially the biggest ever ecological disaster in the whole Baltic Sea region. All of the wildlife in this area could potentially die if the spill happens.”
And there’s more bad news, too. “The economic impact will be huge for the whole region,” Sarna continued. “If it’s light oil, that’s more dangerous, because it will go up to the surface and then the sea currents can move it towards the beaches.” In effect, then, Poland’s Baltic coast could be looking at a major pollution incident.
“And since the currents in the Gdańsk area are usually towards the beaches, we are talking about 50 miles of beaches that can be hit,” Sarna continued. “[Such an event] will have an effect on the tourism and the industry of the region. We will have to close the whole area for at least a couple of years.”
Indeed, the impact on the economy of a two-year beach closure could be a real hammer blow for the region, which has a thriving tourist industry. The bill in terms of economic loss would likely run into the high millions, in fact. But it’s not just about money; the possibly severe ramifications for the environment and wildlife should also be taken into account.
And Sarna has described the potential for appalling habitat damage along Poland’s Baltic coast. “If the oil gets there, then… The local population includes protected colonies of seals and birds, so the ecological effect will be really dramatic,” she explained. Alarmingly, though, the Polish authorities have no duty to prevent such a calamity from occurring.
“At this stage, the law does not oblige the government to take any action to prevent the oil spill,” Sarna pointed out. “They are obliged only to act at the moment the spill happens.” By then, however, it may be too late to prevent the worst effects of the leaked oil. And Sarna’s concerns are based on much more than mere speculation.
You see, the possible consequences of the Franken’s oil leaking into Gdańsk Bay were made clear by the fate of another Second World War wreck, the Stuttgart. The sinking of this German ship was one of the conflict’s appalling but unavoidable tragedies, as the vessel was actually loaded with wounded men when it sank.
Yet although the Stuttgart was carrying casualties while at anchor in Gdynia’s harbor and was marked with red crosses, American bombers attacking the port in October 1943 were unaware of the passenger ship’s status. And so the planes released their deadly loads on the vessel. Thanks to that assault, then, the Stuttgart caught fire, and most on board died in the flames.
The smoldering remains of the Stuttgart were then dragged from Gdynia’s harbor out into the Baltic Sea. There, she was sunk along with the bodies of the men who had perished in the bombing raid. But this was a wreck that would come back to haunt future generations, as the horrendous consequences of the ship’s downing came to light through research conducted from 2009 to 2015.
The findings of these studies revealed that the oil that had leaked from the Stuttgart had contaminated nearly half a million square feet of the seabed. This pollution had then killed every living thing – from creatures to algae – in that area. And the range of the contaminating oil has only continued to increase over the years.
We should bear in mind, too, that the Stuttgart was just a passenger ship, meaning any oil it carried was only enough for its own needs. By contrast, the Franken was a tanker transport vessel that had a large amount of oil on board when she sank. All in all, then, the consequences of that cargo leaking into the sea would almost certainly be far more serious.
So what will be done about the tremendous potential for damage posed by the deteriorating wreck of the Franken? Sarna choose her words diplomatically. “We’re not out to condemn anyone, but [we] are trying to mobilize people to save the ecosystem of Gdańsk Bay,” she told Deutsche Welle.
But there could well be good news on the horizon. You see, in July 2018 Marek Gróbarczyk – the politician in charge of Poland’s maritime affairs – set up a task force to investigate potential solutions to the problem of the Franken. Environmentalists are also putting their hopes into financial help from the European Union to fund a full salvage operation. For now, though, the environmental time bomb continues to tick.
In addition, those who are concerned about the potential environmental impact of the Franken’s cargo can consider the fate of another warship. The U.S.S. Kittiwake was an American submarine rescue vessel that was decommissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1994 after 48 years in service. Then, as she was no longer of use, the craft was scuttled in the Caribbean in January 2011.
After the Kittiwake’s launch in 1945, the ship saw service in the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. Then, following her decommissioning, the Cayman Islands government later bought the craft. Yet this wasn’t because local authorities had decided to start their own marine military operation; after all, as a British protectorate, the islands can rely on the Royal Navy for defense.
Indeed, the Cayman Islands government seemingly didn’t buy the Kittiwake with warfare in mind at all. Instead, the ship was turned into an underwater feature that would attract sea life. And as a consequence, in January 2011 the vessel was deliberately sunk in a marine reserve just off Grand Cayman Island.
These days, then, the Kittiwake is not only a haven for sea life, but it’s also a major attraction for recreational divers. And one man in particular has thoughts on the vessel’s reuse. Jon Glatstein served aboard the Kittiwake in the 1980s, and he actually traveled to Grand Cayman to watch his former ship disappear into the waters of the Caribbean.
“This is the first time I’ve seen the ship in 25 years, and she’s in pretty rough shape,” Glatstein told HuffPost in 2011. “But she’s been serving divers all her life, and now she’s going to continue doing just that. That’s got to be a whole lot better than getting melted down for razor blades,” he added.
Encouraging as the story of the Kittiwake may be, though, it remains to be seen whether the Franken’s oil can be similarly salvaged. And when speaking to the Maritime Herald in 2018, Hac emphasized the urgency of the problem, saying, “We have limited time for action. It can only be a year – maybe ten years – but probably not longer.” We can only hope, then, that the Franken’s deadly cargo is neutralized before it’s too late.