Christopher Columbus, painted by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (via Wikimedia Commons)

One of America’s top underwater archeologists says he’s found the remains of the flagship that sailed on Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas. The Santa Maria ran aground off Haiti in December 1492, and Columbus returned to Spain with two other vessels. The precise location of the wreck has been lost for centuries, but now, underwater explorer Barry Clifford believes he has found the ship on a reef off Haiti’s northern coast.

Clifford’s team first found and photographed the wreck in 2003, but at the time didn’t realize what they’d discovered. A re-examination of underwater photographs and new reconnaissance dives prompted a return visit to the site a few weeks ago, and Clifford says he’s confident he’s found what he calls “the ship that changed the course of human history.” The evidence rests in part on the fact that the wreck’s location lines up with information from Columbus’ diary, and stones found on the site have been linked to the region of Spain where the Santa Maria was constructed. 


Anchor from the Santa Maria on display at the Musee Pantheon National in Haiti (Photo by Sean Clowes via Wikimedia Commons)

A cannon found among the wreckage in 2003 also helped Clifford put the pieces together. According to Clifford, the cannon’s provenance was “misdiagnosed” in 2003, but after conducting further research on cannons of Columbus’ day, Clifford realized the cannon might indeed have been part of the Santa Maria. Unfortunately, on the most recent visit Clifford discovered that the cannon had been looted by treasure hunters, along with other artifacts that would have helped conclusively identify the wreck. 

Such underwater looting is increasingly common, and frustrating for archeologists. According to UNESCO, by 1974 all known wrecks off the Turkish coast had already been stripped of their valuables. In the 1990s, Israeli archaeologists estimated that 60% of cultural objects once found in their waters had been taken. Today French scientists estimate that only five percent of the antique wrecks off the coast of France are still untouched. In response, UNESCO created the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage to strengthen the legal prohibitions against excavating and appropriating objects from shipwrecks that are at least a hundred years old. 46 countries have signed the treaty, although the United States is not among them.

The archeologist who claims to have found the Santa Maria, Barry Clifford, was previously known for finding the wreck of the Whydah Gally, a slave ship and pirate vessel that sank off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717. Canons, firearms, and pirate treasure from that ship are on display at the Whydah Pirate Museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts, while other items are part of the National Geographic Society’s touring exhibit “Real Pirates.” Clifford hopes that once detailed excavations confirm the identity of the Santa Maria (negotiations with the Haitian government are ongoing), remnants from that wreck could also go on display at a museum in Haiti.

Meanwhile, if you want to see a real shipwreck, you can visit the Jablanac shipwreck in Jablanac, Croatia, the Özlem shipwreck in Batumi, Georgia, or the Dominator shipwreck off Palos Verdes peninsula in California, among other options. Sweden’s Vasa Museum features the remains of the Vasa warship, which sank on its maiden voyage in Stockholm in 1628, while at England’s Mary Rose Museum, visitors can glimpse the remains of Henry VIII’s flagship, which sank in a battle with the French in 1545.

Mary Rose conservation in progress (via Wikimedia Commons)