A Treasure Hunter Stakes Claim to the Discovery of Columbus's Lost Ship

Maritime archaeological investigator Barry Clifford points to a map as he talks about discovering what he believes to be Christopher Columbus's ship Santa Maria off the northern coast of Haiti at a news conference at the Explorers Club in New York on May 14 Photograph by Anthony Behar/Sipa via AP Photo

After almost a decade of funding problems, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain in August 1492 looking for a westward route to Asia. On Christmas Eve of that year, the biggest of his three ships, the Santa Maria, crashed into a coral reef off the northern coast of Haiti and sank to the bottom of the sea.

Now, Barry Clifford thinks he has found the wreck.

Clifford calls himself a maritime archaeological investigator; others call him a treasure hunter. He is definitely a practiced salesman: charismatic, convincing, and probably best regarded with some skepticism. “We found a cannon, ordnance, wheels [used to transport the cannon on land], and stones [from Spain]. They’re in the exact spot where Columbus said his ship sank,” Clifford said at the Explorers Club in Manhattan on Wednesday. “I would never say I’m 100 percent sure. But the evidence is overwhelming.”

Clifford isn’t an archaeologist, but he’s working with one. Charlie Beeker, the director of Indiana University’s Office of Underwater Science, is helping with the investigation of the shipwreck. He called the discovery “compelling.

Clifford said he first found evidence of the wreck in 2003 in water about 10 feet deep—there are pictures of him at the site using only scuba diving gear. The discovery of remains of a fort Columbus’s crew built on Haiti helped Clifford locate the ship. Still, archaeologists on the team weren’t convinced the artifacts belonged to the Santa Maria. Clifford’s son cataloged and photographed what they found, then they abandoned the site.

In 2012, after doing some research into 15th century weapons, Clifford had an epiphany. “I sat up in the middle of the night because I realized that the piece we had found wasn’t a tube—it was a lombard,” or cannon.

That cannon, along with other items, have since been stolen from the wreck, Clifford said. Not only is the site in relatively shallow water, it’s about five miles offshore. “People know where it is,” he said. When he was in Haiti recently, he heard rumors about a group from the Dominican Republic trying to raise money to salvage the ship. “It’s an emergency,” he insisted. “The ship has to be excavated and conserved. No one is watching it. We have reason to believe the ship holds a great deal of cultural material. I don’t want to say too much more. I don’t want to encourage the looters.”

The History Channel is chronicling Clifford’s efforts. In 2003 the Royal Caribbean cruise line helped Clifford with boats and fuel, he said, and he might approach them again for help. The cruise line could use some good publicity.

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