Columbus’ wreck found, explorer claims

Looting feared from wreckage off the northern coast of Haiti

AP, AFP-JIJI, Reuters

An explorer who believes he has found the wreck of Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, off the coast of Haiti said Wednesday that the site has been looted and the remains should be raised without delay.

“This is an emergency situation,” underwater explorer Barry Clifford said. “I think the ship needs to be excavated as quick as possible, and then conserved and then displayed to the world.”

Clifford was at the Explorers Club in New York to show photos and video of what he said was a pile of ballast stones from the wreck.

The wreck’s geographical location coincides with Columbus’ description of where the Santa Maria sank, and the stones match those from a quarry in Spain that provided ballast for Columbus’ ships, the team said.

“I think the evidence is overwhelming that this ship is most probably the Santa Maria,” Clifford said.

“There is nobody watching the ship right now,” he said, adding that there is urgency because “somebody knows where we are.”

“I’m ready to leave next week if I get the green light,” he said, noting that discussions were underway with Haitian authorities.

If the wreckage Clifford has found is from the Santa Maria, which ran aground on Christmas Day 1492, it would be the oldest known European shipwreck in the New World.

But some scientists say it is far too early to make any such declaration. “The evidence, as you can imagine, after more than 500 years is not going to be very much because of time and the environment that the site is in,” said Roger C. Smith, the state underwater archaeologist for Florida.

A Haitian official also reacted with skepticism, saying it was unlikely that anything remains of the wreck.

“It’s a historical and scientific mistake to say that the Santa Maria could have been found under the sea,” said Erol Josue, director of Haiti’s National Ethnology Office.

He noted that survivors are known to have used its timbers to build a small fort, which they named La Navidad. The fort is considered to have been the first European settlement in the New World.

Dirk Hoogstra, general manager of the History Channel, a cable TV channel that funded the latest expedition to the wreck site, said it is unclear how much of the ship could be recovered from the sea.

“There’s not a whole lot of wood left after all these years,” he said.

Clifford and his son, Brandon, first explored the shipwreck off northern Haiti in 2003 and photographed a cannon in the depths. But at the time they did not believe they had found the Santa Maria.

Archaeologists misidentified the cannon as dating from a different historical period, Clifford told the broadcaster.

He then conducted further research on cannons of the period and came to conclude it could have been aboard the Santa Maria.

On last month’s reconnaissance trip, Clifford’s team measured and photographed the wreck. Some items, including the cannon, had apparently been looted since his earlier visit.

“The ship has to be preserved,” Clifford said. “I hope to be able to work with the Haitian government and with all other countries, including Spain, in helping to preserve this irreplaceable resource.”

Clifford has worked on numerous historic wrecks around the world, including Capt. Kidd’s flagship off Madagascar. He is perhaps best known as the discoverer and excavator of the world’s first fully verified pirate shipwreck, the Whydah, off Cape Cod in Massachusetts in 1984.

The location of the Santa Maria and the fort of La Navidad and the fate of the shipwreck survivors have long mystified scholars.

The Santa Maria was one of a fleet of three vessels that left Spain in 1492 to look for a shorter sea route to Asia. After arriving near the Bahamas, the ship grounded on a reef and had to be abandoned.

After the shipwreck, Columbus left behind 39 men and sailed back to Spain on the Nina. He returned a year later to find the fort destroyed and none of his crew alive.

Archaeologists from the University of Florida have been searching for the remains of La Navidad. Last year, they said they had found what could be the site of a nearby village of Arawak Indians, who inhabited the island at the time.