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A discovery from the Age of Discovery?

Led astray by flawed directions, archaeologists for years have been searching in the wrong place for Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa María, but explorer Barry Clifford thinks he’s found it on a sandy shoal off Cap Haïtien, Haiti.

The Santa Maria hit a reef off Cap Haitien, Haiti, in 1492.

If the wreck is indeed La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción, or the Santa María, the ship — actually a 6-foot-high, 20-foot-wide, 60-foot long pile of ballast stones — would be the oldest known European shipwreck in the Americas.

The cause of the sinking is well-documented in Columbus’ writings, Laurence Bergreen, author of Columbus: The Four Voyages, says in an opinion piece for CNN. “On Christmas Eve 1492, crewmembers of all three ships [Niña, Pinta and Santa María] were celebrating, drinking and looking forward to a speedy voyage home to Spain. … Columbus said he stretched out for a nap at this time. As the fleet traversed the northern coast of what is now Haiti, the ship’s master turned over the tiller to a 14-year-old ship’s boy, and soon after, Santa María ran into a reef and began to disintegrate.”

Bergreen says Columbus estimated the water depth at 15 to 25 feet. Clifford told reporters the find is in 10 to 15 feet of water four miles off the site of La Navidad, the garrison that Columbus, his crew and local Taíno Indians built on Haiti’s north shore from timbers salvaged from the 62-foot Santa María.

Massachusetts-based underwater explorer Clifford — who also found the world’s only proven pirate shipwreck, “Black Sam” Bellamy’s Whydah, in 1984 off Cape Cod, Mass. — discovered the wreck off Haiti 11 years ago. However, he told reporters, he couldn’t be sure it was the Santa María because it seemed to be in the wrong place. Archaeologists at the time put La Navidad east of Cap Haïtien instead of west of the town, where it now is believed to have been. He also failed to identify a distinctive lombard cannon — since looted — that was lying alongside the wreck as a type the Spanish-built, three-masted merchant vessel would have been carrying.

Archaeologists and researchers at Indiana University in Bloomington will be diving on the wreck to look for conclusive proof that it is Columbus’ flagship. Evidence gathered so far looks promising, based on scientific diving, visual inspection of the site and evaluation of remote sensing data and historic records, says Charles Beeker, director of the Office of Underwater Science and Academic Diving and associate clinical professor of kinesiology at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington. “The evidence looks very compelling, and Indiana University will conduct a full investigation to determine whether this is the Santa María, hopefully as early as this summer,” Beeker says in a press release.

Bergreen, however, doesn’t think the proof is there yet. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” he writes, quoting astronomer Carl Sagan. He says the proof so far released has been underwhelming, given that the ship’s timbers either have rotted or were salvaged over 500 years ago, along with the cargo, and what few artifacts that remained probably have been looted, making it difficult to positively identify the wreck. He says, too, that the coastline may have changed so dramatically over 500 years that correlating the wreck’s location to Columbus’ description of Santa María’s location also could be a tough sell.

What may be the ship's ballast rests in water 10 to 15 feet deep.

At The Explorers Club’s 2006 annual auction, Clifford offered a five-day diving expedition for two to the Haiti site “to analyze the potential remains of Columbus’ flagship, the Santa María.” After announcing that he now believes the site is, in fact, the Santa María, Clifford said at a press conference in May at The Explorers Club that the wreck must be “excavated as quickly as possible, conserved and displayed” to prevent more looting, according to press reports. He said he must get the approval of Haitian authorities first.

The IU archaeological team promises an investigation that will include a scientific diving expedition and underwater archaeological excavation to see whether the materials and artifacts at the site are consistent with a late 15th-century ship. The History Channel, meanwhile, has announced that it now has “exclusive access to the historic search for the Santa María” and will feature it in an upcoming program.

The Niña, Pinta and Santa María made landfall at San Salvador on Oct. 12, 1492, and proceeded from there along the northeast coast of Cuba and north coast of Hispaniola, where Santa María ran aground. Columbus left 39 of his crewmembers at the La Navidad garrison before returning to Spain with the Niña and the Pinta.

July 2014 issue