Barry Clifford has found perhaps one of the most important underwater discoveries in the world: Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria. On May 13 he discussed his find in an exclusive interview with the British paper The Independent. He has discovered evidence that the pile of wreckage off the north coast of Haiti is the final resting place of the famous ship that sank in December 1492.
“All the geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is Columbus’ famous flagship, the Santa Maria,” Clifford said. He is considered one of America’s top underwater archaeological investigators.
It has been more than five centuries since the Santa Maria drifted onto a reef and was deemed unsafe for the return trip to Spain. Columbus ordered that some of the ship’s wooden beams be used to build a fort on Haiti which ironically may confirm the wreck’s identity.
Ten years ago an expedition mounted by Clifford’s team found and photographed the wreck but had not realized its identity. Discoveries made in 2003 by other archaeologists suggested the probable location of Columbus’ fort relatively nearby. Using the photos and other new information Clifford was able to use data in Christopher Columbus’ diary to work out where the wreck should be.
The evidence so far is substantial. Columbus’ diary described the wreck in relation to his fort. The underwater topography and local currents are also consistent with how the vessel drifted into the reefs and the wreck is just 10 to 15 feet below the surface which matches Columbus’ diary notes.
"All the geographical, underwater topography, and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this wreck is the ship that ran aground in December 1492, just months after Columbus made landfall in the New World,” expedition leader Barry Clifford explained.
Possibly one of the most compelling pieces of evidence is the footprint of the wreck itself which matches the dimensions of the Santa Maria. Additionally the rocks found in the wreck are from the right part of Spain. Rocks were used in that time period instead of water as the ship’s ballast, to keep the ship from tilting. Finally there is a photo from the 2003 dive which shows the ship’s 15th-century cannon, says Clifford, whose previous finds include Captain Kidd's flagship.
The cannon originally was misidentified which caused Clifford to dismiss his find as the Santa Maria. It was only two years ago, after time spent learning about the cannons of Columbus' age, that he "woke up suddenly in the middle of the night" realizing what he might have found. .
When Clifford and his team returned to the site earlier this month, their intention was to definitively identify the cannon and other surface artifacts that had been photographed back in 2003. Unfortunately all the key visible diagnostic objects including the cannon had been looted by illicit raiders.
“I am confident that a full excavation of the wreck will yield the first ever detailed marine archaeological evidence of Columbus’ discovery of America,” Clifford stated
“Ideally, if excavations go well and depending on the state of preservation of any buried timber, it may ultimately be possible to lift any surviving remains of the vessel, fully conserve them and then put them on permanent public exhibition in a museum in Haiti.
“I believe that, treated in this way, the wreck has the potential to play a major role in helping to further develop Haiti’s tourism industry in the future,” he added.
The ship "still has attributes that warrant an excavation to determine the site's identity," archaeologist Charles Beeker of Indiana University said May 13. "Barry may have finally discovered the 1492 Santa Maria."
The evidence, Beeker said, is "very compelling."